Yesterday, my Twitter feed & Facebook timeline were both full of comments praising Mona el Tahawy’s latest article, which you can find here. Even tweeps who I know usually disagree with Mona’s politics were praising this latest work, and that made me very curious to read it. This morning I finally sat down and went through it.
And it is yet another disappointment.
First, the disgusting pictures that are dispersed throughout the article: what and why? I know that often publications choose the pictures that will appear in articles or books, but why didn’t Mona say anything? I mean how orientalist can imagery get?
The title is the second problem. “They” and “us.” That’s when I knew this was going to be an extremely complex analysis.
The article itself basically consists of 3 pages of incidents that have happened recently in various Middle Eastern countries that have affected women, and then half a page of some kind of “solution” which is basically to keep revolting against men. It’s fine that she listed all these incidents. Yes, they have happened, and yes, we need to talk about them. But where is the analysis? Where are the reasons behind why these incidents have happened? Why does patriarchy exist? How do we get rid of it? An article that is so widely praised should at least have a more complex analysis than “men hate women.” Oh wait, “Arab men hate women.”
At the beginning of the article, Mona writes that it is impossible to discuss Arab sexism without Arabs bringing up the fact that sexism exists in the West too. The reason I, for one, do that, is to show that patriarchy is UNIVERSAL, that it is not limited to certain cultures (Arabs) or certain religions (Islam). I do that to show that global systems of oppression that exist today (capitalism among them) oppress ALL men and ALL women and create specific types of gender oppressions.
Moreover, I really hate the simplistic analysis that argues that all men hate all women. Patriarchy oppresses men as well as women. Moreover, patriarchy works in very complex ways, which is why it is so difficult to get rid of. Ask men whether they hate their mothers, sisters, daughters, etc and most will say no. Yet they are sexist because they have internalized patriarchy and sexism in complex, latent ways. Personally, I believe feminism means fighting patriarchy (which is intertwined with other systems such as religion, capitalism, etc) and NOT fighting individual men. After all, many women are also sexist and patriarchal because they have internalized sexist discourses, and many men are not sexist because they have unlearned patriarchy.
Take the issue of female virginity tests, for example. Is this simply because the Egyptian military men hate women? Or is it linked to politics, power, patriarchy, militarization? Is it as simple as the officer hating Samira Ibrahim? No. It’s not. And by making it that simple, you are whitewashing the event and misrepresenting the women and men involved in it (since you somehow claim to speak for them).
My final issue is with the publication itself. The majority of Foreign Policy’s audience is western. For them, such a shallow “analysis” will only serve to consolidate and confirm their suspicions and stereotypes about Arab men: the violent, sexist Arab men hate their women. The next step would simply be for westerners to come and save the poor Arab women, who in el Tahawy’s article have yet again been portrayed as victims. (Oh wait, this narrative sounds familiar.)
My point is that it is better to write a long, complicated article that few people will read; than a short, simplistic one that gets lots of attention but does absolutely nothing in terms of social justice or social change. What has this article done for Arab women? What solutions has it proposed?
Mona reveals her liberal, western-oriented worldview very clearly in this article. And I find it extremely insulting to the many amazing Arab and Middle Eastern feminists who have worked tirelessly in order to show how complicated Arab patriarchy is, and how the solutions, too, are complicated. Feminists such as Nawal el Saadawi, who have been so damn careful to show that Egyptian women are oppressed by many forces in many ways, and that Egyptian men too, are oppressed by these same forces, in different ways, who have spent their life being rigorous, careful, and trying to not exclude any experiences. This article is insulting to them, and to feminists such as myself who spend every day being conscious of ways in which I am being patriarchal, or racist, or exclusionary in any way. Who spend my days trying to unlearn the stereotypes I have been socialized into, only to read an article like this that in 4 pages reproduces all these stereotypes and simplistic analyses.
Patriarchy is not simple. Culture is not simple. Women’s experiences and oppression are not simple. And by trying to make them simple, you are insulting and demeaning people’s real experiences.