My Facebook news feed has been buzzing with critiques of Mona Eltahawy’s latest article, “Why Do They Hate Us?” When the original piece was published in “Foreign Policy” magazine, there was a small debate on a friend’s Facebook wall about how Mona continues to frame her work in problematic ways and assumes the role of a native informant for white western audiences. Critiques of her article have been dismissed by some as mere “debate” or “differences in opinion” without any analysis of how Mona self-appoints herself before western audiences as a spokesperson for all Arab women and confirms simplistic and dangerous Orientalist narratives that play into the larger, racist discourses on Islam, Muslims, and the “Muslim world” (a “reductionist term,” as Dena Al-Adeeb writes, “used to name women from countries ranging from Morocco to Indonesia”).
The vast number of critiques written by Arab, Muslim, and South Asian women call attention to how Mona’s simplistic analysis and characterization of Arab women as “helpless” plays into larger discourses that have a real impact in the world, particularly in the way the US oppresses racialized people in Muslim-majority countries. This construction of the “helpless woman of color” who must be saved from the “dangerous man of color” has a long history of sexual violence, colonialism, and racism. As Andrea Smith explains in “Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide,” when European colonizers enslaved Native women, they argued that “they were actually somehow freeing Native women from ‘oppression’ they supposedly faced in Native nations.” When white colonizers would mutilate the bodies of Native men and rape Native women, they proclaimed “Native women can only be free while under the dominion of white men, and both Native and white women have to be protected from Indian men, rather than from white men.”
If we look at the violent US invasion and military occupation in Afghanistan, we see how the legacy of colonialism continues when Afghan women’s struggles against patriarchy and misogyny are used as propaganda to advance war – one that continues to bomb, torture, and rape Afghan men and women. I don’t believe Mona Eltahawy is calling for the west to intervene in struggles against patriarchy in Muslim-majority countries, but I present these discourses and histories to show how critiques of her article are not “pointless” or “personal attacks,” but serious and important. Performing as a native informant is dangerous, not only because of the racist stereotypes it reinforces, but also because of the way it silences the countless Arab and Muslim women and men who have been fighting against misogyny and other forms of sexist oppression. Egyptian journalist and activist Gigi Ibrahim, who blogs at “Tahrir & Beyond,” writes the following in her response to Mona:
What is very troubling is her belief that she is the “voice” for so many unheard women, who are oppressed and beaten by their husbands or shunned by the patriarchal Arab societies. She is the beacon of hope for Arab Muslim women living the male-dominated Middle East forced to wear the niqab and do slave work at home. Not only does she believe that she is speaking for these women, but she believes that she is one of the few (if not the only) who is brave, eloquent, and educated enough to vocalize these suppressed voices to the Western media like FP, BBC, CNN, who are of course incapable to reach these suppressed creatures, Middle Eastern women.
Nahed Eltantawy mentions some of the Arab women missing from Mona’s article: “Tawakkul Karman, Syria’s Razan Ghazzawi, and Egypt’s female protesters, from Asmaa Mahfouz, Gigi Ibrahim, Nawara Negm, Samira Ibrahim,” and many others who challenge the “weak” and “helpless” western stereotype of Arab women.
As Shaista Patel explains, the Muslim native informant, whether it is Mona Eltahawy, Irshad Manji, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, is always “honored and respected by white men and women to silence and shame Muslim women who critique these Muslim native informants.” Just this morning, I was sent a blog post written by a white American man who wrote: “What amazed me is the backlash by Arabs themselves against Eltahawy, and specifically the backlash from Arab women” (I’m not going to link to his post, but you can put this quote into Google and find it). He suggested that the Arab and Muslim women who wrote these critiques had “issues with the actual speaker” (Mona) and that their criticism stemmed from “the fact that the Arab world’s dirty laundry was being aired so openly in front of a Western audience.” Later, he equated his personal experiences, where Arab women told him not to speak for them, with the experiences of Mona being criticized for her article. This example of closely identifying with a native informant in this manner is not too different than the debate that occurred on my friend’s wall, where a white woman proclaimed her “respect” for Mona as a way to dismiss and silence an anti-racist critique from a Muslim woman. By accusing these critiques of making “personal attacks” against Mona or having issues with airing “dirty laundry,” the actual concern of these critiques, such as Mona’s problematic framework, analysis, and simplification of Muslim-majority countries is completely missed.
This isn’t the first time Mona has performed this way either. As many know, Mona strongly advocates for governments to ban the niqab. Her position is not merely about having “different interpretations” of Islam when the debate is showcased on CNN or other western mainstream media outlets. It’s troubling how the images are juxtaposed when we see Mona debate with Heba Ahmed, a Muslim woman wearing niqab – the former is seen as the “good,” “progressive” and “integrated western” Muslim, whereas the latter is the “bad,” “regressive” and “radical foreign” Muslim. This fits so easily into the west’s dangerous good Muslim/bad Muslim binary. Such dichotomous thinking is engrained in the US’s oppressive international and domestic policies, which are violent for people in Muslim-majority countries and Muslims in the west. One needs to question how Mona’s anti-niqab stance is seen through the white imperial gaze.
One must also question what many of the critiques have expressed outrage over: the extremely disturbing Orientalist images used in Mona’s article. The pictures, which I have decided not to post (trigger warning if you haven’t seen them already) depict nude women in black body paint with only their eyes left bare. I agree with Roqayah Chamseddine that these images are “arguably an oversexualization of what Mona Eltahawy has long despised, the niqab” (her response is shared below). What impact do these pictures have on real Muslim bodies who wear the niqab and how are these images viewed by governments that want to police how Muslim women choose to dress?
Speaking as a Pakistani Muslim man, I believe it is important for all men, including myself, to not deny the existence of patriarchy and misogyny, as well as the ways in which we are complicit in participating in sexist oppression, whether it’s done consciously or through the way we’ve internalized and constantly perform sexist socialization. None of the critiques written by Arab, Muslim, and South Asian women dismiss the reality of patriarchy in Muslim-majority countries, and I believe it is important for all men to understand that as well. These responses are criticizing the oversimplification of patriarchy which relies on a racist construction of “helpless Muslim women” and “dangerous Muslim men” (“imperilled Muslim women, dangerous Muslim men, and civilized Europeans,” in the words of Sherene Razack), which Mona Eltahawy participates in. They are not saying patriarchy doesn’t exist or that men don’t have any responsibility or that no one should be outraged. Personal attacks against Mona should be condemned and no one should silence or shame anyone for speaking about gender violence within our communities. Patriarchy is not exclusive to Muslim-majority nations – it exists everywhere, including in western nation-states that continue to deflect attention away from its misogyny by focusing on the misogyny of “darker” countries. As I wrote in my previous blog post, so many anti-racist women of color feminists have articulated that personal and state violence needs to confronted on both fronts simultaneously, and without relying on the state that wants to destroy marginalized communities. There is a responsible role Muslim men and all men have in dismantling patriarchy, which includes unlearning the sexism we participate in, and I think one of the most important things we can do is listen to these voices.
I’ve shared some excerpts from the responses to Mona’s article below. The first two comments were from an online discussion on a friend’s Facebook wall and are being re-shared with permission:
I think that we need to understand that these debates are entrenched in various power relations. Mona has the backing of the mainstream (read racist) media and society, while somebody like a Sunera Thobani is condemned for giving a speech to a group of feminists in an auditorium. Nobody saw that as a healthy debate when a complaint was filed against her, and her life was under threat. By critiquing Mona and her work, we are not taking away the fact that she was sexually harassed, just like we’ve never wanted to discredit the abuse Irshad Manji’s faced at the hands of her father. It is when a Mona, Irshad Manji and an Ayan Hirsi Ali become the native informants, perform in a way that sits very well with the white Western society’s construction of the ‘Arab world’ and the “Muslim world”, when Bush asks us to watch Nilufer Pazira’s “Qandahar” while bombing Afghanistan and killing and mutilating people that we know that these debates/discourses aren’t necessarily productive for us racialized bodies, especially those whose lives are under threat every single minute of every single day. I have been asked to engage with the Zionists in debates, with the racists in debates but look at who I am and what I have to say and the sheer hostility I would have to and have faced several times from these white folks wanting to sit at the table and have a discussion while people who look like me are being killed every single day. Mona’s work is seductive to white people and some Muslims with liberal and racist politics because of what she has to say, and how she’s supporting the war politics of the West.
I want to add more points: Sunera Thobani is vilified every time she opens her mouth. I have great admiration for her persistence in continuing to speak in public in spite of the relentless and attacks on her person. The other people we are talking about here, e.g. Manji and Elthahawy et al, are making a very good living by saying what mainstream financial/political interests want people to believe. Maybe these “pundits” genuinely believe what they are saying but – it sure works in favor of their own careers as well as the larger economic goal of arms manufacturers to create villains (in this case, brown Muslim folks) who can only be contained by mobilizing national militaries to exterminate them. And then there’s the goal to discredit all Middle Eastern governments and their peoples, in order to justify destroying their infrastructures and fully control their natural and human resources. These public relations games all feed into larger political goals that, unfortunately, are difficult to see for those of us who want to believe that genuine debates actually happen in the public domain. Power relations shape all public debates and are thoroughly scripted to make existing power relations appear “reasonable and good.”
This piece makes many good points, regarding disturbing (to say the least) treatment of women’s bodies in the region. The problem, however, is how Mona frames this. This isn’t about a single conglomerate of men working in synch to repress women. And it isn’t about ‘hate’ either — can we confine people who should be made into partners for the fight for gender equality into being the enemy? Additionally, can we say this ‘war’ is particular to the region or part of the great GWOFB — global war on female bodies (cough)? My ultimate issue with this piece (the ..terrible, terrible photos chosen by FP aside) is that it’s in English. It’s to an American audience. The only thing that it is conducive to is further fueling the flames of the plight of ‘poor Muslim women’ and the general perceived weakness women of brown skin, unable to help themselves. This hurts more than it helps. The piece had potential – but in Arabic.
Lastly, the author mentions that the uprisings were sparked by a man and she hopes they will be defined by women. But they are being defined by women (and men too and there’s nothing wrong with that). Some of the most known names and the most fierce personalities to come out of the uprisings have been women: the AlKhawaja sisters of Bahrain, Tawakkul Kamran of Yemen, Asma Mahfouz of Egypt.
The general treatment of women in the so-called Arab world is deplorable, but it is not exclusive to the region and is not merely a social or moral byproduct.And we cannot, ever, underestimate any woman or group of women’s ability to be able to see the violence and injustices being done unto them. For us to assume so is to be compliant with that violence and injustice.
The laundry list of crimes committed against women, including “virginity tests” and genital mutilation, are serious charges which should not be ignored nor should they be denied. Eltahawy, in her attempt to highlight indefensible crimes against women, reaffirms the banal archetype of the poor, helpless woman of the Middle East-North Africa.
Eltahawy pens a lugubrious tale, where women of the Middle East-North Africa seem to have been forever chained to the floors, as captives. History is conveniently left out of this verbose condensation. There is no talk the Arab women of her native Egypt who defiantly took part in the forceful, countrywide revolution against the British occupation of both Egypt and Sudan in 1919, which led to Britain’s recognition of Egyptian independence in 1922; women, men, merchants, workers, religious leaders, students et al. held unified strikes against the British occupation on a daily basis, not in separate stalls but in the company of one another.
It can be argued that Mona Eltahawy’s piece superficially condenses a complex subject into an easy-to-swallow ‘them vs. us’ dichotomy, where the role of totalitarian leaders and authoritarian politics are both grotesquely marginalized in order to mournfully examine the cruelty of men, purposefully grouped into one easy to attack assemblage. They hate us, she laments, in a most puerile manner. Men hate women. A dichotomy which not only appoints Mona Eltahawy as the representative for all women of the Middle East-North Africa, but has caused many of her backers to argue that women disagreeing with her premise are suffering from a sort of internalized oppression, brought about due to a stigmatized, negative identity they have come to accept due the reoccurring torment women face at the hands of men. The argument that women are hapless casualties of either mans domineering, possessive ”hatred” or of our own inability to see ourselves as such. It is an irony of sorts.
There are also unanswered questions:
1. Why not publish the article in Arabic, therein engaging with the intended audience more directly?
2. Why choose Foreign Policy as the platform and not a media outlet which would direct her piece at those she addresses?
3. Why is there so much orientalist imagery present? If she was not aware that these photographs would be used, did she take it up with Foreign Policy after realizing this?
(read the rest of her response here: Us and Them: On Helpless Women and Orientalist Imagery)
At the beginning of the article, Mona writes that it is impossible to discuss Arab sexism without Arabs bringing up the fact that sexism exists in the West too. The reason I, for one, do that, is to show that patriarchy is UNIVERSAL, that it is not limited to certain cultures (Arabs) or certain religions (Islam). I do that to show that global systems of oppression that exist today (capitalism among them) oppress ALL men and ALL women and create specific types of gender oppressions.
Moreover, I really hate the simplistic analysis that argues that all men hate all women. Patriarchy oppresses men as well as women. Moreover, patriarchy works in very complex ways, which is why it is so difficult to get rid of. Ask men whether they hate their mothers, sisters, daughters, etc and most will say no. Yet they are sexist because they have internalized patriarchy and sexism in complex, latent ways. Personally, I believe feminism means fighting patriarchy (which is intertwined with other systems such as religion, capitalism, etc) and NOT fighting individual men. After all, many women are also sexist and patriarchal because they have internalized sexist discourses, and many men are not sexist because they have unlearned patriarchy.
My final issue is with the publication itself. The majority of Foreign Policy’s audience is western. For them, such a shallow “analysis” will only serve to consolidate and confirm their suspicions and stereotypes about Arab men: the violent, sexist Arab men hate their women. The next step would simply be for westerners to come and save the poor Arab women, who in el Tahawy’s article have yet again been portrayed as victims. (Oh wait, this narrative sounds familiar.)
My point is that it is better to write a long, complicated article that few people will read; than a short, simplistic one that gets lots of attention but does absolutely nothing in terms of social justice or social change. What has this article done for Arab women? What solutions has it proposed?
Mona reveals her liberal, western-oriented worldview very clearly in this article. And I find it extremely insulting to the many amazing Arab and Middle Eastern feminists who have worked tirelessly in order to show how complicated Arab patriarchy is, and how the solutions, too, are complicated. Feminists such as Nawal el Saadawi, who have been so damn careful to show that Egyptian women are oppressed by many forces in many ways, and that Egyptian men too, are oppressed by these same forces, in different ways, who have spent their life being rigorous, careful, and trying to not exclude any experiences. This article is insulting to them, and to feminists such as myself who spend every day being conscious of ways in which I am being patriarchal, or racist, or exclusionary in any way. Who spend my days trying to unlearn the stereotypes I have been socialized into, only to read an article like this that in 4 pages reproduces all these stereotypes and simplistic analyses.
Patriarchy is not simple. Culture is not simple. Women’s experiences and oppression are not simple. And by trying to make them simple, you are insulting and demeaning people’s real experiences.
(read more: A response to Mona el Tahawy)
These were just some of the concerns I had as I read just Eltahawy’s opening lines. And I found almost every paragraph of Eltahawy’s essay similarly troubling as, again and again, broad brushstrokes and sweeping generalizations erased subtle nuances and garbled and swept aside important differences.
It is certainly Eltahawy’s right and indeed even her obligation, as a feminist and a noted journalist with rare and impressive access to American media, to grapple with understanding and narrating the story of women in the Middle East and what she perceives to be the “war” on women in the ways that make most sense to her. And certainly I have no quarrel whatsoever with the will and desire she gives voice to — of wanting to improve the condition of women in the Middle East and bring to an end the wars and other injustices to which they are subjected.
There are, of course, many ways of pursuing feminist goals. Just the other day, I heard a talk given at the Radcliffe Institute by Nadje al-Ali, a professor at the University of London, on the devastating costs for women and children — in terms of the sheer numbers of lives lost, and the destruction, mutilation, dismemberment, and displacements suffered — of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For Eltahawy, who makes no mention in her essay of those wars (or of the deadly struggles in Bahrain, Libya, Syria, or Yemen), the “real” war on women in the Middle East, as she declares in her title, and the one that she most urgently wishes to bring to our attention, is the war being conducted by Islamic patriarchy and misogyny. Ali, on the other hand, who, like Eltahawy, is a staunchly secular feminist, is passionately concerned above all about placing the social costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at the very forefront of our consciousness here in the United States.
(read more: Debating the War on Women)
The issue is framing and presenting women in the region as a monolith and pitting their struggles against the backdrop of an argument which points to “hate.” The argument dismisses the role of figures like Tawakul Karman, Zainab and Maryam al-Khawaja, and others — women who rose through the revolutions and were present in the public sphere during protests and demonstrations, standing alongside their compatriots demanding change and an end to injustices of all kinds. These women stood up as individuals and not as self-proclaimed representatives of Arab women.
Eltahawy points to “hate” as the source and cause of the injustices committed against Arab women. She scapegoats the rise of the Islamists, but Maya Mikdashi debunked that argument a couple months ago:
“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.”
Yet, Eltahawy entirely neglects the socioeconomic roots of gender inequality, the rise of authoritarian regimes in a post-colonialist context, the remnants of dehumanization and oppression from colonialism, the systematic exclusion of women from the political system or those who are used as convenient tools for the regime. There is more to gender inequality than just “hate.” Arab women such as Leila Ahmed and Lila Abu-Lughod, among others, have proven this fact time and time again.
The monolithic representation of women in the region, illustrated by an over-sexualized image of splattered black paint over a nude body, however, does nothing to rectify the position of women in any society.
(read more: Dear Mona Eltahawy, You Do Not Represent ‘Us’)
While Muslim women’s discourse has become compromised by politicians who seek to “rescue” Muslim women from Muslim men, it is possible to skilfully highlight the systemic violence and abuse of Muslim women without sensationally fanning the likes of Samuel Huntington. I find it deeply insidious that Mona repeatedly associates the Arab man with the dark ages – the same Arab man that George Bush, Tony Blair and now David Cameron seek to rescue us from. I am fully aware of where I have repeatedly heard this precise conflation – and it reeks of the odious “clash of civilisations” hypothesis. Is it possible that Mona entirely subscribes to the Western definition of who and what she is, or is she involved in a stealthy political game? From here, it is really difficult to tell but the end result of her article, which was to fragment global feminism, is deeply troubling and most unforgivable; irresponsible at best.
(read more: Oh, Mona!)
Dalia Abd El-Hameed:
Failure to contextualize the issues and to take the economic factor into consideration to show that women’s problems in the Middle East is a monolithic tragedy of patriarchy, is reductive to women’s struggle in their multiple lived realities.
Paintings in the article depicting Arab women naked and painted in a black niqab-style, covering all their bodies with black except for their inviting eyes are really disturbing. One quick stop at the “The Colonial Harem” by Malek Aloula and you’ll understand why these images are orientalist and stereotypical; they reinforce the image of weak covered beautiful woman sending a nonverbal message: “Save me…I am weak, beautiful and naked.”
(read more: What 6 Egyptian Women Say About Mona Eltahawy)
Sherene Seikaly and Maya Mikdashi:
El Tahawy’s article conjures an elaborate battle of the sexes where men and women are on opposing teams, rather than understanding that together men and women must fight patriarchal systems in addition to exploitative practices of capitalism, authoritarianism, colonialism, liberalism, religion, and/or secularism.
The battle against misogyny does not follow a “men hate women” formula. It cannot be reduced to a generic battle of the sexes spiced with a dose of Islam and culture. It cannot be extracted from the political and economic threads that, together with patriarchy, produce the uneven terrain that men and women together navigate. It is these lessons that one would have to engage before meting out an indictment about the politics of sex, much less envisioning a future of these politics. There is no one answer because there is no single culprit, no single “culture” or “hatred” that we can root out and replace with “tolerance” or “love.” Similarly, the absence of a sustained and critical attention to sex and gender cannot be solved, syllabus style, by a separate glossy special “Sex Issue,” the content and form of which reproduce what it purports to critique.
(read more: Let’s Talk About Sex)