Fighting Gender Injustice in the Middle East Will Take the Right Words


This week, Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy sparked a firestorm of debate with her article in Foreign Policy magazine, "Why Do They Hate Us?" The article argues that there is a war on women raging in the Middle East. While Eltahawy deserves commendation for so dramatically generating conversation on this vital issue, many commentators have rightfully noted that one must be critical of her oversimplified portrayal. All of this debate begs the question of how advocates for women's rights can actually effect change in patriarchal societies.  

"Why Do They Hate Us?" is a provocative portrayal of various injustices faced by Arab and/or Muslim women. Note: I conflate these terms not at all because I agree that they are interchangeable, but rather to reflect the reality that the terms are largely used interchangeably in this article, and in the debate it has created. Eltahawy asserts that in order for the political revolutions that rocked the region over the last year to truly transform such societies, they must also be accompanied by revolutions which overturn long-standing social practices, and unequal gender relations.   

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.

What's more, many critics have rightfully noted how unfair and misleading the argument is that portrays all Arab men — and implicitly any Arab women who perceive the situation somewhat differently than the author — as hating women. While Eltahawy importantly tells her audience to "resist cultural relativism" (i.e. arguments that attempt to justify injustice against women by arguing they are part of a certain culture), she then relies on the same logic of cultural exceptionalism to imply that Arab and Muslim societies and cultures (unlike others) are somehow innately anti-woman. Such a gravely inaccurate portrayal profoundly inhibits the ability of Eltahaway, and others, to make gains in this struggle by alienating, and demonizing all those who don't come from the exact same perspective.

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?

For all the praise Eltahaway genuinely deserves for shining a spotlight on this issue, we must admit that the western audience she addresses is one that can very easily be convinced that Arab and Muslim women face an onslaught of misogyny — after all, this idea fits seamlessly into the broader, pervasive narrative that Arab and Muslim women are perpetually oppressed. Yet, the inflammatory rhetoric she employs (making generalized statements like "the kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] is unabashed in its worship of a misogynistic God," and "the Islamist hatred of women burns brightly across the region") will certainly not convince those who she is portraying as hatemongers to reconsider their "medieval" views on women.  

To be clear: I understand that it would be naive and unrealistic to assume that all individuals who support practices like female genital mutilation, and the forced veiling of women can be convinced out of such views. Yet I repeat that it is essential to bring the focus to the mainstream populations in patriarchal societies whose views in many instances can be changed. So speaking to them in a language to which they will be receptive — instead of an inflammatory one which generalizes and demonizes their entire culture — is of the utmost importance. And therein lies the real challenge to putting an end to gender-based injustice and improving the lives of women in patriarchal societies, in the Middle East, and around the world.