Egyptian army soldiers drag a female protester along the ground during clashes at Tahrir Square in Cairo in December 2011 (photo: Reuters)
Mona Eltahawy's controversial article in <i>Foreign Policy</i> magazine

An Attempt to Portray Arab Women as Victims

In the May/June special issue of the American magazine Foreign Policy, the Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy published an article claiming that the root of women's problems in the Middle East is quite simply that men hate them. Opinions on the article differ widely. Joseph Mayton asked a number of women in Tunisia and Egypt what they thought of it

Anger, frustration, Orientalist, misrepresentation … these are just a few of the words that Arab women have used to describe a recent article by Mona Eltahawy entitled "Why they hate us", which details Eltahawy's belief that Arab women are under siege from men in the Middle East.

The article, published by the American Foreign Policy magazine in its May/June special "The Sex Issue", has left Arab women angry over the content and the images of nude veiled women that accompanied the article.

"I just found this article to be something that angry white men who want to help 'save' us Arab women would find useful," said Zeinab, a young student of political science and women's rights advocate from Tunisia. "I usually feel that Mona's work is hard-hitting, but this article shows a lot about her hatred of Islam and an attempt to portray Arab women as victims."

Islam as the "bad guy"

Mona Eltahawy (photo: dapd)
Over-simplifying the matter? "Yes: They hate us. It must be said," wrote Mona Eltahawy about men in her article about misogyny in the Middle East

​​Zeinab argued that the manner in which the article is written is problematic at its core. She said that by attempting to make Islam out to be the "bad guy" it delivers a message to the Western audience that "we women are suffering greatly and that they need to come save us from the horrible men that continue to hate us."

For her, this is an inaccurate portrayal of Arab women across the region. Zeinab argued that there is no one "over-arching claim that all Arab women are suffering. It is impossible, and irresponsible to make that claim."

Others who criticized Eltahawy pointed to Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia as examples of countries where women's rights have been boosted in recent years. "There is simply no connection that can be made for all Arab women," said Dalia Ziada, a leading women's rights activist and commentator in Cairo. She argued that "women's rights are important and that we have to keep struggling, but there is no uniform argument that can be made to link women across the region."

Positive response from western Women

Eltahawy's angry diatribe did hit home among Western women, who felt the article was a solid portrayal of the ongoing struggle for women's rights in the Middle East. "It was a great piece from a woman who has suffered first-hand at the hands of male attackers in Egypt," one foreign journalist living in Cairo said recently. "Women have it bad here, and Mona once again attacks and puts the situation in context," she added.

Dalia Ziada (photo: Dalia Ziada)
Dalia Ziada acknowledges that much remains to be done in terms of women's rights in the Arab world but dismisses the generalizations about men and women in Eltahawy's article

​​In her article, Eltahawy wrote: "Name me an Arab country, and I'll recite a litany of abuses fuelled by a toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend."

But commentators responding to her article argued that the piece is flawed in its assumptions. "I know she presents herself as a feminist before anything else and this is why I am so concerned about the idea she proposes in this essay," began Mona Kareem in a response published by Al-Monitor.com.

"The fact that Eltahawy supported the niqab ban shows where she stands on ideology: she's a liberal Arab-American with what I'll call an 'Anglophone feminist' approach," Kareem continued.

For many, including Kareem and Ziada, the major problem and frustration with Eltahawy's article is not that it delivers important points that need addressing – they admit there are certainly issues pertaining to women's rights in Egypt and across the region that must be discussed openly and publicly – but it is the change in language between the first-half of the article and the latter half that worries them.

Equating Arab men with Muslim men and Islamists

"Islam is not the problem, but Mona changes to Muslim men at the end of the article and this is dangerous for the audience who is reading the piece," Ziada added. True enough, somewhere halfway through the article, Eltahawy begins to change her language from "Arab men" to "Muslim men" and then to "Islamists", which Arab women say delivers a message that Islam is the culprit for all the ills of women in the Arab world.

Heba Radwan, a young 20-year-old activist and Cairo University student, argued that in Egypt, "this is as far from the truth as can be." And she continued to say that "Mona should know better than to make these connections, because she supposedly understands Egypt and the Arab woman.

Demonstration in Cairo against police violence against women (photo: dapd)
Women and men protesting side by side in Cairo against police violence against women: Zeinab, a Tunisian woman who spoke to Joseph Mayton, was annoyed by the implication in Eltahawy's article that Arab women are victims or that they need to be saved by the West

​​

"In Egypt, when we women are harassed, it is not by the Islamists or the Muslim Brotherhood, it is by young people, Muslim and Christian, so to argue that Islam is a problem that is the cause of Arab women's problems is hurtful and wrong."

At the heart of the matter, argued Zeinab, is that Eltahawy "should not be speaking for all Arab women. She doesn't live in the region and is more American now. I do not feel a connection to her like I used to, and her parading around as the spokeswoman for me as an Arab woman is frustrating."

Kareem agreed: "The essay is also stereotypical, as it relies on generalizations and stereotypes of Arab men to make its point. Eltahawy says 'they hate us and we need to admit that!' And then she lists more than three pages of recent violations of women's rights in the Arab world. The issue at stake here is not whether women are discriminated against in the Arab world, as that argument is well established and is only denied by Islamist maniacs. The issue here is: how the hell can those violations prove an argument of 'hate?'"

Dialogue is key to the future of women's rights in the Arab world, said Ziada, and  despite the anger and frustration levelled at Eltahawy's article, she hopes it can at least become a starting point for a dialogue between Arab women and the Western world.

Joseph Mayton

© Qantara.de 2012

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

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Comments for this article: An Attempt to Portray Arab Women as Victims

WHILE WE SORT THROUGH MANY ARTICLES AND GET THE 'UNDERSTANDING' THAT WOMEN ARE GENERALLY BELITTLED IN THE MUSLIM COUNTRIES,WE MUST ADMIT WE DO NOT GET FIRST HAND REPORTING ANYMORE FROM THE DANGER ZONES,WELL NOT AS MUCH AS WE USE TO. I AM PERSONALLY WONDERING IF THE SAME REPRESENTATION IS MADE WITH 'PEACEFUL' ISLAM? HERE WE SEE THE REPORTING OF MUCH KILLING AND REVOLUTIONS IN MUSLIM COUNTRIES. IS THIS MISREPORTED TOO?WE HEAR VARIOUS MIDDLE EAST WOMEN WHO HAVE COME TO AMERICA LIKE HIRSI ALI AND BRIGITTE GABRIEL,DO THEY HAVE AN AGENDA FOR NO REASON? UNTIL AND NOT BEFORE, WE CAN GET VISIBLE REPORTS OF 'HAPPY' MUSLIM WOMEN OR MEN,WE CHOOSE TO BELIEVE TO BE OPEN,BUT NOT BE BRAIN-BELITTLED BY PEOPLE WITH A MUSLIM PERFECT AGENDA!

JOHNNYANGEL ADV...10.08.2012 | 19:37 Uhr