This week, Foreign Policy magazine published a controversial polemicon women’s rights in the Arab World titled, “Why Do They Hate Us?”Mona Eltahawy, a Muslim Egyptian-American journalist and columnist, scathingly and methodically chronicled the dismal state of women’s rights in the Arab world. She suggests that hatred is the ultimate source of the region’s severe gender inequalities and concludes her piece by calling for a revolution in thought in conjunction with current political upheaval.
The article suffers from significant weaknesses, particularly in its presentation. First, its garish body-paint-niqab photographs may have been successful marketing tools, but they also undermined the substance of the piece. Likewise, the title of the piece is distracting because although Eltahawy demonstrated with overwhelming statistics the state of misogyny in the Arab world, she only half-heartedly explained the sources of that misogyny. Therefore, “They Hate Us” may have been a more appropriate title. Finally, using “hate” throughout the piece, instead of the less emotionally charged “misogyny” or “inequality,” inevitably lead to equally charged responses.
Despite these weaknesses (or perhaps because of them), the article shook gender and Middle Eastern studies circles. Eltahawy exposed and chronicled the Arab world’s misogyny as what it is—deep and pervasive. The responses to the article exposed Arab world studies for what it’s become—esoteric and willfully irrelevant.
I do not have the space here to do the subject true justice, but the critiques of Eltahawy’s article utilized certain stock arguments that demonstrate this point.
First is the “monolith” argument. This argument rests on the accusation that a writer is unfairly categorizing a group of people. The trouble with this argument is that generalizations will always ignore exceptions (hence the “general”), but generalizations are nonetheless a fundamental and unavoidable tool in any intellectual conception of the world. And just as scholarship requires generalization, the “monolith” argument is a polemical tool that can be used in any context as a defensive ploy.
The monolith argument is troublesome for a second reason. Take, for instance, Samia Errazzouki’s “You Do Not Represent ‘Us’,” published in Al-Monitor. She writes, “[…] women in the region certainly are victims of a patriarchal society […] this is not the issue. The issue is framing and presenting women in the region as a monolith and pitting their struggles against the backdrop of an argument which points to ‘hate.’” That’s right, gender inequality is a non-issue next to using the word “they.” This is the true state of studies on the Middle East: Semantics is more important than truth.
The cousin of the “monolith” argument, the “it’s more complicated” argument, is likewise an all-purpose polemical tool in the analyst’s toolbox. This argument runs something like this: Misogyny in the Arab world is a product of particular historical, economic, and social constructs, and furthermore, misogyny’s structures and manifestations differ across the region. Along these lines, Tom Dale, a writer at “openDemocracy,” asserts that, “As an Arab woman herself, el Tahawy [sic] undoubtedly does not intend to essentialise Arab societies.” To the contrary, Eltahawy explicitly states that misogyny in the Arab world should be understood in both a general, international context and as a region-specific phenomenon.
As Eltahawy points out, “Not a single Arab country ranks in the top 100 in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report, putting the region as a whole solidly at the planet's rock bottom.”
Both of these sophomoric arguments, the “monolith” and the “it’s more complicated,” are used with Pavlovian consistency to any writing that dares to imply that anything Islamic or Arab can explain injustices in the Arab world. One should be able to acknowledge that Islam and Arab culture are factors in the repression of women in the Arab world. Whether those factors are more or less significant than economic and political factors is, of course, debatable, and sensitivity to Islam and Arab culture may be necessary in certain contexts, but here it stifles meaningful debate.
The fundamental weakness of the critiques is that they intentionally overlook Eltahawy’s main point. They give attention to the “Why?” to avoid confronting the “What?” To my knowledge, none of the major criticisms of Eltahawy’s article even attempted to refute the scope of misogyny in the Arab world.
Meanwhile, in Egypt, recent events underscore the timeliness of Eltahawy’s stand. While the country teeters on the edge of chaos, its parliament discusses the merits of an early marriage law and the“Farewell Intercourse” law.The former would lower the legal age of marriage to fourteen years and the latter would (not kidding) legally enable a man to penetrate his wife up to six hours after her death. Because who says violating women’s rights should stop at death?
Rather than confronting obvious forms of gender-based injustice, most significant thinkers on the Arab world, from both the Middle East and the West, prefer to be apologists mired in muddled understandings of cultural relativism. The steps backward for women’s rights in the Arab World over the last year and a half demonstrate not only the popular base for gender inequality but also that the most recent generations of thinkers on the Arab World have failed to influence that base.Even worse, rather than joining the activists demanding the expansion of women’s rights at this crucial juncture, silence, wrapped in the facade of cultural respect, is the norm.
Eric T. Justin ’13, a former Crimson editorial executive, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House. He is spending spring 2012 abroad in Egypt. His column appears on alternate Fridays.