Why we need to talk about othering and belonging

Othering and belonging in the Middle East: It's time to shift our narratives
6 min read
19 Feb, 2020
Comment: It's high time we abandoned the 'us' and 'them' paradigm in favour of a more inclusive approach, writes Zarqa Parvez.
'We need to shift the focus to a discourse of "belonging"' writes Parvez [AFP]
"Othering" and "belonging" are two fundamental concepts that have contributed to shaping 21st century societies. Beginning with modern state systems to building more cohesive societies based on national identities, contemporary world systems seem to thrive on highlighting the differences between "us" and "them". 

The process of "othering" takes place on several levels, ranging from global and local institutions, policy making and legal bodies, trickling all the way down to individual identities where the "self" is defined in relation to the "other".

Civil rights expert and law professor John Powell writes that othering exists when a "generalised set of common processes deny someone's full humanity based on a perception of them being less adequate than a certain group. It can happen if these groups are also perceived as a threat to others. 'Othering' can be based on ability, gender, ethnicity, religion, race, class, skin tone, religion or age."

He goes on to
describe it as "set of dynamics, processes, and structures that engender marginality and persistent inequality across any of the full range of human differences based on group identities". 

Abandoning orientalist views 

"Othering" is a global reality, and the Middle East is often highlighted as a victim of this process, because of the West's orientalist and unwavering fascination with the "exotic East". 

These orientalist views manifest in certain reductionist tropes of the East, including the notions of subservient Eastern women, violent Middle Eastern men, extremist communities, and extravagant lifestyles.

Binaries of modernisation, or, by contrast, tradition, have long plagued the West's distorted view and "othering" of the East. In addition western interest and study of the East is often linked to colonial missions facilitated through education systems established to study the "East", through the prism of the West.

Binaries of modernisation, or, by contrast, tradition, have long plagued the West's distorted view

These institutions further crystalised the distorted orientalist views of the East, serving only to reinforce western superiority over the East. 

In the Middle East, "othering" is a process that is often internalised. This internalisation contributes to disjointed, unequal and divided societies, as well as ineffective systems and structures. These ultimately help perpetuate and even facilitate orientalist views.

So our responsibility lies in shifting our narrative of victimisation to one of responsibility, or in other words, moving from "othering" to "belonging".

Reconstructing our sense of belonging 

The opposite of "othering" is not of all of us being "same", but rather "belonging".

We do not all have to be the same to belong, or to be considered equally human in our rights, opportunities and integration. Karen Barkey, professor of sociology
defines "belonging" as the same set of "dynamics, processes, and structures that make it possible for comprehensive membership in the community." 

This is necessary if we are to deconstruct narratives of "othering", and reconstruct narratives and structures of "belonging" in their place.

The problem is not that of human differences, as these are a natural aspect of human existence; the problem begins when we grant certain privileges and political advantages to some of these differences over others, and then institutionalise these privileges and advantages.

Such inequality becomes ingrained in our societies and reproduces systems of discrimination, which are difficult to break and reshape.

This concept of "othering" is instilled in our minds every day, through our educational institutions, households, and public spaces. In addition, daily reminders of what divides us rather than what unites us can be seen in television commercials, social media campaigns, billboards, language constructs, and more.  

In the Middle East, gender-based "othering" is its most common form. Such patriarchal constructions and control of women's lives have led to cases of so-called "honor killings", the most recent example being the murder of Israa Ghrayeb in Palestine.

Gender-based "othering" also happens on a national level, as in the case of Saudi Arabia, where women were banned from driving until recently as part of traditional national discourse on appropriate roles for women in society.

Women can also be defined by their affiliations with men, and are rarely seen as independent individuals. That is not to say that women are always victims of a patriarchal society; these understandings have evolved in many ways, nevertheless gender discrimination remains prevalent. 

Class differences provide further grounds for "othering" in society. In Egypt, a drive down Cairo's streets will show us two conflicting worlds existing in the same space and intersecting on different levels to produce class differences and opposing realities.

The lower-middle and working classes are described pejoratively as "sabarsi" or "falah" (peasant) to describe their attire and conversational skills, while someone from the upper class is labelled "ibn-nas" (respected son of people).

Read more: Online 'slave trade' exposed in Kuwait

With these words and concepts, the lower classes are not only marginalised but also made to feel that they are a burden on the state. The role of lower middle class is minimised in national politics, questioning their loyalties to the state, as we saw during the Arab Spring and the aftermath, and so the "othering" is both mobilised and institutionalised. 

"Othering" in the Gulf 

In the Gulf, the policies of Safa Al-Hashem - the only female member elected to the Kuwaiti parliament consecutively since Kuwaiti women gained their right to vote in 2005 - present an example of "othering" and dehumanisation. Al-Hashem has unapologetically "othered" all expatriates in Kuwait by using nationalistic rhetoric. She repeatedly called for a tax on "expatriates for the air they breathe in Kuwait and for walking in the streets". 

Expatriates constitute 70 percent of Kuwait's population, yet Al-Hashem claimed they have contributed nothing positive to the society. However, she continues to be popular and is perceived as a positive representation of Kuwaiti women in politics, suggesting a degree of tolerance for such ideologies. 

Daily reminders of what divides us rather than what unites us can be seen in television commercials, social media campaigns, billboards, language constructs, and more

Similarly, the large "bidoon" (without legal status or nationality) communities in Kuwait have been long marginalised. Despite their presence in the country since its independence, they have been denied any citizenship rights.

This kind of "othering" has led to a narrative of dehumanisation of this community. Alarmingly, such narratives are not only tolerated but also perpetuated, if not celebrated. Al-Hashem appeared on Vogue Arabia as a fashion icon. Balsam Al-Ayoub - an entrepreneur who
labelled members of the bidoon community as "bacteria" - was chosen to meet the Duke of Cambridge in a recent state visit to Kuwait. 

Why we need to shift the conversation 

So what are we doing to create counter-narratives on "othering"?

Do we understand that ideologies have a pronounced impact on societies and can either be used to create cohesive communities, or to create conflict and divisions?

The answer is simple: what we focus on, grows. If we really want to find solutions to our problems, then we need to shift the focus to a discourse of "belonging".

"Belonging" signifies how groups are structurally positioned and perceived within society. We need to focus on structures, for they perpetuate "othering" and create systematic reminders of what it means to be different.

It was this narrative on "belonging" that led to successful movements by Martin Luther King, for example, and subsequently changed policies and perceptions.

Our focus needs to shift to creating reminders of "belonging" rather than "othering" and highlight similarities rather than stigmatising differences. As individuals and societies, we need to rise above political and economic agendas and see each other through the lens of humanity.

Zarqa Parvez is a PhD student at Durham University and an instructor in Middle Eastern Studies Department at Hamad Bin Khalifa University. 

Follow her on Twitter: @zarqaaa3

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.