From One Arab Man to Mona Eltahawy: Thank You!

It is intriguing that the sharpest responses to Mona Eltahawy's Why Do They Hate Us came from two Arab men, while the reaction of the majority of Arab women varied between the lame "both men and women are oppressed in Arab countries" and the redundant "women are oppressed in the West too."

In the first "manly" response, Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf wrote: "Was it God's intent to set gender relations as they were in the seventh century for all time? Or does the Quran's directive reveal a divine intent that striving for gender parity and justice should be perfected in our time?"

To his credit, Rauf said that Islam's teachings should not be taken literally -- that they should be viewed within their seventh century context and be implemented in a modernized form to fit the current time and age. Eltahtawy had complained against these seventh-century teachings, even though she did not take them head-on because she knew that such an attack would allow her detractors to call her apostate and turn the debate away from the issue of women.

Another Arab man, Shadi Hamid, wrote that in the Arab world "democracy and liberalism do not necessarily go hand-in-hand." He argued: "Democracy means that governments need to be responsive to the will of the people. But the will of Arab men, and even Arab women, does not seem to be particularly supportive of the Western conception of gender equality." He added: "What if Arabs decide they want to be illiberal?"

To Hamid's mind, an illiberal post-Arab Spring region reasserts the importance of cultural relativism. Eltahawy had vehemently opposed such a scheme, insisting that women's rights were universal.

While seemingly correct, Hamid's argument on responsive government disregards democracy's known risk: "The tyranny of the majority." That's why the designers of most Western states made it a point to differentiate between a representative government and the nature of the state. The first requires simple majority, the second absolute majority.

In the Arab Spring context, Islamists can sweep every parliament, form every cabinet and appoint every judge. That will allow them to make policies and implement them. But that will never give them the right to amend constitutions, an agonizing process which usually requires four fifths of parliaments in many democracies.

Maintaining the nature of the state, through a hard-to-change constitution, is important because it safeguards personal freedom. Regardless whether Arab liberals end up governing or not, they should be able to express their opinion free of coercion or reprisal, which is still not the case despite all the Arab revolutionary zeal and the presumed hard-earned freedom.

Eltahawy made it a point to over generalize, perhaps to provoke. She made all Arab men hate all Arab women. But as an Arab man, I was not offended. When I read Mona's beautiful treatise on women, I immediately understood what she meant. Her ranting against the "toxic mix" of religion and tradition and those newly elected officials who have just jumped out of the seventh century stood out.

As an Arab man, I've had endless arguments with my peers over the necessity to recognize the urgency of "women emancipation" in Arab countries. And as an Arab man, I can say with certainty that the majority of Arab men enjoy their privileges over women and plan to keep them. Their reasons might go beyond simple misogyny and be more connected to the nature of patriarchal societies where violence is practiced to establish the chain of authority, regardless of gender. This means that those Arab men who beat their wives are themselves oppressed by other men outside the household. Yet this does not put the suffering of both genders on par. In America, the latest census showed that women are paid 77 percent of what men are paid for similar jobs. In Arab countries, women are nobodies compared to men.
The alleviation Arab women's colossal suffering is possible. For a starter, existing laws should be amended to grant women full and equal rights as men.

But that's only part of the story.

When any adult female steps forward to challenge males, whether her so-called guardians (the father, the husband and the brother) or only her peers, the government should grant this woman full protection from physical harm. This is not because the government should violate the teachings of Islam, but because it should be beyond any government's powers, Arab or Western, to implement any religious or social tradition.

The liberty of every adult citizen, woman and man, is a universal right without which the Arab Spring becomes a mere reshuffling of rulers. All coming Arab governments, whether Islamist or liberal, should make sure to safeguard liberty and protect every citizen from harm.

The problem with the Arab Spring has been so far its focus on political affairs. While important, there will be no Arab revolution without a shift in cultural paradigms, and this is only possible when people like Eltahawy take the lead and provoke.

As for those who argue that maybe Arab women are opposed to change, whether radical or incremental, here is their answer: Human, especially women's, rights are not elective. The laws should be there to protect them. Then, in order to observe cultural relativism that I oppose, Arab women can take these laws or leave them.

Saudi women, for instance, can choose not to drive. But it is the responsibility of everyone to make sure that if they ever decide to do so, there will be no traditions or laws -- religious or temporal -- that can stop them.

Thank you Mona Eltahawy for a sobering article that, as an Arab man, I fully endorse.