Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Egyptian Feminist's Dilemma: Mona Eltahawy

‘Why Do They Hate Us?” Egyptian-American writer Mona Eltahawy laments on the cover page of Foreign Policy, in an article illustrated by provocative photos of a naked woman painted to look as if she were wearing niqab. Who are the ‘They’ and who are the ‘Us’ referred to in the title of Eltahawy’s piece? She claims, in her many television interviews since the publication of the piece, that her intention was to turn the 9/11 mantra ‘Why Do They Hate Us?’ on its head. But in fact, she subscribes to it. The ‘Us’ she claims to speak for are Arab/Muslim women, but the ‘They’ accused of hatred are the same: Arab/Muslim men. In subscribing to that sweeping generalization, Eltahawy created a media controversy in the States but forfeited the support of a considerable segment of the women she purports to champion.
It is easy to understand and sympathize with Eltahawy’s bitterness and disillusionment: a vocal supporter of the January 25th Revolution in Egypt, she was assaulted sexually and had both her arms broken by riot police during a demonstration in Cairo. But Eltahawy’s article is a blanket condemnation, not only of the tactics of the riot police under Mubarak and his loyalists; not of a misogynist interpretation of Islam pushed by an extremist sect called Salafis; not even of regressive attitudes toward women arguably prevalent, especially among the less educated, in the Middle East.
Eltahawy’s generalization tars all men in the Muslim/Arab world with the same harsh brush, as if the riot policeman stripping a female protester were indistinguishable from the young man trying to protect her. She ignores the experience of thousands of Egyptian women who camped side by side with men in Tahrir Square day and night during the heyday of the revolution, without being subjected to harassment or intimidation.
With similar lack of distinction, she makes sweeping generalizations about all Arab countries, as if Saudi Arabia, the only country where women are not allowed to drive and are forced to wear a niqab, were indistinguishable from Tunisia, where policewomen direct traffic.
Eltahawy selects the worst instances of abusive laws or practices from each country and throws them indiscriminately into her quiver of accusations: for instance, the abhorrent practice of female circumcision is still common in parts of Egypt, but it is a Nilotic practice, not an Islamic one, and is unknown in the Muslim country most repressive against women: Saudi Arabia. On the other hand Egypt and most Arab countries enforce a minimum age of sixteen for marriage for girls, whereas Saudi Arabia does not.
By wielding her weapon so bluntly and indiscriminately, by making the same mistake Western feminists have historically made in trying to disassociate the ‘Oriental’ woman from her context, Eltahawy risks alienating the support of the women she may sincerely be trying to champion. A woman does not exist in a vacuum; she is a mother, daughter, wife, sister; she is a Muslim or an Arab. There are claims to her loyalty other than gender.  At a time in history when her sons or brothers are indiscriminately branded as potential terrorists for being Arab or Muslim, she will shrink from comforting those dangerous stereotypes by subscribing to an equally reductionist diatribe against them as misogynists; at a time when wars are being waged, or threatened, against Arab and Muslim-majority countries partly with the justification of ‘saving women’, these same women fear the consequences of such reasoning.  
But perhaps the most misguided aspect of Eltahawy’s indiscriminate attack in ‘Why Do They Hate Us?’ is that it leaves the women’s rights movement in these countries with nowhere to go. If feminists in Arab and Muslim-majority countries are to gain the full measure of rights and liberties for women, they will need to enlist the support of a sizeable segment of the male population, not antagonize it wholesale. Women’s rights cannot be imposed from outside, by marshalling public opinion in the West. Eltahawy’s courage and sincerity must be tested by the same measure as any feminist facing the same dilemma: by her efforts to change facts on the ground in Egypt, not by success in creating a media uproar in America.

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