I'm a Republican Arab woman, and feminism makes me feel invisible

A 20-year-old Syrian woman, I must appear easy to label. To my 30-person gender studies class at University of Pittsburgh, filled with gender studies and political science majors, I was assumed to be progressive, anti-Zionist, anti-military, and anti-Trump. When I revealed my conservative identity after Trump’s victory, I was officially “othered.”

I had conservative, female, pro-life counterparts, but the class assumed we weren’t present. After all, why would we be? Isn’t gender studies for the woke? We were labeled as internal misogynists, students who perhaps inherited views from our closed-minded parents.

But my political views weren’t inherited. In fact, my parents were dumbfounded when they discovered I was a board member for the Pitt College Republicans, and that my inspiration for aspiring to attend law school was the late Justice Antonin Scalia. I found empowerment in the concept of “Rugged Individualism” and conservatism’s emphasis on American tradition. I sought to challenge myself and my beliefs everyday on campus, whether through initiating conversation with a self-proclaimed Marxist or enrolling in a gender studies class that examined women’s issues in the Middle East.  

Though I consider myself a feminist, the media and my peers told me I was a traitor.

This election season made my ability to initiate this kind of bipartisan discourse more daunting. According to the labels stamped onto me like dog tags -- “20-year-old” and “woman of color” -- I was expected to embrace my victimhood and an “us vs. them” mentality in which Trump and his Republican male counterparts were my oppressors. I think Trump is a charlatan, and his attitude and treatment of women are disgraceful. But he is not a conservative, and as a conservative, I stand by the principles of freedom, liberty, and equal opportunity for all people, including women.

Though I consider myself a feminist, the media and my peers told me I was a traitor. Articles on Slate and Vox made me feel like my ideology was shameful. In conversations, I was led to believe I was on the “wrong side of history” for supporting candidates who wanted to defund Planned Parenthood, which was prompted by my belief that life begins at conception. People implied I was complicit in furthering the patriarchy because I campaigned against the first female presidential nominee for her hawkish foreign policies and views on women’s health that I found reprehensible.

As people delegitimized my feminist beliefs, my distress turned into an identity crisis. To myself and fellow conservative women, I was an open-minded, reasonable feminist, but to many others, I was a right-wing “nut job” who put partisanship over social justice. I questioned my ability to fit feminism into my identities, especially with Donald Trump representing the party I used to call my own. But I still shushed men when they interrupted speaking women and reacted harshly to being catcalled, actions that conservative women are thought to forego in our presupposed complacency.

What hurt most was that my achievements as a woman and leader in the conservative movement were paid no attention.

Fellow women’s rights advocates were willing to listen to me as an Arab and as a woman, but not as a conservative. I recall one conversation with a peer from my gender studies class about how the white working class’s desperation fueled the rise of Trump, and how I didn’t believe it was racism or bigotry that caused his victory. My same classmate who had shown compassion when I spoke of my family in the midst of Syria’s civil war now assumed I’d become “desensitized to bigotry” after hours spent with pro-Trump friends.

What hurt most was that my achievements as a woman and leader in the conservative movement were paid no attention. Despite my public activism for women’s rights in the Arab world through the many articles I’ve published on the topic, feminists told me I was not a feminist. Despite the hundreds of hours I committed to reading conservative scholars and intellectuals like Friedrich Hayek, Alexis de Tocqueville and Russell Kirk in a country where women’s intellectual curiosity and volition was not expressed on the same public platform as men, I wasn’t allowed to be a feminist. Having any kind of productive discourse with my feminist peers seemed futile, if not impossible. I was not a feminist, on the same standard where Kellyanne Conway’s achievement of being the first woman to manage a successful presidential campaign were deemed null and void by everyone but conservative news outlets.

Feminism requires a re-branding.

I feel like feminism has failed me. In my eyes, the movement has lost its authority as a cause to better the welfare of all women in our country. Rather, the name “intersectional feminism” came to represent the intersection of feminism and the assumed political ideology that ostracized women who dared to think otherwise.

Feminists are attending rallies, marches and protests in an attempt to establish solidarity in a time when it’s desperately needed. But solidarity isn’t achievable when it’s exclusive only to a selection of women. Feminism requires a re-branding, with inclusion of all women as a heavily championed tenet. Intellectual diversity needs to be touted as much as the diversity of our skin colors and heritage.

Through my own desire to empathize with others’ grievances, I learned things I couldn’t by reading Hayek or Kirk. I now understand ideas I might have found ridiculous just one year ago, like the concept of “mansplaining” and the significance of having a woman president.

While I had to address inner turmoil, which is never a comfortable feat, I’m no longer hesitant to call myself a feminist. That said, I’m still on the lookout for a breed of feminism that welcomes us all. I hope that with their own soul-searching, liberals can hold their scoffs and respond to an ideology like mine with curiosity and eagerness to learn.