Why They Don’t Hate Us: A Critique of Mona Eltahawy’s Perception of Misogyny in the Middle East

I. Introduction

The article’s title is “Why Do They Hate Us?”, where “they” refers to men, and “us” to women in the Middle East. It opens with a short story by Alifa Rifaat, which raised some red flags with me. The story essentially simplifies a woman’s quality of life and allows it to be symbolized as the pleasure she experiences, or is denied experience of, between her legs. If this is supposed to have an anti-sexism message, it does an awfully good job at fully sexualizing women in order to do so. The story concludes with the woman calmly drinking her morning coffee, after finding out her husband has died. I’m not sure how a woman’s chilling satisfaction at her husband’s death is supposed to prove that men hate women. And if I misunderstood the story, and denial of orgasms is the end-all proof of hatred, that still wouldn’t deny the fact that casually sipping coffee after her husband’s death can, at the very least, hint to some sort of equal, if not more, feelings of hatred toward him as a man.

The thesis of the article is then briefly stated,  “We have no freedoms because they hate us”, and “They hate us. It must be said”. Since this is a discussion of women’s freedoms in the Middle East, it therefore must be of political nature. As a result, the mere mention of “hatred” in the realm of politics is shallow. Why? It reduces an intricate sphere of power play into a purely expressive and personal “hatred” between “us” and “them”.

II. The Legitimacy of Omitting Discussion of Women’s Problems in the West 

There is no logical fallacy in dismissing injustices against women in Western countries in the article, as some have claimed. Because, simply, this article isn’t about women in Western countries, it’s about women in the Middle East. For that reason, I see nothing wrong with Mona’s only brief mention of women’s problems in the West and her decision to omit any further discussion on it. It is irrelevant to the article at hand.


III. The Issue of Statistics

I will not discuss the statistics given, as many already have, because frankly controversial evidence such as the statistics provided by Mona, that 90% of never-married women in Egypt have had their genitals cut, will lead to an endless debate. There will be those who demand a source, a perfectly legitimate demand to which Mona responded that its from the Egyptian government and NGOs, but even this will lead to further debate among others on the legitimacy of the sources provided. Thus, I’ll leave it to Twitterverse to quarrel about.


IV. Covering As A Right to Choice

A list of injustices against women in the Middle East is then given: cutting of genitals in the name of modesty, humiliating “virginity tests”, and domestic abuse-friendly criminal code in Egypt, as well as denial of travel, marriage, and divorce without a male guardian’s blessing. However, I was weary as the list went on, with the mention of “women are covered up, anchored to the home”, at that point I felt it’s important to remember that some women do in fact choose to cover their hair, some even dislike the idea of driving a car, others don’t like travelling without their husbands, such decisions made by women ought not be dismissed and likened to the decisions of a misguided victim who doesn’t know any better. Because, frankly, that’s precisely what the clerics mentioned numerously in Mona’s article claim. They claim that women who wish to have such liberties are ‘fooled’ by Western ideas, so it’d only be laughable to turn around and tell women who agree with clerics that they’re ‘fooled’ by conservative ideas. Instead, the demand ought to be for choice, rather than the Rousseauian “forced to be free” concept, where forcing women to be uncovered would somehow be better than forcing them to cover, under the justification of her being “liberated” by the “outside world” which Mona calls upon in the article to, essentially, save these poor Arab women.

I would think that Mona would agree with this, particularly since she mentioned an incident where, “in Kuwait… Islamists fought women’s enfranchisement, they hounded the four women who finally made it into parliament, demanding that the two who didn’t cover their hair wear hijabs”. Now, just imagine for a moment, if liberals were hounding four Islamist women who made it into parliament, demanding the remove their hijab, because it’s “oppressive”. Doesn’t that seem paradoxical? To oppressively and intrusively deny a woman’s decision to wear a scarf to simply cover her hair – because it’s supposedly a symbol of oppression? Both cases I’ve just mentioned are equally unjust. Freedom of choice, not freedoms forced, is what Arab women ought to want.


V. The Case of Saudi Arabia

The status of women in Saudi Arabia is explained with infamous cases of the gang-rape victim who was sentenced to jail, a woman being sentenced to 10 lashes after driving her car, and the like. Mona later asks, “How much does Saudi Arabia hate women?” and answers by recalling the Mecca fire incident in which 15 girls died because the moral police did not let them leave the school because they were uncovered. While all of these injustices are, obviously, horrible, they have nothing to do with hatred of women. If women were “hated”, why, as Mona mentioned, would a royal decree be issued allowing women to participate in local elections, and why would girls’ education been taken away from the grips of Salafis, for the most part, after the Mecca incident? The short answer: because women are not hated. Again, this is power-based politics, not an expressive world of feelings. The gang-rape victim was sentenced to lashes by law, not because she was raped, but because she got in a car with an unrelated man, and to the ultraconservatives this violates their agenda of no-segregation. From their political perspective, if they’d allowed her to “get away with it”, it being when she was in the company of an unrelated man, a bit of their political power would taken from them because their agenda wouldn’t be enforced. So, they seek to maintain their power by enforcing ridiculous unjust sentences such as lashes, for the sake of maintaining their figurative political power. The same can be said for the ban on women driving, though two political players feel threatened by it rather than one. First, the protest against driving began in June of 2011, when the Arab Spring was peaking; the government had perfect incentive to stop any challenge to its political power, even if it was just a woman driving her car. Additionally, ultraconservatives have an anti-liberal political agenda; women’s driving is seen as “western” and is also a part of Saudi liberals’ agenda. If ultraconservatives allowed it, Saudi liberals would “win” a political point. Thus, as I’ve demonstrated with the few examples given, it is not complete hatred of women that drives all problems women face in Saudi Arabia. It’s political players fighting for influence. And, unfortunately, women are typically used at the heart of that fight.


VI. In Defense of Men, aka “Human Wolves”

“Attempts to control by such regimes often stem from the suspicion that without it, a woman is just a few degrees short of sexual insatiability…Yet it’s the men who can’t control themselves in the streets”. While I am in no way denying the existence of sexual harassment in the Middle East, I cannot help but feel appalled at the apparent shift in blame that has occurred. Instead of stopping at women ought not have their genitals cut because it is unjust, Mona goes on to argue that its illogical since men are the ones with uncontrollable sex drives. I take issue with this, firstly for its Orientalist tone; to say Arab men “can’t control themselves on the streets” is to liken them to animals who are compelled to act, rather than rational beings with the ability to choose. Secondly, while I see nothing wrong with an optional women-only subway car in Egypt, there was hardly anything just about the outright ban of single Saudi men in malls. Just this past week, however, this ban has been lifted and replaced with an anti-flirting law. And while the punishment, 35 days in jail, is disproportionately harsh, and whether the law ought to be limited to a ban on sexual harassment rather than flirting can be debated, such a law at least treats men as rational beings with a choice. This is different from a ban that automatically assumes, as Mona states, that men simply can’t control themselves in public.

It is important to note that this articulation of men as unable to control themselves in public is based on the same highly sexualized conception of the male-female relationship that ultraconservative Islamists hold. Both Mona and the ultraconservatives argue from the basis of demonization of men in an effort to emphasize the need to ‘protect’ women and assure their rights. Why must demands for women’s rights be raised to the forefront of discussion by standing on the backs of men? This alienation of men, and promotion of division of genders, only serves to keep women and their rights as the Other – caught between Saudi ultraconservative claims that women will be raped if they drive a car and only ‘safe’ if driven by a driver, and Mona’s claim that women are “hated” by men and will only be ‘saved’ when they’re “liberated” and men are banned from her presence in malls and subway busses, and the like. This is not to say that rights-based laws aren’t needed, for both men and women, it is merely that I reject this demand use the same rationale that requires men to become “evil” so that women can remain the victimized “other”.

As for Mona’s claim in regard to the unfairness of hearing about men being unable to marry rather than women in discussions on Middle East’s economies, while I have nothing against women’s late marriage issues being discussed, I find it only logical for men’s inability to marry be discussed in Middle Eastern economic discussions more since often Muslim men have to pay dowries. Frankly, the inclusion of this example of yet more “hatred” of women is weak, and rather conspiracy-based in nature, as though there were some mass plot to deny women’s sex drives in the Middle East. I just don’t see it. Muslim women don’t pay dowries, Muslim men do, why wouldn’t his inability to marry because he can’t afford the dowry be a legitimate issue?

Additionally, I thought I’d offer two of my own examples of men in Saudi Arabia. Just for a little balance. Last year, a fire broke out in a girl’s school, much like what had happened in Mecca during the 1990s. Twitter was abuzz with the news, videos and pictures spread widely. What I remember vividly to this moment was a beautiful picture of young Saudi men who ran from the boy’s high school section of the school, and were climbing up barely-there ladders to help the girls who’d ended up stuck on the roof trying to escape the smoke. That isn’t hate. Those men were young, they hear the same ultraconservative rhetoric we all do in Saudi, but they still did it. They risked their lives for a few girls. That isn’t hate. Another example is found in a Saudi petition that was released this past week, its from conservative young Saudis, it holds demands like “applying Sharia more justly”, it’s not liberal. Yet, there can be found in this non-liberal petition, a section containing demands for women. They demand women who stay at home to be paid by the government, they demand laws be made to protect women from harassment, etc. And while I personally did not sign it because I do not agree with the conservative and non-secular perspectives it holds, it nonetheless shows concern for women, rather than hatred. This particular example is to show that, while the men signing that petition are mostly conservative and would probably not support women’s driving, for example, that does not mean that it is grounded in some deep hatred towards women. I was actually shown the petition before it was released by one of the men writing it, I actually confronted him with my thoughts that women being paid to stay home sounds unfair since men don’t typically have that same choice. He rejected my point of view and found it quite just to assure women are supported financially.

Yet, I also know that that same man is also against women driving and travelling alone. So, does he hate women? This ought to problematize the generalization of “Middle Eastern men hate women” and even, “Conservative Middle Eastern men hate women”. I hope it’s now clear that “men” isn’t a homogenous ‘thing’ to point blame at, nor is “conservative”. Additionally, “hate” is a very, very harsh word. And it’s a shame that ill-informed readers of Mona’s article will now assume the stereotypical portrayal of ferocious “human wolves”, aka men, who consistently hate and harass women in the Middle East.


VII. Do Islamists Hate Women?

Mona goes on to discuss Islamists in Kuwait, Tunisia, and Libya. The issues of women being forced to wear hijab and the lifting of a ban on polygamy are offered as evidence of the possibly not-so-bright future for women after Islamists come to power in various revolutionary Middle Eastern countries. She goes on to say, “there was a time when being an Islamist was the most vulnerable political position in Egypt and Tunisia. Understand that now it very well might be Woman. As it always has been.” So far, I have read some charges against this section of the article as being Islamophobic because; one, it shows a general fear of Islamists and places them at opposite to women. And two, due to the fact that it clumps all Islamists together, when there are actually many variations in positions Islamists take towards women. Personally, I find this to be a boring refutation. Let us be charitable in reading Mona’s article; let’s assume she is referring to the ultraconservative Islamist positions when she says “Islamists”, not moderates.


VIII. Cultural Relativism vs. Cultural Imperialism & the Right to Choice

Mona describes ultraconservatives as “crackpots” and Islamists in Egypt as “stuck in the seventh century”, she also criticizes Islamist women in parliament, “covered from head to toe in black and never uttering a word”. She condemns the fact that, “when fielding female candidates, Egypt’s Salafi Nour Party ran a flower in place of each woman’s face”. Such a staunch stance against Islamists is likely due to Mona’s position that we ought to “call out the hate for what it is. Resist cultural relativism… You –the outside world- will be told that it’s our ‘culture’ and ‘religion’ to do X, Y, or Z to women. Understand that whoever deemed it as such was never a woman”. Yet, this conflicts with Mona’s examples of women doing just that. She states that, “the woman who heads the ‘women’s committee of the Brotherhood’s political party said that women should not march or protest… let their husbands and brothers demonstrate for them”. Also, the example of women of the Salafi party “covered in head to toe in black and never uttering a word” in parliament, chose to do so. Personally, I don’t cover my hair. But I fail to see what right I, or anyone else, have to deny another woman the ability to do so. Is it because they don’t look “liberated”? Is it because, “we’re in the middle of a revolution in Egypt!” and this means that the liberal idea of women must be applied to all in order for it to be a “success”? And all else is “backwards”, from the seventh century? Regardless of what century such choices came from, they were made today. They ought to be respected. Not labeled “hatred of women” and dismissed as choices chosen by men, when some women do in fact chose them as well. Just as Mona mentioned that some activists in Egypt avoid discussing sexual harassment so as to avoid tarnishing the revolution, Mona ought not avoid the fact that some women do in fact want to make what she, and what I assume was FP’s target audience in the Western “outside world”, would consider illiberal choices. The instant dismissal these women are given in Mona’s article is unfair, hinting that they’re actually men’s choices in disguise, so as to not tarnish her own portrayal of Arab women as all wanting to be “liberated”, all unhappy due to lack of orgasms, and all needing the world to come to their rescue.

This is not an argument in support of Islamists’ dictating laws on how women (or men) ought to be, nor an argument to just settle for the status quo since some women chose to do so, but for the right to choose. Mona’s argument comes across as though the only ‘right’ choice is the “liberated” choice. So what if the Salafi party put a flower in the place of a woman’s face? If the only answer we can come up with is it makes us feel disturbed and uncomfortable, it’s important to remember that Salafis can offer the same argument against political parties that do post pictures of women’s faces. It’s all in perspective. Therefore, arguing for choice rather than a dictated choice, be it liberal or conservative, ought to be our aim. Demand for women’s rights ought to stem from this basis, the right to choice, rather than the right to be liberated from men who “hate” her.

And while some may say that Mona’s arguments were not for “liberation”, but for the halting of hatred. I’ve already argued against men’s “hatred” toward women. I will now restate my argument against Islamists “hating” women and display how Mona has actually affirmed it unknowingly. She, insightfully, points to the fact that “even in countries undergoing revolutions and uprisings, women will remain the cheapest bargaining chips”. The reason for this is because; the transitional period after revolution is typically characterized by the formation of a power vacuum, in various degrees depending on the shape of the previous government. When such vacuums appear, it is only natural for all to seek as much power and influence as possible. In the case of the Arab Spring, many Islamist parties who were once oppressed by previous leaders have come to the surface. And while Mona argues that violations of women’s rights in the Middle East are “fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion”, this cannot be so since when both culture and religion enter the realm of the political, they become ideology. And once a political party or group has an ideology, upholding its reign over others is what assures its political power. Thus, using religion-based justifications in politics is more about the party attempting to assume the ultimate role as interpreter of that religious text, thus gaining political power, rather than about religion itself. In other words, it’s simply a political party trying to push forth its own agenda at the expense of others. This is common in politics and makes a lot more sense than simply stating that Islamists just inherently hate women.

So, when Mona points out that “the Muslim Brotherhood, with almost half the total seats in our new revolutionary parliament, does not believe women (or Christians for that matter) can be president”, we can understand this not as “hatred” of women, but an attempt to maintain their power by claiming to be the ‘correct’ interpretation of Islam, and to also prevent liberals, who support women as president, from gaining a political point and “winning” power over the Muslim Brotherhood. In conclusion, I agree with Mona that women are indeed a bargaining chip. But I believe this chip is used in the power-based game of politics, labeling it as flat-out “hatred” does not begin to explore the predicament of women in the Middle East.



One thought on “Why They Don’t Hate Us: A Critique of Mona Eltahawy’s Perception of Misogyny in the Middle East

  1. Pingback: Saudi Feminism: Between Mama Amreeka and Baba Abdullah « Women and the Arab Spring

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