Since yesterday it appears Mona Eltahawy has had her hands full fending off the massive outrage her Foreign Policy article entitled “Why do they hate us? The real war on women is in the Middle East” provoked. Even much to the dismay of disappointed feminists, her tweets suggest those disagreeing with her have not bothered to provide intelligible debate. However, it was pretty clear, even yesterday, this was certainly not the case.
I realise Mona has likely been quite swamped with responses. But her tweeting patterns suggest that she is responding mainly to two types of people: those that are lauding her work, and those that have been shamelessly slandering her. The problem is that there is a whole host of people in between who want to engage with her intellectually and respectfully while explaining to her precisely why they disagreed so deeply with her piece. After my own numerous attempts to try and engage with her, it appeared pretty clear she wasn’t particularly interested in this type of engagement.
So, here I am, irritated and disappointed, attempting to add to the host of blog responses to Mona Eltahawy – unsure of whether or not she will even bother to read the many sensible rebuttals, or whether she will continue to push the idea that no one is providing coherent retorts. I have made peace with this likelihood before I even sat down to write this.
First, I have to come clean with my own biases: I do not approach this rebuttal from an Islamic perspective. I am very open with everyone I come into contact with that while I identify as Muslim, I am non-observant. This is a very clear choice I made a few years ago that is very personal to me. That said, in my regular job as a researcher in terrorism laws and counter-terrorism strategy, I vehemently oppose the criminalisation of Muslims in western countries as the “suspicious other” and the barbarisation of the Muslim world by the media and western foreign policy. I am an anti-war, anti-racist, anti-Zionist, anti-prison, pro-gay rights/marriage, anti-imperialist, anti-security industrial complex, feminist activist and have been involved with activism since I was 14. I believe in Allah (God), and I believe that S/He created humanity as equals – to love and to be loved as one of our greatest yearnings. This is what unites us.
Perhaps, then, you can imagine it was much to my chagrin when I saw how much Mona’s FP article spectacularly splintered feminism. At this point, I have successfully lost count of the number of women who told me that the title of her article bothered them – but they couldn’t quite figure out why it was. I will tell you why: it is because the title divorces the countless number of women who might identify with the very real grievances they have living under a ruthless system that hates women, from the broader war on women. To claim that the “real war on women is in the Middle East” stakes the legitimacy of Arab women in the war against women, that I view as a global phenomenon not unique to Arab women, while leaving millions of non-Arab women, also victims of systemic misogyny, to fend for themselves. Mona has dangerously isolated non-Arab women from a war that is global. If Mona wanted to specifically address the plight of Arab women, she should have done so without appropriating the entire war as uniquely her own. Take the greater Muslim world for example, could she honestly look an Afghani or Pakistani woman in the eyes and read the title of this piece to them without recoiling?
I agree with Mona: if a Muslim woman feels the need to speak openly about the abuse she suffers by the messy amalgam of religion and culture, she does no favours to anybody, particularly herself, by remaining quiet. If a Muslim woman wants to point her finger at a man, or even a cleric, she feels has wronged her and other women and draw attention to his misogyny, she must not be afraid. Her right to action was not only historically protected by the earliest Muslim communities, but it must be protected in our present day context. There should be no need for her to be politically correct – as these are issues of abuse, not politics. Most unfortunately, these are issues universal in nature.
The problem is not that women like Mona are openly speaking out against the abusive systems in the Arab and Muslim world. Rather, it is that the very private domestic problems in Arab and Muslim families have become hyper politicised and subject to political misappropriation by politicians. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron used the very sensitive issue of forced marriages and honour killings to tout the European defence and security industries at the Munich Security Conference in February of 2011, to justify the exponential increase of surveillance and the militarisation of Britain. English Defence League (EDL) sympathisers then use these cases to illustrate why they want Britain to close its borders to immigrants from the Muslim world and to justify hateful protesting in Muslim communities. Too many Muslim women have told me that they would rather remain silent than open up and potentially risk the possibility of providing the EDL more fuel. In short, the politicisation of domestic abuse and violence against Muslim women have made them all the more vulnerable and have in some instances, prevented them from seeking much needed recourse.
Most critically, these are delicate issues. While Muslim women’s discourse has become compromised by politicians who seek to “rescue” Muslim women from Muslim men, it is possible to skilfully highlight the systemic violence and abuse of Muslim women without sensationally fanning the likes of Samuel Huntington. I find it deeply insidious that Mona repeatedly associates the Arab man with the dark ages – the same Arab man that George Bush, Tony Blair and now David Cameron seek to rescue us from. I am fully aware of where I have repeatedly heard this precise conflation – and it reeks of the odious “clash of civilisations” hypothesis. Is it possible that Mona entirely subscribes to the Western definition of who and what she is, or is she involved in a stealthy political game? From here, it is really difficult to tell but the end result of her article, which was to fragment global feminism, is deeply troubling and most unforgivable; irresponsible at best.
I repeatedly attempted to engage Mona on twitter last night, with no success. I wanted to tell her how offended I was as a Pakistani woman that she has hijacked the war against women and has claimed the Middle East as the chief battle ground. Then, as if to prove my entire point about the dangers of her article, I received a tweet from an Arab woman attempting to qualify my voice in this debate: “Why are you even talking about this? Are you Egyptian? Arab? I don’t see you presenting any countering facts. If so, guide me.”
Perhaps we should all be congratulating Mona instead. For she has treacherously contributed to the categorisation of knowledge into meaningless, non-contextual clusters and away from an interdisciplinary globalised understanding of how our system that treats corporations as people, rewarding enterprise to the detriment of human dignity – and our commonality as subjects of a deeply corrupted capitalist system from China to the United States and everywhere in between – into an isolated “Arab Women Only” discipline. As a Pakistani woman, to have been chastised by an Arab woman when speaking on this issue, is merely the tragic outcome of seeing women’s struggles as isolated instead of interconnected and co-dependent.
So, my hats off to Mona Eltahawy. While your sensational article now receives acclaim from Dutch MEPs and you get offers from the BBC to sit on debate panels, the rest of us, who care about academic integrity and honest accurate debate, remain here – perhaps not receiving as much publicity as you, but hastily attempting to clean up the fallout from your very precarious article. Your words may be powerful, but I have faith that the love and compassion between woman-kind will win this one.