Egyptian-American pundit Mona Eltahawy and I share the same coordinates—liberal and secular—on the ideological map of the Middle East. We also share numerous friends among Arab and Iranian journalists. When I first began publishing pieces about the region, Eltahawy kindly shared my writing with her legions of followers on Facebook and Twitter, garnering me hundreds of new readers with every click of her mouse. We’ve had a few meals together, and those encounters have been nothing but friendly.
More recently, Eltahawy and I have parted ways. This process has mostly played itself out on Twitter, with the two of us trading barbs over the latest #MENA, #Egypt, and #Israel controversies. Eltahawy’s vociferous championing of Khader Adnan, a spokesman for the vicious Palestinian terror group Islamic Jihad who went on hunger strike last February while detained by Israeli authorities, outraged me. Our breach is typical of a broader polarization among Mideast liberals in the aftermath of a chilly and disappointing Arab Spring. My own disillusionment with these movements has been painful: Above all, I’ve been dismayed by young people in newly liberated North Africa reveling in anti-Western and anti-Israel rhetoric rather than rolling up their sleeves to build genuinely liberal states.
Such expressions could be dismissed as the birth pangs of democracy, but that’s no excuse for Western-educated Arab writers to fan the demagogic flames emanating from the region. Unfortunately, many Arab intellectuals have spent the past year advancing an Arab liberalism that betrays fundamental liberal principles. And Eltahawy’s writing has cast doubt on the moral vigor of her liberalism: Last August, she compared riots in Britain over the accidental shooting death of a suspected criminal by London police with the Arab Spring; she also scolded her fellow New Yorkers for celebrating the killing of Osama Bin Laden.
At the same time, Eltahawy has taken courageous, politically incorrect stands, like condemning the burqa. When Egyptian security forces detained and assaulted her last November, Eltahawy would not remain silent. Eltahawy’s courage is prominently displayed in her blockbuster cover story in the latest issue of Foreign Policy on the hatred of women in the Muslim Mideast. “Yes: They hate us,” Eltahawy writes of the region’s Islamist ideologues and the Arab men who perpetuate gender inequity on a day-to-day basis. “It must be said.”
“Name me an Arab country, and I’ll recite a litany of abuses fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend,” she writes. “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.” Amen.
With this defiant declaration, Eltahawy hit a very raw nerve. Salafi types immediately decreed she was a kuffar, or infidel. “Zionist” and “imperialist” were some of the other accusations hurled her way from the Muslim Twittersphere’s fever swamps. Soon, more sophisticated-sounding counterarguments emerged. Eltahawy, they claimed, was echoing an Orientalist discourse that wrongly blames Islam and Arab cultures for the abhorrent state of women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa.
Nonsense. When it comes to Mideast’s endemic misogyny, Eltahawy is dead right.
For starters, her timing was impeccable. Why bring up women’s rights now, she asked, “when the region has risen up, fueled not by the usual hatred of America and Israel but by a common demand for freedom?” As the entire Mideast struggles to throw off the shackles of Arab authoritarianism, “shouldn’t everyone get basic rights first, before women demand special treatment?” This was, in fact, one of the more common refrains among Eltahawy’s critics. “Women in the Middle East are not oppressed by men out of male dominance,” insisted the Egyptian blogger Gigi Ebrahim. “They are oppressed by regimes (who happened to be men in power) and systems of exploitation (which exploit based on class not gender).”
This is an attractive argument at first glance: Change the regime and repression will fade away. Yet experience shows that switching governments does not put an end to discrimination against women in the Middle East, which transcends political systems. In my native Iran, feminists rose up to demand gender equity in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution but were told, including by their fellow leftists and liberals, to set aside their “secondary” concerns until the new political order could be secured. Today, Iranian women are subjected to one of the most entrenched systems of gender discrimination in the region.
Eltahawy got at this problem in her central claim that “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.” To anyone familiar with the daily humiliations meted out to women from the Maghreb to the Gulf—including the entire patchwork of laws and cultural mores limiting women’s travel, dress, and sexuality—Eltahawy’s claim is self-evident.
True, there are country-by-country variations in the forms of and degrees to which one half of Mideast society subordinates the other. And gender inequity tragically persists in other non-Western regions. But the fact remains that, as a whole, the Muslim Mideast lags far behind the rest of the world when it comes to women’s rights. Female genital mutilation occurs in some non-Muslim nations, but only in countries like Egypt does it reach epidemic proportions—or find such zealous religious justification. Modesty norms have been enforced by most cultures from time immemorial, but nothing quite compares to the monstrosities of the burqa and niqab, which completely negate women’s dignity and personhood.
To these impassioned arguments, many of Eltahawy’s critics responded with so much denial and blame-shifting. “Arab society is not as barbaric as you present it in the article, which enhances the stereotype of us in the reader’s mind,” the Palestinian journalist Dima Khatib lectured Eltahawy. That “stereotype,” Khatib went on, “is frighteningly widespread, and contributes to the widening cultural rift between our society and other societies, and the increase of racism towards us.” If only gender apartheid in the Middle East was a figment of the racist, patronizing Western mind—and not a lived reality for millions of women.
The Kuwaiti activist Mona Kareem echoed Khatib. She targeted Eltahawy’s support for the French ban on the burqa, which, she worried, was motivated by “Islamophobia.” Ah yes, Islamophobia, that imperishable co-creation of Islamists and P.C. multiculturalists that alchemically transforms an ideology into an immutable identity, too sacred to withstand reason. More broadly, Kareem claimed, “freedom as such differs in definition from one culture to another and surely from one individual to another.”
This line of reasoning—freedom for some is found under the thumb of a dictator—is a classic trope among cultural relativists. It is also expertly deployed by the world’s most repressive regimes to deflect international scrutiny. In 1990, for example, the Organization of the Islamic Conference solemnly committed itself to upholding basic human rights, provided they do not conflict with the precepts of Shari’a, or Islamic law, and other cultural limitations. In other words: Human rights are universal—except when they’re not.
“The definition of freedom for women cannot be decided based on appearance,” Kareem piled on, “whether it is the niqab or nudity.” This, too, is a seemingly thoughtful position. True freedom is so much more than the right to control one’s physical appearance. Except that, in practice, it is always superficial liberties, like the right to wear bikinis, that actuate and undergird other, deeper freedoms. An Iranian woman flying back to Iran does not put her headscarf back on, as frequently happens once the flight attendant announces the plane’s entry into Islamic Republic airspace, thinking: “I may be losing control over my appearance, but thank God I’m retaining my autonomy in other spheres!”
The question of what precisely to do about the problem of gender apartheid brings me back to my initial contention with Eltahawy. As the Arab Spring’s dangerous trajectory toward majoritarian tyranny demonstrates, the region’s women, minorities, and liberals don’t stand a chance without massive outside support, military and otherwise. Yet a reflexive hatred of that role is a part of the air that Eltahawy and many other self-proclaimed Arab democrats breathe.
Mona: Your righteous anger and clarity about the plight of Middle Eastern women is admirable. But can you bring the same courage to bear when it comes to the entire region?
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