Mona Eltahawy: Causing a storm
The Egyptian-American writer Mona Eltahawy (who was assaulted in Tahrir Square by the Egyptian military in 2011) has caused a storm with an article she wrote for Foreign Policy magazine, in which she states that women should finish what the Arab Spring has started. She says that men of the Arab world hate women, and catalogues instances of injustice and maltreatment: genital mutilation, sexual harassment; women members of parliament being forced to wear hijabs; women MPs in Egypt effectively silent. Commentators are divided in many ways, ranging from those who fully support her, via those who think she is mostly right, to those who completely disagree. So is she right, or misguided?
What did her article say? She called for the hatred to be recognised, and for cultural relativism to be resisted. “We are more than our headscarves and our hymens. Listen to those of us fighting. Amplify the voices of the region and poke the hatred in its eye. There was a time when being an Islamist was the most vulnerable political position in Egypt and Tunisia. Understand that now it very well might be Woman. As it always has been.”
She doesn’t speak for everyone. Samia Errazzouki immediately rebutted Eltahawy’s arguments, saying that she didn’t represent Arab women. She thought that Foreign Policy’s cover picture – which showed a naked woman in a painted-on niqab – was degrading and insulting to women. People fixate on the niqab, believing that it defines Muslim women’s “thought, her intellect, her capabilities, her sexuality, her gender and her very existence.” But women do wear the niqab by choice. Plus, Eltahwy uses the first person plural – and who elected her to speak for all Arab women? Her narrative shows Arab women as “helpless and in need of rescue and protection.” This is entirely convenient for the magazine’s Western readership. Of course there is violence against women. But this “is not the issue.” The issue is making the women in the region “into a monolith.” And there’s more to gender inequality “than just ‘hate’”.
A much more complex picture. Foreign Policy itself rounded up some commentators: Sondos Asem, who said that blaming women’s suffering on misogyn was simplistic. Shadi Hamid, said that gaining gender equality in the Arab world was going to take “a very long time.” What will probably happen is that each country will decide to go its own way – “with the support and active encouragement of Arab women themselves.” Imam Feisal Adbdul Rauf said that the Prophet Mohammed himself was actually a feminist. The Quaran says that men can only have four wives, for instance. But that’s not to say that things must stay as they were in the seventh century – we must move on. Hanin Ghaddar said that we needed “more badass ladies.”
Twitter storm. The news outlet Al-Jazeera rounded up some of the best Twitter comments: “How can one solid critical article on Arab men oppressing women cause more controversy about the author than about the oppression? #EpicFail”, said Jonathan Moremi. “can’t [sic] believe the attacks on @monaeltahawy article. only goes to prove that women’s rights issues remain taboo even during revolution,” tweeted Lin Noueihed. Hossam Bahgat even went so far as to suggest that “most feminists around the world would find your piece anti feminist, even anti women.”