Friday, April 27, 2012

The Eltahawy Fire Storm And Other Pertinent Issues

Mona Eltahawy's article on the status of women in Arab countries,  Why Do They Hate Us? has created a fire storm.  I wrote about the piece earlier, before the many responses were available.

When I read Eltahawy's piece I tried to understand the identity of the misogynists, the "they" in her article title.  Is it Arab men?  That's how the fire storm has interpreted her message, and that's also the general flavor of the piece.  But she makes specific comments which differ from that reading:
So: Yes, women all over the world have problems; yes, the United States has yet to elect a female president; and yes, women continue to be objectified in many "Western" countries (I live in one of them). That's where the conversation usually ends when you try to discuss why Arab societies hate women. 
Not a single Arab country ranks in the top 100 in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report, putting the region as a whole solidly at the planet's rock bottom. Poor or rich, we all hate our women


"Why extremists always focus on women remains a mystery to me," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said recently. "But they all seem to. It doesn't matter what country they're in or what religion they claim. They want to control women." 

How much does Saudi Arabia hate women? So much so that 15 girls died in a school fire in Mecca in 2002, after "morality police" barred them from fleeing the burning building -- and kept firefighters from rescuing them -- because the girls were not wearing headscarves and cloaks required in public. And nothing happened. No one was put on trial. Parents were silenced. The only concession to the horror was that girls' education was quietly taken away by then-Crown Prince Abdullah from the Salafi zealots, who have nonetheless managed to retain their vise-like grip on the kingdom's education system writ large.
This, however, is no mere Saudi phenomenon, no hateful curiosity in the rich, isolated desert. The Islamist hatred of women burns brightly across the region -- now more than ever.


The hatred of women goes deep in Egyptian society. 
All bolds are mine.

Indeed, there's only one actual quote where the haters are identified as men:
Enter that call to prayer and the sublimation through religion that Rifaat so brilliantly introduces in her story. Just as regime-appointed clerics lull the poor across the region with promises of justice -- and nubile virgins -- in the next world rather than a reckoning with the corruption and nepotism of the dictator in this life, so women are silenced by a deadly combination of men who hate them while also claiming to have God firmly on their side.

This may be nit-picking,  but it is interesting that the responses all assume a simpler interpretation of Eltahawy's thesis:  That she is blaming Arab men alone.

I recommend reading the responses (especially those here).  Many of them make important points about the dangers of generalizing to all Arab men and women or all countries,  many of them also point out that Arab women are not just helpless victims of oppression but also activists who fight it and that Arab men can also be activists fighting against the oppression of women.

But I do take issue with this counter-argument:
Yes, in Saudi Arabia women cannot drive, but men cannot elect their government, instead they are ruled over by a religiously opportunistic dynasty. In Egypt, it's true that women were subjected to virginity tests, but men were sodomised. In Sudan women are lashed for wearing trousers, but ethnic minorities are also marginalised and under assault. We must not belittle the issues women face, or relegate them to second place, but we must place them in a wider context where wholesale reform is needed. One cannot reduce a much more universal and complicated problem merely to gender.
It is certainly true that men cannot elect their government in Saudi Arabia.   But Saudi women cannot elect their government AND they cannot drive.  In Sudan, women are lashed for wearing trousers AND women who belong to ethnic minorities are marginalized and under assault.  And if women in Egypt were not sodomized, they certainly could be.

I focus on this particular example because it is also common in American anti-feminist writings where it usually takes the form "everybody has it tough."  The problem is that in many cases (though not all) being a woman does not pardon one from also belonging to that group "everybody." 

Max Fisher at the Atlantic Monthly offers tentative theories about the origins of misogyny and the possible impact of the Ottoman empire and Western colonialization on the current values of Arab societies.  He also writes about the concerns that articles of this type could be used to support an anti-Islam hate stance and questions whether Eltahawy's voice is a helpful one, given the context:
Spend some time in the Middle East or North Africa talking about gender and you might hear the expression, "My Arab brother before my Western sister," a warning to be quiet about injustice so as not to give the West any more excuses to condescend and dictate. The fact that feminism is broadly (and wrongly) considered a Western idea has made it tougher for proponents. After centuries of Western colonialism, bombings, invasions, and occupation, Arab men can dismiss the calls for gender equality as just another form of imposition, insisting that Arab culture does it differently. The louder our calls for gender equality get, the easier they are to wave away.
Eltahawy's personal background, unfortunately, might play into this more than she probably realizes. She lives mostly in the West, writes mostly for Western publications, and speaks American-accented English, all of which complicates her position and risks making her ideas seem as Westernized as she is. That's neither fair nor a reflection of the merit of her ideas, but it might inform the backlash, and it might tell us something about why the conversation she's trying to start has been stalled for so long.
I referred to this problem in my earlier post on Why Do They Hate Us, and here it is in a much more open form:
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. 
Indeed.  Just Google "farewell intercourse law" if you wish to see how uncritically Western press often accepts the oddest bits of rumor about the Muslim world:
Today, Egypt's state-owned Al Ahram newspaper published an opinion piece by Amr Abdul Samea, a past stalwart supporter of the deposed Hosni Mubarak, that contained a bombshell: Egypt's parliament is considering passing a law that would allow husbands to have sex with their wives after death. 

It was soon mentioned in an English language version of Al-Arabiya and immediately started zipping around social-networking sites. By this afternoon it had set news sites and the rest of the Internet on fire. It has every thing: The yuck factor, "those creepy Muslims" factor, the lulz factor for those with a sick sense of humor. The non-fact-checked Daily Mail picked it up and reported it as fact. Then Andrew Sullivan, who has a highly influential blog but is frequently lax about fact-checking, gave it a boost with an uncritical take. The Huffington Post went there, too.

There's of course one problem: The chances of any such piece of legislation being considered by the Egyptian parliament for a vote is zero. And the chance of it ever passing is less than that. In fact, color me highly skeptical that anyone is even trying to advance a piece of legislation like this through Egypt's parliament. I'm willing to be proven wrong. It's possible that there's one or two lawmakers completely out of step with the rest of parliament. Maybe.
That's pretty bad.  On the other hand, the Al-Arabiya piece mentions other possible proposals and nobody has suggested that they, too, might be hoaxes:
Egypt’s National Council for Women (NCW) has appealed to the Islamist-dominated parliament not to approve two controversial laws on the minimum age of marriage and allowing a husband to have sex with his dead wife within six hours of her death according to a report in an Egyptian newspaper. 

The appeal came in a message sent by Dr. Mervat al-Talawi, head of the NCW, to the Egyptian People’s Assembly Speaker, Dr. Saad al-Katatni, addressing the woes of Egyptian women, especially after the popular uprising that toppled president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.

She was referring to two laws: one that would legalize the marriage of girls starting from the age of 14 and the other that permits a husband to have sex with his dead wife within the six hours following her death.

Many members of the newly-elected, and majority Islamist parliament, have been accused of launching attacks against women’s rights in the country.

They wish to cancel many, if not most, of the laws that promote women’s rights, most notably a law that allows a wife to obtain a divorce without obstructions from her partner. The implementation of the Islamic right to divorce law, also known as the Khula, ended years of hardship and legal battles women would have to endure when trying to obtain a divorce. 

Egyptian law grants men the right to terminate a marriage, but grants women the opportunity to end an unhappy or abusive marriages without the obstruction of their partner. Prior to the implementation of the Khula over a decade ago, it could take 10 to 15 years for a woman to be granted a divorce by the courts.

Islamist members of Egyptian parliament, however, accuse these laws of “aiming to destroy families” and have said it was passed to please the former first lady of the fallen regime, Suzanne Mubarak, who devoted much of her attention to the issues of granting the women all her rights.

Untangle those knots if you can.  Is gender equality something pertinent only to Western cultures?  What is the proper role of Western feminists in this context?  Do we write too much on women and Islam as one of the above quotes suggests?  Are we in cahoots with the anti-Islamists?

Or do we write far too little on those questions as many on the right argue, with the implication that Western (and especially US) feminists are in cahoots with the Islamists because we routinely criticize the Catholic Church or the fundie boyz of Christianity but are relatively silent (in recent years) when it comes to Islam?