14.06.2012In Dialogue: Charlotte Wiedemann & Mansoura Ez-EldinProspects for Women in the Arab Spring
Berlin, 8 August 2012
Charlotte Wiedemann In your last letter you mentioned the Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi. I met her here in Berlin yesterday! One of Madame Mernissi's friends of many years was hosting a private dinner party, to which I had kindly been invited. At over 70, she, as befitting a feminist, had her short hair dyed red, was wearing bright red lipstick and was dressed in various shades of red – a little reminiscent of rural Morocco (I am venturing a guess here; the truth is I am really only familiar with Moroccan cities).
Fatima Mernissi was as lively as ever; while our host was still busy filleting the fish, she had already served up several theses to the group, one of which was that the Arabs would not look to the West anymore. As she said this, she made a gesture as if dropping the West from the tips of her fingers onto the floor, as one might a dirty napkin.
Mernissi has been doing research on the social impact of pan-Arab satellite channels for a decade now, and it is the effect of those, she says, that has brought about the Arab revolutions. They had created a vast space within which free speech and controversy had become possible, she claimed, and had changed both communication behaviour within families and the image of women. She has just published a book in Morocco, in which, following her suggestion, seven successful woman journalists describe their lives and careers. The book is called Generation Dialogue to highlight the difference with a past dominated by male monologues.
Dear Mansoura, I would like to use the opportunity provided by the familiarity we both have with Mernissi to begin an exchange of ideas with you on the subject of sexuality, sexual control and sexual harassment. Mernissi believes that women in the pre-Islamic period were sexually aggressive, that they slept with many men, "reduced men to mere sexual commodities and denied them the right to paternity". In the Muslim social order, therefore, there were many rules to limit the activities of dangerously strong and sexually active women and to keep them under control; this, she contends, was the only way to ensure the pre-eminence of the stable nuclear family, with the father at its centre, as the foundation of the Muslim community.
In contrast to the Western image of Muslim woman as weak victims, Mernissi's women are strong and sensual. Given Islam's explicit recognition of a woman's right to sexual satisfaction, one might be tempted to see this almost as a kind of peace offering. As compensation for the fact that the woman is allowed only one sexual partner, the man had better make sure he works hard to please her. As far as I know, Islamic law sees long-term sexual dissatisfaction on the part of the wife as a ground for divorce. In view of how difficult it is in general for a woman to obtain a divorce, it is remarkable that sexual neglect is given such prominence as a reason for separation. This, by the way, also underlines something else that is often misunderstood in the West: that the Muslim religious marriage is also something man-made, not a "sacrament", as the Catholics call it. What can God do about it, after all, if the husband is lousy in bed?
But I wonder how many Muslim women nowadays have the courage to demand a divorce on grounds of sexual frustration?! This brings us back to the social realities of the present, to the Arab Spring and to the question of how revolution, sexuality and sexual control are related.
Dear Mansoura, you have written very pertinently about the so-called "virginity tests", which one should really call "officially sanctioned rape". You write that these attacks are used "to punish the woman for her presence in the public sphere, which men still see as their domain". What do you think about the brutal gang attacks on women in the area around Tahrir Square? I dismissed the first reports about women having their clothes torn off by a mob as an aberration, sickening though it was. But we can no longer consider this an isolated case. I read the shocking report by the British journalist Natasha Smith and was absolutely disgusted. Egyptian women are certainly among the victims too; it is just that the foreign women are less reluctant to talk publicly about what has happened to them.
I talked about this recently with a young German journalist, who is now working in Cairo. A short time later, he almost had first-hand experience of it when he was out on Tahrir Square with a female photographer. She was attacked, he told me, and it was only by a joint effort that they managed to get her away from the mob and reach safety. I asked my colleague if he thought the men had been a group of organised thugs in the pay of the old regime. But he said no, that they had appeared to be just "normal" men. He described to me the greed and the aggression he had seen in their eyes, which he just couldn't forget.
In an article in the English online version of Al-Ahram, I read that in all their testimonies, the women had talked of groups of spectators who had either encouraged the violence by cheering and shouting or not done anything to stop it. This is something I find very troubling; the behaviour of spectators always reveals more about the state of a society than individual crimes do.
Please help me understand this phenomenon! What is going on here? Does this actually have anything to do with sexual desire? Or are some women being punished, to make an example of them, because other women are becoming so prominent in the public domain? Are the attackers counter revolutionaries, revolutionaries or paid ruffians with whom the "normal" men simply join in?
In the past, women in Germany were often blamed for being raped. They were told their skirts had been too short, and that this had "provoked" the men. Even judges pronounced sentences like this! From this point of view, the woman was the culprit and the man her victim. This perception has changed due to the feminist movement. In other words, some people may still think in the same way as they did in the past, but they no longer have the courage to use these sorts of arguments in public.
Should sexual harassment be regarded as a (possible) precursor to sexual violence? That sexual harassment has nothing to do with the way women dress can be seen most clearly in Yemen. Almost all women there are veiled up to their eyelids, yet many women complain about sexual harassment. At first I thought the women were being oversensitive. A few years back I had a female interpreter there who would make us leave the taxi every time she heard the driver talk in a suggestive undertone. Sometimes women obsess over things like this – and that is something you have also written about – but during my last stay in Yemen, where I was looking at the Yemeni women's active involvement in the public sphere during the revolution, I had a very strong, emancipated female interpreter. She was a very tough negotiator with the taxi drivers. She would haggle over the price and was often showered with the most offensive sexual insults for her trouble.
What's going on?
Are we witnessing an underground battle of the sexes? Or are these the accretions of an epoch in which so much is changing? I am very much looking forward to hearing what you have to say.
With my very warmest wishes,
To read Mansoura Ez-Eldin's reply, click on "6" below.