Wednesday, 2 May 2012

who hates who?

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.

1 comment:

LudditeJourno said...

stargazer thank you for this, I'll be coming back when I have more time to read all the links, but have just one thing to say now.
I love your point about Islam requiring sex to be satisfying for women, or maybe just wives? Because it reminds me that any kind of prevention of sexual or domestic violence has to be grounded in the lived experiences of the group you're preventing "in". Every culture has protective social norms for respectful, mutually satisfying intimate relationships, and every culture has social norms which condone and excuse and support abusive behaviour. Unless the relevant factors are mobilised, not only is violence prevention work pretty useless, it's frequently infused with all kinds of power dynamics too (racism, homophobia, class-privilege, ability privilege blah blah blah).
So thank you for helping me think about this a little more.
Oh and another thing. I stand in awe of your Facebook conversations. I've clearly not mistressed that medium yet :-)