Many people have now written reactions to Mona Eltahawy’s emotionally evocative piece on the state of women in Arab Muslim countries. As a former poco firebrand I could anticipate what arguments these reactions would draw upon: “nations” are an archaic unit of analysis, Mona deprives Muslim women of agency, Mona appeases the dusty bones of long-dead Orientalists, Mona doesn’t attribute all negative outcomes to Global Patriarchy, Mona neglects ‘intersectional’ analysis etc. It is no surprise that I stand vindicated by the good folks at The Arabist and also by Foreign Policy’s in-house compilation. The Arabist’s writer, to her credit, recognizes that many of the reactions are ad hominem and don’t do the only thing that matters in debates over accuracy:
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…
So, what is the truth? Will this writer endeavor to even identify data, such as GSS opinion, that could answer the ‘attitudes’ component of Mona’s argument? As the writer continues:
…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.
Sondos Asem, of the Muslim Brotherhood, understands these feminist concerns very well:
what we need are sustained, nationwide campaigns to raise awareness and dissociate religion from repression of women. We also recognize that, in some cases, we cannot wait for educational efforts to take root…Contrary to the underlying argument in Eltahawy’s article, we believe that religion can be the main driver for renouncing violence and the repression of women. Islam empowers women both in their households and in society. Men and women are both entitled to the same level of respect, social status, and protection under the law.
Shadi Hamid, of Brookings, offers thoughts far more in line with my own (and ties it into an example from south asia):
Which brings us to an uncomfortable question: What if Arabs decide they want to be illiberal? The Arab Spring provided an opportunity for the United States to align itself with the universal values that so many Arabs hold dear — the right to be free, to vote, to peacefully protest, to express their opinions without fear of persecution. But some seemingly universal values — regarding not just gender but a number of other issues — are not universally held. It is a slippery slope. The controversial Indian feminist Gayatri Spivak took this sort of cultural relativism to its logical but troubling conclusion when she argued that British attempts to abolish suttee – a tradition in which a woman burns herself to death after her husband dies — denied Indian women their own agency.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, of Park51 “cultural center” fame:
For his time, the Prophet Mohammed was a revolutionary feminist. Before him, Arab women had no rights; they were men’s property. Before Islam, men could have as many wives as they wanted…As it has in other countries, Islam as practiced in the United States is taking on many of the cultural norms of American society. American Muslim women drive cars. No one advocates genital mutilation here. Muslim women enjoy the rights and privileges of all American women.
Leila Ahmed, of Harvard University’s school of divinity:
There are, of course, many ways of pursuing feminist goals. Just the other day, I heard a talk given at the Radcliffe Institute by Nadje al-Ali, a professor at the University of London, on the devastating costs for women and children — in terms of the sheer numbers of lives lost, and the destruction, mutilation, dismemberment, and displacements suffered — of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For Eltahawy, who makes no mention in her essay of those wars (or of the deadly struggles in Bahrain, Libya, Syria, or Yemen), the “real” war on women in the Middle East, as she declares in her title, and the one that she most urgently wishes to bring to our attention, is the war being conducted by Islamic patriarchy and misogyny. Ali, on the other hand, who, like Eltahawy, is a staunchly secular feminist, is passionately concerned above all about placing the social costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at the very forefront of our consciousness here in the United States.