The ‘First Wives Club’ or the Politics of Visibility and Invisibility

by Huma Dar

In her article in The Observer, ‘The First Ladies Of The Arab World Blaze A Trail For Women’s Rights’, Helena Smith waxes eloquent about a very exclusive, seven-year-old club, called “Arab Women Organisation” with only fifteen members so far: the first ladies of Jordan, the Emirates, Bahrain, Tunisia, Algeria, Sudan, Syria, Oman, Palestine, Lebanon, Libya, Egypt, Mauritania, Morocco and Yemen.1

The first wives of the other seven Arab countries with “some of the more traditional societies” have also been invited and there are “tremendous hopes” that they, too, will join up, Smith gently reassures the reader.  This article carries the tag line: “A large and powerful alliance of leaders’ wives is making huge strides in breaking taboos and getting feminist issues on the political agenda.” The list of issues being “sexual slavery,” “trafficking,” “child exploitation,” “prostitution” and “rape” in the Middle East,” and, of course, this is duly prefaced by an obligatory, pious declamation that these “societies [are] not known for their commitment to feminist agendas.”

One wonders if this particular set of issues has indeed been adequately dealt with in any part of the world, and immediately thinks of the epidemic proportion of violence against women in the United States of America, which happens to be one of the more violent places for women as far as the proportionate rates of rapes, assaults, and murders are concerned, with every two minutes a woman being sexually assaulted, and every eight minutes a woman being raped.2

“And do they,” Helena Smith asks Suzanne Mubarak, “talk of such things with their husbands?”  Mubarak responds, “Of course we do, because they are issues that affect the whole of society.” One is forced to ask if the litany of “such things” include political repression and authoritarianism, torture and rendition, class exploitation and social justice et al?

No indication of such inclusion is forthcoming, unfortunately, and yet can these issues be so neatly divorced from gender issues?  That these particular latter issues might implicate the rulers themselves and the super powers bolstering their regimes, while the former imagined-as-standalone “women’s issues” provide a benign cover of patronizing curiosity, is the real issue at stake here.

Suzanne Mubarak, the founder of the club, is, of course, the “demure, whippet-thin wife of Egypt’s longstanding leader, Hosni Mubarak”; Mubarak’s “long-standing” rule of Egypt being a testimony of the strong backing from the United States of America and an equally strong reign of political repression.

Smith proclaims Suzanne as “[e]loquent in a way that her husband isn’t,” and traces this “eloquence” to Suzanne’s mother being Welsh.  Suzanne’s “fluency in English” is also deemed an “asset in her diplomatic efforts”, however that leaves one wondering whether a fluency in Arabic, Farsi, Mandarin or Urdu/Hindi – or any other language for that matter – is considered a necessary prerequisite for Michelle Obama, Sarah Brown or Carla Bruni-Sarkozy to be considered eloquent and diplomatically inclined, and why not?  Double standards are surely in operation here, but might it also be the case that the insistence on eloquence of Suzanne Mubarak’s English masks Helena Smith’s less-than-eloquent Arabic skills or a complete lack thereof?

Helena Smith describes Shaikha Sabeeka bint Ibrahim Al Khalifa as the “[m]ild-mannered [and] progressive … wife of the king” of Bahrain. “Queen” of Bahrain would equally have sufficed as a title instead of the longwinded “Wife of the King” – imagine the “wife of the King/Queen” Mother instead of Queen Mother – but perhaps Smith wants to subtly draw our attention to the fact that Sabeeka is only one amongst four, thus fitting the stereotype of the virile, polygamous Muslim family with docile women, rather than the alternate, better tolerated European model of the ruler or prince with a mistress or two or three.

That she is “progressive” marks Sabeeka as the “antithesis of what Bahrainis have ever known.”  “Habitually dressed in a long black abaya, with a veil placed firmly against her cheek,” Sabeeka, of the “impressive command of English,” is then romantically portrayed as “revealing [her] immaculately coiffed, thick hennaed hair as she allows her veil to drop around her shoulders.” Wow!  If one thought such Orientalist descriptions were so passé, so circa 19th century C.E., look no further.  Neo-Orientalism is here, and full-force at that.

I have often pondered about the pattern of globally approved hyper-visibilities and invisibilities.  Hyper-visibility of the likes of these first ladies, affiliated with oppressive regimes, and that of opportunistic people like Irshad Manji or Azar Nafisi, who all claim to be “trail-blazers” – on the one hand, and the deliberate and cultivated disregard of the knowledges produced by scholars like Amina Wadud, Asma Barlas, Azizah al-Hibri, Leila Ahmad, Minoo Moallem and the grassroots activists like Sharifa Khanum, Zainah Anwar et al.

I claim that the hyper-visibility of the former purported “trail-blazers” is cultivated precisely to cover up the distress caused by the latter group in mainstream Western discourse, even when the intent is not simply to use as a catalyst in some self-serving colonial expedition to ostensibly “liberate” the “brown woman from the brown man.”3 It does not take too much to imagine the extent of fear and resentment generated in the prevalent atmosphere of Islamophobia by:

1) the Muslim women’s ongoing struggles to find gender, sexual, racial, and class justice within Islam, through and around its texts and subtexts, within its paradigms and silenced histories,

2) their work of providing ample historical evidence linking at least some of the manifestations of misogyny and queerphobia to colonialism and reactions to the discourses of Orientalism (and thus hopefully dismantling it), and

3) their successful grassroots activism epitomized by the Sisters in Islam of Malaysia and Sharifa Khanum setting up her own masjid in South India.4

Even certain “victims” are more approved and visible than the others.  Mukhtaran Mai and her story retired from the global media, after several years of celebrity status and regular appearances in Nicholas Kristof’s columns, only when she became the second wife of a man assigned to be her guard by the Pakistani Government – she could no longer be packaged as the perfect martyr-heroine who had suffered from the malevolence of Muslim men and Islam.  While her face was splashed all over the paper and electronic versions of The New York Times soon after her rape, her wedding photographs never did.

Just three hundred miles away and less than four months prior to Mukhtaran Mai’s horrific gang rape in 2002, the hundreds of Muslim women who had been raped and massacred in Indian Gujarat were blithely ignored by global media because 1) the perpetrators were Hindus, not Muslims, 2) the genocide happened in India that figures in the new constellation of powers, post 9/11, as an ally of the “West” and not an opponent – at least in the near future, and 3) with a burgeoning middle-class of 200 million and counting, India represents an enviable and seductive market to be wooed and not alienated.

Helena Smith approvingly quotes a Dr. Scilla Elworthy, “a leading authority in conflict prevention whose Oxford Research Group has been nominated for the Nobel Price [sic] three times” – much that we now appreciate about that prize – as saying, the Muslims have “gone from chastity belts to contraception in 10 years – it took us 800 years to do that.”

Perhaps someone might want to inform Dr. Elworthy that there is no evidence of chastity belts in most Muslim cultures so far, and she would have seen better without those particular tinted glasses.  To assume that there is not, or has never been, indigenous movements of women’s rights or gender and social justice amongst Muslims before this, and to lay all the laurels on the “first wives club” as the trail-blazers, is to display profound ignorance of actual people, their writings and histories, and ongoing struggles.

Give me an Amina Wadud (USA/Indonesia), Asma Barlas (Pakistan/USA), Leila Ahmad (Egypt/USA), Minoo Moallem (Iran/USA), Sharifa Khanum (Tamil Nadu, India) or Zainah Anwar (Malaysia) any time, any day!


[1] Although first published on March 8, 2009, this article was only recently brought to my attention by two friends: Chic Dabby and Amina Wadud, and the comments above arose in response to them.

Smith, Helena. “The First Ladies Of The Arab World Blaze A Trail For Women’s Rights.” The Observer. March 8, 2009. (Accessed on December 9, 2009).

[2] The two calculations are from the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN) and they base it on the US Department of Justice’s 2006 National Crime Victimization Survey — “the country’s largest and most reliable crime study” (RAINN 2007).

Also see Herbert, Bob. “Women at Risk,” in The New York Times. August 7, 2009. (Accessed on August 8, 2009)

[3] Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. 296.

[4] See as examples:

Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

al-Hibri, Azizah Y. “Qu’ranic Foundations of the Rights of Muslim Women in the 21st Century.” Women in Indonesian Society: Access, Empowerment and Opportunity. Eds. M. Atho Mudzhar et al. Yogyakarta, Indonesia: Sunan Kalijaga Press, 2001. (Accessed on December 10, 2009)

Barlas, Asma. “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an. Houston: University of Texas Press, 2002.

Hirschkind, Charles and Saba Mahmood. “Social Thought and Commentary: Feminism, the Taliban, and Politics of Counter-Insurgency.” Anthropological Quarterly. vol. 75-2. (Spring) 2002. 339-354.

Lazreg, Marnia. The Eloquence of Silence: Algerian Women in Question. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Massad, Joseph A. Desiring Arabs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Moallem, M. “Transnationalism, Feminism, and Fundamentalism.” Between Woman and Nation: Nationalisms, Transnational Feminisms, and the State. Ed. Norma Alarcon, Caren Kaplan & M. Moallem. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.

Mohanty, Chandra T. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation, & Postcolonial Perspectives. Ed. McClintock, Mufti and Shohat. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997. 255-277.

Sisters in Islam: Empowering Voices for Change. (Accessed on November 12, 2009)

STEPSWomenJamaat.Org (Accessed on December 11, 2009)

Wadud, Amina. Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999[1992].

Yeğenoğlu, Meyda. Colonial Fantasies: Towards a Feminist Reading of Orientalism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Huma Dar has completed a post-doctoral fellowship at UBC, Vancouver.  Her doctoral research in the Department of South & South East Asian Studies at UC Berkeley is on Muslims and their cinematic, literary, and political representations.

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