I cannot stress how much there is going on in this city. I am surrounded by a soundtrack of beautiful languages and the distinct voices of several cultures constantly. This specifically happens while on the subway. A few days ago, while on a train heading home, I couldn’t help but overhear quite an interesting conversation involving two things one doesn’t usually hear in the same sentence: Sex and the Arab World. I wish I heard more of the debate happening between the young man and woman, but the only other thing I could pick up on was that the subject was the main feature in “Foreign Policy” Magazine. Once I was back at my apartment I ran to my laptop and found the article. Wow.
The first thing I noticed was the image accompanying the feature. I probably stared at if for a few minutes before I started reading. It was of course an image that haunted many Arab men and women, and what became a symbol of the revolt in Egypt, showing Egyptian protest police stomping on a woman’s stomach, with her shirt pulled up, disgusting to say the very least. Once I was able to peal my eyes away from the image, I began reading the text of the article.
I was familiar with the name of the author, Mona Eltahawy, from her coverage of the protests in Egypt, and her insight into the role of women during those events, particularly those happening in Tahrir Square. She was even a victim of physical abuse when she was apparently held in custody at the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior. At that time I found her work brave. After carefully reading her article, I have to say that I value her opinion and work a bit less. As we say in Jordan, “nizlat min 3eini.”
There was absolutely nothing new about what Eltahawy discusses. Arab women, as well as women in the West are well familiar with the laws and stories she cites on the unfair treatment of women in the region. In the first few paragraphs, it seemed to me that she managed to alienate the Arab woman more than ever before. Accompanied with these topics was a sense of anger deeply being voiced within the piece, which is understandable given what she had to face at the hands of Egyptian police. Still, the struggle that took place in Tahrir Square, which actually still continues, was a joint struggle fueled primarily by both young men and women. What Western media continued to leave out was the fact that women played, and continue to play a major role in their calls for reform and freedoms.
Despite the fact that I believe Eltahawy was truly attempting to convey a powerful message in support of reform, I feel that she undermined the voice of the Arab woman within the scope of the Arab Spring. More than anything, her piece seemed to be a marketing ploy aimed at entertaining Western readers. I would have preferred if Eltahawy presented her views with a more global angle, that included women from all sides of the world, rather than use her anger to further provide an unbalanced view of sexuality in the Arab and Muslim World.
Post 9/11 America transformed into an Islamophobic arena, and Eltahawy’s argument that culture and religion in the Arab World are the primary factors behind the misery of its female residents is plain wrong in my view, because it undermines traditions that many Arab women actually derive strength from. She presents her statistics and cites laws from Arab nations as a complete story, rather than presenting them as only part of the big picture. This is not to say that the lives of women in the region don’t have to be improved.
Rather than attributing the hardships that women face in the Arab World to male hatred that stems from religion and culture, Eltahawy would have been better off looking up more statistics on governance, corruption, poverty, and education, all of which are, in my opinion, the significant factors that hamper the betterment of the rights of entire Arab populations, primarily women. Images appearing throughout the article were also extremely inappropriate in my view, poking fun at the “veil” and “niqab,” and insinuating that they were articles of clothing Muslim women were forced to wear to avoid facing more hardships at the hands of Arab men, when most research points to the fact that women choose to align themselves with conservative views of their religion.
When it comes to the Egyptian population, any Arab with some sort of background on the history of the nation can tell you that freedom among the population started to dwindle in the post-Nasser era, primarily under the authoritarian regime of Mubarak. It is hypocritical of Eltahawy to suggest diminishing the role of Islamists within the context of political representation in Egypt while calling for enhanced political freedoms. Leaving out a portion of the population defeats that very purpose. As Arab populations continue to struggle to achieve their goals and reshape social and political ideals, cultural heritage and history will be impossible to avoid. Traditions that significantly contribute to the “Arab Identity” cannot simply be shoved aside.
The issue of Women in the Arab World, will I’m sure, continue to be a hot topic as the Arab Spring continues. Making light of it to entertain Western audiences, like Eltahawy has done. dehumanizes Arabs even further, and hampers the empowerment of Arab Women.