Women on the Ground vs. Women in the (Ivory) Tower
Mona El Tahawy, an Egyptian journalist and supporter of the Arab revolutions wrote an important call to action for women of Egypt and the Arab world yesterday. I don’t know if she or the editors came up with the article’s title, or if critiques of accompanying illustrations are all that important for American readers must certainly be accustomed to the de rigeur picture of a veiled woman, bearded man, or kaffiyah-wearing stone thrower. El Tahawy emphasized the blistering misogyny that underlies the many practices, rules and trends impacting women in Arab Muslim states. Of course, this is not what we teach in Middle East History or Politics 101 where we are concerned with imparting information in narrower doses and combatting Western stereotypes of the Arab world. And the terminology was misinterpreted. Misogyny does not mean personal hatred for an individual but an institutionalized set of practices and attitudes while allow men (and women) to passively watch and ignore, or engage in acts of oppression.
Those who are competent to discuss women’s lives in the region should be engaged in a deeper inquiry and discussion about the tenure of the outrages mentioned — circumcision in Egypt, the levels of family violence impacting women, the sexual violence and harassment against women moving in the public sphere, the discriminatory laws and practices, and the governments’ failures to deal with such problems or support the interests of 51% of their populations.
The main point of El Tahawy’s addressing the spectacular suffering of women in a variety of country contexts and issues a variety of issues interconnected by internalized misogyny, or an unequal according of power at this historical moment is that the region has just undergone four earth-shaking political revolutions, and at least one more in process. How shameful it would be if all of this upheaval and the deaths of those struggling for freedom did not result in the implementation of true democracies in which women must claim equal citizenship and equal rights!
As academics we were taught utter nonsense about the capacity of Egyptians, Tunisians, Yemenis, Libyans and Syrians to challenge the existing political and social orders. We were told that those socialized under patrimonial cultures would never act, or never act as individuals. Academic voices prattled on about the resilience of authoritarianism, and academics, like other professionals aligned themselves with particular regimes. And then, the entire world was shocked and energized by the sight of these revolutions.
Just as Egyptians refused to accept the stereotypes of their own passivity and inability to mobilize, now women are concerned about a present-tense where they are forced to the bottom of party lists, and must keep silent about the outrages perpetrated on women during the revolution or those which continue full sway in other places, such as Saudi Arabia. When Mona writes of hatred of women, we must understand her socialization as a teen living in the Kingdom with its young and annoying mutawa`in, women’s inability to vote or drive or go to restaurants and remember that once upon a time in Iraq, women also drove freely and ran businesses without fear of attacks, and that women have been attacked in the festivals and public gatherings in Egypt for years now. Let us remember little girls sold at eight and nine years old into marriage who only get a break if the King intervenes! Let s ask who is speaking for babies who are circumcised in Yemen and six-year olds circumcised in Egypt despite the passing of an amendment to the Child Protection Act. We must think of the very real slurs and insults – psychological abuse that many women endure along with slaps, kicks, and beatings. Of the lengths that women must go to obtain divorces, or to keep from being divorced, or to obtain custody if they are divorced. And remember that women activists have worked together to try to inhibit honor crimes.
For her advocacy of the Egyptian revolution, which included having both of her arms broken and being sexually attacked while covering a demonstration, and for her articulate cri de coeur for women, El Tahawy received a lot of criticism, much of it revealing of the critics. The cowardice of academia was on full display yesterday as academic feminists tumbled over one another to put her down for being a pawn of neoconservatives, who wrote about too many issues at once, reintroduced “binaries,” or – and this from one of her former idols – who supposedly reviles religion. El Tahawy is a Muslim and chooses not to wear hijab. And the hijab would not have saved her from sexual assault for we might remember that Samira Ibrahim who unsuccessfully sued the military authorities for violating her by subjecting women demonstrators to virginity tests, is covered. And her suit failed.
One might think these critics had never been exposed to feminist analysis or that women’s studies of the region is now decidedly out of vogue. Academics who incessantly rehash the last thirty years of scholarship on Islamic feminism or structuralist approaches to social issues must be terrified that a door is being opened onto a new phase where they will have no relevance. While the Islamophobia types have overemphasized the threat of Islamism, we cannot ignore political implications in its expansion for women, or minorities, or democracy. We dare not admit that discussions of gender are inconvenient.
While Mona was called a “feminazi” and Leila Ahmed, who commented on her article, a “promoter of spiritual hijab” by two men I argued with last night, Monica Marks in Huffington Post declares her own research on Islamism to be far more significant than the misguided testimony of a “native informant” like Mona El Tahawy. Many academics shared links with each other declaring that they would never present the issues as she did, when in fact, these same individuals frequently offer public lectures addressing the inequities women face in the region. In fact, a striking level of denial blatant arrogance, hypocrisy and competition inhibits a very productive use of scholarship on women.
Because quotas for women politicians have not been adopted, and newly-instituted gender parity laws were easy to subvert in the list system, there are now 42 an-Nahda women representatives (and 7 non-Islamist women) in the new Tunisian parliament out of 217. One immediately spoke out against unmarried mothers in her first post-election statement. In the new Egyptian parliament, currently considering such important matters as allowing polygamous men to have extra energy subsidies, and the rights of nurses to wear niqab, we see only 11 women out of 508 representatives. Yemen and Libya have even poorer records of promoting female leadership – the public must be convinced to accept women in such new roles and that means overcoming the underlying misogyny that El Tahawi highlighted. With few politicians eager to uphold reforms or enact new ones to deal with the violence and discrimination that plagues women’s lives, it appears that civil society, that is, NGOs serving women will resume their pre-revolutionary role of working on women’s issues, and fiercely denying any connection to “foreign agendas”
It is a serious matter that the moderate Islamist parties who now dominate these countries lack an agenda to reform women’s issues. Let us hope they develop such agendas and that women in the region can begin to acknowledge themselves as the huge interest group that they could be. Thank you, Mona for your call to action!
Institute of Middle Eastern, lslamic and Strategic Studies