i've been meaning to write a post about mona eltahawy's article published in foreign policy, entitled "why do they hate us". if you haven't heard about it yet, it's a piece that details misogyny in the middle east, and has caused quite a bit of controversy.
the controversy lies in something i've mentioned many times here: that it is very difficult to deal with issues of misogyny when they intersect with racism or bigotry. in other words, the very act of raising issues of misogyny is likely to increase the level of discrimination faced by the very women who are the subject of misogyny. in other words, the way you frame the debate very much determines whether or not that group of women will continue to be stereotyped as helpless victims in need of saving, as women who have little agency or ability.
as i read the first few paragraphs of the ms eltahawy's piece, my heart sank a little. they were based on fiction, but are definitely part of the reality of many women's lives. but not just arab women: there are women all over the world who are used for sex by men who have little concern about women's desire or pleasure, who are trapped in relationships for various reasons but very often related to poverty. not only that, but islamic law actually requires husbands to ensure that their wives have sexual satisfaction within the relationship. but ms eltahawy mentions none of this - you don't get that kind of context at all.
which is a pity, because the lives of these women, who are used or trapped, they need to be improved. and cultural change is part of the process, as is structural and political change. all of these are required, and her main point that there is a danger of women's rights being lost in the aftermath of the arab spring is a very important and valid one.
she accepts a lot of the criticism of her piece, and responds by saying that she had made it deliberately controversial just to kick-start the conversation. you can hear her saying this during a debate with leila ahmed:
incidentally, i have a book on women in islam by leila ahmed on my bookshelf, but this is the first time i've seen her speak and i was much impressed. i think she brought a lot of good points to the debate, and you can read her thoughts as part of a suite of responses at foreign policy here. the links to the other 5 responses can be found here, and though it was separate from the main issue, i did like the critique of the photographs accompanying ms eltahawy's piece contained in the 5th piece.
as always, my facebook friends provide me with valuable insights, and here is a comment from one of them:
Eltahwy's piece - whether
well intended, providing advice for women, pointing to problems that
exist within the context of the revolution period- can only be sustained
by a racist orientalist narrative that juxtaposes a Western
emancipatory culture with Arab and Muslim society as regressive and
misogynistic. Moreover, what is missing in the critiques of Eltahawy and
broader feminist debates is under what notion of woman, freedom,
equality, subjectivity and autonomy is Eltahawy's feminist critique of
Arab and Muslim society operating under? People like her talk about
oppression, freedom, etc. as if they're neutral categories and have
universal meanings. This isn't a cultural relativist argument, rather,
it is pointing to the fact that when Western observers like Elthawy
judges and scrutinises other societies and their practice, they are
participating in an arrogant assumption that they know best and their
version of freedom, agency, and desire - as such should be applied
uniformly. Lord Cromer and Laura Bush echoed similar sentiments.
Further, they also rely on the assumption that FGM, rape, virginity
tests, etc. should only be understood within a uni-dimensional
narrative. How do you reconcile the reality that FGM is largely enforced
by women themselves? Or are going to fall into the 'false
consciousness' trap? Moreover, Eltahawy's entire career has been reliant
upon pitting herself as liberal, free, enlightened against her abject
and silent sisters of which she alone has a permission to narrate their
experiences for they have the inability to speak for themselves. This is
Said's Orientalism 101 and the fact that Eltahawy is Arab and Muslim
doesn't change her incredibly racist views. The fact that she is unaware
of the implications of everything she writes and even supports the
banning of niqab in the context of a rise in Islamophobia in the West
reaffirms her parochial and naive politics. Her voice SHOULD be silenced
through discrediting her in whatever way possible; I'm not interested
in the postmodernist argument that every voice has a validity,
authenticity and value to be heard when these narratives are deployed to
wage wars, structurally marginalise entire communities and perpetuate
racist views that dehumanise others. They are products of colonial
mimesis: mimicking the voice of empire. The greatest irony here is that
Eltahawy participates in the ultimate violence against women and Islam:
an epistemic violence that erases entire histories and cultural
realities with a narcissistic cry of self-righteous indignation.
all of this does ignore the fact that ms eltahawy was herself the subject of extreme violence, which is also likely to inform her views. and it also doesn't help us solve the conundrum: what is the right way to raise & discuss these issues? what perspective would work and how do we achieve real change? and when we talk of change, what is the change that is best for those women living in that environment, as opposed to the change that we, sitting so far away, would want for them?
i certainly haven't arrived at any satisfactory answers to those questions. if anything, i'm involved in trying to provide practical support through the provision of social services (at a governance level rather than hands-on provision), but this doesn't foster cultural, societal or political change. the only organisation that seems to be attempting the latter is shakti, but their approach is similar to ms eltahawy's, only more so, and i'm personally very uncomfortable with it. somehow we have to find a way to improve women's lives while also ensuring we don't exacerbate views like this (yes, that would the same fred barret from tirau who i wrote about here, still going strong).
i'll just finish off linking to some more reading on this issue, if this post wasn't enough for you, a couple of which i got from here (a piece supporting ms eltahawy, and rightly pointing out that a great deal of the controversy surrounding Eltahawy’s
essay, revolves around who she is and what her perceived intentions are,
rather than what she stands for or the issues she raises). there is this piece in the guardian which i really liked (avoid comments), and this piece in the atlantic which raised some good points but started to get a little too apologetic for my liking (the comments are relatively not so bad here, at least for the first half, and worth a quick look). and finally there's this piece, which is sort of relevant in that it deals with islam & feminism.