The emergence of the “Muslim woman question” in Egypt

Qasim Amin's book
Qasim Amin’s book

I just went to a talk by Nadia Fadil about “Islamic feminism and decolonialism” which was absolutely fascinating! What I really like about her work is that she traces the history of feminism in the Middle East in order to show its clear links to European modernity, the Enlightenment, and colonial processes. These links informed the way feminism was discussed and debated in countries like Egypt, and continues to influence the way we talk about gender today.

She argues that in the Middle East, the “women’s question” did not emerge due to the desire of women to be included as “equal citizens” (this is how it emerged in Europe); rather, it emerged as a project by Egyptian men to be included in modernity and as a way for them to assert themselves as political and modern subjects.

She speaks about Qasim Amin in particular, who many see as one of the pioneers of feminism in Egypt. She argues that his interest in the “women’s question” and feminism is because he saw it as a way for him to be seen as modern, enlightened, and on an equal footing with Europeans. In other words, he instrumentalized women in order to represent himself as modern and enlightened.

Asserting women’s rights becomes a way for Amin to assert himself as a full modern human subject.

Therefore it is clear that the The “woman’s question” in the Middle East emerges as a derivative of the Muslim question. The question is: how compatible are Egyptians with western liberal modernity? The answer is to be found in how Egyptian men (and culture) treat women. Therefore for Amin to be seen as compatible with western liberal modernity, he has to see and treat women in a certain way (as do all Egyptians).

Amin choosing to focus on the “woman’s question” had less to do with position of women (and how to advance it), and more with the extent to which Egyptians can enter history and be seen as modern political subjects (i.e. through certain views of women). The civilizational hierarchy was thus defined through gender. Egyptians need to adopt a certain language to be seen as equal. Egyptian men needed to speak in this language (especially about women) in order to be considered as equal political subjects, to be given political agency and to be granted the right to speak.

This whole discussion reminded me of how gender was invoked during the Egyptian revolution, with questions of “where are the women?” and whether the revolution could be considered “successful” if women’s rights hadn’t been achieved (rights being defined in a very specific way). This discourse serves once again to implicate gender into any questions of modernity and progress: Egyptians can only be seen as modern political subjects if they have certain gender practices.

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Sexual Harassment

Originally I had planned to write my Masters thesis on the issue of sexual harassment (SH), so I started doing research on the topic. Most of the work on it has come from the US, where sexual harassment first became a major issue in the workplace. One major explanation for SH was that it was a way for men to let women know: “you don’t belong in the public sphere, so we are going to make you feel as uncomfortable as possible.”  In this case the public sphere referred especially to the workplace, which until today is mainly the preserve of men.

I wondered whether this explanation made sense in the Egyptian context. SH has reached unprecedented levels in Egypt and has become a major social problem.  Many explanations have been given, mainly by the media, including economic problems keeping youth on the street, a conservatism couched in religiosity has been spreading, and a general degradation in morals due to strict dictatorship. None of them really seem to explain why SH is so widespread.

The public sphere argument made the most sense to me: men just didn’t want women to feel comfortable when they were out in the public sphere. They want women to feel out of place so that men can continue to feel that the street belongs to them. I feel this every single day when I leave my house to get into my car. Cars drive by honking, men who are standing around turn and look. All of it makes me want to step back inside and never leave the house again. And it definitely has a cumulative effect.

A few days ago, I interviewed Alaa al-Aswany, who is a famous Egyptian author (Yacoubian Building) and political commentator. We touched on the issue of SH and his explanation was that men did it because they felt humiliated by the state and society, and so felt the need to make someone else feel humiliated. This explanation makes the most sense to me for a few reasons. One is that men here don’t seem to harass because they think they will get a girl’s attention; they do it in a way that is just harmful, disrespectful, and demeaning. I’ve never felt that a guy harassing me is flirting or wants to talk to me – he just wants to make me feel bad about myself. Another reason is that Egypt is not a sex-deprived society, and so it cannot be the case that men are harassing for that reason. Also, Egyptians have been continually humiliated for decades, and this has hit the youth especially hard, so it makes sense that many people just want to make sure they aren’t in it alone; that they won’t be humiliated alone.

It is also possible that there isn’t *one* explanation for SH in Egypt. I definitely reject the argument made by some westerners that it is just “how Egyptians are.” Aside from being racist, essentialist and neo-Orientalist, it is also historically inaccurate since SH in Egypt is a new phenomenon. Until now, the two explanations above are the only convincing ones, and the only ones that could help explain why SH is so widespread. During the revolution, it is a fact that for 18 days, not a single case of SH was reported in Tahrir Square. What does this mean? Of course moments of euphoria, national consciousness, and bonding lead to positive behaviors, but then this would have lasted past the revolution. Instead, right after Mubarak stepped down, the SH resumed. My thoughts would be that this happened because the system hadn’t changed, and people continued to feel undignified in their everyday lives. Only when the entire system changes, will social issues like these disappear.

The need for sex categories

I just read this interesting comment:

It is impossible to discriminate on the basis of sex if you can’t tell what sex a person is. In one famous psychology experiment, doctors would hand an infant to an unsuspecting volunteer in a room where they could be observed, and leave for a few minutes. The infants had white diapers and no indication of whether they were male or female. Most of the volunteers were unable to interact with the infants, and in their need to know if the infant was male or female, so that they could say either, “What a big strong boy you are,” or “What a pretty little girl you are,” tried to peek under the diapers (link here).

If people don’t even know how to interact with babies without knowing their sex, no wonder socialization is so strong! No wonder we are so trapped in our sex/gender roles that we can’t even imagine a world where we are more than just “men” or “women.”  No wonder so many genital mutilations are done on babies that are born intersex: it is too much of a threat to have people out there who do not fit the TWO categories we have created.

Sad.

The Man Box

I’ve been reading blogs for a while now, and there are a few posts that I remember really influencing me. One of these was by Jehanzeb from Muslim Reverie, called The Man Box (link here):

A recent online discussion sparked a heated debate over the idea of platonic friendships. A video was shared about Steve Harvey, author of “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man” (I don’t blame you if you want to headdesk after reading that title), who told CNN that women and men cannot be friends. His argument was that platonic friendships could not exist because men are always seeking an opportunity to make it more than just friendship. He backed up this claim by simply saying, “Because we’re guys.” In other words, all men are the same and biologically programmed to be attracted to every woman they meet.

I explained to my friends that my problem with Harvey’s comments is that they are sexist and homogenizing. In the heterosexual context, arguing that women and men cannot be friends reinforces a lot of rigid and sexist norms about gender. It perpetuates the popular stereotype that men are innately sexual predators who “cannot control” their “desires” or “urges,” while implying that women cannot be sexual and are “delusional” for believing that they can have male friends. I do not deny that there are challenges in platonic friendships, especially when one person is interested in something more than friendship, and I do not deny the possibility of physical and/or emotional attraction. Certainly, there are people who have struggled in maintaining friendships with the opposite sex, but it doesn’t mean that true platonic friendships cannot exist, or that women and men must be completely segregated. It doesn’t mean women and men are wired to exclusively view each other in a sexual and/or romantic context. A brilliant blogger at “Oh, You’re a FEMINIST?!” criticizes the way Good Morning America once cited a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that found opposite sex friendships have a 15% chance of ending in an affair.  The show emphasized on the 15%, but never asked about what happens 85% of the time.

In many ways, dichotomous conceptions of gender service patriarchy because they assign sexist gender patterns to both women and men. Consider, for instance, how sexually promiscuous men can justify their behavior by merely saying, “Hey, I can’t help myself. I’m a guy!” This “excuse” not only equates male sexuality with sexual promiscuity, but also standardizes such behavior to make it socially acceptable (as is evident in how men are judged in positive ways with words like “stud,” “pimp,” “player,” “Casanova,” and so on). Of course, if a woman behaved in the same or similar manner, she would be called a “slut,” “whore,” and other degrading insults. What is often overlooked is how dangerous this sexual double-standard is and how it’s another way to control women through shame, humiliation, and judgment.

On the same thread, a couple of people supported Harvey’s statements by bringing up John Gray’s “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” book. I mentioned a feminist critique of the book and explained how extremely problematic Gray’s presentation of the sexes is. Aside from the fact that Gray writes from “his own observations” and doesn’t include a single footnote in the book, he treats all men as alike, and all women as alike. He states that when men are troubled, they will “retreat” to “their cave” (which he defines as their television room, basement, workshop, etc.) because they need “alone time” to “sort things out.” Gray suggests that there is nothing a woman can do or change about her male partner’s refusal to speak or express himself. She is supposed to leave him alone because that’s how all men are: we’d rather just sit in front of the TV than seek help and communicate with our partner.  In actuality, credible research shows that men tend to resort to bullying and abusive behavior when they are troubled (source cited in Julia T. Wood’s critique, “A Critical Response to John Gray’s Mars and Venus Portrayals of Men and Women”).  It is true that women and men have differences, but to treat them as if they’re from different planets essentially creates an unnecessary barrier and completely shuts down room for healthy dialogue. After exposing Gray’s sexist and totalizing portrayals of gender, a male Muslim defender of the book called my analysis “militant” and “tainted by an aggressive feminist flare.” I took it as a compliment.

What I found discouraging was how antagonistic a couple of the Muslim men were towards feminism (and, for the record, I know plenty of non-Muslim men who would vilify feminism as well). Although there was a Muslim man who agreed with me on the thread, he was quickly pushed out of the conversation when the debate became about feminism.  I prefer bell hooks’definition of feminism, which she describes as a movement that seeks to eradicate sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression. It is a movement that recognizes the interlocking nature of sexism, racism, classism, and other forms of oppression, and how these injustices must be confronted in order to radically restructure society and bring about revolutionary, transformative change. I argue that Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was a feminist because his elimination of female infanticide in 7th century Arabia, along with other revolutionary acts, sought to end sexist oppression, sexual violence, and male domination.

Despite sharing this definition of feminist philosophy and politics, I was told by one of the Muslim men that feminist classes are “full of rubbish” and “nonsense.” He also said, “You need to learn about manliness in Islam.” The other Muslim man said that women and men cannot be friends because a man is “weak” and can “succumb” to his “desires” at “any moment” and at “any time.” In other words, regardless of how deeply in Love a man is with his life companion, being alone with a female friend would cause him to cheat on his wife/partner. After all, men simply cannot control themselves!

From an Islamic perspective, I’m sure most Muslims have heard the Hadith that says the devil is the third person when a woman and man are alone together.  Aside from the fact that Hadiths are disputed (and that there are Muslims who will only follow the Qur’an), there is a Qur’anic verse that may shed some light on an individual’s responsibilities and personal relationship with the self:

When everything has been decided, Satan will say, ‘God gave you a true promise. I too made promises but they were false ones: I had no power over you except to call you, and you responded to my call, so do not blame me; blame yourselves.’ (Qur’an 14:22)

What stands out to me is how Satan says he has no power over a person and that he can only call the person.  The choice to respond to his call is yours alone.  So, if the argument is that women and men cannot be friends because men are “weak” and “succumb” to their desires, then why bother teaching self-discipline and self-control at all in Islam?  Why teach about mutual respect and that we are individually responsible for our sins?  Why treat men as exclusively sexual creatures who will want to sleep with every woman they meet?  Islamic teachings, particularly from the Sufi tradition, emphasize immensely on cleansing the self, building a personal relationship with the self, as well as with God, because there are conscious choices and decisions that we all make.  I want to clarify that I’m not saying every heterosexual person should have friends of the opposite sex, nor am I suggesting that I look down upon people who refuse to have such friendships.  I completely respect a person’s decision to abstain from opposite sex friendships (for whatever reason, spiritual or otherwise), but what I find problematic and offensive is how segregation of the sexes is often used to display one’s “religious superiority” over another person.  In other words, respectful dialogue is not encouraged when someone argues against platonic friendships while declaring that it is “un-Islamic,” “sinful,” and “against the Sunnah,” or way of the Prophet.

The comment about me needing to “learn about manliness in Islam” made me not only consider the way feminism is often stereotyped as being about “women dominating over men,” but also how strict and suppressive male social norms are.  In December, a couple of months after I wrote my post,“Eradicate Masculinity,” I saw an incredibly moving and inspiring TEDvideo featuring activist and lecturer Tony Porter, who encouraged men to break free of the “man box” (the video is posted below, so please check it out whenever you can!).

The “man box” is a social construction; it contains the ingredients that are required for a man to be considered a “real man.”  Similar to Jackson Katz’s documentary, “Tough Guise,” Porter describes how men are constantly taught and socialized to be “tough,” “strong,” “dominating,” sexually promiscuous, etc.  Even in times of weakness and emotional distress, men will conceal their pain and sorrow by projecting a false image of themselves.  Porter tells a moving story about the loss of his teenage brother and how his father would not cry in front of him.  It was only until they were in the presence of women did his father eventually break into tears.  Later, Porter’s father apologized to him for crying, while commending Porter for not crying.  Why is it so shameful for men to express their emotions, their weaknesses, their doubts, their need for Love and compassion?  We think the “man box” actually protects us from looking “weak,” or “sissy” (which is really code for “being a girl”), but what it actually does is lock us up in a tight, suffocating prison that sucks the humanity out of us.

If the “man box” teaches us that being a man is about not being a girl, then, as Porter asks, what does that say about what we teach about girls?  Doesn’t that uphold the Mars and Venus mythology that women and men are like different species that cannot transcend socialized gender norms?  What does it say about male and female relationships, be they platonic, romantic, father-daughter, or mother-son relationships?  What does the “man box” tell us about masculinity and how it operates in terms of who gets to exert power, who gets to dominate, and who gets to control?

In heteronormative societies, to criticize masculinity is to challenge something that is celebrated in the mainstream. Deconstructing the way masculinity has been and continues to be defined is to criticize social norms that are glamorized and rewarded.  bell hooks contends that all men must “begin to criticize the sexist notions of masculinity… that equate manhood with ability to exert power over others, especially use of coercive force.”  She also adds that this violent and sexist construction of masculinity is celebrated in mainstream media:

Most men who are violent against women are not seeking help or change.  They do not feel that their acceptance and perpetration of violence against women is wrong.  How can it be wrong if society rewards them for it?  Television screens are literally flooded daily with tales of male violence, especially male violence against women.  It is glamorized, made entertaining and sexually titillating.  The more violent a male character is, whether he be hero or villain, the more attention he receives.  Often a male hero has to exert harsher violence to subdue a villain.  This violence is affirmed and rewarded.  The more violent the male hero is (usually in his quest to save or protect a woman/victim), the more he receives Love and affirmation from women.  His acts of violence in the interest of protection are seen as gestures of care, of his “Love” for women and his concern for humanity.

This image of the violent male hero/protector is  undoubtedly a dangerous standard that continues to perpetuate in most societies.  It not only normalizes male violence against both women and men, it also reemphasizes on the “innate differences” between women and men that completely close off dialogue and understanding.  The “man box” teaches us to suppress our emotions, and it can be challenging for many Muslim men because, for most of us, we feel pressure to establish careers for ourselves before we can even think about getting serious with a woman, falling in Love, and getting married.  We don’t feel worthy enough, and how can we when the “man box” tells us we need to prove our “manliness” by constantly displaying our “toughness” and “masculinity,” while hiding the things that make us human?

This isn’t to say men are exploited or oppressed by patriarchy, but rather that they do suffer from it.  To break free of the “man box” is to redefine ourselves, to liberate ourselves, to shake off the stereotypes that have been assigned to us from sexist and patriarchal ideals. My position is that male supremacy needs to be challenged, deconstructed, and eradicated to assist feminist movement in ending sexist oppression.  In order to do this, more men need to join feminist movement and challenge the way male supremacy operates in our lives.  I think one of the most common misconceptions about feminism is that it doesn’t help men, but it does and in a very meaningful way.  It liberates us from the restrictive “man box,” it teaches us to embrace our emotions and humanity; it tells us we can find Love, that we can receive and give it; it opens our hearts to understand that we are not confined to social constructions that say “boys will be boys”; it encourages us to see ourselves beyond the sexist notion that we are “only sex-minded” and that, yes, we can have meaningful friendships with women and men, whether they be heterosexual, homosexual, transsexual, etc.  Tony Porter closes his talk with these beautiful words:

I need you on board. I need you with me. I need you working with me and me working with you on how we raise our sons and teach them to be men — that it’s okay to not be dominating, that it’s okay to have feelings and emotions, that it’s okay to promote equality, that it’s okay to have women who are just friends, that it’s okay to be whole, that my liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman.

“My liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman.” How beautiful would it be if we all recognized this interconnectedness?

I am on board, Tony.