Nora Noralla is an Egyptian human rights researcher who focuses on issues involving sexual and bodily freedoms, Islamic Sharia, and human rights in the Middle East and North Africa. She is also a fellow in the inaugural Public Voices Fellowship on Advancing the Rights of Women and Girls, which Equality Now is proud to be partnering on with The OpEd Project, and Senior Advisor Ann MacDougall.
Nora’s experiences advocating for women’s rights and transgender people’s rights has motivated her to call for greater inclusion, collaboration, and diversity within the feminist movement in the MENA. Here Nora shares her insights about some of the challenges facing the feminist movement in the region and what can help strengthen it.
What impact is the lack of funding having on the feminist movement in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)?
Social spaces are very restricted by governments in the MENA, so you need to be careful about how you operate. There is a lack of funding, a lack of diversity in funding, and most funding is very conditional, which makes it harder to innovate. The faces of the feminist movement in the region haven’t changed in twenty years, and it’s the same old narratives. Most funding goes to just these few well-established organizations. So when someone new wants to do things differently, they don’t have money, and you can’t expect people to work all their lives for free. This lack of resources has created a weird dynamic of competition amongst each other, and it’s a big issue.
Generation after generation of feminists might have different ideas on how to approach things but we don’t really have a dialogue with each other, which is something we’re really missing. The lack of resources, diversity, and innovation is all connected. We need to increase resources for all groups, including rural ones, not just fund the big organizations in the city that speak English and do good marketing.
What do you think would help strengthen the women’s rights movement in the MENA?
Provocative activism in the Middle East gets lots of attention. It’s good for Western audiences that have democratic institutions and rule of law, but it doesn’t really work in countries that are socially very restrictive and without basic human rights.
We must make things more applicable to our context and move away from focusing on Western performative actions because they aren’t getting us anywhere. What does it make people feel apart from provoked? Provoking alone cannot work. Together with provocative activism, there should be a strategy behind it, not just provoking for the sake of it.
We should take a step back, look at the bigger picture, and reform our own movement. Europe has had hundreds of years of social, economic, and political development to reach its current status. It is time to stop looking to Europe because it has a very different situation and instead start building more strategic plans based on successes in similar contexts like sub-Saharan Africa or Asia.
The feminist movement in the MENA has to have a conversation within itself and start allowing voices that disagree about prevailing discourses. This means getting together to find the best approach for effective dialogue between feminists and moving in a direction that encompasses the entire society instead of alienating one another. And we should stop looking down on women who think current laws are okay because that’s their opinion. Not everything can fit in one box. Nobody’s approach is 100% correct; definitely not mine. So we should have one hundred voices in the room to help build a concrete strategy.
This requires intersectionality because if you don’t intersect one right with another, you have a failed strategy. For example, queerness was not viewed as a human rights issue in either the Egyptian human rights field or generally in the MENA. It crosses red lines in society, religion, and politics.
This started to change in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. However, other marginalized groups’ voices, such as sex workers, are still intentionally ignored by the bigger feminist discourse. I want to change things, to intersect the rights of marginalized groups with general human rights, and work on empowering all people to be included in the feminist discourse.
How is social media influencing women’s rights in the region?
Thanks to the digital age, I think we are going in a good direction, especially with the younger generation of activists who have more access to people through social media. It’s been a great force for good by opening up discussion and alerting the public to things they weren’t aware of. Attitudes are changing, and the feminist narrative is spreading to the middle and lower classes. An example of this is how transgender conversations have moved beyond small bubbles.
Things are filmed and posted on social media, and people watch who might be religious or come from a more conservative background. They don’t want their hijab-wearing daughters to be harassed and assaulted in the street, and they see things online happening to women and girls, including those who are dressed very modestly.
This helps because it is more relatable to the regular person in society, as they see actual people from the same socio-religious background facing discrimination, and not only what they view as “performative feminists.” I know it’s not the best narrative, but it’s realistic as this is where most of the population stands, and it’s the mentality of the majority not living in big cities.
The public stops ignoring something once it becomes more apparent on social media. This is pushing governments to react, and the fact that authorities react so fast in social media cases shows that it really works. It also triggers discussions in the legal sector. Police, public prosecutors, and judges see issues that repeatedly arise online and think about what laws exist and what laws are required.
But, I fear discussions do not always go in good directions. Sometimes people don’t care, or there is bullying. And when a woman posts about abuse, the authorities don’t necessarily respond in a positive way. In the age of social media justice, you may manage to get your case known, but if you annoy someone and people complain, you’ll get arrested. There is also the problem of digital laws being used to restrict human rights. So it’s a double-edged sword, and the question is, how do you balance it?
Disclaimer: The viewpoint and opinions expressed by the interviewee in this article are theirs and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of Equality Now.