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Do Arab Men Hate Women? Mona Eltahawy Faces Firestorm

Egyptian-American columnist Mona Eltahawy has once again sparked controversy with an article in Foreign Policy magazine on April 23, 2012, entitled “Why Do They Hate Us?” about discrimination against women in the Middle East. Eltahawy argues that Arab societies are fundamentally misogynistic and that endless abuses against women, “fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion” take place.

Many Arab journalists, bloggers and activists have criticized the way Eltahawy frames her arguments, and expressed anger at the images accompanying the article of a nude woman in black body-paint resembling a niqab, arguing these are stereotypical depictions of Arab women.

Foreign Policy has since published responses by five commentators.

Mona Eltahawy. Photo by personaldemocracy Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Mona Eltahawy. Photo by personaldemocracy Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Eltahawy writes in the article:

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.

In a post entitled “Mona: Why Do You Hate Us?”, Egyptian activist and blogger Gigi Ibrahim writes:

The fundamental problem of Mona’s essay is the context and framework of how she analyzes why women in the Middle East are oppressed and the only reason she could give is because men and Arab societies (culturally and religiously) hate women. This is offensive to most women I know, who read the article and shared the same view. Women in the Middle East are not oppressed by men out of male dominance, they are oppressed by regimes (who happened to be men in power) and systems of exploitation (which exploit based on class not gender). Having women in power in a flawed system will not “fix” the problem either. We had a women’s quota in Mubarak’s parliament, did that change anything for women in reality? It was all ink on paper. Even after revolution, women are consistently used for political grounds by crony political parties. Explaining why women are oppressed without touching on any of the historical, political, or economical aspects of Arab countries, which are not all the same as she tends to generalize in her article, couldn’t be more delusional than this piece.

Hafsa Halawa in Egypt is not completely against the article:

@Hhafoos: Whilst I disagree w her tone & I certainly don't agree w pictures used, there are facts in Mona Eltahawy's article we can't ignore anymore

Syrian-born Palestinian journalist Dima Khatib also takes issue in a post in her blog, “Love, Not Hatred, Dear Mona!”:

We are not weak, Mona, and the Arab revolutions have proved to us that we are stronger than we thought, and the heroines of the Arab revolutions don’t need to be pointed out. I don’t think we need saviors from the hatred and vengeance of our men, especially since the revolutions have proved that we are more than able to stand shoulder to shoulder with men to achieve progress for our societies. Your article paints a picture of the Arab society that matches the images of the article: black, bleak, depressing, a painted black body. You have reduced the problem of the Arab woman to the feelings of men; while she was reduced to pathetic images which perfectly represent the images the West have of her. [...] Arab society is not as barbaric as you present it in the article, which enhances the stereotype of us in the reader's mind, and it is a stereotype which is frighteningly widespread, and contributes to the widening cultural rift between our society and other societies, and the increase of racism towards us.

Lebanese-American journalist and blogger Roqayah Chamseddine commented in a post entitled “Us and Them: On Helpless Women and Orientalist Imagery”:

Not only has Eltahawy demonized the men of the Middle East and confined them into one role, that of eternal tormentors, as her Western audience claps and cheers, she has not provided a way forward for these men. Are they eternally damned? Is this their own manifest destiny, one which has been predetermined at the point of conception? Do they have no way out of the sweeping accusation which brands them as natural haters of women? What of male feminists, are they forever struggling against their innate urge to hate women? Mona Eltahawy has penned both men and women into a non-negotiable situation, charging men with hatred and women with helplessness; and as a woman of colour, of Middle Eastern origin, I will not allow my voice to be co-opted. Mona Eltahawy may be one of us, but she is not “us” nor does she define us.

Egyptian human rights activist Hossam Bahgat tweeted:

@hossambahgat: “Muslims hate their women” is no different from “Muslims are essentially violent”. what a great disservice to our fight

In a post called “I don't really think they hate us!”, assistant professor of journalism Nahed Eltantawy referred to “the empowered Arab women of the Arab Spring”:

When I look at these Arab heroines, who have made their people proud, I don't see hate. I see love, compassion and understanding between young men and women who are willing to work together to create better lives, more freedoms and more just governments for everyone. So, to Eltahawy, I say that your column does not represent me as I don't feel hated. I do have concerns, which might be similar or different to my sisters in Egypt. But I'm confident that whatever social, cultural, political and economic problems I personally face, these are challenges that can be fought instead of simply blaming them on misogyny.

Ayesha Kazmi, who blogs as American Paki, was disappointed at the way Eltahawy's article “spectacularly splintered feminism”:

To claim that the “real war on women is in the Middle East” stakes the legitimacy of Arab women in the war against women, that I view as a global phenomenon not unique to Arab women, while leaving millions of non-Arab women, also victims of systemic misogyny, to fend for themselves. Mona has dangerously isolated non-Arab women from a war that is global. If Mona wanted to specifically address the plight of Arab women, she should have done so without appropriating the entire war as uniquely her own. Take the greater Muslim world for example, could she honestly look an Afghani or Pakistani woman in the eyes and read the title of this piece to them without recoiling?

US-based Middle East scholar Shadi Hamid ‏commented:

@shadihamid: Whatever you think abt @monaeltahawy's piece, says a lot that the very ppl she's trying to “liberate” seem to mostly disagree w her.

This post was written with input from the Global Voices Middle East and North Africa team.
  • Therese

    The original article isn’t about steryotypes, it’s about facts and figures like “When more than 90 percent of ever-married women in Egypt — including my mother and all but one of her six sisters — have had their genitals cut in the name of modesty, then surely we must all blaspheme. ” It is as if all the people quoted here either haven’t read the article at all, or just want to avoid any discussion about womens’ rights no matter how serious and consistent the abuses.

  • http://globalvoicesonline.org/author/leila-nachawati-rego/ Leila

    This is one of the best approaches I´ve read on this issue so far: “For the right wing conservatives it is better to get a woman to attack women. Get yourself a woman to say it for you. I would argue the same for neo-orientalists who would get an Arab woman to say it for them.” http://eipr.org/en/blog/post/2012/04/26/1406

  • http://opally.blogspot.com Opally

    I wonder why the author of this article chose to quote a bunch of hateful, irrelevant, ostensibly “counter” arguments as evidence of … what, “global voices”? As commenter Therese says, the quotes are voices of oppression. They are not responding to the substance of Mona’s article, only to an attention-getting headline. It’s a silly editorial decision to quote them without regard for context, and I feel offended, for Mona’s sake. “Firestorm”? No, it’s a sh–storm aimed at silencing her. I hope everyone who reads this blog takes the time to read the original FP article.

    • http://www.solanasaurus.com/ Solana Larsen

      Likewise, I hope everyone who reads this blog also reads the full posts quoted. Most of the bloggers/journalists mentioned are among leading voices in Middle East blogospheres, so it should definitely be of value to read — even if one disagrees!

      • Other

        Solana:

        That being said they have a lot to lose if they go against the conservative and religious powers often times the very elite that allowed them to be tokens in their jobs as women. It is well known that the Egyptian women are harassed, belittled, subjugated and most are mutilated. It is also well known that there are token women who would sell their sisters out in a moment as they are enemies of their own gender.

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  • http://www.jenniferirizarry.com @jennyfriend

    The author surely was aware of the audacity of the inflammatory images included with a piece intended for an international audience and her tone was hyperbolic for sure.

    However at the core of her writing I sense a legitimate exasperation with extreme forms of political, social, and economic marginalization that are pervasive for women across the Middle East.

    In light of the democratic uprisings across the region, i see this as a dramatic call to demand an expansion and reinvigoration of a women’s movement to flourish within the larger Arab Spring. The use of polite language just wouldn’t fit the bill.

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