A response to Mona el Tahawy

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.


40 thoughts on “A response to Mona el Tahawy

  1. Most problems in nature have simple causes, that can be simply, brilliantly explained. It is an art to explain seemingly complicated problems so anyone could understand.
    To say that men do not hate women in Middle East is to lie, and Mona is an honest person who says what she sees aloud. This hatred is the simple cause of the many pains of being a woman, or basically a human in middle east.

    Your objection toward the magazine, Foreign Policy, that has published Mona’s essay is simply childish. I read it. Japanese students read it. Chinese read it. Pakistanis read it. U read it. And we are not Western, or are we?!!

    Probably whoever does not think the way u think a Middle Eastern should think will be labeled as a victim of oriental-ism mindset! I have spend the first 24 years of my life in Iran under Ayatollah, I am no Western. I am as Middle Eastern as u get.

    Mona did not lie, did not misinform us. If men do not hate Women in Middle East, how about they show it? Ho about not groping women in Cairo, letting Women to drive in Saudi, or stop forcing girls to wear Hijab in Iran. Or many other instances u may know better than me.

    As long as men keep on hating Women, no change will happen in Middle East. As long as Women stay silenced and accuse anything but the culprit for the hatred, nothing will change as well.

    1. I personally don’t read FP and most people I know don’t, but I do know a lot of westerners and Arabibers read it. My point is that it’s main audience is western, not Middle Eastern.

      I don’t label anyone who doesn’t agree with
      Me an orientalist, I label people who use orientalist arguments orientalists, and Mona is one of them. Both in the post and on my twitter feed I make it clear why I think she is using orientalist arguments and if you address these arguments we could have a more fruitful discussion.

      As I said, men hating women is very simplistic. Do you hate women? Does my father hate women? No. He was socialized in a patriarchal culture that made him have some sexist beliefs and behaviors, as was I and as were you. Many feminists have done amazing work on this that goes a lot deeper than Mona’s they hate us argument.

      I can’t believe something as simplistic as this is even being discussed seriously. And I disagree: very few problems in society have a simple or single explanation.

    2. Sterik– what is the population of the Middle East? Actually, no, lets bring it down a notch and look at Egypt. What is the population of Egypt? you telling me that over 40 Million men hate women in Egypt alone? Have you asked them all? Have you wondered the streets of Egypt asking all the men why they hate women? And everyone of them agreed and said “yes, i hate women”. wooowwwww…. interesting claims you make.

      1. Nacho

        I think that by saying “men hate us” Mona is just trying to be dramatic, to catch the attention, to stir the emotions to get a reaction. I have met a few Egyptian men that love women and don’t hate them, but still I have seen appalling amounts of disrespect and abuse towards women in Egypt. Is this coming from the Patriarchal structure of society? Probably. But we should not forget that Patriarchy ans sexism is empowered by women. Yes, women that have been raised by that system, and some may argue that are brainwashed by the patriarchal tools that keep women from education, decision making and freedom.

        I’m from a western country where sexism used to rule, and that in the last 30 years has decreased dramatically. With this I can only say that there is hope.

        From my perspective I think, and I am absolutely unrelated to any feminist movement and not living in Egypt (so excuse me if I come across as an ignorant), that the main target to change this situation should be other women, instead of men.

        Please correct me if I am wrong or if there is any perspective I might be missing.


  2. 1) Well, ok. U don’t read FP, but as the Managing Editor of FP just said on twitter it has a broad international audience. That should be enough to void your claim that FP is for Western folks only.If that’s not enough, how about I tell u I read it! lol

    2) If Mona’s essay was not written in English, I could never read it, tho I do follow all human rights issues in MENA keenly. Mona’s essay was wonderfully powerful and I could relate to it on so many levels as an individual who is familiar with bigotry and hatred first-hand. [It actually made me cry. Even now, when I think of it, I think of all the reported tragedies, all the pain, all the tears shed by oppressed humans, I am crying. Can’t help it! I am a cry-baby.]

    3) Your quick response to label people who, in your opinion, use orientalist arguments is not helping anyone, especially if the person u are criticizing has spend a lifetime in middle east, and was not born and raised in San Francisco, or London. All I am saying is you are too quick to dismiss other’s point of view, simply because you find it “too similar” to the orientalist arguments. instead of labeling people, I suggest, you find logical, or factual flaws in their essays, or discussion. I do believe what I am suggesting is fair.

    Now, what lies, misinformation, or wrong info has Mona disseminated in her essay?

    4) Hate is not truly simple. To hate another person, one has to spend a lot of energy, endure a lot of pain, suppress a sea of emotions, and finally block parts of one’s heart. To hate is not easy, or simple–It is actually a challenge. What Mona is saying only seems simple to you, because u think hating is easy. No. It is not easy, but when it is done, it is even harder to be reversed. But hate is all there is for women/gays/minorities/.. in middle east. It is in small, medium,large and super large chunks scattered in different regions of MENA. women are not the one who hate men, women nurture and love these little men who turn into monsters when they are elder. Even then, women still love them. Time is for men to shed this hatred, or Mubarak, Gaddafi, Bin Ali will keep living in our people’s brains for the generations to come!

    5) Men are responsible, and must be pointed to whenever one is talking human rights in middle east. I accuse men of negligence, arrogance, and tyranny. They are not victims.–at least, not anymore, in this age and time. They have to own up to their faults and repent.

    1. Nacho

      Interesting points.
      Regarding the last one, I think that women also have responsibility. Maninly in the education of the kids and young men, transmitting the culture, justifying the abuse, and demanding their daughters to comply with what is supposed to be right for the men despite the prejudice to the women.

      Just a thought.

  3. Aaaa

    But many men do hate women.

    It’s a lie (and a terrible one) to say it’s Arab men especially – women get raped, mutilated, abused, assaulted and stalked everywhere. Because patriarchy is everywhere.

    But many men do hate women, and this fact cannot be ignored. I agree that the analysis needs to remain nuanced and that fighting orientalism is vital, but we must always name misogyny when we see it. If a man rapes me, I am not going to start making excuses about how he was raised in a patriarchal culture. If a man mutilates me, same thing. The men who do this do hate women.

    So whatever Mona’s articles shortcomings (and I agree with your article, and yes, the pictures are really bad), we cannot devoid men of their agency and responsibility when they commit misogynistic, abusive acts that often entail rape.

    1. I agree, many men do hate women. I am willing to accept this but then el Tahawy should have analyzed the question of WHY so many men hate women. Even if she believes it is because of culture or religion, she should have explained why.

      You’re right about devoiding men of their agency. I definitely hold any sexist/patriarchal man to account for their attitudes, as I do for sexist/patriarchal women. But while we do this, we should also understand how men and women are socialized into being this way. Once we understand, we can start to change it. When a man rapes a woman, he should be held responsible & at the same time we should try and see how our rape culture, media, discourses, etc encourage rape. Both should happen at same time.

  4. Bravo Sara, I kept reading her article in disbelief, as she kept on describing facts that an be accessed via a Google search. Indeed, no analysis and the traditional El Tahawy western oriented, essentialist argument.

  5. Hashim

    Sorry…but your criticisms are as thin as Mona’s simplistic support for her arguments. You choose to focus on the quaint notion of orientalism (its 2012 for god’s sake!) rather than address the main premise of the article: Misogyny is rife in the Middle East. Women are subjugated in a cultural, economic sexual and religious sense and nothing seems to be changing. in fact, it seems to be getting worse with the advent of Islam in politics. Rather than address all the valid points and actual incidents she cites, you choose to nitpick her prose and the fact that its published in a Western periodical. Seriously? As a woman, all you have to say about all the actual events is that it reeks of Orientalism? That patriarchy and its effects are not simple? At least elaborate; otherwise you are guilty of the exact same thing you criticize her for. In fact, your lack of concise commentary on the various incidents cited and your claim that she “misrepresents the women and men involved” is extremely worrying given that she was discussing the appalling virginity tests situation. How on earth is she misrepresenting the men involved? Your near altruism here is even more offensive than the shoddy photos in the article. Not everything is grey Sara, sometimes it IS as simple black and white and right or wrong.

    As an Egyptian who’s lived in the Gulf, whos seen misogyny on every level and who has sisters extremely active in the Egyptian/Arab feminist movement, I’m almost offended by your post. You choose to take the jingoistic stand of: its our Misogyny and we dont need you Westerners to discuss and comment!


    1. Yes, it’s true I didn’t elaborate on the issue of gender oppression in the Middle East, because that’s not the point of my post. Actually my criticisms are simple: that her article simplifies the reasons women in the ME are oppressed; that she claims ALL Arab men hate women; and that doesn’t actually present a solution. If you see these critiques as thin then I can’t really do much – many other feminists have made these same critiques today & yesterday.

      Of course misogyny is rife in the ME, as all over the world.

      I said she misrepresented men and women in general, not specifically in the virginity case, so please don’t put words in my mouth as though I defended the military for the tests they carried out.

      And as for your Orientalism comment – yes, it’s 2012 – doesn’t men Orientalism is dead 🙂

      “Its our Misogyny and we dont need you Westerners to discuss and comment!”
      Nope, my stance is: don’t comment if you’re going to do it in a simplistic, essentializing manner 🙂 Not about being western or eastern.

      Sorry my post made you feel this way. Agree that it isn’t a complex post because I wrote it right after reading the article & because issue is complex. Maybe you’ll find the other critiques better (I think it’s important :


  6. Hashim

    Sara, respect for your prompt reply. You definitely did not change my mind on any of the points you raised though. In fact, you proved most of my points with your responses.

    You originally wrote: “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)” There you go, you are saying she misrepresented the military men. So no words put in your mouth.

    As for Orientalism,whats quaint is your obsession with it. Its a given for god’s sake! But i Certainly dont think the article is in the vein that Edward Said so gracefully illustrated. Westerners are not conducting virginity tests or denying women rights. Now if you want talk orientalism in a sense of foreign policy and how arabs are portrayed in the media, then yes, we would definitely agree.

    I had already read some of the critiques you so generously provided links for, and sorry, they are about as inane as yours! They reek of a little envy actually…but thats just my personal opinion.

    Ultimately, Mona’s article is sensationalist as is much of her commentary. That is her style. You critique the style and not the content unfortunately. Thats all I’m saying. All in all though, keep up the good work on the blog, very interesting.

    1. So it is only Orientalist if westerners are doing it? Not really what Edward Said meant, nor does it convey reality. Anyone can use Orientalist discourses. There I go talking about my “obsession” again 😉

      I stand by my arguments that it is simplistic & essentializing. I don’t think this is a critique about her style only, but also her content. She lists issues and incidents many Middle Eastern feminists have discussed in detail, and then presents a simplistic analysis (men hate women) and no solution. I think this is a critique of both style and content.

  7. Hashim

    Its orientalist in a sense that you are so concerned about how its portayed or interpreted rather than what is actually happening! Anyway, take some smileys as they seem to be your other obesession! 😉 😉

    1. Haha, I admit to that – sometimes I can over-focus on how west perceives things instead of what’s actually happening.

      Also admit I am obsessed with smileys.

      See I’m flexible 😉

  8. sunshineandiceplants

    Well said. Mona’s article was indeed very simplisctic and somewhat racist too in my opinion. If only Arab Men hate women, then how do you explain Rush Limbaugh? Or even Richard Dawkin’s infamous sexist attack on Rebecca Watson. Misogyny in Not restricted to Arab men only.

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  10. Thanks for writing a fantastic and important critique, Sara! I agree with other commenters that there *are* a lot of men who hate women and that we should never ignore or make excuses for misogyny. I don’t believe your article was making accuses for misogynistic men, but was rather critiquing the simplistic framework in which Mona Eltahawy writes and the native informant role she performs. When we struggle against white supremacy and call out racism, we are not hating individual white bodies, but rather challenging whiteness and how interlocking systems of oppression produce and maintain serious power imbalances.

    I think it’s important for men to read these critiques and recognize their responsibility in unlearning and dismantling patriarchy as well. My Facebook news feed was buzzing yesterday with critiques of her article and one of the important points that all of them expressed was how Mona speaks to a western audience and claims to represent all Arab women. I’ve also read posts where some are criticizing these critiques and saying they’re “pointless,” or that Mona’s sensationalist commentary doesn’t matter. However, Mona’s performance as a native informant for western audiences and reinforcing popular Orientalist stereotypes about the “Arab world” (a reductionist term) needs to be challenged because of the way these narratives have a greater impact on real Arab and Muslim bodies.

    I remember when Mona debated Heba Ahmed, a Muslim woman wearing niqab, about the niqab ban, I questioned how showcasing such a debate on CNN would be perceived through the white imperial gaze. Yes, there is a religious debate that Muslim women are having about dress, but when this conversation is broadcast in western mainstream media, it becomes something entirely different and plays a significant role in the larger discourse on Muslims and Islam. The juxtaposition of images in this debate between Mona, who strongly supports the niqab ban, and Heba, who chooses to wear niqab, furthers the perception that the former is the “good,” “progressive” and “integrated western” Muslim, whereas the latter is the “bad,” “regressive” and “radical foreign” Muslim. This fits so easily into the west’s dangerous good Muslim/bad Muslim dichotomy.

    I agree with one critique that the oversexualized images of naked women painted in black has much to do with Mona’s anti-niqab stance.

    1. Thank you for your comment Jehanzeb 🙂 Got attacked quite a bit yesterday so was starting to wonder if I went wrong somewhere. Like you said, my post was not to say that there is no gender oppression in the ME, or to defend misogynistic men. My point was to show how simplistic Mona’s arguments are and how she is doing more harm than good. Native informants can be extremely dangerous.

      The audience is always important, and that is why I brought up FP’s audience. FP, at the end of the day, is read by certain kinds of people. The pictures they chose for this article show that they have a certain kind of audience. It’s stupid to ignore this, and to put Mona’s article within the larger framework of who she is writing for, and who celebrated her piece.

      Her anti-niqab stance was what first made me dislike her politics. Since then her comments regarding the role of Israel/America in the Egyptian revolution and her comments on Palestine have really made me angry.

      Thanks for the comment!

  11. thanks for this, i enjoyed reading your point of view. and i think its great that you criticised her article rather than her personally cause for some reason everyone has decided to insult her as a person, which i find stupid and sad. I dont always agree with Mona, But i have to disagree with you a bit i think that people obsessed over one or two points like the title and the pictures and the mention of Islam and decided to hate the whole article. I’m an Egyptian living in Egypt and i’m sure you’ll agree with me when i say Sexual harassment, rape and overall sexism is in an all time high and womens rights are in a all time low. we have calls to remove the law criminalizing sexual harassment! we have a woman in parliament asking to legalize female circumcision! things are getting bad! we need articles that slap these topics in the face, people who’ll write long articles that will shed light on how women are treated in the arab world and get people talking about it! yes, we need to revolt! we need to get our voices out there and speak up the “lets stay quiet” strategy is why things have gotten this bad in the first place.

    thanks again.

    1. The point of my post was not to deny any of the incidents Mona mentions. As I said in the post, we do need to talk about these problems. Living in Egypt makes it clear that there are serious gender issues and a very deep patriarchal system.
      Many Egyptian and Arab feminists I know have addressed and are addressing all of these problems, in a much more nuanced and complicated manner than presented in Mona’s article. If you read someone like Nawal el Saadawi, it’s amazing to see how deep she goes in analyzing Egyptian patriarchy.

      I agree with you that Mona’s article sparked an important debate (although it has also done a lot of damage). We need to have more and more pieces that promote these debates, for sure!

      Thanks for commenting 🙂

  12. Romeo ANdersson

    Very interesting discussion. Unfortunately I do not see any “simplistic” approach in Mona, neither do I see any “complex” thing in Sara´s argument. The main point is there are problems, more so in the ME region, politically and culturally…who is at fault? This is a very complex question that does not have a “simple answer”. The SA president recently got married to his 4th ( or 6th , do not remember) wife…he ( or she) most probably is not a Muslims; so “islam” is not unique in enslaving women. It is the state of the social evolution, psychological evolution, and material development that determines where a society stands on issues of sexual equality, justice, respect etc. Sara raises issue of “solutions”…I as a physician am not well versed in social and political science. To me universal demilitarization is the 1st step, secondly the societies should be governed by secular principles because religion is static, life is NOT. The third evil is neo colonialism. If these three conditions are well met, the Monas and Saras would be in peace (along with all of us). Sorry it may be a “simple” solution in Sara´s eyes. Thanks.

    1. The point of my post was not to explain patriarchy or give solutions for it, but just to explain why I find Mona’s article problematic 🙂 Other blog posts I have written deal with issues of patriarchy in a more complex way.

      I completely agree with you that demilitarization and neocolonialism are major problems, and both strongly promote and intersect with patriarchy, as do capitalism, certain interpretations of religion, and so on. Explaining how and why these problems lead to patriarchy is definitely not easy, but many Middle Eastern feminists have dealt with these issues in detail.

      I also completely agree with you that “It is the state of the social evolution, psychological evolution, and material development that determines where a society stands on issues of sexual equality, justice, respect etc.”

      None of the great points you mentioned were in Mona’s article, and that is why I found it simplistic.

      Thanks for commenting!

  13. Romeo Andersson

    Thanks Sara. Two of the other weapons are literacy and democracy. I know democracy is not a cure of all illnesses but it is a very useful institution. A lot of oppression in the ME would not have happened if there was democracy. I follow the debates on the BBC and it appears that the ME youths are rapidly becoming quite urban, if I may use the word. These are MTV, Google and Facebook, and twitter generations. I am sure within a few years things will rapidly change if there is no major war and no major natural catastrophe. Let us all keep hoping for a better tomorrow for each and every human being on this planet. Modern civilization needs a million Sara and a million Mona. Good night from northern and chilly Europe.

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  16. reemoz

    Thanks for an amazing post. Writing an entire article that reaffirms stereotypes and creates further division between Arab/ Western feminists is not helping

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