Mona Eltahawy’s piece “Why Do They Hate Us?” in Foreign Policy Magazine has sparked a debate that has shaken the social networks. Views of vitriolic dislike or profound approval of her controversial article have been expressed on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and may even be a main topic on Al Jazeera English’s “The Stream”. An ardent reader of Foreign Policy and a follower of Eltahawy on Twitter, I read this article with both interest and curiosity. By the time I was done, it awakened the inner feminist in me that comes out of hiding every now and then. Spending my teen years in Iran, I found myself bothered by certain aspects of the Islamic Republic. I mostly observed what I saw rather than spoke about, I did not agree with the handling of women in certain instances such as in terms of dowry, marriage, divorce, and even the disbursement of a will. Regardless, although women are not equally treated as men, there is a subtle woman’s rights moment; the largest in the region and is diverged into an Islamic version as well. Without this movement that emerged after the Revolution in 1979, women in Iran would be much worse off. I’m bringing this up, not only to give you a sense of where I am coming from despite the my non-Middle Eastern name, but to realize women’s rights are an ongoing struggle that must not linger.
I have read various rebuttals to Eltahawy’s article, one included on Democrati. I enjoyed the array of views, despite liking her article more or less. I even found myself agreeing with them as well to an extent. We are all entitled to our opinions, as is she. Nevertheless, all the vitriol towards her is ridiculous; who are we to judge Eltahawy, when most of us haven’t even met her? The fact she was able to conjure up a storm on the topic of women and gender in the Middle East is integral to the region experiencing changes on so many different levels – she obviously must be doing something right. What appalls me is all this finger pointing and calls of clad orientalism. If I was to bring up the fact there’s a major racism issue in America i.e. “White America is Racist” citing Trayvon Martin and Shaima Alawadi murders, would I be considered an Occidentalist? No, they would just say I’m discriminating. She may be presenting her article with Orientalist motifs, but she is no Orientalist. Edward Said calls an Orientalist: “Anyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient–and this applies whether the person is an anthropologist, sociologist, historian, or philologist–either in its specific or its general aspects, is an Orientalist, and what he or she says or does is Orientalism. . . .” From what I understood from studying him, he meant it in terms of people from the West, not an Egyptian-born woman with particular views. Labeling people to discredit their ideas is the oldest political tool in the book.
I’m not going to lie, her writing does echo Bernard Lewis — but only in analysis, not in context — with motifs of “us versus them” and “why do they hate us” rhetoric. That I do agree with, as do the photos of a nude woman painted in niqab have the risqué views some have of women in the Middle East. They belonged better in a gallery of photography than an article on women. Regardless of the labeling, the fact of the matter is we have an issue and it needs to be addressed.
What must be remembered is this is a new age in the region, women are integral to Arab Awakening as Eltahawy mentioned — as the bearers of children, the top notch of the educated, the teachers, and even the bread makers — we must not let their plight be ignored. Women have come a long way, from not being allowed to go to school, to work in office regular or political – some of the biggest talking heads in activism and politics are women. To ignore the imperfection of women’s rights is to ignore the past struggles our mother and grandmothers have come to endure. Women still struggle to make it, there is no denial of that; whether the glass ceiling is in Cairo or Washington. My own aunt was not allowed to go to college by her husband. When he passed away some years ago at the age of 64, she attended university and got a bachelors in history. The renowned stories of the struggles women Mona mention are a reality and must not be ignored.
What must be noted is the realities are not correlated with religion; it’s not Islam, Christianity, and so forth – but those who interpret the religions as such. Unfortunately, they happen to be men. Men in general are not the enemies and nor do they “hate” us – we all know that. I’m sure Eltahawy knows that. Instead of looking on how it was written, let’s realize we have opened the forum for talk on gender; there’s a problem whether you want to acknowledge it or not. We should take advantage of it while the door is still open.
Last but not least, I think it would be great to have her piece published in Arabic. I’m not sure if it will be received any better, but I hope it will also spark as much of a debate as it has to all of us English speakers. The only thing we must worry about is if people use this for bad intentions and foddering arguments about the Middle East. Given how people on the Internet handle the likes of this piece, I’m sure we will be able to tackle anything. Ironically, as discussion of Mona’s article progress a grand mufti in Saudi Arabia announced it was okay for girls as young as ten to wed. Let’s be realistic, whether we disliked the article due to its analysis or presentations, the facts and issues were telling of the ugly truth.