Do Arabs Really 'Hate' Women? The Problem With Native Informants

Mona Eltahawy's fault lies in extrapolating broad cultural judgments from context-specific abuses.
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"Why Do They Hate Us?" asks the latest cover of Foreign Policy magazine. Beneath the title stands a cowering woman wearing nothing but black body paint resembling the niqab, or full Islamic face veil.

Egyptian feminist Mona Eltahawy authored the article. Her central contention -- that Arab Muslim culture "hates" women -- resurrects a raft of powerful stereotypes regarding Islam and misogyny. It also situates Ms. Eltahawy's work within a growing trend of "native informants" whose personal testimonies of oppression under Islam have generated significant support for military aggression against Muslim-majority countries in recent years.

Books by these "native voices" -- including Ayaan Hirsi Ali's "Infidel," Azar Nafisi's "Reading Lolita" in Tehran, and Irshad Mandji's "Faith Without Fear" -- have flown off the shelves in post-9/11 America despite being roundly rebuffed by leading feminist academics such as Columbia University's Lila Abu-Lughod and Yale's Leila Ahmed. Saba Mahmood, another respected scholar, noted that native informants helped "manufacture consent" for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by serving up fear-inducing portrayals of Islam in "an authentic Muslim woman's voice."

Although such depictions have proven largely inaccurate and guilty of extreme generalizations, they have become immensely popular. Why? Because these native "testimonials" tell us what we in the West already know -- that there's something inherently misogynistic about Muslims and Arabs.

By stirring up our sympathies and reinforcing our prejudices, individuals like Ms. Hirsi Ali and Ms. Eltahawy have climbed to the top of the media ladder. Their voices are drowning out the messages of more nuanced, well-respected scholars.

High-profile conservatives like Rick Santorum, Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robertson -- men who have impeded the feminist movement at virtually every turn within the United States -- have enthusiastically argued that Islam oppresses women. Indeed, the only women George W. Bush seemed to care about "liberating" lived in Afghanistan and Iraq. As Guardian correspondent Polly Toynbee noted, the burka became "shorthand moral justification" for the war in Afghanistan.

Though neoconservative pundits have yet to fully embrace Ms. Eltahawy, they will doubtless applaud her efforts to reveal "the pulsating heart of misogyny in the Middle East" as well as her assertion that "the Islamist hatred of women burns brightly across the region -- now more than ever."

Ms. Eltahawy, like most critics arguing that the Arab Spring is bad for women, grounds her argument in examples from Egypt. She is justifiably incensed at the military's sickening abuses of female protesters, something she experienced first-hand. Ms. Eltahawy is similarly correct to lambast female genital mutilation, a practice that is disturbingly widespread in both Egyptian Muslim and Coptic Christian communities.

Her fault lies in extrapolating broad cultural judgments from context-specific abuses, implying that Islam and Arab culture writ large are have toxically combined to create a hopelessly backward region that "treats half of humanity like animals."

Ms. Eltahawy further suggests that Islamists are all the same -- bearded, dangerous men intent on robbing Arab women of the few freedoms they have. While Ms. Eltahawy's claims will no doubt generate impressive magazine sales, they fail to reflect the complex reality on the ground.

I spent the better part of the past year interviewing Islamist women in Tunisia, Egypt and Turkey. Islamist movements within and among those three countries differ widely, just as conservative & faith-based political movements differ widely within and among Christian-majority countries.

The Tunisian "Islamists" she mentions, those who protested in favour of the niqab in Tunisian universities, are Salafis -- extreme conservatives. The moderate Islamists in Al-Nahda Party who hold a plurality of seats in Tunisia's current government oppose the tiny Salafi minority. Nearly half of Al-Nahda's assembly members (42 out of 89) are women. Al-Nahda is an Islamist party.

Asking why "Islamic culture" oppresses women is as meaningless as asking why "Christian culture" oppresses women. Women's lived realities in Christian-majority countries differ depending on the historical and socio-political contexts in which they live. What oppresses a woman in America differs from what oppresses her sisters in South Korea, Bolivia, Greece, Australia, or Zimbabwe. We cannot divorce Christianity from the cultural and historical contexts in which it is practiced.

Sensationalist photos like the one on this cover of Foreign Policy magazine perpetuate the assumption that all women who wear the niqab do so because they are oppressed. However, the niqab -- like the headscarf, miniskirt, bikini, or any other garment -- is polysemic. It has many meanings. Some women wear the niqab to move around more freely. Others believe that modesty is liberating to women, and find more personal liberation in covering their bodies than in exposing them.

Many people in the Middle East believe that Western women who wear miniskirts and bikinis do so because they are oppressed by a culture that objectifies & sexually commodifies women's bodies, or because they are simply morally loose women. It is unfair to say that all women who wear high heels do so because they are "oppressed." It is similarly over-simplistic and highly inaccurate to assume that all women who wear niqab do so because they are cowed by men.

There are many outspoken female Islamists -- I've met and interviewed hundreds -- who are politically active, socially engaged and highly educated. These women are far from being pliant, oppressed foot soldiers. Does this mean I agree with their theological views? No. But it does mean I have enough first-hand knowledge to see beyond simplistic distortions of complex cultures such as this piece by Mona Eltahawy.

Westerners often have good intentions -- we want to help women. But most of us haven't been to the Middle East, let alone interviewed a female activist who wears a full face veil.

Ms. Eltahawy has every right to speak out aggressively against injustices -- both real and perceived -- in the Arab world. It is important for her readers, however, to understand the dangers of sensationalist coverage that over-simplify complex matters of gender, politics, and religious observance in Muslim-majority countries.

History is rife with examples of seemingly women-friendly arguments hijacked in the service of imperialistic and aggressive ends. While emotional and sensationalist portrayals such as this most recent Foreign Policy cover will sell copies, they do little to deepen our understanding of the contexts and conditions shaping women's oppression in Arab countries today.

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