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.

The Power of Discourse

A few weeks ago,  I woke up to the news that Shaima Alawadi, a 32-year old Iraqi refugee in America, died after being beaten by a group who entered her home. The mother of five was found with a note that read: “Go back to your country. You are a terrorist.” Read more here. (The story seems to have changed now; it is no longer clear who killed her. I’ll keep the example however since it illustrates the point I’m trying to make.)

My first reaction was to think of Trayvon Martin, a similarly racialized crime that happened very recently. I then began to think of the many discourses (or not so many, actually) that are present in the west about Muslims, Arabs, the Middle East, and Iraq. These discourses inevitably lead to some sort of violence against these groups, whether symbolic or actual. When entire groups are dehumanized or painted in a negative way, the risk of them being attacked/marginalized is huge. Someone tweeted that they hold everyone who is Islamophobic and spread these discourses in society personally accountable for what happened to Shaima, and I completely agree. Discourses & ideas are not just abstract things that float above us – they form us and impact our behaviour. They are very, very real.

Then I began to think of the Middle East, and the way the Salafis have spread their ideology during the past 30 years to the point of it constituting several major discourses in society. If we argue that Islamophobia lead to Shaima’s death, then shouldn’t we also be self-critical and question how certain Salafi ideas are leading to the dehumanization & marginalization of specific groups in Egypt, including the Copts, women, and liberals? It is clear tat Egypt has become increasingly conservative, largely due to the funding coming from Saudi/Qatar as well as the millions of Egyptians that went there to work during the oil boom. What kinds of discourses did they bring back? How did these discourses spread through society? How do they impact people in a very real way?

A final example is in the Netherlands, where discourses about Muslims/Moroccans/Turks/Surinamese etc are overwhelmingly negative. Some of my Dutch liberal friends *somehow* think these discourses are just “annoying little things that don’t really mean anything.” I beg to differ. These discourses are what led to what happened to Shaima, are what justified the invasion of Afghanistan & Iraq, are what cause many Dutch people to make extremely racist remarks and think it’s okay since they’re just saying what they think. These discourses hurt people, they marginalize people, they put people into boxes that are difficult to get out of.

As Foucalt said, discourses do not constitute themselves. They are produced by us & at the same time produce us. This makes them much more powerful than we think.

Why I don’t like the “Arab Spring” label

Since the Tunisian uprising in late 2010, various countries in the Middle East & North Africa have experienced uprisings by the people against entrenched dictatorships. This series of uprisings has been labelled the “Arab Spring,” which now appears to be a widely-accepted term. It is even being used at conferences and in academic settings, despite the problematic nature of the term.

There are 2 reasons why I don’t use the label. First, the word “Arab” by definition excludes many groups and countries in the Middle East and North Africa. It was arguably Iran, in 2009, that set the precedent and built the momentum for the uprisings that were to happen in Tunisia and Egypt; and yet by using “Arab Spring” we are automatically excluding Iran from consideration. Another group that is excluded are the Kurds, who do not necessarily identify as Arab, yet have been struggling for a very long time to achieve political, social and economic rights in various different countries. Are their struggles not part of the uprisings happening in the ME and NA?

The second reason I am against the term is because of its origin. It was basically coined by mainstream American media, and seemed to imply that the Arab world was finally waking up from apathy and laziness, to a “new Spring.” This discourse basically sees people in the Middle East as apathetic to democracy, human rights, change, etc, and reminds me of the infamous “Arab exception” – the widespread belief in academia that Middle Eastern countries possess structural barriers that prevent them from being democratic (and by structural it is implied cultural and religious, of course). Soon after the Islamists began winning seats in elections in both Tunisia and Egypt, the mainstream western media coined another term: “Islamic winter.”

I was browsing Twitter one day a few months ago when I saw an interesting suggestion from a Palestinian activist (don’t remember who exactly now): why don’t we refer to the struggles across the Middle East as intifadas? There is no doubt that the Palestinian intifadas were important in inspiring many young Middle Eastern people to challenge their own corrupt regimes. Moreover, the word intifada simply means “uprising” – which is exactly what these struggles are. By using the label intifada, we can be inclusive to different groups in the Middle East, and at the same time stop using terms such as Arab Spring, with all their Orientalist baggage.

I recently attended a conference in Cairo entitled “Narratives of the Arab Spring.” A very prominent Iraqi women’s studies scholar, Nadje el-Ali, raised the problematic nature of the term “Arab Spring.” She mentioned the origins of the term as well as that many Kurds she spoke to felt left out because of the word “Arab.” Her point really made me reflect on the importance of labeling and the inclusionary/exclusionary nature of language. When we say Arab instead of Middle East, so many groups in the ME are left out; and the same happens when we say “Islamic world” instead of Middle East.

Since hearing Nadje’s point, I have consistently referred to the struggles happening in the ME and NA as uprisings or intifadas. I have also tried to see the struggles from a comparative perspective in order to offer more solidarity to groups in the ME that have been long marginalized by major Arab countries such as Egypt. Little attention is given to Iran or to the Kurds, for example, and this is very problematic. Another important groups is the Copts in Egypt, who are facing more & more insecurity as certain strands of Islamism gain ground. One cannot call for freedom, equality, and dignity for some groups and not others. Indeed the only way to fight a system that is so strong is through solidarity, and the only way to do this is to see our struggles as linked and to support one another.

Egypt

It seems like the world was extremely boring last year, and made a new year’s resolution to be more exciting and unpredictable. 2011 has been absolutely chaotic! From the Egyptian perspective, the year started off on a bad note, with a church bombing on the 1st of January. Gov’t blamed it on al-Qaeda (we later found out that it was probably the government responsible – #fail), and the event created even more sectarian tension.

The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia managed to oust Ben Ali, as well as inspire Egyptians to take to the streets. The revolution began on the 25th of January, and lasted 18 days. On the 11th of Feb, Mubarak stepped down.

As amazing, inspirational and just straight up fabulous the revolution was, there is still lots and lots of work to be done. 30+ years (60, really) of corruption, dictatorship, economic issues (due to global neo-liberal restructuring) and just a decline in everything, it is going to take a while to rebuild the country.

There was a referendum this past Saturday to vote on the constitutional amendments.

The proposed changes shorten the presidential term and create a two-term limit, significantly expand the pool of eligible presidential candidates, restore judicial supervision of elections, pave the way for a new constitution after elections, and restrict the ability to declare and renew a state of emergency.

As expected, the majority of voters (77%) votes yes. The turnout was about 41%. At first I was disappointed – estimates from Saturday were between 60-70% but I realize now that 41% is still good. After all, it was a referendum and Egyptians haven’t been voting for a while. Following the results, a brilliant post was written by Sandmonkey (find entire post here). Here are some important points:

  • 65 million who never joined the protests from the beginning, and who probably miss the stability and security of the old regime.
  • Cairo is not Egypt. There was no real TV campaign, no real grassroots campaign and no actual debate.
  • Remember all the millions that went down for the minimum wage and you completely swept this under the rug to engage in a battle with State Security and the military?
  • This is the part where we stop playing revolution, and start playing politics for the sake of the country.
  • You have to focus on the people & their issues, and push yours aside for now: Yes, you will have to address the economy. Yes, you will have to offer constructive solutions to the Police problem that isn;t simply “clean them up”. Yes, you will have to lay off the military criticism and, as horrible and hard as this might be, to put the issue of those who are detained, jailed, tortured or beaten by the military on the back-burner for now.
  • START SELLING THE MINIMUM WAGE.
  • Start organizing at the grassroots.
  • Start the propaganda campaign.
  • Well, moral clarity time: The NDP and the Islamists are two faces to the same coin, and neither can be allowed to control this country ever again. It’s time to quit being distracted, and start organizing and engaging people NOW. War has been declared on all of us, and we will be damned if we lose now. Just like the NDP, we will fight them until we can’t.And in case you are wondering: We will win!

The whole post is pure brilliance so I would recommend everyone read the entire thing as well.

There are lots of questions I have about the whole situation right now.

  1. Why do so many Egyptians trust the army? The army is a major power in Egypt (if not THE major power), and there is no proof that it is doing what is “best” for the Egyptians. Stories of torture by the army in the past 2 weeks are coming up, they’ve recently banned protests (uhm, what?) and it doesn’t really look like they’re sticking to their original timeline re. parliamentary and presidential elections. This is not to say that they’re with the old regime (although lots of incest between the 2 I’m sure) but they’re probably not with the people either. Better to be critical than to just blindly follow/trust/praise.
  2. How popular was this revolution? How many Egyptians really supported it? During the revolution it seemed like the ENTIRE country was behind it, but now I’m starting to wonder how many people really wanted things to change like this.
  3. How powerful is people power? I think we are trained to believe that people have no power and that we should be skeptical of change. I find myself now questioning whether anything has really changed and whether the old regime is really gone. It’s almost like state institutions have too much power to be really changed by the people (moreover by people who aren’t that organized).
  4. My final question is: is it up to Egyptians to be a democracy or not? Or are other players going to make the decision? The west (especially Israel) have a lot to lose, and so do other Arab dictatorships. I remember during the revolution itself there was a phase where all people were talking about was how this revolution would affect Israel – because the rights of Israelis come before Egyptians. I wonder whether that has really changed. The army is basically funded by America, who is Israel’s abused mistress, so are we really expecting things to change? Most Egyptians are pro-Palestinian so if there is democracy in Egypt, what would happen to politicians who support Israel?

On the one hand I’m really excited, proud and still in shock about what happened in Egypt. On the other hand, I’m so used to thinking that the state is all-powerful and invincible that I’m starting to doubt whether the foundations were really shook during this revolution, or whether it only touched the surface.