Get an Arab Woman to Say it for You

Thursday 26 April 2012

Mona Al-Tahawy’s article, Why Do They Hate published in Foreign Policy magazine, caused huge controversy over the past few days. The bottom line of the article is women all over the MENA region are oppressed by every single man in their lives; men in their families, in society at large, male members of the government, MPs from the Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated political parties etc. They all miraculously agree and come together to conspire against us women and the reason is: HATE. They simply hate “us”.

Many responses have been issued, most of them attacking Mona personally. A thing I can understand but not find useful. A friend told me we really have to think about what she said not launch personal attacks against her. I stopped for a while to think about what really bothered me with the article and I found that I am not comfortable with neo-orientalist approach she uses, the way she interprets numbers and her terminology. This is what is going to be discussed in this article.

Manipulation of numbers and studies
If you want to look smart and credible just use numbers, cite studies and surveys and then say whatever you want to say. This is the strategy Mona used to unquestionably prove women’s plight in the region. Statistics were used to demonstrate the spread of circumcision in Egypt, early marriage in Morocco, the similar status of women in both Saudi Arabic and Yemen. Laws were used to prove existing inequities in Egypt, Kuwait and Libya. Even in countries with progressive laws like Tunisia, the article speaks of the intimidation attempts at the hands of  religious groups against academics as proof of the deteriorating status of women. I have huge problem with generalizations, I would never say that a rich Saudi college girl who has a car with her own chauffeur is just as oppressed as an illiterate married young girl with four children in Sanaa. Failure to contextualize the issues and to take the economic factor into consideration to show that women’s problems in the Middle East is a monolithic tragedy of patriarchy, is reductive to women’s struggle in their multiple lived realities. It is very easy to argue with numbers about the advances of women’s in Middle East in education, labor force, maternal health but we all know that things are not that straight forward and you can manipulate numbers in the way you want. Equality for Arab women is far from achievable but women are not hostages at their own houses lamenting their conditions.

“FGM” and the curse of terminology”
I am a human rights advocate and I don’t believe that female circumcision should be accepted as a cultural practice yet I have so many problems in identifying with Mona’s argument here. First: vertical funding from Western governments to work on what they call “Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)” is extremely problematic as it reinforces an obsession with Arab women’s genitalia (besides proving that it's not exclusive to Arab men). Those governments spent billions of dollars on circumcision and turned a blind eye to maternal morbidity, abortion and reproductive cancers, among other issues. Second: nobody and I mean nobody in the whole region calls circumcision “FGM” not only Al-Qaradawy whom the article criticizes. Female genital mutilation is a a Western invented term that means in Arabic “Al-tashweeh al-gensy Lel-enath” and it's simply not the right term in the region. We have to call things with their own names and it is called “khitan” – circumcision - even if activists think it is mutilation. And yes it is not women’s only problem. In a study done by Dr Mwaheb Elmoulhy and others  to estimate how circumcision affect women’s sexual pleasure, they found that women speak of other aspects of their life that affect their sexual pleasure negatively, such as their economic conditions and the nature of their relationships with their husbands.

Who are those women?
I tried to find myself in this piece since it supposedly speaks on behalf of all of us but I could not. I am not the activist that declares she is hated by her male counterparts just because she is a woman and I am not one of those who are forced to be covered and stripped of all their rights. I could not find many of my female friends who are engaged in their own battles to enhance their wages or are involved in political parties, student movements, labor movements, artistic enterprises or those who are married and are raising their children - whether they are working or not. My problem with such writing is that it erases all those women, de-contextualizes them and makes them a unified group of victims of hatred . As a matter of fact, we are not victims of anything.

Paintings in the article depicting Arab women naked and painted in a black niqab-style, covering all their bodies with black except for their inviting eyes are really disturbing. One quick stop at the “The Colonial Harem” by Malek Aloula and you'll understand why these images are orientalist and stereotypical; they reinforce the image of weak covered beautiful woman sending a nonverbal message:  "Save me…I am weak, beautiful and naked”.

People were wondering why Azza Elgarf- the female MP from the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Freedom and Justice Party- is the fiercest parliamentarian in attacking women’s rights. The answer is simple. For the right wing conservatives it is better to get a woman to attack women; “get yourself a woman to say it for you”. I would argue the same for neo-orientalists who would get an Arab woman to say it for them. And between the Western- saving rhetoric and fundamentalism, the feminist struggle in the Middle East will always try to find its own space between a rock and a hard place.

Readers comments

غير معرف (not verified)

Thu, 05/03/2012 - 11:13

Dalia, I respect you a lot. Allow me to object to what you say in "nobody and I mean nobody in the whole region calls circumcision “FGM”. This falls into the logical fallacy of 'sweeping generalization' and I have worked with organizations that use the term. A better way to phrase this - since you are clearly against the ad hominem attacks against Mona, and therefore clearly repudiate the use of logical fallacies - would be "The prevalent term in Arabic is "khitan" etc., which you do in fact say later. I've heard "FGM" in Arabic phrases, as in "el-FGM" - you know how it is.

(Another issue which is not addressed at all, btw, is how male genital mutilation - defended by Jewish and American power holders but proven to have many harmful effects on health and psychology and sexual pleasure, for women as well as men - affects women. But that is largely ignored in the world at large, too.)

I like your analysis, and agree with the thought, of "Save me…I am weak, beautiful and naked”. I agree with your point that it is Orientalist.

I always object to the idea that any kind of liberation of women is "Western" or "Westernized". There are many examples of liberated women in Arab history, and the classification of endeavors to liberate women as attempts to 'impose western values' feels like another kind of Orientalism - as though it were our cultural 'right', indeed our 'nature', to oppress women.

I understand your pain. But perhaps I think that Mona's choice of venue, and her own generalizations, have forced you into a position of defending what you would not normally be defending.

غير معرف (not verified)

Thu, 04/26/2012 - 21:17

EIPR, you of all women, should be supporting Mona's effort to get the public to think about women and gender at this critical moment after the
revolution. Foreign Policy is a very problematic venue, OK, but there has been absolutely no substantive discussion of the sexualizing of violence against
women in the revolution. Or the separation of women from men in the Yemeni protest movement, or the indignities of being attacked, mauled and disrespected on a
daily basis just to travel to work, university, or for any reason.

Where is your empathy for women? How can you represent personal rights for Egyptians if you are so angry that someone - Mona, or whomever - finally has an audience for just one day or two, who usually read about politics devoid of any gender isssues.

And if you don't see yourself in the issues she discussed, don't you see other Egyptian women? Are we invisible to you? We are taunted, disrespected and sometimes hit or threatened by husbands, fathers, brothers, male colleauges and unknown men on the street.

With their outdated approach to gender issues, the Freedom and Justice Party can rely on women who claim that everything is wonderful and no need to represent women. What will that do for Egyptians who can barely perceive the shape of their personal rights, much less their duties as citizens to ensure equality and justice for all others?

Nahed Eltantawy (not verified)

Thu, 04/26/2012 - 19:01

Nice summary of your main critiques of Mona's article. You are absolutely right and that is the danger; when an Arab woman says it, it carries more authority and it's hard for the rest of us to object.

But what I really find to be amusing and ironic is that most of Eltahawy's supporters who side with her claim that all Arab women are hated, are the first to deny us, these so-called victimized Arab women, the right to object and disagree and voice our own truths. When you do this, then you're accused of being delusional, in denial or worse, one person on my blog went as far as to claim that I was forced to write this post by men!!!

غير معرف (not verified)

Thu, 04/26/2012 - 17:27

attack mona all you want but please don't be an apologist for khitan