A couple thoughts on gender and Arab revolutions

So Mona El Tahawy’s piece in Foreign Policy is making waves on Facebook lately and while I do recommend reading it for a number of reasons, there are also a number of major problems with it and other perspectives that should be read along with it.

Starting with the good stuff, she calls attention to some of the worst instances of sexism and misogyny in the region, and I think somebody needed to call bullshit on the people who in the interest of avoiding Islamophobia are out and about saying that actually, sexist policies and social norms in the Middle East are no big deal, not that bad. I’m thinking here of things like Kristof’s very superficial op-ed in which he talks about the Muslim Brotherhood voters and how they are actually perfectly nice people and don’t hate women. It is altogether a good thing to call attention to the fact that ordinary people who vote for the Brothers and Brotherhood members, are indeed human beings and not slobbering four-eyed monsters you should hide your children from – but that does not mean that the institution’s polices and official stances are good. If the take-home message is: “Muslim Brotherhood, super woman-friendly, yay!!” , then let’s start over. If you want to know what the Ikhwan will do once in power, you need to look at their policies and statements – and not just the ones they say to Western journalists, not what their supporters think they will do. Everybody has some way in which they will sell themselves as not fringe-y not woman-hating, etc., including the Salafis. I know a guy, a nice guy, who voted for a Salafi candidate and would swear you up and down that it’s not a radical woman-hating organization and he doesn’t support the idea of forcing people to wear the niqab. The Salafi party claims this is all a smear campaign. Bear in mind this is the party that ran pictures of flowers instead of women’s faces in the paper because according to some of these idiots it’s un-Islamic to show women in photos – even ones that wear the niqab. Somebody being nice, being a complicated human being, does not mean they’re not a sexist, or a racist, or doing really bad things in the world, even. Put another way, someone being a bigot or supporting regressive policies does not mean they stop being a human being whose rights and lives matter. The whole conversation on political Islam in the U.S. seems to be unclear on that basic point.

Now just to be totally clear, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Saudi theocracy are a totally different ball game, but I think Mona hits the nail on the head with this:

“Yes, Saudi Arabia, the country where a gang-rape survivor was sentenced to jail for agreeing to get into a car with an unrelated male and needed a royal pardon; Saudi Arabia, where a woman who broke the ban on driving was sentenced to 10 lashes and again needed a royal pardon; Saudi Arabia, where women still can’t vote or run in elections, yet it’s considered “progress” that a royal decree promised to enfranchise them for almost completely symbolic local elections in — wait for it — 2015. So bad is it for women in Saudi Arabia that those tiny paternalistic pats on their backs are greeted with delight as the monarch behind them, King Abdullah, is hailed as a “reformer”  — even by those who ought to know better, such as Newsweek, which in 2010 named the king one of the top 11 most respected world leaders. ”

Shame on Newsweek. What utter idiocy, and kudos to Mona for tearing the “reformer” BS to shreds. She also makes a very important distinction that a lot of people miss when talking about women’s rights and Islam/Arabs:

“You — the outside world — will be told that it’s our “culture” and “religion” to do X, Y, or Z to women. Understand that whoever deemed it as such was never a woman. ”

And she also calls attention to women from the region who are standing up for their rights, which is a good reminder. The best qualified people to fight oppression and to determine what liberation looks like are the people directly impacted by it.

“Salwa el-Husseini, the first Egyptian woman to speak out against the “virginity tests“; Samira Ibrahim, the first one to sue; and Rasha Abdel Rahman, who testified alongside her — they are our Bouazizis. We must not wait for them to die to become so. Manal al-Sharif, who spent nine days in jail for breaking her country’s ban on women driving, is Saudi Arabia’s Bouazizi. She is a one-woman revolutionary force who pushes against an ocean of misogyny. ”

Furthermore, she takes to task the “wait your turn” mentality that has been used to marginalize women’s rights activists in the revolutionary context and that’s also great:

“Some may ask why I’m bringing this up now, at a time when the region has risen up, fueled not by the usual hatred of America and Israel but by a common demand for freedom. After all, shouldn’t everyone get basic rights first, before women demand special treatment? And what does gender, or for that matter, sex, have to do with the Arab Spring? But I’m not talking about sex hidden away in dark corners and closed bedrooms. An entire political and economic system — one that treats half of humanity like animals — must be destroyed along with the other more obvious tyrannies choking off the region from its future. Until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors on our streets and in our homes, our revolution has not even begun.”

I find the phrasing “fueled not by the usual hatred of America and Israel” very problematic, but I could not agree more with this point:

“Our political revolutions will not succeed unless they are accompanied by revolutions of thought — social, sexual, and cultural revolutions that topple the Mubaraks in our minds as well as our bedrooms.”

It’s not a side issue, it does not need to wait. It is half the damn population that’s effected by sexism. So these are the things I think she gets right, and I think the article is worth reading for that reason. But the things she gets wrong she really gets wrong.

Basically, the whole framing of the article is all kinds of wrong. I do not think it makes sense to lump together the entire region. Indeed, nowhere in the region is winning any prizes for gender equality, but I don’t think you can sensibly put Tunisia and Saudia Arabia in the same sentence when it comes to women’s rights, for example. Tunisian feminists are concerned about the Islamist parties rolling certain things back, and that’s important,  but we’re talking about the first (and only) Arab country to legalize abortion – it’s been legal in Tunisia since 1973. Compared to Saudi Arabia where women are not allowed to drive, vote, and are literally never considered adults legally, instead male guardians have the right to make their decisions for them – for their entire lives.

The most immediately obvious issue with the article is the body-paint niqab photos. Mona ElTahawy’s position on the niqab to begin with is awful. She supports imposing a legal ban forcing women not to wear it, on the grounds that letting women wear it creates a standard that other women will gradually be forced to comply with, because people can then point to women who wear it and say to someone like her, you are not a proper Muslim woman or you are not chaste or or or because you don’t wear this. What she’s talking about it cultural norms, essentially culture wars, and it is fundamentally not the role of the law to resolve these issues. You want to fight for your place as a Muslim woman who doesn’t wear the higab or niqab, that’s awesome! – but you don’t get to use the legal might of the state to shove your views down other people throats. That is no kind of feminism I believe in. One does have to recognize that many women get pressured or coerced into wearing the niqab (and the headscarf for that matter), but there are also women who choose to wear the headscarf or the niqab and are harassed and threatened (and now in France, legally punished) for doing so, and both of these things are wrong, and for the same reasons. Watching Mona ElTahawy debate with Heba Ahmed, who wears the niqab, I was struck by the incredible absurdity of the position she was taking – literally saying that the niqab is a way of silencing women, while being outmaneuvered in a debate by a very much not silent woman who wears it. If there was any silencing going on in that scenario, it was Mona ElTahawy attempting to silence Heba Ahmed, and it didn’t work.

Samia Arrazouki has a great breakdown on what’s wrong with those photos in her article for al-Monitor, “Dear Mona ElTahawy, you do no represent “us””

“Today, those who are fixated on the Niqab believe that focusing on what a Muslim woman wears is what defines her thought, her intellect, her capabilities, her sexuality, her gender and her very existence. It is a narrative that’s been framed by the West and fed by the likes of Qasim Amin and even Hoda Sha’rawi. Foreign Policy’s decision to choose this photograph of a naked woman with a body-painted niqab embodies this problematic narrative in more ways than one:

  1. This inherent sexualization of the niqab through the pose and exposure of the female form revives the classic “harem” literature and art, presenting the Arab and/or Muslim woman as “exotic” and “mysterious,” but still an object: An object lacking the agency to define herself, thus defined by others.
  2. All of the women close to me who wear the niqab do so for different reasons. One friend only wears the niqab when she attends protests because she feels comfortable in it. Another friend has chosen to wear the niqab, against the will of her family since she was 14.  The representation of the niqab as splattered body paint on a naked woman degrades the decision of women who wear the niqab as a choice.”

Arrazouki also quotes a great segment from Maya Mikdashi’s piece “The Uprisings Will Be Gendered,” over at Jadaliyya:

“Gender equality and justice should be a focus of progressive politics no matter who is in power. A selective fear of Islamists when it comes to women’s and LGBTQ rights has more to do with Islamophobia than a genuine concern with gender justice. Unfortunately, Islamists do not have an exclusive license to practice patriarchy and gender discrimination/oppression in the region. The secular state has been doing it fairly adequately for the last half a century.”

Further elaboration on the point:

“After all, have non-Islamist Arab political parties and powers had such wonderful and progressive gender policies all this time? This selective fear of Islamists rests on familiar assumptions about Islam (scary) secularism (redemptive and progressive) and other religions (huh?). Thus the victory of Islamists in Egypt’s elections is cause for anxiety (about what they might do) among international feminists and gender activists, in addition to groups and individuals such as The Center for Secular Space and Hillary Clinton. But spittingon eight-year-old girls or stoning women (yes, stoning) who violate the gender code of Orthodox Judaism isa headline, not a discourse on women’s rights and patriarchy in Israel or in Judaism. But I am sure that if women were stoned and/or spit on in he streets of Homs for not wearing the hijab it would be about Islam and about the dangers that the Syrian uprising poses to Syrian women. Similarly, the victory of Islamists in Tunisian elections is scary because of what they may do in regards to women’s and LGBTQ rights. But Rick Santorum’s bible-fueled anti-woman andanti-gay campaign/crusade says nothing about the gender politics of Christianity.”

That last bit brings us back to the thing that angered me the most on a personal level about that article, which most of the other commentators did not take note of: the comparison game. There are differences in degree when you look at the examples raised, and policies and social norms in different countries and different regions, and that’s important – I could not honestly claim that patriarchy in America is awful to the same degree or in the same way that patriarchy in Egypt is, and I wouldn’t want to. The laws are different, general trends in public opinion are different. But that does not somehow make discrimination and violence in the U.S. no longer a problem.

Did nobody else catch that subheading? “The Real War On Women is in the Middle East.” As if to say, transvaginal ultrasounds, laws giving employers the right to fire a women for using birth control, legal system blatantly ignoring rape (I’m talking about the failure of police departments to do anything with physical evidence of rape, i.e. rape kits, in case you didn’t hear about that scandal), sexual assault in the military, the unadulterated misogyny-fest that is our media and especially the fashion industry, the way that women being expected to work and do the domestic labor – or farm it out to underpaid domestic employees that have no health care or pensions – which is also a huge problem, the rigid enforcement of the gender binary and all the lies we get taught about gender identity and sexuality, that’s no big deal. Way to go with the feminist solidarity, Mona. I mean, according to this article, all of America’s problems with regards to gender can be reduced to: “yes, the United States has yet to elect a female president; and yes, women continue to be objectified in many “Western” countries” and summarily dismissed. What the fuck are you even talking about ya Mona??? According to DOJ stats referenced on the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website, 207,754 people (most of them women) are raped or sexually assaulted every year in the U.S.. That’s one every two minutes. And a lot of American culture still thinks partner abuse is no biggie – as evidenced by the unbelievable response to Rihanna being beaten by Chris Brown: a large portion of formal and informal media was out there saying, she must have done something to “deserve” to get beaten up (this blog post has a pretty good summary)

I find the grossly oversimplified “West” v. “Islam” women’s rights comparison is usually used for two purposes:

1) To tell American/European feminists to shut up, because look how good you have it! You can go out in public without a niqab on and even DRIVE!! (woohooo, I feel so much better about those sexual assault stats now, thanks!)

2) To justify war or military interventions. Worth noting here that for example, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan does not feel that the US occupation of their country has been an exercise in feminist liberation, thanks very much. Here’s a quote from their recent statement for International Women’s Day, entitled “Afghan women’s freedom from the clutch of fundamentalism, occupation and patriarchy is only possible with their own struggle!”:

“According to figures from the UN, almost 5000 cases of violence against women were recorded last year, though the actual figure is several time higher than this. The last ten years of US and NATO occupied Afghanistan has been a burning hell for women and young girls who have been raped or gang-raped….The US aggressors proved RAWA’s perpetual claim that this country is always at war with the Afghan people and at peace with criminals…The US doesn’t care about the kind of government that takes power in Afghanistan, what only matters is that the regime should be made up of traitors who they reign, which doesn’t oppose their permanent military bases, allows them to use this land for threatening and controlling Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan and India. It is impossible that domestic violence, rape, beating and self-immolation among women be ended by seminars or some discussions of the NGOs. It is only attainable by the organization of women of all ethnic backgrounds and tribes into an anti-fundamentalist movement against the occupation.”

I don’t know if Mona ElTahawy supports the invasion of Afghanistan or not, but it seems to me she pays precious little attention in this article to very valid critiques of the “Muslim women = oppressed” trope and the way it gets cynically abused by politicians to sell wars which are always about strategic aims, not about women’s rights, and rarely if ever benefit women. Even if you say, no matter how Saudi Arabian women feel about the laws of their country, those laws are still patently unjust – and I do at some point think that is just true – it’s still exceedingly important to acknowledge that Saudi Arabian women do not universally consider themselves to be oppressed, and that oppressive laws do not mean Saudi Arabian women are uneducated, meek creatures who can’t think for themselves and lead singularly joyless lives, which is all too frequently how it gets portrayed. This is I think is the motivation behind things like Kristof’s article, or Ziyah Gafic’s recent photography project on the lives of Saudi Arabian women

So yeah, definitely let’s talk about misogyny in the Arab world and revolution, and let’s not gloss it over either, but I think it matters a lot the way you talk about it and framing it the way this article does is not OK.

Also, I find it frustrating that she is addressing these concerns to a bunch of American policy heads who read Foreign Policy, and not to her fellow Egyptians and the rest of the region, who are at the end of the day, the people that most need to hear what she has to say. Obviously there are a lot of Egyptians who read in English and read Foreign Policy, and we should all be more informed, but the majority of the Arab world is probably not going to see this article, and I think they should (though I bet people would be a lot more likely to hear it out if it did not have the major problems it has with framing). This is not the biggest point, but I mean, if Mona ElTahawy accompanied this with an improved version in Arabic, got it published in one of the major pan-Arab daily papers, or at least got it going round on social media, that would really be awesome.


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