Foreign Policy is one of the most influential journals of international affairs. That’s all the more significant given that they published a deeply flawed and problematic lead essay by the Egyptian critic, Mona Eltahawy. Eltahawy’s piece is called: “Why Do They Hate Us: They Real War on Women is in the Middle East.”
The first image that jumps out at one is the bizarre face-veiled (niqab) blackface images of a naked woman. It is hard to know what to say about this, aside from the fact that it taps into the worst and most crass stereotypes, racist, orientalist, and sexual fantasies of a predatory West. Needless to say, Muslim women do not dress this way, except when imagined by and for the consumption of Western readers. One Muslim woman blogger correctly responded to these exoticized images by stating: “You do not represent us.”
These images are reminiscent of the equally bizarre images that we saw last week with the Swedish Minister of Culture, on the right.
Another problem is the potent usage of “we/us” and “them” language. Eltahawy proclaims: “why do they hate us?” Who is the We and who the Us? The “they” seem to refer to Arab male Islamists. Who are the “us”? Bernard Lewis, the noted Orientalist, asked and answered the “Why do they hate us” question after 9/11 in a way that reinforced every dichotomy of Islam vs. the West, and Eltahawy reinforces these dichotomies. At worst, she fulfills the task of the native informant. There have been insightful critiques of this “native informant” role by Fatemeh Keshavarz and Hamid Dabashi that are worth reading.
It is voices like Keshavarz (image on the right) that journals like Foreign Policy would do well to highlight, though they do not fit into the favorite paradigm of "listen to me, I am a courageous solitary voice out in the wilderness" that the Eltahawy rely on.
Coming back to Eltahawy's essay: At another level, the “us” in "Why they hate us" seems to represent Arab women against “male Islamists”, a dichotomy that itself ignores the fact that many Muslim women are part of the Islamist parties, complexities that scholars like Saba Mahmood has studied.
There are snazzy zingers in Eltahawy’s essay, such as:
“We are more than our headscarves and our hymens. Listen to those of us fighting.”
Yes, the first sentence is powerful, and undeniably powerful. No person of conscience would disagree with it. Yet what I wonder about is where are the women on whose behalf Eltahawy claims to be speaking, and even “fighting”? Aside from manufactured rage, where in this essay, or the hundreds like it by the likes of Irshad Manji, is there evidence of genuine solidarity with the hundreds of women’s rights organizations that are in fact fighting day in and day out in Muslim societies?
What these essays do is to confer upon the author the sacrosanct mantle of moral authority, without in act doing what they claim to do: reach out in humility and service to those who are fighting the good fight against violence, against patriarchy, against misogyny, against radicalism each and every day.
Here is another evidence: Eltahawy includes the powerful rejoinder against “cultural relativism”:
“First we stop pretending. Call out the hate for what it is. Resist cultural relativism and know that even in countries undergoing revolutions and uprisings, women will remain the cheapest bargaining chips.”
While bashing “cultural relativism” has been a favorite target of Fox News, it has also been used by genuine human rights activists such as Shirin Ebadi who have argued against condoning gender segregation and two-tiered models of citizenship based on gender. The difference between Ebadi and Eltahawy is immense: While they have both paid a price, and both suffered through violence and harassment, only one of them, Ebadi (the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner) makes the fight not about elevating her own position, but rather about establishing and networking with human rights and women’s rights organizations that actually uplift the lives and rights of Muslim women. (In fact, Ebadi refused the distinction between women’s rights and human rights, rightly seeing women’s’ rights as human rights.) Eltahawy’s move only elevates herself by stepping on Muslim women.
The problems that Muslim women face in so many different contexts are real, and are in need of urgent remedying. My intention is not to belittle or demonize one individual author. Rather, it is to point that that the solution is through solidarity and networking with the actual real work that is being done on the ground level, not by standing on the (Western) towers of moral patronizing, and elevating one’s own position.
Lastly, pace the assertion of Eltahawy collapses all the serious problems of Muslim women onto the simple categories of “hate”, in a way that is reminiscent of the worst writings of Islamophobes such as Brigitte Gabriel who write books with titles like: “Because They Hate.” In fact thirty years of scholarship on Islam and women suggests that the actual problem is often much more complicated, dealing with a variety of factors such as economics, tribal structures, nationalism, colonial legacy, changing family models, and authoritative discourses that attempt to regulate the body. Hate, it turns out, is simply not a sufficient explanatory category.
Images 1 & 2 are from Foreign Policy.
Swedish Minister image is from New York Times.