Mona Eltahawy Jumpstarts an Important Dialogue

Sheila Musaji

Posted Apr 28, 2012      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Mona Eltahawy Jumpstarts an Important Dialogue

by Sheila Musaji

Mona Eltahawy wrote an essay for Foreign Policy Magazine titled Why Do They Hate Us

Almost immediately not only did I see hundreds of Facebook posts about the article, but also articles began to appear on numerous websites, and I began to receive emails asking “have you read this?” and “any comments?”.  It was obvious that what Mona had written had touched a nerve and begun an emotional discussion.

Eltahawy herself joined an online discussion about her article on Al Jazeera saying “As a writer, it’s my job to poke the painful places. So agree/disagree w/what I write, but if it makes u think and pisses you off, then good” 

Whatever opinion you hold about Eltahawy’s article and its thesis, she certainly did “poke the painful places” and stir up a debate.  Eltahawy has succeeded in jump starting an important dialogue.

Danios at Loonwatch asked a good question “There is no way to deny the basic premise that the status of women’s rights in the Arab world is abysmal. Why then did Mona Eltahawy evoke such a hostile reaction from even the Arab women whose rights she seeks to protect?”

For the most part, even those criticizing the article agree that the issues are real and in need of solutions.  The objections are primarily to the way the discussion is framed, to using Western stereotypes, to over-generalization, over-simplification of complex issues, and almost unanimously to those inflammatory photographs accompanying the article.  Many of those critizing the article for these points also pointed out that they admired Mona Eltahawy personally for her work over the years, and hoped their criticism would be accepted as “constructive criticism”.

Here are a few quotes that might shed some light on this discussion to date:

— Critics of Eltahawy agree that the issues are valid, but claim her analysis is too simplistic and irresponsible as it neglects to take into account the complex historical, sociopolitical and cultural influences that factor in. The same critics claim she fails to provide space for the number of advances made by human rights groups that are working to address the plight of women there. They chide Eltahawy for pandering to Western saviors by appealing to “Western feminist” sensibilities and ignoring the fact that under many Arab dictatorial regimes both women and men have suffered tremendously. Thus, though a number of female bloggers critiquing Eltahawy acknowledge the difficulties of being a woman in the Arab world, the consensus, has been a resounding, “she does not speak for us.”  Nadia S. Mohammad
— Reading the article I found myself bristling, yet simultaneously felt guilty for doing so. For who can deny the serious, endemic discrimination from which women in the Middle East suffer? Reading on I tried to convince myself that it was the author’s sensational style that was bothering me, and that this shouldn’t obscure the message, or that the title and imagery were unfortunate, but the problems they were attempting to illustrate were real.  Yet to my dismay I found, as I read on that instead of unravelling and unpicking the usual stereotypes which pepper the plethora of commentary on Arab women and exposing missing nuances, the author simply reinforced a monolithic view – holding the argument together using rhetoric, personal anecdotes and a rhythmic punctuation with her main theme – that all Arab men hate Arab women. It did not help that with every page scroll, a different iteration of an unbelievably misguided shot of a naked woman, posed and blacked out in paint to expose only her eyes, assaulted one’s sensibilities. A lazy effort at controversy, equating women with sex, and jettisoning the whole point of the edition, by ironically, reducing women to the stereotype Eltahawy dismisses as “headscarves and hymens”.  Nesrine Malik

— These were just some of the concerns I had as I read just Eltahawy’s opening lines. And I found almost every paragraph of Eltahawy’s essay similarly troubling as, again and again, broad brushstrokes and sweeping generalizations erased subtle nuances and garbled and swept aside important differences.  It is certainly Eltahawy’s right and indeed even her obligation, as a feminist and a noted journalist with rare and impressive access to American media, to grapple with understanding and narrating the story of women in the Middle East and what she perceives to be the “war” on women in the ways that make most sense to her. And certainly I have no quarrel whatsoever with the will and desire she gives voice to—of wanting to improve the condition of women in the Middle East and bring to an end the wars and other injustices to which they are subjected.  Leila Ahmed

— None of the critiques written by Arab, Muslim, and South Asian women dismiss the reality of patriarchy in Muslim-majority countries, and I believe it is important for all men to understand that as well.  These responses are criticizing the oversimplification of patriarchy which relies on a racist construction of “helpless Muslim women” and “dangerous Muslim men” (“imperilled Muslim women, dangerous Muslim men, and civilized Europeans,” in the words of Sherene Razack), which Mona Eltahawy participates in. They are not saying patriarchy doesn’t exist or that men don’t have any responsibility or that no one should be outraged. Personal attacks against Mona should be condemned and no one should silence or shame anyone for speaking about gender violence within our communities. Patriarchy is not exclusive to Muslim-majority nations – it exists everywhere, including in western nation-states that continue to deflect attention away from its misogyny by focusing on the misogyny of “darker” countries. As I wrote in my previous blog post, so many anti-racist women of color feminists have articulated that personal and state violence needs to confronted on both fronts simultaneously, and without relying on the state that wants to destroy marginalized communities. There is a responsible role Muslim men and all men have in dismantling patriarchy, which includes unlearning the sexism we participate in, and I think one of the most important things we can do is listen to these voices.  Muslim Reverie

— Yet, more than anything else, the fundamental thrust of this article is that the underlying cause of various misogynistic practices — everything from child marriages, to female genital mutilation, to the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia — is a deep hatred of women. 
While her outrage over these practices is fully, and uneqivocally, justifiable numerous commentators have rightfully challenged her portrayal, and have noted the deeply problematic nature of such a reductionist argument, which not only belies the myriad socio-cultural factors that contribute to the perpetuation of such practices, but also undoubtedly affirms the pervasive perception that Arab and Muslim women are invariably victims of oppression.  ...  This brings me to a central question that I feel has not been emphasized nearly enough in the debate: For those of us who are genuinely interested and invested in improving the status of Arab and Muslim women, how can we change the minds of the plurality of people living in patriarchal societies who do not have a deep and inherent hatred of women, but who still may not oppose misogynistic practices because they been socialized to accept them?  In other words, how do we effectively change the perceptions of those in the middle — not the small minority of staunchly misogynistic individuals who firmly believe that women deserve no rights, and cannot be convinced otherwise — but the mainstream majority of both men and women who do not have such deeply-rooted convictions, but who also may not regularly take a stand against injustices towards women because they have grown accustomed to accepting them as the norm in patriarchal societies?  This is the deeper challenge, in my opinion, presented by Eltahaway’s article and the controversy that has ensued. How do women’s rights advocates not just spark debate, but meaningfully move the conversation forward?


Article on women in the Middle East triggers debate

Dear Mona Eltahawy, You Do Not Represent “Us”, Samia Errazzouki

Debating the war on women: 
—Sandos Asem 
— Shadi Hamed,1
—Hanin Ghaddar,3 
— Naheed Mustafa,4
—Leila Ahmed,5

Do Arab Men Hate Women? Mona Eltahawy Faces Firestorm

Do Arab men hate women? It’s not that simple, Nesrine Malik

Do Arabs Really ‘Hate’ Women? The Problem With Native Informants, Monica L. Marks

Does Mona Eltahawy’s Radicalism Advance Arab Women’s Rights?, Sahar Aziz

The Egyptian Feminist’s Dilemma,Naqib’s daughter

Mona Eltahawy Explains Why Women Are Hated In The Middle East, Eyder Peralta

Mona Eltahawy interviews about article:
—on BBC
— on NPR
— Mona Eltahawy and Leila Ahmed discuss FP “Why DoThey Hate US” piece

Mona Eltahawy Makes Headlines Again, Ashley Lauren

Mona Eltahawy is dead right about gender apartheid in the Middle East, Sohrab Amari

Everybody “hates” Mona, Nadia S. Mohammad

Fighting Gender Injustice in the Middle East Will Take the Right Words, Mahda Zohdy

Get an Arab Woman to Say it for You, Dalia Abd el-Hameed

Hatred and misogyny in the Middle East, a response to Mona el Tahawy, Tom Dale

Hatred, Women, and the Arab Spring, Eric T. Justin

The hypocrisy of the “Why They Hate Us” rhetoric of Muslim Native Informants, Omid Safi

I don’t really think they hate us, Nahed Eltantawy

Love, Not Hatred, Dear Mona !, Dima Khatib

Mona:  Why do you hate us?

Oh, Mona!, Ayesha Kazmi

On Muslim-Arab issues and the Danger of Aiding the Neo-Liberal Colonialist Agenda, Phil Brennan

On Mona Eltahawy’s ‘Why do they hate us’—A study in journalistic context/ audience , Massoud Hayoun

The Real Roots of Sexism in the Middle East (It’s Not Islam, Race, or ‘Hate’), Max Fisher

Responses to Mona Eltahawy’s “Why Do They Hate Us?”

Us and Them: On Helpless Women and Orientalist Imagery, Roqayah Chamseddine 

Who is Mona speaking to?, Mohammed Al-Adeeb

Why Do They Hate Us? They Don’t, Danios

‘Why Do They Hate Us?’ A Blogger’s Response, Mona Kareem

Why Mona Eltahawy is fundamentally wrong, Sami Kishawi

Women mad at feminist for defending them, Louisa Ajami

Women and the Egyptian Revolution: An Interview with Mona Eltahawy, Anne Therese Day