Is ‘the real war on women’ in the Middle East?

“Why Do They Hate Us,” asks Arab journalist, Mona Eltahawy, in her essay for Foreign Policy magazine. Eltahawy goes on … Continued

Why Do They Hate Us,” asks Arab journalist, Mona Eltahawy, in her essay for Foreign Policy magazine. Eltahawy goes on to describe her perception of the treatment of women in the Arab world and ascribes all related mistreatment to systematic misogyny and patriarchy. The title of her essay is featured on the cover of the magazine with a photo of a nude woman painted in black with only her eyes showing, as if she were wearing a painted niqab and the caption under the title reads, “The real war on women is in the Middle East.”

Is it?

Eltahawy is known for her fiery polemic style when it comes to her advocacy for women’s rights in the Middle East. Knowing this, I could not understand the visceral reaction that began circulating online. Aside from the hyperbolic language, her claims are on point. The statistics she mentions, such as –90 percent of Egyptian women have had their genitals cut –are not new information. In another example, she raves that the Egyptian revolution has not helped the status of women in Egypt, pointing to cases of forced “virginity tests” on protesters that occurred in its aftermath and the lack of female representation in the newly formed government.

Critics of Eltahawy agree that the issues are valid, but claim her analysis is too simplistic and irresponsible as it neglects to take into account the complex historical, sociopolitical and cultural influences. The same critics claim she fails to provide space for the number of advances made by human rights groups that are working to address the plight of women there. They chide Eltahawy for pandering by appealing to “Western feminist” sensibilities and ignoring the fact that under many Arab dictatorial regimes both women and men have suffered tremendously. Thus, though a number of female bloggers critiquing Eltahawy acknowledge the difficulties of being a woman in the Arab world, the consensus, has been a resounding, “she does not speak for us.”

As a result, a great deal of the controversy surrounding Eltahawy’s essay, revolves around who she is and what her perceived intentions are, rather than what she stands for or the issues she raises. It certainly does not appear to be a coincidence that Eltahawy’s piece comes a time when many American women, outraged by recent legislative developments regarding reproductive rights, have declared that there is a “war on women” in the United States and that it is due to the conservative right’s “hatred” of women. So a Muslim Arab woman calling out Arab culture and political “Islamists” for doing the same seems to fit right into this understanding of gender narratives. But in doing so Eltahawy seems to have also isolated herself from the very community that would otherwise have supported her cause.

The backlash, nevertheless, is exactly what works about Eltahawy’s tactic, as she tweeted: “As a writer, it’s my job to poke the painful places. So agree/disagree [with] what I write, but it if makes [you] think and pisses you off, then good.”

Whether they agree or disagree, people are talking.
Foreign Policy posted six responses to Eltahawy
, so far.
NPR, which usually does not cover opinion pieces, interviewed her for her opinion
The Atlantic
The Guardian
featured brilliant and non-reactive responses to the claims made in her essay. Writers at The Huffington Post
and dozens of bloggers posted reponses, as well. Never before has the Arab American, particularly Muslim American, social activist community, been given access to multiple media platforms simultaneously to openly debate a topic that for many has been on the back burner for some time.

There is no denying that misogyny and patriarchy can be found here in the U.S., just as easily as it can be pointed out in the Middle East. But where does understanding cultural relativity end and self-induced communal responsibility begin? Women like Eltahawy, frustrated by what they see as delayed community action, are coming out with fervor, ready to push along all efforts because they know that when the defensive anger directed at them dies down, the discussions will focus on the actual issues.

As one commenter debating Eltahawy’s essay online cheekily wrote, sometimes, a sensationalist jump start is what we need to get us moving. “Maybe “hate” is a strong word but I think the title “Why Don’t They Like Us Enough or Trust Us Enough or Value Us Enough to Grant Us Our Rights” would just get too wordy.”

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nadia S. Mohammad.

Nadia S. Mohammad is an Associate Editor for Follow her on Twitter at @nadiasmo.

Written by

  • ccnl1

    Islam gives women almost no rights and treats them like fodder for the male species as so bluntly noted by Ayaan Hirsi Ali in her autobiography, In-fidel.

    “Thus begins the extraordinary story of a woman born into a family of desert nomads, circumcised as a child, educated by radical imams in Kenya and Saudi Arabia, taught to believe that if she uncovered her hair, terrible tragedies would ensue. It’s a story that, with a few different twists, really could have led to a wretched life and a lonely death, as her grandmother warned. But instead, Hirsi Ali escaped – and transformed herself into an internationally renowned spokeswoman for the rights of Muslim women.”

    ref: Washington Post book review.

    some excerpts from the book:

    “Some of the Saudi women in our neighborhood were regularly beaten by their husbands. You could hear them at night. Their screams resounded across the courtyards. “No! Please! By Allah!”

    “The Pakistanis were Muslims but they too had castes. The Untouchable girls, both Indian and Pakistani were darker skin. The others would not play with them because they were untouchable. We thought that was funny because of course they were tou-chable: we touched them see? but also hor-rifying to think of yourself as untouchable, despicable to the human race.”

    “Between October 2004 and May 2005, eleven Muslim girls were killed by their families in just two regions (there are 20 regions in Holland). After that, people stopped telling me I was exaggerating.”

    “The kind on thinking I saw in Saudi Arabia and among the Brotherhood of Kenya and Somalia, is incompatible with human rights and liberal values. It preserves the feu-dal mind-set based on tribal concepts of honor and shame. It rests on self-deception, hyprocricy, and double standards. It relies on the technologial advances of the West while pretending to ignore their origin in Western thinking. This mind-set makes the transition to modernity very painful for all who practice Islam”.

  • ccnl1

    More on the treatment of females in Islam:

    “Islam’s widespread practice of amputating the clitoris and sometimes part or even all of the vulva from the genitalia of Muslim women, affirmed in a hadith by Mohammed himself, most likely also traces back to the founder’s deliberate abuse of sex to lure pagan males into his cult. The more the male sex drive is purposefully aroused, the more the female sex urge may have to be proportionately suppressed, lest orgiastic hell begin to spread.”

    See below for comments by Hirsi Ali about her experience as a female Muslim.

  • TopTurtle

    Of course talking about oppression helps. You think not talking would help more?

    I blame patriarchal oppression in the West on white men who do the oppressing. Why wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you blame slavery on slaveholders?

    I think the discussion of whether patriarchal oppression is based on hate is not very useful. Regardless of what you feel, your actions can be hateful.

  • berpberp

    Because it’s so much more complex than that. Oppression is a system and everyone is involved. Of course white men have white privilege and male privilege, but that doesn’t mean they are all to blame, because it’s far more complex than that. We are all to blame, because we are all complicit in the system which continues to give them power. Please read the Johnson’s “Patriarchy” article, which I posted above. The system is responsible. If we blame the actions of individuals, how do we seek change? If you truly believe individuals are at fault, then you are dismissing the fact that this discrimination is institutionalized in our society. That’s one of the reasons the Civil Rights Act of 1965 was so important, it was one of the first times where people were understanding that discrimination is not just a few “lone racists” or a few “lone misogynists”, but that society as a whole and as an institution was discriminating against people.
    I’m not saying we don’t talk about it. I’m saying we ensure that the discourse and language being used is at it’s highest level and is accurate (doesn’t use Orientalist stereotypes) so that real change can take place.

  • TopTurtle

    I’ll check out your article when I have a chance, but I think you’re oversimplifying the other way. It’s true that all men aren’t responsible for gender inequality and it’s also true that patriarchy is societal. That doesn’t mean specific men aren’t to blame. Who is leading the war against women in the US? Men.