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A conversation with Laila Hzaineh ’20: viral Arab feminist

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Laila Hzaineh ’20 made her first online video in response to a Jordanian public figure blaming the way women dress for their own harassment.

“He pissed me off a lot, and his video went viral and so many people were agreeing with him, praising him, and sharing him. I mean it’s not something new to me, especially coming from Jordanians, but I don’t know at that time I was like, this is it. So I immediately opened my camera and started recording,” she said.

That first video, posted on November 20, got 76,665 views. Since then, Hzaineh, an international student from Jordan, has continued making viral videos about feminism in the Arab world.

“My main goal is to change mentalities and mostly women’s mentalities. I’m not expecting things to actually change, like culture and laws … at least in my lifetime, but I’m really targeting women … I just want to give women the courage to speak and think for themselves, to know their rights and fight for them,” Hzaineh said.

Despite some pushback since her first and subsequent videos have gone viral, many women living in the Arab world have reached out to Hzaineh, telling her their personal stories and asking for advice.

“It gives a purpose to my life … they tell me that they want to do this certain thing but they don’t feel like they have the power to do it, and then they actually do something that empowers them or that they didn’t think they were able to. Personally that makes me feel like I’ve done something. Even if I end up helping one woman, for me, that’s a huge thing,” Hzaineh said.

One of her videos, specifically on the topic of the female hymen, is particularly contentious because it addresses a centuries-long belief about female bleeding during first intercourse to determine her virginity.

“I wanted to do [the video] because for the first time I thought about the name for the Hymen in Arabic, which translates literally to ‘virginity membrane’ … this name is not scientific. It’s just a cultural thing, it’s a social thing. And for the first time I’ve realized that wow I’ve been using this name for so long, like that’s the name in books, that’s the name we use, and it has nothing to do with science,” Hzaineh said.

She believes that the hymen is an incredibly pressing issue in the Arab world because a lot of women actually die because of misconceptions and cultural standards surrounding it.

“If a women doesn’t bleed during her wedding night, or if there’s no hymen, in some conservative families, they would kill the girl because she would stain the honor of the family. Not to mention that even if you have a hymen, you don’t necessarily have to bleed, in many cases you shouldn’t bleed.”

This ties back to sexual aggression and rape, which can be blamed on the honor of the woman who was victimized.

“If a girl loses her hymen because of rape, that doesn’t matter for her family — like if she lost it, she lost it. That honor is gone basically. So for me it’s very ridiculous that our definition of honor is tied to this membrane that sometimes doesn’t even exist … when it comes to this issue a lot of people are not like inherently evil, or like misogynistic, they just don’t know. We don’t talk about it, not even in school, we just never talk about it,” Hzaineh said.

Some of Hzaineh’s critics have accused her of “going against God,” but she does not believe this is the case.

“I’m not interested in making people stop believing in Islam, but there are things that I think Islam normalizes that shouldn’t be normalized. I’m not going against the whole religion, I’m kind of defining the lines that religion shouldn’t pass,” she said.

One thing Hzaineh emphasized was the sometimes salient disconnect between feminism on Swarthmore’s campus and feminism in the Arab world.  

“I mean feminism here and feminism in the Arab world, are completely different, because in the Arab world we’re still fighting for basic rights. Like here there are movements like free the nipple, and things like that. We’re not even there yet. We’re still fighting for women to not get killed when they get raped, you know, so it’s a whole other world,” she believes.

Although awareness is important, Hzaineh believes that change in the Arab world must come from within.

“What people need to understand … [is that] we don’t want anyone to come and like change things. We want to change it on our own … A lot of Arabs kind of hate the idea of feminism because they think it’s a western thing that’s coming into our world to ruin whatever or go against Islam, but that’s not true,” Hzaineh said

In the future, Hzaineh is planning on highlighting feminist histories within the Middle East and North African region.

“I’m actually thinking of doing a video about feminism, how it’s not exclusively a western thing, how we’ve always had empowered women throughout history in our region, so it’s not something that we’re bringing from the West, we’ve always had it, but we need to work on it and work on ourselves and the way we view women,” she said.

To feminists in the West, Hzaineh wants to stress that these issues are not always clear-cut.

“The West shouldn’t look at every woman who wears a hijab as an oppressed woman, because indeed a lot of women do choose it — even though personally I don’t like the concept of it — if I know that a woman actually chose it, [then] she knows she has a right to take it off. But she chose not to, [and] I should respect that. And that doesn’t mean that she’s oppressed in any way,” Hzaineh said.

As her online following has increased, Hzaineh warns against the West looking down on the Arab world.

“The reason I have English subtitles on my videos is that I want people to know that there are Arab women speaking up, and that there are women who are aware of their rights, of the feminism movement, and that. So I don’t want the West to undermine us, or look down on us, because we have a lot of great achievement and we have a lot of great people, but we’re still trying to create a platform for them to speak out,” she said.

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