I felt deeply offended and insulted by Mona Eltahawy's latest article in Foreign Policy, titled Why Do They Hate Us? I follow Eltahawy's columns quite regularly and I accept many of her arguments, even if I do not agree with her views on Islam and veiling. But for her to claim that "they" hate Arab women is in my view complete nonsense.
And before I go any further, I realize of course that I will be accused by some (which already happened on the FP comments sections) that I am in denial and that I refuse to air my dirty linen in public. Well, I'm NOT in denial; I am well aware that Arab women have their fair share of problems. But I refuse to be lumped into this monolithic group of oppressed, abused and hated victims. Arab women's problems are not the same across the board. Even within one country like Egypt, what I see as a problem, might not be the most pressing issue for the woman next door. So, I refuse to have Eltahawy talk on my behalf as if she is the expert who can accurately identify my plight.
In her column, Eltahawy cleverly weaves a web of torture and oppression against Arab women, with pictures of black-painted covered-up women planted throughout the article, to accentuate this image of oppression. Everything, from virginity tests, to sexual deprivation, female genital mutilation, sexual harassment and child marriage, is included in this article to produce a column that will surely be welcomed by many Western feminists and anti-Islamists, who for years have been telling us that Muslim women are weak, oppressed victims of misogyny and rigid Islamic rules that force them to hide behind their veils.
But for many Arab women (I say many based on the negative reaction Eltahawy's column has already stirred), this column is offensive and is nothing but a combination of old cultural practices and undemocratic government actions that are described in a way to represent women as the Oriental Other, weak, helpless and submissive, oppressed by Islam and the Muslim male, this ugly, barbaric monster. Yes, women everywhere face diverse challenges. Arab women have their own fair share of issues, but to claim that these are problems of hate is deceiving.
As a Muslim Arab woman, I therefore by no means see myself being represented fairly in Eltahawy's column, and here's why:
- From the very start of the article, Eltahawy introduces a disturbing account by author Alifa Rifaat in her fiction book Distant View of a Minaret to tell us what goes on in a bedroom between man and wife. Yet how can Eltahawy jump to this conclusion about misogyny in the Middle East merely by reciting quotes from Rifaat's fiction book? How would you know or how can you claim to know that many Arab women are sexually deprived? Have you interviewed Arab wives who confirm this? Are you relying on a credible study? For someone like Eltahawy, whom I truly considered to be a veteran reporter, to make such generalized sensationalist claims is very disappointing!
- Additionally, some of the evidence Eltahawy relies on, such as virginity tests, criminal codes, etc are problems of undemocratic governing and have nothing to do with hate of women. These are problems that also impact men. There are numerous accounts of police brutality in Egypt, where men have been beaten, sexually abused or beaten to death. Have we forgotten about Khaled Said, the young Alexandrian, whose brutal death sparked the Jan25 Revolution? Or how about Essam Atta, the young man who was tortured to death in prison? Why do we always have to focus on violence against women? And if you are going to mention unfair criminal codes, then out of fairness, let's examine Egypt's child custody laws, laws that empower mothers but are ridiculously unfair towards fathers.
- I find Eltahawy's discussion of sexual harassment also problematic. Eltahawy, very candidly and on more than one occasion, has described in detail her ordeal with Egyptian riot police back in November 2011. She explained how she was groped everywhere by a number of police officers while in Cairo. Yet in this Foreign Policy column, she adds a new detail; she informs her audience that she was groped earlier that day by a fellow protester in Tahrir Square! But while Eltahawy details her groping ordeal, she fails to mention the heroic Egyptian women and men who are fighting this epidemic. There is no denial that sexual harassment is a disgusting and sick problem in Egypt that needs to be eradicated. Yet, there's also no denial that there are gutsy women who are already engaged in a battle against this epidemic. Tthese include the women who created HarassMap, and women who are blogging about harassment and others who are standing up to this problem and fighting for its eradication. Eltahawy also fails to give credit to men, who have on multiple occasions created a protective circle around protesting females to protect then and NOT to harass them. Is this the hate that Eltahawy refers to?
- Then there is the female genital mutilation issue, which Eltahawy presents in such vagueness, mixing culture with quotes from distinguished Muslim cleric Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, thus, confirming ignorant claims that FGM is an Islamic practice. FGM is a cultural practice that predates Islam and if it is still commonly practiced in Egypt today, this is mainly in rural areas and traditional parts of the country, where it is in fact practiced by both Muslims and Christians alike. It is a problem of ignorance and reflects the prevalence of old cultural habits and beliefs that are hard to eliminate. While the Egyptian government banned FGM, it has done little to raise public awareness and educate people via health awareness campaigns. What is also problematic here is how Eltahawy quotes from Qaradawi's book to prove that he was all for FGM. Yet in that same paragraph, she mentions that he has since issued a fatwa to ban FGM! So why mention it in the first place? Wouldn't you at least give Al-Qaradawi credit for revising his opinion? Doesn't this action by a prominent Sheikh disprove your "hate" claim?
- As for Eltahawy's argument on child marriage in Yemen, and how Muslim clerics support the practice, I ask you to kindly refer to the Pulitzer article Too Young to Wed: The Secret World of Child Brides. It did not take the reporter too long to accurately clarify to her readers that child marriage is a cultural practice that relates to no religion. A practice that is widespread in India, Yemen, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Nepal and is deeply rooted in cultural traditions and not Islam! I have to ask then, why does Eltahawy fail to offer this simple fact to her audience, rather than leading them to believe that child marriage is welcomed by Muslim clerics?
Not surprisingly, these columns are embraced by many Western readers and feminists, because this is in line with their beliefs about Islam and Muslim women. In fact, it is taken as a credible confirmation of Arab women's plight, given that the author herself is a Muslim Egyptian American. Take one look at the comments below Eltahawy's Foreign Policy article, and you'll see what I mean.
It's really sad that Eltahawy's column hardly mentions the empowered Arab women of the Arab Spring. These are women who have forced the world to take them seriously and not look down upon them as the oppressed Other. These heroines include Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkul Karman, Syria's Razan Ghazzawi, and Egypt's female protesters, from Asmaa Mahfouz, Gigi Ibrahim, Nawara Negm, Samira Ibrahim, to Set el Banat, or Blue Bra girl (although I hate this term) and many others, who have once and for all proved to the world that Arab woman are not weak and cannot be silenced.
When I look at these Arab heroines, who have made their people proud, I don't see hate. I see love, compassion and understanding between young men and women who are wiling to work together to create better lives, more freedoms and more just governments for everyone.
So, to Eltahawy, I say that your column does not represent me as I don't feel hated. I do have concerns, which might be similar or different to my sisters in Egypt. But I'm confident that whatever social, cultural, political and economic problems I personally face, these are challenges that can be fought instead of simply blaming them on misogyny.
And so, I ask you to kindly stop talking on the behalf of all Arab women, because I’m not sure we all share your views on being hated.