In her 2013 book, Do Muslim women need saving?, American anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod, dismantled the prevailing argument in media, academic circles, and bestselling books, that Muslim women, many of them Arab, need to be rescued by the West. She clearly demonstrated that gender inequality cannot be solely attributed to religion or culture but rather to what she described as ‘a matrix’ of oppression; a mix of socio-economic circumstances and authoritarianism, found globally, and not specific to the Arab world.
I really appreciated that Abu-Lughod’s book humanized Arab women. Even in the most dramatic and tragic situations, she approached the Arab women she met as individuals with unique agency, identity, family situations, who all live in various socio-political contexts and hold multiple understandings of culture and religion. Abu-Lughod was constantly wary of the danger of homogenization. That is to say, brushing all Muslim women with the same stroke: oppressed under the yoke of religion.
Orientalist, simplistic representation continue
Ten years after the publication of her book, the western media is back at it again (I doubt they stopped, anyway). This time the rescue mission comes from none other than the prestigious British newspaper, The Economist. And the targets are the usual suspects: Arab women, and this time, in particular, Arab women who are fat.
In its last July issue, The Economist published an essay titled “Why Women Are Fatter Than Men in the Arab World.” The article claimed that Arab society (as if there is one country, ‘Arabistan’, that practices one culture), does not enable women to shed extra pounds. The author watered down the problem to poverty and a sedentary lifestyle as a result of sexual harassment in public spaces forcing women to stay home, leaving only occasionally to visit relatives and eat.
It’s true that sports facilities are not easily available or accessible for women, which I argue is due to socio-economic factors and not religion. Women’s health issues in the region are complex and systemic, impossible to be explained through the orientalist and distorting lenses of tradition and culture. But unfortunately and expectedly, the article failed to go further than this shallow rescue mission.
Even if the article addressed a genuine and troubling situation, it remained stuck to the surface of the problem, giving the false impression that women’s obesity in the Arab world is rooted simply in poor local habits and bad policies.
Beyond the paternalistic and colonial tone of deeming Arab women fat, the magazine used a picture of an Iraqi actress, without her consent, as an example of the truth they seem to have uncovered about Arab women.
Enas Talbi, an Iraqi actress with nine million Instagram followers, is now suing the newspaper. In one radio interview, she talked about how her teenage daughters were negatively affected by the way she fat shamed for the whole world to see.
Women’s empowerment correlated to obesity rate
In a discussion paper published in 2020, The Weight of Patriarchy, two researchers from the London School of Economics, emphasized that the “worldwide epidemic of obesity” has impacted more women than men. So, what The Economist is telling us with grand fanfare and dramatic tone, is not only happening in the Arab world but all around the globe. That same study pointed to the fact that gender obesity gaps are more pronounced in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region (ten percent compared to four percent for the rest of the world).
The researchers looked for answers in what they call the empowerment of women and found a strong correlation.
“Our results can be interpreted as revealing that progress in the empowerment of women in different domains such as the labour market, politics and the household can reduce gender-based health inequities in obesity. At the same time, it is important to note that the main driver of this effect has not been a decrease in obesity among women, but rather an increase among men.”
These concluding remarks expose the complexities of the situation and the danger of reducing a multifaceted and complex problem into one with a single culprit.
Back in 2013, a survey by the International Association for the Study of Obesity showed the rate of female obesity in the MENA region is significantly higher than that of their male counterparts. Several experts in the field from various Arab countries commented. They pointed to one main factor in the gender gap obesity as a “marked change in diet…coinciding with the introduction of a more ‘Western’ diet about three decades ago as the demands of growing populations outstripped domestic production.”
Corporate greed, westernization also to blame
Because of climate and cultural habits, many Arab countries prepared and consumed foods aligned with what is now called the Mediterranean diet. Nowadays, it is commonly prescribed to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
The Economist seems to have forgotten that many Arab countries ditched their conventions to embrace highly calorific, relatively cheap foods sold to them by multinational corporations (read: Coca-Cola, Nestle, McDonald’s). It is the marketing of these companies with vertiginous budgets that promotes cigarettes and sugary soft drinks as cool and fun among teenagers.
The newspaper failed to include that some these Arab countries are subjected to strict economic reforms by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. The impositions mean agriculture and small farming have been replaced by food industries and the daily local markets, replaced by supermarkets selling imported and processed food products.
What MENA experts are saying
In 2001, Najat Mokhtar, the president of the Moroccan Society of Nutrition, noted that in the MENA region even rural women who were generally been less prone to obesity, due to greater physical activity, are increasingly more affected. “Peasant women sell fruits, vegetables, milk and eggs and use that money to purchase energy dense foods like sugar and wheat flour.” How can The Economist explain this? Why it isn’t this nuance included in their article? What is the impact of globalization and urbanization on women?
Over the last few decades, several professors and nutritionists from the Arab Taskforce for Obesity and Physical Activity have prepared a set of guidelines to combat obesity and promote physical activity in Arab states. It is unfortunate that many of these guidelines have been neglected or poorly implemented. The political instability and socio-economic fragility of Arab countries since the Arab Spring make diet and physical activities look like a luxuries in a region still ravaged by war and authoritarianism.
Using Enas Talbi’s photo to fat shame her and other Arab women, is a clear example of what Leila Ahmed, an Egyptian-American scholar of Islam, calls ‘colonial feminism.’
Obviously, The Economist seems to care a lot about the fate, health, and wellbeing of Arab women, and have no problem using a picture of a Iraqi actress, but neglect to mention Iraq today is a failed state with more violence, less infrastructure, less education then before the American intervention. The lasting collateral damage of foreign intervention is that women found themselves carrying the majority of the weight (pun intended).
Reading this grotesque and distorted picture The Economist painted of Arab women, I remembered how, two decades ago, the same magazine shamefully justified the destruction of Iraq. I wonder if back then, for a single minute, they cared about the wellbeing of the Iraqi women and by extension all Arab women in the region?