Sexual Politics in the Middle East

Recently there have been a few articles that discuss sex and women in the Middle East, including Mona el Tahawy’s piece in the New York Times. In response, many critical feminists critiqued the focus on sex and sexuality, arguing that it further reified Middle Eastern women as not only oppressed, but mainly oppressed in terms of their sexuality. One piece in particular points to the ways in which sexuality has become definitive of women’s liberation. Rafia Zakaria writes: “The emphasis on sexual freedom permitted the taming of radical feminism to fit the capitalist society from which it emerged. If sex was understood as a commodity that women were choosing to consume, then its problematic aspects could be disguised.” Zakaria looks back at texts from feminists in the 1970s who did not divorce sex from politics – something that seems to be more the case today. This reminded me of a book I read recently by Shulamith Firestone – one of the leaders of the radical feminist movement – called “A Dialectic of Sex.” While she makes many excellent points, her book remains ethnocentric and heavily relies on a Freudian analysis of sexuality that can sometimes become very detached from the material – the political, economic and social – and rely excessively on the psychic and the sexual (the sexual as psychological rather than material).

This has all been part of a larger debate that has been going on for decades. Middle Eastern women have often been represented as being oppressed by men and culture. In other words, when we think of patriarchy in this region, we think of it in terms of domineering males who make use of a sexist culture to oppress women. It is no surprise then that autonomy from men, throwing away culture, and a general move towards individualism are seen as the solutions for Middle Eastern women facing patriarchy.

And yet this ignores the fact that patriarchy as a term cannot be defined singularly, and is always historically contingent. What constitutes patriarchal oppression in one era may not constitute it in another; and the same goes for different places. In our current moment, we face the increasing tendency to frame patriarchy as “gender inequality” whereby women are seen as oppressed because they do not have the same rights as men and where they need to be able to become full individuals in order to be liberated. Lean-in feminism is part of this wave, and so are articles that call for women to speak out about sex openly, and to explore their sexuality. This approach looks to women to become fully emancipated by becoming full individuals with equal rights. When the focus is on the Middle East, this gets translated through the older prisms of sexualizating women in order to show just how backwards Middle Eastern men are.

In a recent article, Nadje al Ali addresses the question of how feminism should look at the issue of sexual violence and ISIS. She asks why there is a sudden focus on sexual violence now, when it is perpetrated by ISIS, even though “Iraqi women and men were confronted with sexual and broader gender-based violence in pre-invasion Iraq as well as in the post-invasion period,” (pp. 1). She goes on to write:

I argue that it is important to historicize and contextualize the extreme forms of sexual violence associated with ISIS, not in order to belittle its scale and detrimental consequences but to deepen our understanding about its roots, context and ways to tackle it. With my article I aim to intervene in recent feminist debates of how to approach and explain sexual violence in relation to the Middle East, while also paying attention to the various ways that sexual violence has been instrumentalized by a range of relevant constituencies and political actors.

This struck me for two reasons. First, it is equally relevant as a response to articles that continue to call for “sexual liberation” in the Middle East without contextualizing and historicizing sexual violence. Second, it reminded me of an older debate that took place among Egyptian feminists on the problem with focusing on sexual inequality in a vacuum. It is this debate I want to briefly touch on, and I want to suggest that it could help us answer the question of how to approach the question of sexuality in the Middle East today without being ahistorical, sensational, or reductionist.

In response to the tendency of American researchers to always focus on Egyptian women and sex, various Egyptian feminists suggested that what is needed is for sexual relations to be contextualized within broader structures. Many of the Egyptian feminists positioned sexuality and sexual problems within the broader context of economic, political and social change. Hoda Badran, for example, wrote:

The economic system in Egypt, because it is tied to the West, is hindered from being productive. Egypt is being transformed into a consumer society. In a situation where you don’t have jobs and people try to find scapegoats…that is why there is more prejudice against women. Also in a country which has been transformed into a consumer society, it is easy, through the mass media, to use women as sex objects.

Another feminist, Fathia al Assal, has noted that women should not be shy to discuss sexual liberation, since history shows that private property emerged at the moment when women became the sexual property of their husbands. In both of these reflections we see a conscious effort to connect sexual inequality and liberation to the broader economic structures. It is precisely this type of effort that seems to be lacking today in much of the work being done on sexuality and sex in the Middle East.

This was in response to Angela Davis’ trip to Egypt, of which she wrote:

When I initially agreed to travel to Egypt for the purpose of documenting my experiences with women there, I did not yet know that the sponsors of this project expected me to focus specifically on issues relating to the sexual dimension of women’s pursuit of equality. I was not aware, for example, that the practice of clitoridectemy was among the issues I would be asked to discuss. Since I was very much aware of the passionate debate still raging within international women’s circles around the efforts of some Western feminists to lead a crusade against female circumcision in African and Arab countries, once I was informed about the particular emphasis of my visit, I seriously reconsidered proceeding with the project.*

In fact she draws a parallel between the obsessive focus on circumcision by Western feminists with their equally pervasive obsession from African American women’s sexuality:

It is easy to understand why that movement, as righteous as its intentions may have been, aroused hostility in Afro-American women, because it often portrayed us as bestial and oversexed, indiscriminately reproducing in such numbers that the rule of the white majority might be ultimately challenged. I realised that I could not in good conscience write about genital mutilation and other examples of sexual oppression in Egypt without acknowledging the manipulation of these problems by those who fail to consider the importance of the larger economic-political context of male supremacy.

This admission that writing about sexual oppression in Egypt brings with it difficult political questions echoes Nadje al-Ali’s similar concern that when we write about sexuality in Middle Eastern contexts, this can often be instrumentalized. In the past this has seemed to lead to an impasse: do we continue to write about these issues knowing they will be instruementalized? Or do we abandon these discussions completely, knowing that this may delay social change that is badly needed?

Shehida el-Baz was quoted by Angela as saying:

Women in the West should know that we have a stand in relation to them concerning our issues and our problems. We reject their patronising attitude It is connected with built-in mechanisms of colonialism and with their sense of superiority. Maybe some of them don’t do it consciously but it is there. They decide what problems we have, how we should face them, without even possessing the tools to know our problems.

El-Baz goes on to point out that researchers looking at gender in England, for example, focused on topics like “women and politics,” whereas researchers looking at gender in Egypt always focused on the question of sex. It is this divorcing of sex from other social relations and structures, as well as the almost obsessive preoccupation with it, that was problematic then and continues to be problematic today.

It is interesting to see that feminists working today face the same issues that these Egyptian feminists struggled with in the 1960s and 1970s. Nadje al Ali reflects:

Over the past years, I have spent lots of time and energy as an academic and as an activist to argue against the ‘culturalization’ of gender-related issues – particularly with reference to gender-based violence in the Iraqi context. For years, I have felt compelled to say and write: It’s not about ‘their culture’, but it is about political economies. It is about authoritarian dictatorships and conservative patriarchal interpretations and practices. It is about foreign interventions and invasions and their gendered politics. (pp 3-4)

The idea that women in the Third World have to consciously fight a battle on two fronts is a widely acknowledged one. The idea is that on the one hand, there is a battle against patriarchy, often assumed to be “local.” On the other hand, there is imperialism and racism—the most visible form in our current moment being Islamophobia—understood as stemming from Western empire-building. These two battles have positioned women as vulnerable to multiple forms of oppression and as having to constantly navigate different structures. There is little doubt that this touches on a reality experienced by many Third World women and women of colour, namely that experiences are made up of multiple layers and are conditioned by multiple social categories. Intersectionality is the most recent theory to address this. However, I want to ask whether this binary view—of women having to oppose patriarchy and/or racism is a problematic one that does not provide a useful framework for either understanding or resisting oppression. Rather, the binary needs to be broken down and patriarchy and racism need to be seen as co-constitutive. And here it is precisely the debate among Egyptian feminists quoted above that seems to do this – to see racism/imperialism as part and parcel of gender relations, and vice versa.

Reading al Ali’s concern about not over-emphasizing the neocolonial or international at the expense of the national, I found myself identifying with her suspicion that feminists positioned in the West often do not pay enough attention to local forms of patriarchy. Being a mixed-nationality feminist who has lived in both Europe and Egypt, I found myself easily recalling the conditions of European academia and public debate that push feminists to focus on Western power structures and to respond defensively to what are essentially racist attacks. At the same time, I also find myself in the position of having to explain why feminists should talk about Orientalism and imperialism when the “real” threats to women in Egypt come from Islamists, conservatives, and local customs. These two positionalities seem to imply that there are multiple ways of understanding gender oppression in Egypt. What I instead posit is that while there are multiple layers to the story, these layers do not represent easily separable causes or ways of understanding gender relations; rather they indicate precisely the ways in which race, gender, class, and other social categories constitute one another and in this way produce gender relations.

In other words, while we seem to posit a split between international structures of power versus national structures of power, I wonder if this has always been the case. I would be very interested in exploring more work by Middle Eastern feminists from earlier periods to try and see how exactly they conceptualized these national and international structures, and how they navigated these layers. In the quotes above, there does not seem to be a denial of patriarchy in Egypt, nor of conservative religious discourse or problematic cultural traditions. But these are always contextualized – they are always to be understood as the result of processes that are neither just national or international. It is not a blame game of blaming either “local patriarchy” or “imperialism.” It is more complex than that – it is about the dialectic between the two.

In a sense I think Nadje al Ali answers her own question – one most of us have struggled with – brilliantly, when she points out that understanding sexual violence in the Middle East always necessitates contextualizing and historicizing what is happening. In this sense, it is neither about focusing obsessively on sex, talking about sex, having sex, or sexual violence; nor is it about ignoring that sexual violence and sex exists in the Middle East. It is about talking about it in a different way – and for that maybe we need to look to feminists of the past.

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* In the 1970s, Angela Davis visited Egypt. These excerpts are from a chapter in her book Women, Culture and Politics.

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On the question of radical feminism and women as an underclass

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Radical feminism has always been a strand of feminism that I have been uncomfortable around. Part of this is because of my own internalized sexism that makes me shy away from very radical demands, especially in the realm of personal relationships, beauty standards, and so on. But a bigger issue I have had with it is its blatant Euro/US-centrism that makes it almost useless in contexts such as Egypt. I finally had a chance to read one of radical feminism’s most famous texts, “A Dialectic of Sex” by Shulamith Firestone. I have to admit that I was very pleasantly surprised, even as the text confirmed many of my problems with radical feminists. On the one hand, I see clear benefits in these kinds of texts – they are very clear in terms of identifying who is responsible for patriarchy and because of this they are able to make clear demands that movements can organize around. They also touch on parts of gender relations that other feminist strands tend to leave under-theorized, notably questions of love, relationships, and psychology. On the other hand, it is clear that these texts use European and American societies as the norm, and when they do mention non-Western societies it is usually to say that they are “more primitive” or that they are headed in the same direction as Western forms of patriarchy once they develop a little more. Some of the key differences I see between radical feminism and postcolonial feminism, for example, are in the ways that men are conceptualised, and how the family and culture are conceptualised. Another difference is that in texts such as Firestone’s that use Freud so heavily, there is bound to be the question of whether we can generalize about the “female psyche” across space and time. These are some of the questions I want to think through in this post.

A major problem I found was her ethnocentrism, which becomes clear at specific moments in the text. One example is when she writes about how turning to “primitive matriarchies of the past” as examples of times where patriarchy did not exist was “too facile.” She then goes on to quote Simone de Beauvoir to make her point. Her discussion of Black Power as well as the sexism of Black men in America is another moment that made me pause. Her heavily Freudian analysis seems to somewhat hide the more clearly racialized political and economic aspects of the Black question in America. In her attempt to argue that “racism is a sexual phenomenon” she seems to emphasize the sexual at the expense of the racial. So while she raises important questions about the ways in which Black men relate to Black women, for example, her attempt to answer these using Freud is problematic.

She then goes on to criticize Black women who did not call out the sexism of Black men in the Black Power movement, writing: “Why do black women, so shrewd about their men in general, settle for this patronizing, impersonal and uninspired kind of love?” Here again, because of her reliance on Freud as well as her totalizing views of women vs. men, Firestone is unable to locate these dynamics within broader societal structures. The Black Power movement was a movement against white supremacy and the extreme brutality with which it was met should partly explain why for Black women the issue of sexism was a very complicated one, and certainly more complicated than it was for White women. One only needs to read the memoirs of Angela Davis, Elaine Brown and other former Black Panthers to realize just how painfully aware they were of the balance between supporting Black Power and addressing sexism, homophobia, and so on. Firestone does not touch on any of these dynamics, showing the weaknesses of relying on sexuality (and Freud) as an overarching framework.

What I did like about Firestone’s book is the points she makes about love and relationships, because I think these issues have been under-theorized in strands of feminism such as postcolonial feminism. She talks about women’s constant need for approval, the ways in which male culture lives off of women’s emotional strength, the fact that for every successful relationship, there are 10 unsuccessful and destructive ones, and the role of envy and possessiveness in modern relationships. Above all, her point that love can never happen when there is an unequal power balance in a relationship is exceedingly important:

I submit that love is essentially a much simpler phenomenon – it becomes complicated, corrupted, or obstructed by an unequal balance in power. We have seen that love demands a mutual vulnerability or it turns destructive: the destructive effects of love occur only in a context of inequality (pp. 185).

This section also relies extensively on Freudian analysis, however. While I do not have an issue with this per se, I do think that Freudian analysis can sometimes become very detached from the material – the political, economic and social – and rely excessively on the psychic and the sexual (the sexual as psychological rather than material).

While Firestone admits that men are often in pain or suffering because they are socialized to be unable to love, she still does not make the point that this demonstrates how patriarchy is a system that creates suffering for all genders, not just women. Moreover, in her attempt to show how men treat women in relationships, she often generalizes in the extreme. For example she writes: “The question that remains for every normal male is, then, how do I get someone to love me without her demanding an equal commitment in return?” No doubt in many relationships there remains the issue of women committing more than men, but to universalize this to all “normal males” is quite the jump, and again reveals ethnocentrism (after all, is this the case across time and space?). Additionally, even in men where this is true, how do we deal with the question of awareness? In other words, I assume that this desire for love without commitment is often present in males without them being aware of it. This is precisely why patriarchy is so powerful, because so many of these desires have become subconscious or “common sense.” How then do we deal with it? Do we still see men as horrible perpetrators of sexism? Or is it deeper than that?

Overall, for a book that has become quite the classic feminist text I found it a bit disappointing in its over-reliance on Freudian analysis. I had expected the Eurocentrism because second-wave feminism is famous for that, but somehow I hadn’t anticipated that there would be so much Freud. The book left me thinking about how easy it is to organize a movement around texts such as this that are full of generalizations and that are very angry. And I mean angry in a good way, because I do think feminist texts should be angry. But is it possible to write a text like this today, considering where feminism is after the popularity of post-modernism? Probably not. And maybe that’s exactly why it has been almost impossible to form a feminist movement in recent decades, after the euphoria of first and second wave feminism, and the many critiques of these waves that emerged from postcolonial and Marxist feminists afterwards. We now have moment in feminism that is about critique and undoing the damage done by Eurocentric feminisms. This has come at a price, with more attention being paid to critique (of each other) than to imperialism, neoliberalism and other forces that are ravaging the globe.

To conclude, one thing I appreciated about Firestone’s book is the emphasis she put on Marx while also noting his limitations when it came to gender. She writes:

Marx was on to something more profound than he knew when he observed that the family contained within itself in embryo all the antagonisms that later develop on a wide scale within society and the state. For unless revolution uproots the basic social organization, the biological family, the tapeworm of exploitation will never be annihilated. We shall need a sexual revolution much larger than – inclusive of – a socialist one to truly eradicate all class systems (pp. 30).

And yet she doesn’t show very clearly how this is supposed to happen. She often discusses women as an underclass, and yet rarely points to the international division of labour where some women (white, Western) in fact have more power than the majority of men. Indeed this is precisely why it is difficult to theorize women as an underclass, or even as the quintessential underclass. And yet perhaps this is the lesson: Firestone shows us that women are not an underclass – and have never been. Today’s underclasses are made up of men and women. Any feminism that fails to grasp this, and fails to see why we need to analyze different structures simultaneously, is unlikely to gain traction.

Let’s not forget…

We often get only one side of the story. When we hear about sexual slavery or trafficking, we hear about the “third world” countries these women and men come from, the brutal conditions they lived in, and the corruption, poverty and lack of social institutions that basically force them into a life of slavery. What we don’t hear about are the people who make up the market: the (usually) rich, First World men, who consume these slaves and who constitute the market that makes sexual slavery and trafficking possible. To end sexual slavery, shouldn’t we also target the people who consume it and therefore make it possible?

It’s the same thing with drugs. We keep hearing about the drug problems, cartels, gangs etc in Latin America. But who is consuming most of these drugs? Yes, Americans. Would this many drug cartels exist if the market for drugs wasn’t so big? So instead of only focusing on the origin of drugs or sex slaves, maybe people should try and EDUCATE the people consuming these “commodities.”

I recently finished reading one of the most amazing books ever, called “Encountering Development: The Making & Unmaking of the Third World’ by Arturo Escobar. He gave a poignant example at the end of the book:

Under the title “The Lesson that Rio Forgets,” the cover of the Economist shows an undifferentiated mass of dark people, the “teaming masses” of the Third World. The “lesson” is population: the expanding masses of the Third World have to be curbed if sustainable development is to be achieved.

The fact that the populations of the industrialized world consume a strikingly higher percentage of world resources than their Third World counterparts does not enter into the Economist’s equation. 

By a curious optical twist, the consumption of people of the North is rendered invisible, whereas the dark hordes of the South are consigned to a new round of gluttonous vision.

I have never thought about it this way. While countries like Egypt are constantly being told to “control their populations” because the world is suffering, people in tiny developed countries continue to consume MUCH MORE. How is that logical?

The problem is we are usually told ONE side of the story, where the Third World is somehow blamed for everything. And even more disappointing is how many First World and Third World people fall for this ridiculous narrative.

What’s on my mind: Pinkwashing

I’ve been pretty busy this past week working on my thesis proposal as well as choosing topics for the final papers of my classes. I actually finished classes last week which means that after I finish my thesis I’ll be done with my second MA!

While researching paper topics, I came across interesting info on “pinkwashing” which is basically the attempt by governments/groups/countries to divert attention away from a touchy political issue onto the topic of homosexuality/LGBTQ rights. Israel has been doing this recently:

Recently, Israel has launched a publicity campaign aimed at portraying the country as a safe haven for homosexuals in the Middle East.  Advertisements, public stunts and activities have been set up, all geared towards convincing the world that Israel is the only homophobia-free country in a very homophobic Middle East.  This campaign has been especially effective in portraying Palestine as a place that is dangerous for gays, lesbians, queers, and transgendered people.

This campaign is problematic on several levels.  First, Israel is not free of homophobia and portraying itself that way is simplistic and misleading.  Second, Palestine, as well as other Middle Eastern countries, have vibrant LGBTQ scenes which include organizations, events, campaigns, and media promotions.  Third, it appears that Israel is attempting to divert attention away from the occupation of Palestine and the various crimes it repeatedly commits there by re-branding itself as a gay-friendly country and thus endearing itself to western democracies and human rights organizations.  Finally, Israel is using and reproducing old Orientalist assumptions many in the west have about the Middle East, particularly in regard to homosexuality.

sexuality.

Recently, an article on CNN questioned whether “gay rights” or the lack thereof would dampen the revolutions across the Arab world. Jadaliyya (one of my all-time favourite sites) responded with an article called “Gays, Islamists and the Arab Spring: What Would a Revolutionary Do?”]

The “gay issue” is becoming an increasingly hot topic in Western media coverage of the Arab world. In fact, beginning with the spate of gay killings in US occupied Iraq, the status of non-normative sexualities has perhaps been enfolded within a discourse that highlights the plight of “women” in Arab/Muslim countries, and the ideological, material, and military mobilization that such a discourse licenses. The already mentioned CNN article is one of several devoted to the issue of what will happen to “the gays” after the revolutions, in addition to spates of comments on many other pieces analyzing what the revolutions may mean. A critical reader might ask what lies behind this interest in gays? Where did it come from and what kinds of discourses and practices is it contributing to? What assumptions does this conversation make as to international practices of sexuality and politics, and what silences about other forms of oppression is this anxiety over the status of gay Arabs in Arab democracies implicated in?

“A focus on the dangers that Islamists pose to minority and sexual rights discourages people from asking serious questions about the structural issues that will determine the outcome of these post-revolutionary societies.”

EXACTLY. Let’s focus on how those Arabs oppress gay people so we don’t have to talk about how WE have oppressed those Arabs. Classic pinkwashing.

Instead of questioning the role of the US-allied Egyptian military, the IMF’s renewed interest in Egypt, or the architecture of political oppression still in place in Egypt, we should be worried about the crazy Muslims.

This is something happening in the Netherlands as well, where homosexuality is often used against Muslim “immigrants” (if you’re not white you’re forever an immigrant), rather than focusing on what Dutch society and government could be doing to help “integration” (which often means assimilation). This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk about homophobia among Muslim/Arab communities, since that is certainly an issue. But we should always be critical of who is asking the questions, and why.

Gay Arabs cannot be cut out of the fabric of their societies; they are Arab, they are Muslim, Christian, conservative and progressive, soldiers and civilians, communists and capitalists, sexist and feminist, classist and revolutionary, and both oppressors and the oppressed. Islamist discourses are not ossified and stuck in the 16th century, as most Western commentators assume. They are plural, responsive, dynamic, and they represent the point of view of a large and diverse public.

While I don’t agree with everything in the article, I do believe that it is an important point to make. Orientalism has shown how the west often focuses on issues of sexuality to criticize and Otherize Arabs/Muslims (even though the west is still homophobic), and pinkwashing seems to be this process once again.

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.

Is rape universal?

I just read a fascinating article by Christine Helliwell, who asks the question: is rape a universal phenomenon? She proves that it is not, using her ethnographic research in Indonesia. She also criticizes western feminism for not only universalizing rape, but universalizing the threat and effects of rape. She asks: “Why does a woman of Gerai see a penis as lacking in power to harm her, while I, a white Australian/New Zealand woman, am so ready to see it as having the capacity to defile, to humanize, to subjugate and, ultimately, to destroy me?” It all started when she was talking to a woman from Gerai who said: “Tin, it’s only a penis. How can a penis hurt anyone?”

Peggy Reeves has shown that while rape happens widely throughout the world, it is by no means a human universal: some societies can indeed be classified as rape free.” There are 2 reasons for the universalization of rape among western feminists: so deep is the fear of western women of rape, they anticipate the possibility of rape everywhere – rape comes to be understood simply as part of the “natural” human condition; and second, because the practice is widespread in “civilized” western countries, it is assumed to pervade all other societies as well, since these latter are understood as located closer to the savagery end of the evolutionary ladder. Under this logic, practices deemed oppressive to women that are not commonly found in the west, such as clitoridectomy and sati, are explained as resulting from the barbarism of Third World peoples, while oppressive practices that are common in the west, such as rape, are explained in universalistic terms.

Even the view that women everywhere are oppressed has been critiqued by anthropologists. In some societies, while men and women may perform different roles and occupy different spaces, they are nevertheless equals in value, status and power. Moreover, notions such as “inequality” and “domination” cannot necessarily be applied in societies with very different conceptions of agency and personhood (Strathern).

The western emphasis on sexual difference is a product of the heterosexualization of desire within western societies over the past few centuries, which “requires and institutes the production of discrete and asymmetrical oppositions between “feminine” and “masculine” where these are understood as expressive attributes of “male” and “female” (Butler).

The act of rape “feminizes” women in western settings, so that the entire female body comes to be symbolized by the vagina, itself conceived of as a delicate, perhaps inevitably damaged and pained inner space (Marcus).

One of the main arguments is that by painting rape as such a brutal act, we are making it powerful; whereas in some societies, rape (and the penis) are not given that much power and therefore they do not have the potential to hurt women the way they do in the west. If everything is a social construction, then so is the construction of rape as an act that can literally tear a woman apart and end her life. What if we saw it differently? I’m not sure how I feel about this argument. I, too, have been socialized to see rape as the worst thing that can happen to me as a woman. However, I do find this argument fascinating, especially the fact that not all societies see rape as something bad and destructive! Not to say that it is seen as good, but rather that it is not given the power and significance that allows it to end a woman’s life.

I have not finished the article yet, so I will write a second post about it once I’m done. Here are the aims of the article:

First, in providing an account of a community in which rape does not occur, I aim to give them lie to the widespread assumption that rape is universal and thus to invite western feminists to interrogate the basis of our own tendency to take its universality for granted. Second, by exploring understandings of sex and gender in a community that stresses identity rather than difference, I aim to demonstrate that western beliefs in the “sexed” character of specifically western gendering and sexual regimes. And since the practice of rape in western societies is profoundly linked to these beliefs, I will suggest that it is an inseparable part of such regimes.

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.