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Mona, misogyny and the Middle East

April 27, 2012

Mona Eltahawy’s article in Foreign Policy this past week started a *serious* buzz in the online world. There’s even a data viz about how the debate around the article has unfolded (check it out!).

I know I’m a little late in adding my two cents to the conversation, but aside from juggling my full-time job, I also just needed time to process her argument—and the surrounding conversation about discrimination against women in the Middle East. At the risk of sounding like I’m copping out, I can’t put myself in the ‘liked it’ or ‘hated it’ camp. Her article immediately resonated with me—it articulated my frustrations and anger so well that I found myself mentally cheering and fist-bumping the air.

Despite my enthusiasm, I recognize there are many serious holes in her arguments, and in her narrative. For one, Eltahawy intentionally isolated me—and many would-be supporters—by framing discrimination against women as an Arab problem. It’s not. Of course, women in the Middle East are often the point of much discussion on both sides of the Atlantic, precisely because there are legitimate differences. Rape, virginity tests, chronic sexual harassment, discriminatory citizenship laws and the like are serious problems.

But such problems do not exist just in the Middle East. In fact, the Global Gender Gap report that Eltahawy cites as evidence of prevalent discrimination in the region also ranks Pakistan (a non-Arab country) 133 and Chad at 134. India—neither majority Muslim nor an under-developed country—is ranked 113. In fact, unlike Pakistan or Egypt or Yemen, the country enjoys robust GDP growth and relatively high literacy rates. But, despite its rising status, the country still faces a huge gap between the rights of men and those of women. And women in India, similar to those in Egypt, face rampant sexual harassment—in fact, Delhi too has a female-only metro car.

But, as Ayesha Kazmi points out in her excellent blog post, when Eltahawy framed this as an ‘Arab problem’, she isolated women across the globe who feel like ‘second-class citizens’. I have been sexually harrassed in Cairo and in Beirut. I have felt helpless at the plight of women in my home country in Pakistan. And while Mona Eltahawy is afraid of Prince Nayef coming into power in Saudi Arabia, I’m afraid of the Pakistani Taliban wielding more authority in country. And up until a month ago, I was afraid of Rick Santorum becoming president of the United States (ok, perhaps an irrational fear). Men taking over the domain of women’s public and private freedoms is frightening anywhere—not just in the Arab world.

Second, by isolating men as ‘them’, Eltahawy dismisses, or at least fails to acknowledge, a crucial point: men have to be part of the process of reform, as does the state. In fact, how she frames misogyny confuses possible solutions. Take her description of Saudi Arabia, for example:  “The kingdom is unabashed in its worship of a misogynistic God and never suffers any consequences for it, thanks to its double-whammy advantage of having oil and being home to Islam’s two holiest places, Mecca and Medina.” She simultaneously faults Islam, false moral authority and an economic-political system for perpetuating misogyny in the country. In fact, I agree with her assessment that Saudi’s oil wealth and it’s self appointed moral and economic authority has created a repressive culture. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia handed out money to its citizens—try biting the hands that feed you.

But we shouldn’t conflate all forms of misogyny under one banner. What’s unfortunate about the Middle East is that it bears the cursed mix of false moral authority by being the birthplace of Islam, rentier economies, biased political systems and a patriarchal society. But each has its problems, and each its solutions.

Instead, let’s focus on the political and economic systems that depersonalize women’s discrimination. Let’s focus on divorce, citizenship and criminal laws that are vague and arbitrary. Let’s start by framing women’s relationship to the state: assume that women are citizens of the state—as they should be, that they enjoy the rights of the state—as they should enjoy, and from that, call out those persons—judges, politicians, army—that violate that relationship between a citizen and the state, violate that trust, violate those rights.

If in today’s world we assume that governments and institutions should provide the rights of citizens, let’s call into question those men and women who are not willing to give women fair treatment, or at the least respect their basic rights. Samira Ibrahim, the young Egyptian activist, is taking such steps by taking military personnel to court for conducting ‘virginity tests’. If those political and economic institutions are not offering those basic rights to all citizens, and are inherently biased against some groups, then all citizens (men, women, minorities) need to question their purpose. And that is the role of men, women and governments.

Weaving in the ‘subjugation’ and ‘oppression’ of Islam in her article does a disservice to the main and crucial points Eltahawy’s makes about the political and economic systems that reinforce discrimination against women. Once again, the conversation about women and the “misognynistic God” in the Middle East gets muddled with veiling, Islam, sexuality and so forth. In fact, one of the first critiques of Eltahawy’s article went on for half a page about the images of the “naked niqabi” on FP’s article—only to say, “I digress”. That’s precisely the problem. We digress. We need to question women’s rights within Islam, but questions about women’s clothing are tangential to conversations about their political and economic rights.

Eltahawy brought up a crucial point of conversation—and it worked. It reignited a discussion that needs to be at the forefront of change in many places. But by using the Bush-era tropes about ‘the Greater Middle East” vs “The west” to parallel “Arab men versus Arab women” (“Why do they hate us?”), she made it clear that this too is a war with no end.

The reason I bring the title up at all is because semantics do matter, in how we approach the topic at hand, how we discuss it, and how we move toward a resolution. But hate, and an “us versus them” mentality is how Eltahawy chose to frame her narrative. And that is where her arguments become another shout into the wind—in a world where there are already so many wars—real and ideological.

By claiming that they—men, women, the region at large—inherently hate women,  Eltahawy implies that hope for change is lost, which Eltahawy has not given any indication is true. In fact, she has been at the forefront of the fight for peace, for revolution, for change. Clearly she believes there is opportunity and need for women’s rights to be recognized in a new state.

I don’t think strong institutions and laws are the only solution – in fact, social change is necessary to change our frame our mind about women – and for that, I commend Mona Eltahawy for bringing to light disturbing mentalities about women. But what institutions can do is insist upon an acceptance of very basic rights for those that are repeatedly oppressed—and that should happen not just for women, but minorities as well. The Arab Spring demanded equality, representation and dignity for each individual—it demanded a revolution, not a war.

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