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