What If They’re Really Not Like Us?

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Last month Foreign Policy magazine published its “Sex” issue, featuring an article by Egyptian-American writer Mona Eltahawy, titled “Why Do They Hate Us?”

As soon as the article was published, it faced tremendous backlash, especially among Arab and Muslim women. You can read some of these responses here. Six responses were published by Foreign Policy itself, including one by Egyptian-American scholar Leila Ahmed, professor of women’s studies at Harvard Divinity School. Ahmed and Eltahawy also appeared on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show and discussed the article. Here is the link to the video, which I got via Feministing:

The Backlash

I am going to focus on that conversation between Eltahawy and Ahmed, and why I think they were both talking past each other. But first, a rundown of the basic critiques leveled against Eltahawy.

The problematic images accompanying the article encode most of what is problematic about the article itself.

Essentially Foreign Policy ran images of a naked woman painted black to make as if she were wearing burqa.

I chose not to reproduce the images here, but you can access them via the original Foreign Policy article.

In two of the images, the woman barely covers her breasts with her hands. In all of them, she is silent and passive: just hanging out, nekkid, for the readers’ enjoyment as they read about, you know, misogyny and sexual violence.

The only other photo accompanying the article shows a woman getting beaten up by police (in Egypt? Unclear, there is no caption), and as they pull her clothes off, her bright blue bra is exposed. I did not see any comment about this photo in the other blogs, but it strikes me as just as icky.

Why? I have nothing against bras or nekkidness, but sometimes a nekkid brown chick is just a nekkid brown chick. As Naheed Mustafa writes, these images “reduc[e] women to one-dimensional caricatures with little or no autonomy.”

The Politics of Representation

But if representations of Arab women are what’s at stake, the “nekkid burqa woman” is actually consonant with Eltahawy’s other positions. Samia Errazzouki points out that Eltahawy “took the position in favor of the [France niqab] ban. Her stance on the niqab is convenient to the narrative being perpetuated by the problematic image.”

In other words, according to writers like Errazzouki, this article and these images simply played into Eltahawy’s “convenient narrative” for a Western readership: a monolithic image of the “helpless” Arab woman who needs to be rescued.

Errazzouki and Eltahawy would at least agree on this: Eltahawy is consciously creating a narrative. “Hate” is the cause for the status of Arab women. As Sondos Asem writes, Eltahawy’s women are “hated by the rest of society — more specifically, by men, and even more so by newly elected Islamists.” Hate on the individual level (as in the Alifa Rifaat short story excerpt) and on the societal level. In her interview with Harris-Perry, Eltahawy calls it a “hierarchy of oppression.” Yes, everyone must get basic rights first, and yes, toppling Hosni Mubarak was the first step, but now, “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.”

“Helpless” Arab woman? Eltahawy would disagree with that characterization of her writing. But convenient narrative? That is not a critique of Eltahawy’s article; it is just an accurate description.

This issue of representations: I will return to it later in the post, because it explains why Eltahawy and her critics talk past one another. As for the nekkid burqa woman, Eltahawy may not have chosen that image, but she might as well have.

Going for the Gut

You are a member of a minority that is routinely stereotyped or ignored in Western society, maybe even openly feared and hated. You yourself are cushioned in privilege, and as a result, for better or for worse (but hopefully for the better), you have an opportunity to reach a wider audience. You take this opportunity, as, of course, you should. How do you “go for the jugular” but not “elide things that are worth noting”? Is it even possible to do this?

And when the topic at hand is systemic misogyny and the status of women, how do you get from the political to the personal? “Why Do They Hate Us?” Who is the “they,” and where do they hate the “us”? In the government? At protests? In the bedroom? All of the above?

Eltahawy makes this distinction explicit because her critics do. “Oh come on,” she said, “of course I know you love your wife. I’m not talking about individuals hating each other. I’m talking about a system of patriarchy and misogyny.”

But this distinction is also crucial to her overall point: that their misogyny is different from our misogyny, and that it is so because of “a mix of religion, culture and law.” Sure, American lawmakers are trying to exclude vulnerable minority and immigrant women from coverage under the revised Violence Against Women Act. But Egypt does not even have a Violence Against Women Act.

Yes, Eltahawy says, individual men love their wives and mothers and sisters. But the system hates women. If she did not appeal to this distinction between the personal and the political, she would not be able to speak as freely about Arab misogyny as opposed to regular-grade, standard American misogyny.

Ultimately, that is where Ahmed takes issue with Eltahawy’s characterization of the Arab world. Unfortunately it is also what makes Eltahawy’s characterization so appealing to a Western audience.

Ahmed’s Critique of Eltahawy

Ahmed criticizes Eltahawy for painting with broad strokes. She treats the entire Arab world, Ahmed says, “from Saudi Arabia to Morocco as if there aren’t vast differences between them.” She gets facts wrong: clitoridectomy is an African practice, not an Arab one. In Egypt, where it is practiced most widely, it is performed by both Muslims and Christians.

Ahmed connects the oppression of women to the oppression of an “underclass” in society as a whole. “Is it only women who are oppressed?” she asks towards the end of the segment. What should we make of the fact that Bouazizi, the man whose self-immolation triggered the Tunisian protests, was humiliated and spat on by a policewoman? Above all, Ahmed is hopeful. These laws, she says, are put in place by people who are seizing power after the revolution, but the revolution itself was brought about by young people who find these laws loathsome.

She does not have to make the distinction between political and personal the way Eltahawy does. For her, the plight of women does not result from their hatedness, but rather from living under despotic rule.

But as I suggested above, this distinction between personal and political, between our misogyny and their misogyny, is probably what made Eltahawy’s article seem so common-sense to Western readers. She relates various atrocities committed against women in Arab countries—hell, I could name a few from India, too—and then she makes the obvious (but unpopular) observation: They seem to have it a lot worse than we do.

Now I know why that observation is unpopular, and why it is problematic. Eltahawy might try to wash her hands of aiding Islamophobia and Orientalism, but she cannot absolve herself of the consequences of perpetuating such a narrative. It will be used by Islamophobes and white saviors as a way to look down on Arab men and condescend to Arab women. It will be used to justify real wars and aggression against these countries, all in the name of moral superiority. It dehumanizes Arabs, just like in the photos of nekkid burqa woman. Eltahawy is acutely aware of all these critiques; she even anticipates many of them in the essay and subsequent interviews. “When you come and discuss and talk with our governments,” she said, “they will tell you, ‘This is our culture, mind your own business.’ And I tell you, that culture was not made by women. Don’t fall victim to cultural relativism.” She absolutely rejects the idea that Arab women do not have agency. “I don’t say, ‘Come and invade us and rescue us.’ We don’t need to be rescued!”

The problem is, they still will, whether you need it or not.

The Deceptive “Common Sense” of Eltahawy’s Approach

This whole narrative is convenient, but for some readers, it might have simply connected the dots. It goes back to that obvious observation: that brown women have it way worse than us. Sure, it’s not all brown women. Sure, every country is different. Sure, these women still have agency and are speaking up. But man, did you know Saudi Arabia does not allow women to drive? Did you know 90 percent of ever-married Egyptian women have had their genitals cut? These casual observers might only see unconscionable aggression against women, curiously concentrated in that part of the world. When we hear about similar unconscionable aggressions here, we are apt to take it as the exception, but in the Arab world, we assume it constitutes the rule.

What to make of this curious correlation? Despotic rule, intersectionality of oppression and unique national histories is one causal story. Heightened, uniquely Arab misogyny is another one, and the one provided here by Eltahawy.

As someone who agreed with everything Ahmed said, I still thought it would not win over any converts from among the fans of Eltahawy’s causal story.

The Prescription? More Nuance

To truly win over those converts, we need to engage more fully with this supposed correlation. We can agree with Eltahawy’s premise (Arab women do in fact have it worse than us), and proceed accordingly. I personally find this course of action problematic, and I know Ahmed would too. In any case, it has done us no favors so far. But then we need to probe why we assume these atrocities constitute the norm “there” and the exception “here.” That is an important starting point, but it does not answer for some of the more attention-grabbing statistics quoted by Eltahawy (like driving bans and genital mutilation). If we stop where Ahmed did, the conversation cannot move forward: people will continue to perceive these exceptional atrocities as concentrated in the Arab world, and they will make much of this correlation.

I propose an alternative: rejecting the label “Arab” as a way to generalize across national boundaries. That label might be useful in certain contexts, but in Eltahawy’s piece and in discourse about non-Western feminism, it has become nothing more than a code word that condones gross generalizations and facile portraits of the Arab world and religion in general, and Islam in particular.

I am trying to accomplish something similar through this blog. Nationalist pride is one thing, but labels like “South Asian” or “Indian” or the especially meaningless “desi” meant little to me until I came here. Regional differences that were crucial there somehow got flattened on the way here. We would discuss “Indian American” this and “Arab” that, partly for ease of referral, but years later, we still have not moved past them. Every category is artificial, but these ones especially so: they are overly general, and in articles like Eltahawy’s, they actively aid obfuscation.

Besides, we won’t know if we can handle nuance until we see it in action.

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