Monday, August 13, 2012


Earlier I shared information and facts from a Foreign Policy article entitled “Why Do They Hate Us?” by Mona El Tahawy, an Egyptian-American columnist and speaker. I asked three Egyptian female friends about the original article. None of them are as extreme as El Tahawy, and none of them fully agreed with her. However no one refuted the facts I shared. The facts are true; the question is the perspective and conclusion. One good friend, Rania, shared with me a particular blog advancing a dissenting opinion from El Tahawy’s opinion. And there are many, many more opposing responses to El Tahawy’s article. Let’s take a look at people’s grievances.

When you tell people that virginity tests occur which can amount to rape of women, sometimes the hearer thinks that it occurs everywhere in equal measure. When you tell people that female genital mutilation occurs in Egypt, some will believe it occurs in the city as much as the countryside. (I see this same problem in journalism with topics like climate change in which the news media presents two sides without telling you what percentage of people fall into the two categories, much less that there really aren’t two categories but a multiplicity of nuanced views across a spectrum.) So I tried to be careful with that in the blog post and postulate, when I could, that certain acts like female circumcision probably occur more in rural places than in large urban places for the countries contained in that section of the article. So the first grievance was contextualisation.

The second was the conclusion: they hate us. “They” representing individual men in the Arab world. If you didn’t click the link to the article, let me paste here the opening paragraphs in which El Tahawy quotes a novel dealing with gender relationships, sex, religion, and society.

In "Distant View of a Minaret," the late and much-neglected Egyptian writer Alifa Rifaat begins her short story with a woman so unmoved by sex with her husband that as he focuses solely on his pleasure, she notices a spider web she must sweep off the ceiling and has time to ruminate on her husband's repeated refusal to prolong intercourse until she too climaxes, "as though purposely to deprive her." Just as her husband denies her an orgasm, the call to prayer interrupts his, and the man leaves. After washing up, she loses herself in prayer -- so much more satisfying that she can't wait until the next prayer -- and looks out onto the street from her balcony. She interrupts her reverie to make coffee dutifully for her husband to drink after his nap. Taking it to their bedroom to pour it in front of him as he prefers, she notices he is dead. She instructs their son to go and get a doctor. "She returned to the living room and poured out the coffee for herself. She was surprised at how calm she was," Rifaat writes.

In a crisp three-and-a-half pages, Rifaat lays out a trifecta of sex, death, and religion, a bulldozer that crushes denial and defensiveness to get at the pulsating heart of misogyny in the Middle East. There is no sugarcoating it. They don't hate us because of our freedoms, as the tired, post-9/11 American cliché had it. We have no freedoms because they hate us, as this Arab woman so powerfully says.
Yes: They hate us. It must be said. 

It’s quite a powerful opening to an article that reaches a conclusion that does not connect with a sizable portion of Arab-world female readers. The first people who disagree are always the people who use one example (which could be an exception) to disprove a rule. “. . . I am happily married to an amazing Egyptian man, who loves me . . .“ writes the blog writer in a response piece. This may be true, but the question before us is not whether there are examples of good man, but whether a type of “hatred” is a trend. Exceptions disprove rules; they do not disprove generalisation. The term generalisation doesn’t mean it is absolute but rather that it is quite prevalent to a high degree. So, is it true? Do Arab men “hate” Arab women?

Well, many Arab women disagree. Part of the problem is “hate” is such a strong word. El Tahawy is no stranger to controversy, and she purposely chose the extreme word “hate” as she says in a BBC World News interview about the article. She knows it’s a provocative word, but she feels it’s her job to be controversial and to poke painful places. The problem is that there are many women, including women who wear the full niqab with only their eyes revealed, who feel they are completely free. So in another stereotypical dualistic media interview about the French ban on publicly wearing the niqab or burqa, El Tahawy argues for an extension of the ban around the world for the sake of freedom while her debater, blogger Hebah Ahmed, argues for permitting the niqab for the sake of freedom. Can freedom be co-opted and used by both arguments and sides?

To be honest, there are many women for whom banning the burqa violates their freedom. However, I’m not too simple-minded to know that there are regions (even within France) in which women are pressured and forced to wear the burqa so that a ban on a burqa creates a bit of freedom (I say a bit because I believe such religionist enclaves or subcommunities might still force some other stringent dress code in place of the burqa). So in reality it’s somewhat complicated. The tough part about the ban is that though it might give freedom to some it has removed it from others (those who are not pressured and choose to wear it). And is it ever ok to create freedom at the cost of freedom of another?

Regardless of whether the burqa or niqab should be banned, is it possible for women to be hated and not know it? And does hate always have to be overt or conscious? I spoke with one of my Egyptian female friends (she is an intern with me) about this idea of a subconscious misogyny which we experience in many countries, even here in the UK. I’m definitely of the experience (not opinion) that my eyes are not fully open as I walk through life. And I continue to see places where I practice hate, perhaps unknowingly, meaning I haven’t fully loved another person, group, stranger. However, El Tahawy uses such a high, elevated standard on individual men whereas some readers feel the men are ok, that it is the dictators or leaders. Others blame the structures and institutions. No one (none of my friends) disagree that women and men are not fully equal politically and socially in the Arab world, that there is still much to work toward and to achieve. The question is why do women not yet have those freedoms. Is it because they hate us? Or, rather, do women not have certain freedoms due to historical, political, and economic reasons?

Regardless, I’m always quite amazed at how women can find ways to personalise their niqabs or burqas or hijabs. Today I saw a beautiful woman with a tighter-fitting (around the bum) burqa, make-up on her face, and a hijab that went high in the air to cover her new hair-do which took the shape of a type of side-ways beehive. So yes, her hair was covered up, but you could tell she had a nice hair-do!

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