Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Mona Eltahawy's Arab Violence Against Women Story Arouses Passions

Mona Eltahawy after being assaulted
by Egyptian riot police.
Mona Eltahawy has published an impassioned and audacious piece about violence against women in the Arab world, Why Do They Hate Us?, and already the twitterati and post-colonialist/post-modernist/post-feminist cohort are after her. It seems she is guilty of 'orientalizing' Arab society with a Western discourse based on civil-rights, equality and individual freedoms. Western assumptions about female emancipation are a form of colonialization imposed upon the 'other' and apparently the Arab-American Eltahawy has joined the dark side described as the "neoliberal agenda of privatization and individual rights," by M.J. Schueller in a paper on cross-cultural feminism and neoliberal identification.

Judith Butler, puts it this way: "The political assumption that there must be a universal basis for feminism, one which must be found in an identity assumed to exist crossculturally, often accompanies the notion that the oppression of women has some singular form discernible in the universal or hegemonic structure of patriarchy or masculine domination. The notion of a universal patriarchy has been widely criticized in recent years for its failure to account for the workings of gender oppression in the concrete cultural contexts in which it exists. Where those various contexts have been consulted within such theories, it has been to find “examples” or “illustrations” of a universal principle that is assumed from the start. The form of feminist theorizing has come under criticism for its efforts to colonize and appropriate non-Western cultures to support highly Western notions of oppression,but because they tend as well to construct a “Third World” or even an “Orient” in which gender oppression is subtly explained as symptomatic of an essential, non-Western barbarism. The urgency of feminism to establish a universal status for patriarchy in order to strengthen the appearance of feminism’s own claims to be representative has occasionally motivated the shortcut to a categorial or fictive universality of the structure of domination, held to produce women’s common subjugated experience."

So, a writer like Mona Kareem in Al Monitor can actually question Eltahawy 's use of the word hate to describe brutality against women: "The essay is also stereotypical, as it relies on generalizations and stereotypes of Arab men to make its point. Eltahawy says “they hate us and we need to admit that!” And then she lists more than three pages of recent violations of women’s rights in the Arab world. The issue at stake here is not whether women are discriminated against in the Arab world, as that argument is well established and is only denied by Islamist maniacs. The issue here is: how the hell can those violations prove an argument of 'hate?'" Huh? Is Eltahawy not allowed to use the discourse of 'hate' to describe heinous behavior?

And, The Angry Egyptian is furious about Eltahawy's and Western journalism's obsessive interest in this issue -- after all women have been at the forefront of the revolution -- but is defensively unable to accept that there may be deep cultural and religious reasons for the oppression of women: "Women in the Middle East are not oppressed by men out of male dominance, they are oppressed by regimes (who happened to be men in power) and systems of exploitation (which exploit based on class not gender). Having women in power in a flawed system will not “fix” the problem either. We had a women’s quota in Mubarak’s parliament, did that change anything for women in reality? It was all ink on paper.” I see, get rid of oppressive regimes and all will be well.

Then Eltahawy is criticized for 'essentialising' Arab societies and for not including other cultures in the scope of her analysis: "...the article singles out 'Arab societies' for criticism.  Whilst, relative to Sub-Saharan, Asian, or Latin American societies, Arab nations are disproportionately grouped at the bottom of the 2011 Global Gender Gap (based on a list of nations which is far from comprehensive, leaving out Afghanistan and Somalia for instance), this is no excuse for not building an analysis which integrates other offenders: half of the bottom six are not Arab.  As an Arab woman herself, Elahawy undoubtedly does not intend to essentialise Arabs societies, but by treating the problems she describes as specifically Arab ones, and lacking in historical origins or non-Arab equivalents, she will unavoidably be perceived to have done so."

This is a typical apologia for some very specific social relations found in the Middle East (and Muslim cultures) and reminds one of the venom that greeted Ayaan Hirsi Ali when she appeared on the scene and was accused of helping to inflame Islamophobia. As one critic put it: "Some Muslim women from Muslim backgrounds have been willing to join forces with media and governments in seeking to discipline unruly Muslim communities. Ayaan Hirsi Ali being the most prominent international example. However, other Muslim women...are painfully aware of the ease with which discussion of social problems within Muslim communities can be appropriated to vilify Muslims in general." 

That fear is understandable for both Arab societies and Muslim communities in the West, but it has been used to silence appropriate criticism such as Eltahawy 's and Hirsi Ali who, unfortunately, never runs out of examples of violence against women within the culture she knows a great deal about...

Newsflash: a roundup of responses to Eltahawy's piece has just appeared on the FP site so I will give you the link while I read it for myself.

1 comment:

  1. The hypocrisy of Susan (Medea) Benjamin, Alice Walker and all the CODEPINK harpies to not stand with Mona and all oppressed women in the Middle East.


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