The piece below was contributed by friend of the blog Parastou Hassouri, who has been living in Cairo since 2005 and focuses on issues of gender and migration. She is currently a consultant with International Civil Society Action Network's MENA program, which examines the intersection of women's rights, peace and security.
Given that Mona El Tahawy has, for at least a decade now, written about Islam and gender in the Middle East, and primarily for an English-speaking (read “Western”) audience, it is a bit surprising that in her recent piece in Foreign Policy’s sex issue, she would repeat so many of the same ideas and fall into the same traps into which others before her have fallen, providing many a commentator and academic with an opportunity to pounce upon her within hours of the piece’s publication.
El Tahawy’s piece reads like a catalogue of horrors, as she cites example after example of some of the more egregious instances of violations of women’s rights: from Saudi Arabia, where guardianship laws infantilize women, to Yemen, where the practice of child marriage is still all too common, and to her native Egypt, where shortly after the uprising which ousted Husni Mubarak, female protesters detained by the military were subjected to humiliating virginity tests. In the overarching question hanging over the piece – “why do they hate us” – El Tahawy never quite identifies who “they” are, but she does seem to place the cause of this misogyny squarely within conservative religious doctrine now being promoted by some of the political actors that have found a voice in the aftermath of the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
The responses to El Tahawy’s piece came fast and furious. I will admit to only having read about twenty of them, though I am sure there are dozens more. Even before reading the responses, I could have guessed what most would say, for indeed El Tahawy’s piece is reductive and essentialist, at the same time that it generalizes and perpetuates some of the very stereotypes individuals like her have long struggled to debunk.
However, El Tahawy’s piece and the responses to it get caught in the same circular debates that feminist theorists have been trying to address for some time, and highlight the significance of two theories in particular: intersectionality and the double-bind.
Intersectionality, a feminist sociological theory first highlighted by African-American feminist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, examines how various biological and social categories such as race, gender, and class, and politics interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels, contributing to systemic social inequality. Intersectionality led feminists into also writing about the “double bind,” a situation wherein an individual (or group) finds herself struggling to reconcile the sometimes conflicting demands of multiple identities.
It is significant that the theory of intersectionality was first crystallized in the writings of Crenshaw, who, as an African-American feminist, wrote about how the experience of oppression for black women in America differed from that of white women. Since then, Asian, Latina, and Native American feminist writers have also gone on to examine the ways in which the intersection of race/ethnicity, class and sex (among other factors) contribute to the subordination of women in complex and distinct ways.
The most salient criticism of El Tahawy’s piece is that she reduces the complexity of factors contributing to the marginalization of women across the Arab world to the question of hate. Clearly, hate alone, even hate propagated by conservative religious dogma cannot explain the violations of women’s rights. As Leila Ahmed notes in her critique of El Tahawy’s piece, feminists have debated the sources of women’s oppression and found it in many places: patriarchy, religion, class, imperialism, race, among others.
It is impossible to look at the situation of women across the Middle East and other Muslim countries and not see how increasing militarization strengthens patriarchal and heteronormative ideologies that have mutually reinforcing effects on the increased subordination of women and the propagation of masculinities. One cannot ignore the impact of globalization on economic, social and cultural rights as well as restrictions on civil and political rights. The continued growth in the power and influence of the private sector, bolstered by states pursuing neoliberal economic policies has pushed many women (and men) into the margins of society, and into irregular migration networks where they are exploited. After all, the uprisings in the Arab world have been a cry for socio-economic justice. They have also been a cry against authoritarian regimes, which also reinforce gender and other social hierarchies. Religious fundamentalism, which across all religions, is premised on absolute monolithic approaches, is just one the factors which also strengthens patriarchy.
And let’s not forget that patriarchy, which I, like many feminists define as the privileging of male power in all forms of social relations, is a system in which men and women participate. Some of the responses to Mona El Tahawy have raised the issue that women participate in some of the practices which she criticizes, for example Female Genital Mutilation. Or, as one commentator noted, women, just as much as men, have voted Islamists into power. But women’s participation in these activities does not make them any less patriarchal.
Some of the other criticisms of El Tahawy’s piece illustrate the dilemma of the “double bind” that African-American and other feminists have also faced. For instance, when they write about their experiences, African-American feminists often find themselves caught between confronting the patriarchy within African-American communities, and defending their African-American brothers from the broader racism that exists in American society.
Similarly, women who identify as Islamic feminists often find themselves in this bind, as they try to reconcile their feminism and religious identity, and also defend their religion from Islamophobia.
Feminists like El Tahawy who write about women’s subordination in the Middle East, and the critics responding to her also fall into this double bind if they are not careful in how they phrase their message. On the one hand, El Tahawy is accused of playing into Western imperialist agendas. On the other hand, her critics are in danger of becoming apologists who are pawns of their native country’s patriarchy.
Of the other criticisms of El Tahawy’s piece, some did not really engage the substance of her arguments, and came more out of defensiveness about generalizations that she made about Middle Eastern culture.
The criticisms that were made of El Tahawy herself (especially given her vocal support of laws banning the burqa/niqab in some European countries), the language she used (the very title “why do they hate us” evoking post 9/11 discourse and reinforcing an East-West dichotomy), her airing of views in Foreign Policy (a concern that goes beyond merely the airing of one’s dirty laundry, but has to do with the fact that Western powers have in fact used the pretext of saving oppressed women to justify their military interventions in the Middle East, with disastrous results for women), the issue of representation (who is she to talk for us, and the danger, especially of an Arab woman expressing such views and lending them more authenticity), and the images that accompanied the piece (which did tap into the worst orientalist stereotypes) are all well and good, but do not address the underlying arguments she is making.
Some, who felt El Tahawy’s claim to representation was false because they did not see themselves as “hated” or “oppressed” (this was especially the case for those who had participated in protests), accused El Tahawy of focusing too much on women as victims and robbing women of any agency.
The issue of agency has been a salient one in feminist theory: in law, in customary practice, and in cultural stereotypes, women's selfhood has been systematically subordinated, diminished, and belittled, when it has not been outright denied. And as such, much of feminist theory concerns itself with reclaiming this selfhood – the idea being that excess emphasis on women as the “other” that is “acted upon” rather than acting does more to perpetuate their subjugation.
Over the years, many accounts of women in the Muslim/Arab world, especially in mainstream media, have portrayed women as “objects” lacking any power and agency. For those of us who live in the region or have spent significant time here, and who know that the reality is far more complex, these depictions are particularly frustrating. Perhaps El Tahawy’s piece is too focused on violations, as opposed to the ways in which women are challenging them. However, she does end her piece by citing Samira Ibrahim, the only woman who filed a lawsuit after she was subjected to virginity tests by the Egyptian army, and who she quotes, “They want to silence us; they want to chase women back home. But we’re not going anywhere.” El Tahawy’s listing of the violations and citing of Ibrahim is a call to arms – she is specifically calling upon men and women to rise up against these practices.
So, where does this leave women? Both El Tahawy and her critics presumably all ultimately care about the dignity and rights of women in the Arab world and everywhere.
Instead of personal attacks, which are unproductive, and criticisms that do not address the substance of her arguments, it would have been more satisfying to see more commentators engage El Tahawy on the actual merits of her arguments and the underlying causes for women’s situation in the Middle East. To do so, both sides should bear in mind the role that intersectionality and the double bind play and learn from the experience of other feminists who have also dealt with these issues.