Swarthmore College freshman Laila Hzaineh ’16 is using video blogs to empower Arab women and challenge societal norms in the Middle East. Since she began vlogging in November 2016, the Palestinian-Jordanian feminist has gained some 7,000 Facebook followers.
Hzaineh quickly became an internet sensation after she launched her first vlog in response to a video posted by a man on Facebook titled, “One of the reasons for harassment is what girls wear.” Hzaineh shot back in a vlog that garnered the attention of people across the globe, reaching over 76,000 views.
“I never planned on becoming a vlogger, but when I watched the man’s video I got really angry. I felt like I needed to do something about what he was saying, so I chose to record a video that very same second,” she said.
In her video, Hzaineh countered the man’s comments, slammed those who justify harassment and argued that it was repulsive for people to use women’s manner of dress as an excuse for harassing them. She went on to say that women are entitled to dress as they please and should not be obliged to live their lives according to the preferences of men.
Since then, Hzaineh has continued to post videos about issues many Arab women face including sexism, domestic violence and virginity testing.
“My goal is to be a voice for Arab women and help other women become more confident to speak up,” said Hzaineh. “My videos allow me to share my views and encourage women to know and defend their rights.”
“I get messages from women as young as 16 years old telling me that I gave them the courage to speak up and they now feel empowered to express their views because they know they aren’t alone,” she said.
Her powerful statements and fearless attitude, however, have also made her a target for online criticism. Many people have told Hzaineh to “shut up because you don’t know what you’re talking about.” She has also received threats from men who oppose her views.
“Self-oppression and ignorance have taken over the mindsets of many people; many women are also conditioned to think a certain way because they don’t know their true rights,” said Hzaineh.
“For example, some women think it is okay for their husbands to hit them because that’s what they’ve always been told, so they instantly attack any opposing view that disagrees with their beliefs,” she added.
Key to changing people’s perspectives is education, according to Hzaineh. Sexism and harassment are common in Arab society because many people are ill-informed about these matters, thus, awareness needs to increase for people’s mentalities to change, she added.
In the future, Hzaineh plans to further expand her vlogs and highlight the history of feminism in the Middle East.
“Many Arabs view feminism as a western invention that goes against our values, but feminism is not exclusive to the west,” said Hzaineh. “I’m planning on creating a video to address this matter and talk about the history of Middle Eastern and non-western feminism.”
Many people in the Middle East reject feminism due to its ‘western’ appeal, explained Hzaineh. “We need to know that feminism is not exclusively western to be able to accept it; the change must come from within.”