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Case in point: Mona el Tahawy’s FP article

Anita Kunz’ witty “Girls Will Be Girls”

This article, like many others, is a response to Mona El Tahawy’s FP piece

Needless to say that women in Egypt have a problem. There’s also a problem for Arab women in general. That’s also true for women in the third world. And its true of women even in the US, Mona admits that when she says the US has yet to elect a female President. There’s also a problem for Muslim women, Muslim women in the Arab world, Muslim women in the diaspora and Christian women in the Arab world and the in the diaspora.

So how do we think about women?

Mona el Tahawy’s Foreign Policy piece, and its sensationalist cover, is by no means the way of addressing it. Neither is an overt apologist way of critiquing her that denies the problem. The point is not to perpetuate the binary of “us the free women who don’t wear the Niqab and are skimpily clad, against the Burka clad women who must be backwards and cannot speak for themselves”. Mona’s opening line from an Arab novel about a woman who is deprived of an orgasm is also not the way to talk about women in the Middle East. If anything Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City has taught us that, oddly enough, that problem exists in New York, not just in Harlem, but in the Upper East Side too. It was sad to see Mona talk about women in the Middle East in the same way Hollywood has depicted them as: sexual creates and belly dancers. If anything Jack G. Shaheen’s 2009 book: Reel bad Arabs: How Hollywood vilifies a people is telling how the West views the Arab World. It’s a shame to see Mona fall in that binary as well. This faux pas discourse doesn’t look at the root of the problem, rather becomes a war of labels.

I will never forget an interview I saw about women in Afghanistan talking about the Taliban and how they force women to dress in Burqas. A woman responded anonymously that she doesn’t care if she has to wear 10; the Taliban give her clean water, food and shelter. Mona doesn’t seem to be acutely aware of the socioeconomic plight women in the Arab world go through. Homa Hoodfar, an anthropologist who did fieldwork in Egypt’s urban middle class wrote a book called: Between Marriage and the Market: Intimate Politics of Survival in Cairo. Mona is blind to Hoodfar’s argument about how women in Cairo work two jobs and go home to a household where they work yet again; becoming the central pillar of the household. A brave woman in Cairo, who has a steady salary can divorce and often remarry; shunning her husband and giving him eternal shame. Whether she is veiled or not is irrelevant. This isn’t to negate the fact that women’s status is abysmal; rather it is to show that we should look at women past the classic sensationalist Western lens of: sex, burqas and niqabs.

Through the same lens we can go on to look at the gains women have made, though modest, recently. Be it Tawaqul Karman, Egypt’s blue bra girl who has been an icon and all the out-pour of art directed towards women, new women’s union and the demand to keep Egypt’s Khul’ law (divorce right for women). Though these aren’t the best indicators they are a way of looking at women and what they need.

Then comes Mona’s most startling sin, almost equal to Huntington’s, the way she views Islam as a monolith. She cites multiple examples of how Islam deprives a woman of her rights and subjugates her merely as a sex object; surprising really considering her opening line. It is quite unfortunate to have Mona cite the most fundamentalist examples of Islam. That’s like saying the Tea Party represents ideas of liberty and freedom. Its also the same as saying that Neo-Nazi’s and the far right in the US represent the voice of the American people. Unfortunately, much to the displeasure of many orientalists, there are a multitude of voices in the Middle East. Taking one strand and fixating it then generalizing is a deadly sin (The Seven Deadly Sins of Huntington by Hugh Gusterson in “Why America’s top Pundits are wrong: Anthropologists talk back”).

If Mona el Tahawy wishes to measure women’s rights in the Arab world by sex; then I am sorry to say that the orgasm she is waiting for won’t come. There is a need for a sobering wake-up call for all those who equate sex and sexuality with increased rights. More often than not these self-orientalizing people have not looked at the Arab world’s women and their sexuality. If Mona wants to talk about the LGTB community then she needs to read this: “Man Becomes Woman: Transsexualism in Oman as a Key to Gender Roles” by Unni Wikan. I however refuse to take part in that debate and think the feminist paradigm in the Middle East needs to move on.

About Karim Malak

Researcher at AUC's political science department. Twitter: @karimmaged Karimmkarim@gmail.com


12 thoughts on “Case in point: Mona el Tahawy’s FP article

  1. Really amazed to read such a post on democrati.net and from you. Perhaps only a man – who knows best for what is right for women in the Arab world – can write like this. The whole piece shows you have it set what is good and bad for women and Mona – a woman – clearly is evil intended and has no clue. That after the sexual assaults she often reported on and are well documented, not to speak of the indisputable atrocities she cites in her article that you carelessly (or deliberately?) fail to mention here.

    How male dominated small minded – and your writing is nothing short of this – your argumentation is, shows this utter ridiculous sentence alone:

    “Mona’s opening line from an Arab novel about a woman who is deprived of an orgasm is also not the way to talk about women in the Middle East.”

    What a rubbish. She is citing from a novel. That is art. It exists. And was written by an Egyptian. And – most important – depicts a bitter reality many women endure due to female genital mutilation that is still rampant, injures and even kills women in Egypt – which she reports on in her article – but you don’t find important to even acknowledge. Not your concern as a man. Of course not. But you (!) know what is best for women?

    To say “this is not the way to talk about women in the Middle East” shows not only a huge inferiority complex that does not allow to hear the truth – it also is one more example of the condescending male dominant way in MENA of telling women what they are allowed to talk about in the Middle East and what not.

    Get it – it is not your right to decide that for women. It is theirs to decide. Your reaction shows that Mona’s article was badly needed and needs a lot of follow ups until men like you step back into the line and let women be the free human beings they have the right to be. Something you are clearly uncomfortable with, seeing that you are so much better in making decisions for women what they may and may not do or say.

    And to read how comfortable you are with the Afghan woman saying” that she doesn’t care if she has to wear 10 burquas; the Taliban give her clean water, food and shelter” – is shocking. Are you aware that any dog, donkey, horse or camel will also do anything you ask from it if you provide it with clean water, food and shelter? Is that the level you are comfortable with how women are kept? That as long as they are provided for they obviously – in your eyes – will do anything that is forced on them? And that would be ok?

    Then you clearly have far less rights to talk about women than Mona. She cared for the human being behind a woman, her dignity, her human rights. To you all this is irrelevant. If men force them to do something it is ok for them, as long as the men serve them clean water, food and shelter. Welcome to the kennel, women. Karim thinks that’s were you’re doing fine.

    By the way – her article was not about sex. You clearly missed that.

    Yours is. Seems more your problem than hers.

    Posted by Jonathan Moremi | April 24, 2012, 3:08 pm
  2. “If Mona el Tahawy wishes to measure women’s rights in the Arab world by sex; then I am sorry to say that the orgasm she is waiting for won’t come.”
    Your critique is overly ad hominem. Mona used the sex story for literary effect. You’re over-emphasizing sex too much. She talked of way more than that!

    Posted by NevermindWhoIam | April 24, 2012, 3:25 pm
  3. Excellent Rebuttal! I especially loathed the oriantalistic canvas she had on her article.

    Posted by Yehya | April 24, 2012, 3:26 pm
  4. See, I’d try to discuss some points in this article had I thought you read Mona’s article @ all.

    You so easily limit the scope of her article to sex and sexuality. What about women who aren’t allowed to drive or vote? Girls forced to marry @ 12? Children undergoing FGM? Women runnig for elections?

    I detect you have a problem differentiating between criticizing Islam, Muslims or Islamists. Read the article again, and tell me if you still think she views Islam as ‘monolith’..Her citing a short story, is metaphorical to the state of women in the Middle East. I dare you to go to villages (you seem to have never been 2 one) in Egypt..If the women there agree to speak with you, you will easily see a lot of them arent even aware of their basic rights.

    Oh and you think that NOT taking away what is rightfully ours “the demand to keep Egypt’s Khul’ law (divorce right for women)” is, maybe not the best, but a ‘way of looking at women and what they need’? You are obviously clueless.

    Someonewith excellent writing skills like you should really put their talent to good use. This one is certainly not one of your best ‘pieces’.

    Oh, and FYI, please doall of us women a favor and don’t speak on our behalf. You do not know and will never know what it feels like to be a woman in a hypocrictical society that pretends to protect women when in reality women are sexually harassed everyday and a lot have to suffer FGM as children. THAT is the ugly truth that people like you choose to overlook.

    Posted by Radwa | April 24, 2012, 5:44 pm
  5. Well done Karim! I like your arguments and how you clearly state that attacking Islam and focusing on sexual orgasms are not the way to help Arab women deal with their diverse problems. Thank you for your refreshing post 🙂

    Posted by Nahed Eltantawy | April 24, 2012, 6:32 pm
  6. Thank you for the feedback Radwa. Actually I am Coptic.

    Posted by Karim Malak | April 24, 2012, 6:49 pm
  7. Clearly some people who read this piece do not understand the underlying point of the article- perhaps this is because it is not directly stated, written in an over-simplified manner, or in bullet point format. Perhaps a power point would be better and clearer. I’m not sure. Sarcasm aside, the point is that this argument is deeper and more complicated than what one might get from breezing through it or simply searching for a way to harangue a man for engaging in this important debate.

    I don’t think Karim is suggesting or denying the existence of any of the problems in the El Tahawy piece. I think he is stating that there are other underlying causes for the state of affairs, such as socioeconomic ones, etc. The Afghan example illustrates just that: the system is far more complicated and deeply rooted than pure “hate” of women by men. This example was meant to demonstrate this issue- not that it is a morally acceptable situation. Because the issue is more complicated, addressing topics like sexuality is superficial and ultimately blinds the analysis to other concerns. Suggesting that these problems come from a monolithic Islam also creates the same effect. Moreover, it blinds the analysis to the fact that some of these issues are not always gender related (yes, I am aware that I am going beyond what was mentioned in this article). Rape and sexual harassment of men also happens at the hands of the security forces. Men also live in dire socioeconomic circumstances and the oppression of authoritarian regimes. Again, this is not a suggestion that the problems discussed in Mona’s article are not present, but the context and underlying cause is what the argument is about. The identification of this cause leads to better ability to treat the problem. If there is a shallow diagnosis then the treatment will never root out the problem. The problem is not just about how women are treated (though this is a large part of it), but is deeper and wider than this issue.

    It is clear that people read what they expect to read. It seems that people assume that because the author is a man he has no right to speak in regards to women’s issues or that he is automatically a misogynist. Somehow a “man” is not allowed to access this discussion- he, because of his sex (in combination with being “Arab”), should sit quietly in the corner and listen without speaking. He, should he decide to engage in this debate, should do so by crawling on his hands and knees to beg Mona’s forgiveness as the representative of all Arab males and all injustices committed against women. Does this not seem like a reversal of the very same binary being fought against? Should we exclude individuals from discussion or as being relevant because of their sex?

    Posted by A Wandering Gypsy | April 25, 2012, 8:33 am
    • it is naive to blame ‘socioeconomic conditions’ as though they are somehow apolitical. socioeconomic conditions are 1) either created within a prevailing political climate (let’s take slavery as the clearest example of politics and/or ideology creating an economic underclass, or even western imperialism in general and the current division of spoils in the global economy) or 2) the politics/ideology of the day determines or colours our responses to socioeconomic conditions. you can have even the most abject conditions of poverty and not be living in a situation where one of half of society is made to dance for their measly dinner.

      i am afraid that ‘it’s the economy stupid’ is just as shallow a diagnosis as ‘hate’.

      Posted by bec | April 26, 2012, 12:18 am
  8. Would you please flesh out the role that you think pleasure does have in female sexuality? I understand that you are not dismissing it, but rather cautioning the preeminence of sexuality in various feminist visions of “emancipation” and “liberation”. Which is highly problematic. But does this mean, then, that one must always “give” and never “receive”? Is pleasure exclusively reserved for male sexuality? Can you articulate a vision or possibility of “balance”, one which isn’t “subjugation through deprivation” but also NOT “liberation through promiscuity”?

    Posted by Chorala | April 26, 2012, 10:25 pm
  9. Good point Chorala, I think sexual roles are constructs, I believe “giving” and “taking” are entirely constructed by society. I tend to fall on the side of medical anthropology/anthropology in general that argues that is why transsexuals often play double roles (sexually giving and taking) in what society conventionally views them as ‘changing gender’. I therefore cannot articulate a vision of “balance” because I believe it is entirely a construct

    Posted by Karim Malak | May 3, 2012, 2:50 pm


  1. Pingback: Exploring the Muslim veil in art « democrati.net - April 24, 2012

  2. Pingback: » Visualizing the Polarized Discourse of “Why Do They Hate Us?” Blog — Alex Hanna - April 25, 2012

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