'WHY do they hate us?" Those words, on the cover of the American magazine, Foreign Policy, have prompted a heated debate across the US, Europe and the Arab world.
"They", in this question, refers to Arab men, "us" to Arab women. The relevant article, by American-Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy, was triggered by her dismay that, following the Arab Spring, democracy seems to be delivering little liberation for women. "Even after all these 'revolutions'," she writes, "all is more or less considered well with the world as long as women are covered up, anchored to the home, denied the simple mobility of getting into their own cars, forced to get permission from men to travel, and unable to marry (or divorce) without a male guardian's blessing."
Her article includes lists of shocking abuses, including the fact that more than 90% of ever-married women in Egypt have undergone female genital mutilation. In Saudi Arabia, she writes, girls were left to die in a school fire because "morality police" prevented them from being rescued as they were not wearing headscarves. In Cairo, when the military cleared Tahrir Square of protesters, they detained dozens of male and female activists and performed "virginity tests" on the women. "Yes," writes Eltahawy, "they hate us."
Eltahawy says she wrote the piece to prompt debate. This, she has done across Twitter, the blogosphere and the traditional media, and a significant portion of it has not been sympathetic. Many have been enraged by her argument. In the Guardian, Nesrine Malik challenged the focus on male hatred: "This is not a disease men are born with, or contract from the Arab atmosphere." No-one has questioned the factual accuracy of the abuses Eltahawy details. Rather, they have attacked a number of key points of her argument and, more specifically, two particular words.
The first is "hate"; the second is "us". The fact that she had the effrontery to appoint herself the voice of all Arab women has led many women to protest. "Dear Mona Eltahawy," writes Moroccan-American writer Samia Errazzouki. "You do not represent 'Us'." Eltahawy, of course, is not all Arab women. She is a reformer, a protestor who, in November 2011, was beaten by Egyptian police and sexually assaulted. It is, however, her use of the word "hate" that has been the most inflammatory aspect of her piece. Palestinian blogger, Rana Baker, describes the notion of hatred as "a simplistic one that ignores the social, cultural and political contexts in which these women live".
Personally, as a Western secularist, I don't have a problem with that word hate. Uncomfortable, inexact and sensationalist it may be, but I understand why Eltahawy was drawn to it. It is almost the child's response in the face of such a litany of abuse to ask what has caused it and to see it in terms of hate. Where, she seems to be asking, does this attitude towards women come from?
We might equally ask, when pondering European or American rape and domestic abuse statistics: why do so many men hate women? The scale of abuse against women across history and different cultures, including, and especially, Christianity, often seems bewildering. For the Arab world Eltahawy makes a small stab at blaming "a toxic mix of religion and culture", but really she is leaving the question out there.
Other criticisms could be made of the commentary, which does not refer to any of the other cultures in which women are abused, and does not even extend as far as the non-Arabic Islamic nations, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Indeed, Eltahawy has risked putting her head above the parapet only to get shot down by other women. But there are also those who defend her. Al Jazeera journalist Amel Ahmed asks: "When will it ever be OK for an Arab/Muslim woman to speak out against her own oppression without fear of being shut down by those who prefer to live in happy denial?"
Like Irshad Manji, author of The Trouble With Islam, Eltahawy has been accused of being a "native informant", someone who comes from a culture and is used by us, in the West, to validate our views of that culture. In support of this notion, it's worth noting that the piece was not published in an Arabic magazine, but in the American publication, Foreign Policy, in English.
This does not mean, however, that Eltahawy can be accused of manufacturing consent for Western action in the Middle East, since the debate she has kicked off is very wide-ranging and has drawn out many other contradictory voices. But Westerners reading the piece should remember that those women who are, as one blogger notes, "killed, mutilated, dismembered and displaced in wars", are part of the story too. We should consider the diverse ways women can be supported towards self-determination and liberation, noting that often it is education and removal from poverty that make the true difference. Educated mothers, it has been shown, are far less likely, for instance, to have their daughters endure female genital mutilation.
Meanwhile, whatever Foreign Policy's intention in publishing the article, it seems wrong to read Eltahawy's words at anything other than face value. For the most part, she is relating plain truths about the realities of life for many Arab women, and for this she should be applauded. Towards the end of her article, she is clearly addressing women of the West. And she asks that we "resist cultural relativism and know that even in countries undergoing revolutions and uprisings, women will remain the cheapest bargaining chips". We cheered on the Arab spring itself. Why would we hold back from cheering on a spring for the region's women?
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