Last month, Nike released a new digital ad targeted to women in the Arab world. It features different women athletes in the Middle East, including figure skater Zahra Lari from the United Arab Emirates; fencer Inès Boubakri from Tunisia and boxer Arifa Bseiso from Jordan.
For me, there was one scene, portrayed by actors, that struck home. As a young woman in a hijab skateboards along a street, stared down by a middle-age woman, the narrator asks, “What will they say about you?”
In the early 2000s, I brought my skateboard to Egypt. I was 15 years old and going through a skater-punk phase, like almost every teen in suburban California. My dad and stepmother were not happy with my interest in the sport, which they found unladylike and strange — skateboarding wasn’t a thing yet in Cairo. But they let me skate around the neighborhood anyway.
After a few days of skating around, I stopped. Like the woman in the video, I too felt the chilling stare of people around me — a stare that made me feel like what I was doing wasn’t within the norms of Egyptian society. And based on the reaction to the Nike ad from Arab women and social media and blogs, it seems like I wasn’t alone.
@NikeMiddleEast I can’t do any of that I’m a Saudi woman who’s not allowed to go out for jogging or skating in the streets Life is unfair ?
— صدق؟! (@srsly1111) February 19, 2017
@NikeMiddleEast Love it. Really hate the culture of policing women’s activities in the Mid East. Sadly, not brave enough to defy it myself.
— Valerie (@QueenOfTheNoobs) February 18, 2017
“This specific phrase ‘What will they say about you?’ is not a phrase made up for this particular Nike video,” wrote Nida Ahmad on her website. She’s a Pakistani researcher based in New Zealand who studies Muslim women in sports. “[It] is one of many barriers along with religion, race, class, socioeconomic background, basically multiple issues that Muslim women encounter to overcome and achieve whatever they seek.”
For Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian-American activist and the author of Headscarves And Hymens, a book about feminism in the Middle East, the question hits on what holds women back in Arab society: themselves.
At first, Eltahawy was wary of Nike’s ad — after all, it was made to sell shoes. But she thinks the message is on point. “I think it’s an absolutely brilliant question to ask,” she says. “In light of the revolutions we’ve had in the Arab world, in light of the protests, in light of everything, the revolution is rising up against what people say.”
Sports are seen as masculine, says Ahmad — especially the ones in the Nike ad like parkour, skateboarding and boxing. In the Arab world, women are expected to be “petite and small, shouldn’t be running around,” says Ahmad, who grew up in Saudi Arabia.
That expectation extends beyond athletics. “What will people say about you if you come home at 1 a.m.? If you’re seen without a hijab? Dressed in a short skirt?” asks Eltahawy. “[The question is] used to curb studies or professions women can engage in.”
For women and girls in the Middle East (and elsewhere), doing anything outside the norm is frowned upon. “Culturally, your place is in the home. Your achievement should be getting married,” says Ahmad. “You don’t want to do anything that could bring bad looks to your family.”
Some women in the region are fighting back, says Eltahawy. Earlier this month, she inspired a viral social media campaign after she received a lecture from a stranger “mansplaining” why her views about Islam and sexuality were wrong.
Outraged, she took to social media and asked Muslim women to share stories of how society — especially Muslim men — tell them how to behave. “I wanted to demolish the question ‘What will they say about you?’ ” she says.
#DearSister “Do you really want to pursue that career? Do you know how long it will take? When will you have kids and care for them?”
— ياسمين (@hijabispeaks) March 5, 2017
#dearsister “Don’t make such a fuss about your periods! What if your brothers find out!!” When I had cramps so bad I fell & couldn’t walk
— °rïdabøøk° (@Alottleaboos) March 5, 2017
#DearSister “You’re too opinionated and outspoken. Quiet down, have more shame. No man wants to marry a woman with too many opinions”
— ياسمين (@hijabispeaks) March 5, 2017
They responded. Within a day, she received 18,000 tweets from Muslim women from Indonesia to Malaysia to Pakistan. Using the hashtag #DearSister, women tweeted about being told how to wear their hijab, that they were wearing too much makeup, that they were complaining too much about their period.
It’s exactly what Eltahawy was hoping for. Like the sentiment in the Nike ad, “this is not for you, you shouldn’t be doing this,” she says, “You have to rise up and revolt against what people will say.”