Whenever I grow tired of the heated Twitter discussions, I flee to Instagram to hide there for a while. I launch the application and, my God, what are all these pink waterfalls? Have I mistakenly stepped into the Eve forums or “Madam Magazine”? I see heaps and piles of sparkling glitter, roses and flowers covering bodies of a light, somewhat beige complexion with hourglass curves and wavy hair (to give a tinge of locality and exoticism). The same tendency gives way, sometimes, to a body with a brown complexion, or a woman with a headdress immersed in the same locality, pursuant to the last will and testament of our lord Naguib Mahfouz.
On these pages, our bodies, women’s bodies, are transformed into colourful and attractive facades that hide reality under thick layers of illusion. The human body (yes, women are human and not made of roses and glitter) is made of flesh, blood, skin, grease, pigmentation, pores, spots, hair, fluff and sagging, all distributed in an uncoordinated and unbalanced way. Various aches and disorders disturb the daily lives of our bodies, inconvenience us, and make us question our life choices. The timeline is filled with photos and videos of women with a fixed smile, a constant state of satisfaction, who are never angry or screaming, and who do yoga and drink green smoothies. They light coloured and scented candles when they bathe, and dance in celebration in front of their mirrors. These are ecstatic, reconciled, positive women who care about their bodies despite their flaws that cannot be seen with the naked eye, despite effort, perhaps because they are not defects in the first place according to the prevailing and defunct global and local beauty standards. They are women who relate to their wombs, and the wombs of their mothers and grandmothers, and derive from them feminine and positive energy.
The discourse in these images urges us, strongly, to rejoice and celebrate being a woman, and also to feel grateful for that great coincidence and historical miracle that decided that we are to be women or female. In any case, these pages are not too concerned with setting a specific definition for what we are as women, or what femininity is, except that we are sacred wombs capable of creating and giving life, and bodies that require extreme attention, care, affection, smiles, words of encouragement and eager applause. In the discourse of gurus of femininity and uterine energy, our existence as women is summarised in three main points: our relationships with men; motherhood and menstruation; and outward appearance. Although this discourse tries to present itself as a perspective that fights the reduction and stereotyping of women into a specific framework, it nonetheless reproduces the same stereotypical ideas that exclude trans women or those who define themselves as women, and non-conforming ones as well, by focusing on the short and superficial biological definition of femininity that the system has always adopted, to imprison us inside bodies that do not necessarily resemble us and that we do not own, and inside a single gender and social/maternal role.
Narratives of sacred femininity often intersect with lectures on human development, another term for self-help. The first narrative attempts to find its roots in antiquity, when women were deities, priestesses, witches and sorceresses, according to what these self-help gurus claim. They symbolised mother nature and the fertility of land, both of which are metaphors for unconditional maternal giving. This was until the human/man came along and completely destroyed this rosy ideal image, and along with it the era of maternal peace, and replaced it with a time of wars and bloody patriarchy which stripped women of their former knowledge as witches and healers, and little by little they lost the ability to communicate with their sacred feminine nature and became mere followers. This version of the creation myth spawned a discourse that often uses the adjective ‘natural’ to lend credibility to the solutions it offers, or borrows concepts such as waves, seasons, and energy to talk about the different human emotions and moods experienced by women. The body occupies a central space in this narrative, and in particular the womb, where the female miracle of creation begins, which in turn revolves around the menstrual cycle.
The latter, i.e. motivational self-help and human development, derives its discourse from a mixture of a handful of psychology and a large heap of modern individualism. It claims to beautify the image we know of the world and life in it, by focusing on the human being as an autonomous, unique entity which is only concerned with the path of seeking its inner peace and psychological comfort, which remains undisturbed and indomitable even if surrounded by volcanoes and hurricanes. All a human being has to do, we are told, is to close their eyes, breathe deeply, and contemplate survival, and they will surely make it. Perhaps this is what the self-help and self-care gurus, and the prophets of positivity, have been telling us, that everything we are exposed to stems from our personal convictions. Of course, there is no harm in a sprinkle of spirituality here and there, and references to non-white civilisations that are very innocent in their primitiveness, so rich in human knowledge despite their poverty. Thus, we can derive from these ancients a historical legitimacy and some prayer movements that are devoid of their intended meaning and that have turned into mere gymnastics whose teaching is monopolised by those who do not even know the meanings of their names in the language of its native land. There is also no harm with a few chants and incense sticks in the best forms of cultural appropriation under the pretext of soul-searching, all in order to create bubbles in which the individual lives alone with themself, isolated from what harms them and those who annoy them, as happiness is a very individual decision.
It is not surprising, then, that such discourse is popular among societies of the MENA region, where women fall victim to a miserable reality, daily incitement against them and the disparagement of their humanity. Thus, it is also natural for women to adopt this narrative on the feminine divinity of antiquity, and bask in ancient glories that must one day return, the day women regain their well-deserved status of which they were deprived in a world made and controlled by men. It is also very understandable that women gravitate towards anything that gives importance and sanctity to their repetitive daily tasks of care and maternal work, and that places high value on those tasks, especially since the capitalist system denigrates such work and considers it to be little more than wasted, non-productive time. The narratives on witches, for example, are incongruent with our historical context, and the continued adoption of treatment using herbal and Islamic medicine exists outside the framework of modern medical science. Despite this fact, the recipes circulated on social media pages and groups are very popular, considering cascading economic crises and the “Three ingredients from your kitchen” culture. This is especially the case since these pages present their content in a modern way and with seductive, quasi-scientific, and foreign vocabulary that gives considerable emphasis on returning to nature and its healing energies. This nostalgia for an imagined women's history intersects with a wave of nostalgia for the world before European colonialism, depicting this time with excessive idealism, and it also yearns for pre-Islamic civilisations, where nations were feministic to the extent of sanctifying and worshipping their women. However, beyond the restoration by European feminist discourse of the history of its witches and priestesses, this trend shows the incredible ease with which some have translated this content and adopting this discourse, without the slightest concern for the local context either culturally and historically, or even properly localise it to suit the deep-rooted beliefs prevalent in our region. However, what is absolutely clear is that yoga is more exciting than Islamic prayers; witches are a sexier subject than our fortune-tellers and gipsies; and tarot reading is more civilised than reading palms, cups, or incantations. As for the self-help and wellness content, it is easier for it to resonate in societies that eschew individualism and exclusivity, and impose on all people a standard modus vivendi, societies that compel people to live together in groups, and teach them that behind closed doors are inevitably crimes or shameful acts, that privacy can be violated anywhere, anytime and by strangers before others.
This foolish celebration of both our femininity and our individuality, which besieges us on every side, prevents us women from reconsidering the concepts put forward to us and presented as feminism in order to justify their existence and sell to us under a new “progressive” facade. However, despite its heaps of glitter and flowery, cheerful colours, this facade cannot for long conceal that it is selling us on an old commodity that we know all too well. It offers a binary vision of the world in which only female and male exist as opposing, but complementary, energies each carrying the stereotypical characteristics of femininity and masculinity as we have known them from centuries of patriarchy, without any different conceptions of either or both of them. Just like patriarchy, these discourses are allied with capitalism, intentionally or unintentionally, and the pages prompting us to “love ourselves” and “celebrate our roles” are then transformed into consumer markets that sell us T-shirts with catchy slogans priced at a point that exceeds the average daily income of at least ten Arab families, and candles in the shape of an ideal woman’s physique with proportions exactly as the patriarchal standards that the same “self-love” pages claim to reject. Moreover, all the gurus that claim to hold sessions to communicate with the womb and summon the feminine energy latent in the sacred egg, and others whose content with little content and considerable merchandise, have become a massive business that generates astronomical profits for its owners, and does not achieve the desired survival for its followers except by sheer coincidence. This old-new product is what Yves Charles Zarka defines as the “identity economy” which includes all forms of “self-reconstruction” specialists, and experts on relationship and sex, etc.
However, perhaps the most dangerous thing produced by the narratives of sacred femininity and body positivity may be the terrifying absence of the political, economic and social context, which creates a premature, cookie-cutter, distorted discourse that has no colour or taste, or any feature that distinguishes it from all the other copies and reproductions. The discourse of body positivity is centred around the self and the individual as the first, and sometimes only, lifeline that a person possesses. However, despite the logic and validity of this particular point, it is deceiving when it claims that the problem lies in the self alone, promotes selfishness and individual survival, and encourages life inside a shell separated from the outside world and from other women, despite its proclaimed slogans of solidarity between women. How can we talk about women’s mental health, for instance, in isolation from repressive political regimes, economic collapse, and the social restrictions imposed on women by their families? Is it enough for me to dance in front of my mirror so that I am not crushed under the gears of a global system that will gladly replace me seconds after my complete collapse, so that it does not stop spinning and producing wealth for a handful of thieves in expensive suits? What if I do not wish to celebrate my period? Why do they confiscate my right to hate or be annoyed with the menstrual cycle? What if it were a constant source of anxiety for me because I cannot afford sanitary pads? What if I consider the presence of a uterus inside my body as a mere coincidence that does not interest me in the first place? What if I do not hate myself in spite of all this? Here, one has to ask: What about women who, for whatever reasons, do not have a uterus? Are they not women at all? What of those who have a womb but can never conceive life? What about women who only aspire to an ordinary and simple life as human beings without divinity, sanctification, or a centrality within the ethos? Does the phrase “all women are beautiful” end the dilemma of beauty standards and disintegrate the concept of beauty itself, and why should we as women care about it to this extent?
This discourse contributes to the production of women who only look within and never clash with the reality imposed on them by politicians, religious clergies, and those who hold the reins of economic power, women with fake wings because their real wings were successfully clipped after being moulded and transformed into faded duplicates, women who are proud of their individual successes after benefiting from governmental empowerment measures, or class and family privileges, and who do not care about those still under systemic restrictions and who are dismissed as having “not worked hard enough” to achieve their dreams. This discourse also goes to thwart any possible connection between individuals, for fear of turning it into a revolutionary movement in the event that we let our anger unleash and direct it towards those who really caused our predicament. It upends any possibility that we could cease to consider ourselves individually responsible for our pain and misery, in light of a system that drains us daily in public and private spaces and even deprives us of the comfort of a deep sleep, instead giving us panic attacks and constant fear of a future in which sustenance is difficult, a planet whose air is no longer breathable, or wars that displace and disposes us.
Let us incite against all those who confiscate our right to discuss our suffering, and all those who demand us to calm, meditate and smile to bring about energy and summon good luck. Let us incite against all those who delude us by suggesting that our happiness is an individual decision, and that it can be achieved without dismantling all tributaries of the system that crushes us, or even point fingers at it. Let us reject the notion that spirited dancing will put an end to arms trading, or that cleansing our chakras is enough to protect girls from forced marriage.
Iman Amara, Algerian-French activist, feminist writer, and content creator. Gender researcher in the MENA region.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.