Chivvis Moore: ‘I live my own version of feminism by supporting other women, wherever I encounter them, as they communicate and realise their own choices.’
Chivvis Moore: Why we need to understand Muslim women better
STUFF — Life & Style, by Lee Suckling
Last updated 15:37, August 5 2016
Chivvis Moore lives by her own version of feminism.
The American author of First Tie Your Camel, Then Trust in God: An American Feminist in the Arab World lived in Middle Eastern countries for 16 years, working as a journalist, carpenter, and teacher, helping Arab women thrive in what Westerners assume to be exclusively misogynist environments.
“[Political scientist] Zillah Eisenstein uses the plural ‘feminisms’ to indicate that feminism in the West might not look like feminism to Muslims or women in other parts of the world,” Moore explains.
“I like her definition: Feminisms belong to anyone who is committed to women’s ability to choose their own destiny; to be the agents of their own life choices so long as they do not colonise another.
“I live my own version of feminism by supporting other women, wherever I encounter them, as they communicate and realise their own choices.”
Chivvis and master carpenter Hassan Ali Ibrahim in his shop in Cairo, 1979
As a young carpenter, it was a love of architecture that took Moore to the Arab world – first to Cairo in the late 1970s, and later to Syria and the West Bank in the 1990s and 2000s – but her desire to make a societal contribution was deep-seated.
Moore lived in Brazil as a child and the impoverished favelas she walked by in Rio de Janeiro made a big impact on her.
“I was also touched, like many other US citizens of my generation,” she explains, “with the tendency to assume that not only did we over-privileged Americans have a responsibility to try to ‘change the world’ and make it fairer for those without privilege, but also that whatever we chose to do would be useful.”
The Western conception of women in Arab societies is that of powerlessness, but many of Moore’s experiences challenged that.
Upon her arrival in Cairo, “I met a woman named Nahid. In striking contrast to the Western image of the helpless, unthinking, beaten-down Arab woman,” Moore recalls.
“Nahid was a natural homegrown feminist, the first of the many women I met during my years in the Arab world whom I respected and admired for the strength, inner fortitude, and self-esteem that I came to see as characteristic of Arab women.”
In fact, Moore found many similarities between Arab and Western women during her 16 years in the Middle East. The Arab women she met in Egypt, Syria, and the West Bank “confronted the whole array of challenges that all women, except the wealthy, have to face – having to work outside the home and yet do all the work inside the home as well,” she says.
Moore never covered her head – as Westerners often think of as mandatory – in her decades living in three Muslim environments.
“Certainly, women in some Arab Muslim countries are required to veil, either by their families or by society, and it’s hard to imagine at least some women not finding the all-enveloping outer garment, the burka, cumbersome and unwelcome,” she says.
“But when I lived in Arab countries, I knew Muslim women who had taken up wearing the veil, although not required to wear it, in order to indicate their difference from Western ways.
“Others said they veiled to shield themselves from unwelcome advances from men on the street. Still, others covered themselves because they believed that God required of both men and women a certain modesty in dress, as set forth in the Koran.
“Most who make judgments about Arab women’s lack of freedom blame it on Islam. But they don’t know anything about the religion. They have neither studied it nor lived in Muslim countries.”
Moore sees the current rhetoric that equates Islam to violence and repression as misguided Western constructs, fed by minority extremist groups such as Isis and the Taliban.
“Most Muslims want as little to do with the values of Isis or the Taliban as you or I,” she says. “Why is Islam held responsible for the injustices in Muslim societies in ways Christianity is not held responsible for the evils in our own?”
Moore did not feel compelled to try and change the culture she was in, moreover, because it went against her personal ideal of feminism.
“I went to the Arab world to learn, not to convert people to any particular way of doing things,” she says. “I felt strongly about this. I felt it would have been disrespectful to walk in and try to influence a culture that was not mine.”
As Westerners, we should care more about all Middle Eastern people, Moore believes, because what is presented in the news – by way of terror, conflict, and wars – represents a skewed view of Arab society whereby average citizens are thought to hold the same beliefs are their leaders.
“I would resist having my values equated with those of my government,” Moore explains, “and the populations that live under repressive kings and dictators in Arab countries feel the same.”