Ruby Hamad is right, whether western women understand it or not

I read Clementine Ford’s article in The Age dated March 25, Is this photo grounds for death? I shared it around the usual social media traps. It is an issue that should be highlighted.

I also read Ruby Hamad’s article in The Age dated March 28, Why protests must be culturally appropriate and noticed Ruby copping a bit of flak from Australian women.

In summary, Amina, a 19 year-old Tunisian woman, adopted a western protest style to seek freedom for the women in Tunisia and she is now in a mental hospital. Clementine wrote of the case and Ruby has provided a culturally sensitive perspective which has generated some discussion.

I am one of what I believe is a fairly unique group of women: I am an atheist feminist married to a Muslim. I have visited a very strict Islamic country, Qatar. If you are reading this and don’t know my stance on religion and feminism, I suggest you read the following articles before you continue reading this one! 😆

It is clear from the above articles I am NOT into preserving the status quo!

Besides being married to a Muslim, I have several Muslim co-workers as well. The Muslims I know cover a wide spectrum of strictness. One co-worker’s wife wears traditional Islamic dress, while others are much more relaxed and drink alcohol and smoke.

There is an old saying, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Westerners view the place of women in some Islamic societies as subjugation (I say “some” as there is wide variation between Islamic societies). Personally, I agree. We need to remember though, many Islamic women view our freedoms as abuse of us by western society. Those very strict Islamic societies have existed that way for generations, many members of those societies know nothing else. If we want to encourage societies to move into the 21st century, we can’t shock them into change because the action seems, to them, quite crazy.

Clementine quotes Amina’s aunt as saying:

“Amina does not exist anymore for me. She is responsible for her acts, and we are devastated by what she did. Our family is educated and open-minded and we did everything we could for her.”

Amina is now in a mental hospital, deemed crazy by the standards and beliefs of her society.

If you are an atheist, have you ever tried telling a Christian there is no God? While the Christian may respond in a civil manner, you can tell they think you are crazy. In fact, a complete aside, but I believe one of the reasons Tony Abbott is so “anti” Julia Gillard is because she is an atheist and Tony is a hell-fire and brimstone Christian.  He believes he is a “fit and proper person” to be the PM because he is a Christian, while he believes Julia will go to hell for being a non-believer. Just my thoughts on that little cameo!

Ruby says:

There is a chronic tendency in the West to treat our own liberalism as an innate rather than acquired characteristic. We may be comfortable enough with naked female bodies that we no longer wish to kill women who expose them, but no society can change overnight. And yet, we insist on speaking to Islam through that peculiarly Western phenomenon known as post-enlightenment rationalism.

Ruby is 100% correct.  We westerners are a bit like the assertive atheists. We know the truth, so it should be clearly evident to everyone else. No, nothing is clearly evident to those who have NO experience of any other way than the way they know.

Those who have read my book, Love versus Goliath, will know we had to battle to be allowed to stay in the same room when I visited Mr O in Qatar. We were a married couple, but to the Qatari, we were a rather unusual married couple and they didn’t quite believe us.

When we went to the shopping centres in Qatar, the women were all in black and in many cases not even their eyes were visible. To them this is NORMAL, it is APPROPRIATE, it is RIGHT. They aren’t all running around believing they are being subjugated or oppressed.

If we want to encourage these societies to move forward, we have to speak to them in a language they can understand and they CANNOT understand naked female bodies. They just can’t.  There is no point in saying “well, they should be able to”. It just isn’t going to happen.

With the advent of the internet and social media, young people see western ways they would never have seen in years past. Yes, to those young people I am sure our western freedoms can appear seductive and they want them NOW. They think organisations like Femen are wonderful, but they don’t have the life experience or political understanding to know what adopting such strategies will do in a fiercely repressed society.

Let me share a story from a book I’ve discussed before about Cultural Intelligence. A young man from a society that believed watching movies was evil (I forget now where he came from) went to New York to study, having won a scholarship. After living and studying in New York for a while, he realised he wasn’t going to be struck by lightening if he watched a movie so he went with his new western friends to the movies. He had to leave the theatre part-way through and vomited in the bathroom. His cultural “training” was so strong his body reacted against his new found knowledge that watching a movie would not lead to his death.

Clementine is right, to us Amina’s actions are definitely not grounds for death, of course not. Ruby is also right, that style of protest will not work in that society.

The secret is for us to find a way to help our sisters without alienating the societies in which they live, otherwise we will be locked out and they will be locked in.

21 comments on “Ruby Hamad is right, whether western women understand it or not

  1. […] at feminism through this prism of Western society and that prism distorts our perspective of women in other societies, for example Yemen or Saudi Arabia. We need to remember the three main religions have subjugated […]


  2. Sorry, but I find all this very confusing. My husband is an atheist. I find an atheist can have great humanistic values, so can a religious person. We are a multicultural society. So far Australians have shown that it is possible to live together in peace and harmony, respecting each other’s differences. There are certain rules we have all to uphold for a well functioning society. If I go against what society at this point would regard as public decency I must accept that there may be adverse consequences for me.


    • Uta, this was about actions that happened in a very Muslim country, so the young lady in question broke all the social mores of her country.

      I understand why, but the shock was perhaps a little too much at this time. Sometimes we have to take things slowly when we want to drive change.

      I hope that clarifies it a bit?


      • Yes, Robyn, I thank you for clarifying. It seems to me Femen is not interested to take things slowly. Unlike you they don’t seem to have an understanding for different cultures.


  3. […] Ruby Hamad is right, whether western women understand it or not […]


  4. Reblogged this on Sarah Walsh and commented:
    Femen, feminism and space. Interesting thoughts. Proof again of feminism doesn’t fit one size all.


  5. Just out of interest, what has been the reaction from those witnessing Femen aside from shock. They are wanting to shock and it in turn it is shocking to some. I’d be interested to understand if anyone inter-culturally sees this movement as effective whether it actually inspires them to think outside their normal thinking. If it in fact instigates any conversation at all other than the conversation we’re having on the western front. Members are signing up to the movement so it’s creating some energy whether we agree with the message of space or not.


    • I don’t really keep up with Femen. I read a little and I can understand their argument for using the naked body. Clearly they inspired this young Tunisian woman, but I’m not convinced that was at all effective in a broader sense.

      The problem with technology is sometimes people are exposed to things they don’t have the life skills to cope with appropriately. The impact ends up being negative instead of positive.

      Given I am an atheist, of course I don’t support religious oppression of women. HOWEVER, I am well aware that cultural change takes a long, long time and we have to tread gently.


      • I have feelings for and against. Shock sometimes is effective. While I don’t agree it is right, it can capture thoughts inspiring change. There would’ve been a time when we were shocked. I’m an artist and my method is to shock if only with words. Sometimes effective, sometimes not, and consequence.


      • I think when we want to drive change, we have to consider the possible sonsequences before we act, and perhaps modify our actions in light of the risks.

        Like you – I’m a bit for and against too. 🙂


  6. The real issue is not about the agency of form of protest women, feminists, in other cultures engage in. Whatever form of protest they wish to engage in, however dangerous, is their right. The REAL issue is how do WE show solidarity. The actions of Femen, intended to show solidarity, end up vilifying the entire culture, and thus THE VERY WOMEN that femen purports to be acting in solidarity with. To mock ones own culture is satire: to mock another’s is bigotry. y


    • Victoria, I agree. I don’t know much about Femen at all, other that what I read in the press. I do know their actions are not going to help the cause in strict Islamic countries at this stage of their cultural evolution.


  7. Excellent points, Robyn. Change takes time. Life is stirred with a slow spoon.


  8. Thanks for this. I think the reaction to both pieces was determined largely by their respective headlines. Who wouldn’t agree that a photo of a topless women is not grounds for death? If that is the premise of the article, then it is easy to agree. On the other hand the term ‘culturally appropriate’ (not my words by the way) has overtones of moral judgement which I think turned people off. In my actual piece I discuss, as you write, relevance rather than appropriateness and speaking in a language that people will understand. I’m afraid that was largely lost in the indignation many felt as it may have appeared that I was accusing Amina of being ‘inappropriate’, which I certainly was not. I’m careful not to make moral judgements on anyone. I’m certainly going to be even more careful when it comes to the power of language and semantics after this.


    • Ruby, I actually think the headline was correct. I agree with you that is has been misread/misinterpreted, but the bottom line is there has to be a means of communication happening and if we speak in a “foreign tongue” the communication is not going to happen.

      I’m not accusing Amina of being inappropriate either, but I fear for her safety and what does any protest achieve if it places women in more danger than they were before they protested?

      It is a long haul. It is only VERY recently that women in Mozambique have been granted the right to cross the border without the written/express permission of their husband or father, and Mozambique is not a Muslim country. As you said societies do not change overnight. Western women forget it is not long ago that legally we were mere chattels. They forget the struggle to be allowed to vote yet last year women’s vote was a major force in the USA elections.

      Compare the three primary religious books and they are all pretty much of a muchness when it comes to women.

      Change will come, but not if we shut down communication. Note the words of the Aunt. They were, by their standards, being modern. Now I fear their attitudes will change and other girls will be banned from exposure to western information because “look how Amina was corrupted” will be the reaction and so other girls will need to be “protected”.


      • Your last paragraph: Exactly! Even her parents, liberal by their society’s standards were flummoxed. And the struggle for women’s enfranchisement is a perfect example of what I said about intrinsic v acquired characteristics. How soon we forget.


      • I really should have included that in the article!


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