Article on 'fat' Arab women sparks uproar over body-shaming

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) - For Enas Taleb, the headline felt like a spiteful punch line.
"Why women are fatter than men in the Arab world," read bold above a photo of the Iraqi actress waving onto the stage at an arts festival.
The Economist article went through possible explanations for the 10 percentage point obesity gap between men and women in the Middle East, then quoted Iraqis who view Taleb's curves as ideal of beauty.
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"Bold," a word now considered taboo in much Western media, was repeated six times.
The article sparked fierce criticism on social media. Twitter users have called it misogynistic. Local human rights groups have denounced. Some writers were appalled by what they described as demeaning stereotypes about Arab women.
Taleb, 42, said she is suing the London-based magazine for defamation.
While analysts acknowledge an obesity epidemic in the Arab world and its link to poverty and gender discrimination, Taleb's case and the ensuing uproar have shed light on the problem of body shaming, which runs deep in the region but is rarely discussed.
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"If there is a student who goes to school and hears mean comments and students bullying her because she is fat, how would she feel?" Taleb told The Associated Press from Baghdad. "This article is not only an insult to me, but a violation of the rights of all Iraqi and Arab women."
The Economist did not respond to several requests for comment.
Fat-shaming is offensive enough in the United States that two sports commentators who earlier this year labeled some female athletes as overweight were quickly fired.
In the Middle East, the report argues, the desirability of meaty women may help explain why the region has seen an explosion in obesity.
But the angry reaction to the article – and Taleb's horror that her photo was used to illustrate Arab women's expanding waistlines – contradicts the often-repeated belief that obesity is widely seen in the region as a sign of wealth and fertility.
The globalization of Western ideals of beauty through branding, television and social media has long resulted in unrealistic body standards that distort women's expectations of themselves and others in the Arab world, research shows.
In a forthcoming study of Egypt, Joan Costa-Font of the London School of Economics said he found that although some older women in rural areas still see plump women as wealthy, "in Egypt it's not true that being overweight is a sign is of beauty. ... Western standards are more relevant.”
Demand for cosmetic surgery is booming in Lebanon. About 75% of Emirati female students reported dissatisfaction with their bodies and 25% tend to have eating disorders, according to a 2010 study by Zayed University in Dubai.
And yet many say fat-shaming is widespread and acceptable in the region, compared to the US and Europe, where self-esteem movements have gained momentum and sparked public discussions about inclusivity.
“Our politicians in Lebanon keep making these horrible, sexist comments about women's bodies. When they come under fire, it doesn't necessarily lead to rising awareness," said Joumana Haddad, a Lebanese author and human rights activist.
Haddad noted that recent forays into women's empowerment have provoked a "reactionary discourse and anger" in Lebanon's patriarchal society. Even reckless public statements about weight can be deeply painful for young women struggling with insecurity and a pathological will to transform their bodies in search of beauty, she added.
"I'm a 51-year-old tough, angry feminist and I still weigh myself every morning," Haddad said. "You can imagine how hard it is for people who were less privileged."
Ameni Esseibi, a Tunisian-born woman who broke social stigma to become the Arab world's first plus-size model, said body positivity remains taboo in the Middle East even as the population grows obese.
“Kuwaitis are plus-size, Saudis are plus-size. But people are ashamed. They weren't taught to be confident in this judgmental society," Esseibi said. "We always want to be thin, look good, marry the most powerful man."
But, she said, there are signs of growing awareness. After years of ignoring vulgar comments about women's bodies, Arabs are increasingly turning to social media to vent their anger.
The Economist article's portrayal of men "locking women up at home" to keep them "rubenesque" struck a chord.
The Baghdad-based Heya or "She" foundation, which works to support women in the media, condemned the report as "bullying" and called on the magazine to apologize to Taleb.
The Malaysia-based Musawah Foundation, which campaigns for equality in the Muslim world, said the backlash shows that "women in the region are building a collective discourse that rejects and denounces sexist, racist and fat-phobic acts and their colonial legacies." .
Taleb, a talk show host and star in Iraqi blockbuster TV dramas, said she had no choice but to speak out.
"They used my photo in a hurtful, negative way in this context," she said. "I'm against using body shape to determine a person's worth."
Her attorney, Samantha Kane, said she took legal action, initially sending a letter to The Economist demanding an apology for "serious harm to [Taleb] and her career."
Kane declined further comment pending the magazine's response.
Taleb said she hopes her libel case will serve as a "message" for women "to say I love myself... to be strong to face these difficulties."
It's a message that resonates in a region where women see little opportunity. Traditional attitudes, discriminatory laws and wage differentials, coupled with rigid beauty standards, hamper women's advancement.
"Women don't get paid the same. You don't get senior positions. They are forced to remain silent when harassed. And in the media, they have to be thin and beautiful,” said Zeina Tareq, director of the Heya Foundation.
In Taleb's home country of Iraq, where security is scarce after years of conflict, even the outspoken women are threatened with targeted killings.
Iraqi journalist Manar al-Zubaidi said the fat-shaming of Arab women comes as no surprise in a world where "most media commodifies women and makes them objects of ridicule or temptation".
"There's nothing to deter them," she added, except increasingly vocal "campaigns and challenges on social media."
___
Hyde reported from Buzet, Croatia.

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