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Righting the Narrative

After penning a five-part article series about women’s rights in the Middle East, Raghda Obeidat ’20 won first prize in News Decoder’s global story-telling contest.

Raghda Obeidat ’20 had always believed that there was a rigid dichotomy between Arabism and feminism, until a suggestion to write about women’s rights in the Middle East for News Decoder, a global educational news service for young people, gave her the opportunity to delve deeper into the subjects. The resulting five-part article series won her the first prize in News Decoder’s annual, global storytelling contest for multimedia content tackling cutting-edge social and political issues.

Growing up as part of a family that always encouraged her to stand up for what is right, and where deep discussions about topics such as politics and religion were commonplace, Obeidat — who considers herself a staunch feminist — jumped at the opportunity to cover women’s rights issues.

Obeidat began by interviewing Reem Abu Hassan, a lawyer and former Jordanian minister of social development. She also attended a talk given at King’s by Dr. Salma Al-Nims, secretary general of the Jordanian National Committee for Women. Building on these sources, Obeidat began to examine the role of women in the Middle East, covering a range of sensitive topics including child marriage among the Syrian refugee community, domestic violence, honor crimes, Islamic feminism, the low economic participation of Jordanian women, and the struggle for gender equity in the workplace.

As a global publication, News Decoder has a large international readership. Knowing this, Obeidat was determined to cover the topics in a way that counteracted the negative stereotypes perpetuated by Western media — which often takes charge of and distorts the Arab and Muslim narrative. Of the six articles, one titled “Women’s Rights Can Advance Under Islam” was particularly controversial among readers, generating the most critical comments.

“After reflecting on what Abu Hassan had to say, I realized how important it is for us to form our own version of feminism, one that goes hand in hand with Arabism,” says Obeidat. “That is something that I felt an international audience should be informed of.”

Obeidat says she wanted to use her writing to educate readers on the fact that Arab culture and Islam were not entirely responsible for propagating the patriarchal system. Obeidat discovered through her research that, in fact, historical and more recent interventions by European nations into Middle Eastern territories were partly to blame, having contributed to making many Arabs fearful of being “Westernized” or forfeiting their sovereignty.

“Their [European] interventions into our region have helped spark a politics of opposition as well as religious fundamentalism,” Obeidat writes. “That fear has manifested itself in various ways, including in widespread opposition to advancing women’s rights. Since many people associate such advancement with the feminist movement in the West, they perceive opposition to it as one way to fight Westernization.”

She goes on to explain how this was not always the case in the Arab world, and how women’s rights activists in the kingdom are drawing on historical tribal practices to make their case for women. A historical tribal practice called aldakhala, used in one example recounted by Abu Hassan, garnered support for the establishment of shelters for victims of domestic abuse. According to this practice, a woman suffering from domestic violence could seek the protection of the tribe. The tribe would offer her refuge and the tribal chief would act as her advocate. Therefore, current activists argue, in a modern-day context the state must take on the role of tribal chief and provide women with refuge and support.

“It is easy for Westernized youth to fall into the trap of thinking they have to shed their Arabism to be true feminists,” says Obeidat, who admits it is a dilemma she still struggles with. “But when do we cross the line into culture erasure? Do we advance our rights at the cost of Arabic culture? Those are questions I really hoped I could address through this series.”

Obeidat relished the opportunity to learn more about the roles and rights of women in the Middle East within the context of culture and religion, and is grateful for trailblazing Jordanian women — like Abu Hassan, Al Nims and journalist Rana Al Husseini — who paved the way for her to be able to freely discuss these issues. 

“Many of us don’t know much about the work being done by committed members of civil society, only that they are trying to improve the status of our rights,” says Obeidat. “So, being able to talk to someone like Abu Hassan was such a joy to me because it made me realize that so many passionate people are pursuing progress.”

The experience of covering these issues also helped Obeidat gain more confidence, not only in her journalistic abilities — she is now considering a career in journalism — but by empowering her to believe that she is capable of being an agent of change.

“I managed to reach so many people through my articles and, for the first time in my life, I didn’t feel entirely helpless in the face of complex issues that I thought were too big for me to tackle on my own,” says Obeidat. “I felt like I was able to do something about it. We are all capable of doing something. Every step is a step forward, no matter how small.”