Mona Eltahawy, an Arab-American journalist, created a firestorm when Foreign Policy Magazine published her article “Why Do They Hate Us?”. If you thought the they and us refers to Muslims and Americans, you’d be wrong. In fact, they is Arab men, and us is women. Her article is a stabbing critique of Arab culture, which she finds to be heavily misogynistic.
If that wasn’t provocative enough, she goes further: according to her, these Arab men hate women. ”Yes: They hate us. It must be said.” To prove her argument, she issues a challenge: “Name me an Arab country, and I’ll recite a litany of abuses [against women] fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion.” The rest of the article is a recitation of that litany, interspersed with jazzy catchphrases such as “[w]e are more than our headscarves and our hymens” and “poke the hatred in its eye.”
There is no way to deny the basic premise that the status of women’s rights in the Arab world is abysmal. Why then did Mona Eltahawy evoke such a hostile reaction from even the Arab women whose rights she seeks to protect? The easy answer, one that Eltahawy and her supporters might argue, is that these women are simply brainwashed. Too much “Islamism” in their little brains. The problem with this argument is that it’s sexist. It’s basically saying Arab women are too stupid to think for themselves.
The real reason that Arab women recoil after reading Eltahawy’s article is that, while she tries to connect to them based on their gender, she attacks other aspects of their core identity: their race, nationality, religion, and culture. In fact, her racist (and somewhat babbling) screed is nothing short of a vicious attack on their entire civilization.
Eltahawy cites “a toxic mix of culture and religion” as the source of the abuses against women. Oddly, she later says, “You — the outside world — will be told that it’s our ‘culture’ and ‘religion’ to do X, Y, or Z to women.” Yet, it is Mona Eltahawy herself who is arguing precisely that.
By attacking their core identity, Eltahawy has succeeded in alienating her own audience. Imagine, for instance, an American feminist arguing for greater rights for African women, while at the same time assailing the black race, African culture, and traditional tribal religion. How receptive or thankful do you think these African women would be? How pleased would the black or African community be if someone was writing articles about how backwards their culture is?
Mona Eltahawy’s article engages in trite, racial stereotypes. Legitimate problems in the Arab world are sensationalized. They hate women. What an absurd exaggeration! They have mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters–and it is reasonable to assume that, like other human beings on earth, they love them.
A man can love his wife and still abuse her. He can have undying affection for his daughter but still wrong her in horrible ways. But, by going so far as to say they hate women, Eltahawy has dehumanized them. One recalls similar invective against Palestinian parents: they don’t love their children. The message being sent is: they are worse than animals.
Women’s rights is an area of concern in many parts of the developing world, not just the Arab world. Why single out Arabs? Women face major obstacles in India. Should we demonize the Hindu religion and the great Indian civilization?
Eltahawy lists off “a litany of abuses”, bringing up extreme cases to make her point. By citing isolated cases and stacking them all up together, she ends up portraying an imbalanced and biased picture of the Arab world.
Racists don’t see nuance. They lump all people of a certain group altogether. That’s exactly what Mona Eltahawy does in her article. She paints the entire people of that region–or at least its men–with one broad bush. They hate women. All 170 million of them.
In fact, not all Arabs are alike. During my travels in the Muslim world, I saw all sorts of people, with a broad diversity of views. I met conservative Muslims, liberal Muslims, atheists, Christians, Communists, hippies, you name it. No sweeping generalization could be made about them (aside for, perhaps, their disgust of American foreign policy).
It is true that I was deeply disturbed by the mistreatment of women, religious and ethnic minorities, poor people, servants, and animals. But, I also met people there–men, no less–who were also deeply disturbed by these things and would have no part in it.
Just as the viral Kony 2012 video drew criticism for reinforcing the idea of White Man’s Burden, so too does Mona Eltahawy’s article tap into historically racist Orientalist attitudes towards the Arab world.
By firmly pegging abuses against women to the Arab culture and Muslim religion, Mona Eltahawy’s article was nothing short of bigotry. Indeed, one could hardly tell the difference between Eltahawy’s article and what could normally be found sprawled on numerous Islamophobic websites, such as Robert Spencer’s JihadWatch and Pamela Geller’s Atlas Shrugs. It is almost a surety that her article will be approvingly cited on such sites, which pit “our civilized, freedom-loving civilization” against “those barbaric, women-hating peoples.”
Had Mona Eltahawy been just any ole’ Islamophobe hacking away at the keyboard–had she been a Robert Spencer or a Pamela Geller–her article would hardly have made headlines. It would have been just one of thousands and thousands of such hateful rants on the internet by anti-Muslim trolls. But, like Irshad Manji and Asra Nomani, Mona Eltahawy has an official “I’m a Muslim” card. That’s even better than the official “I’m an ex-Muslim” card that bigots like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Nonie Darwish proudly carry. It’s probably even a step above the “I’m a former jihadi terrorist” gold card. Eltahawy holds the platinum card and gets extra points for being a woman.
As other pundits have noted, Mona Eltahawy is–along with Irshad Manji, Asra Nomani, Tarek Fatah, Zuhdi Jasser, etc.–acting in the role of the “native informant.” Monica L. Marks writes on the Huffington Post:
“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.
Marks goes on to say:
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.”
These native informants just tell us what we want to hear. Their job is to increase hatred of Arabs and Muslims, something that is needed in order to sustain our multiple wars of aggression in that part of the world.
Native informants do not help fix the problems they point to. Why, for example, did Mona Eltahawy choose to publish her article in Foreign Policy, an American magazine? Why didn’t she write it for an Arab/Arabic publication, with a primarily Arab readership?
Instead she chose Foreign Policy Magazine, which was founded by none other than Samuel P. Huntington. His famous Clash of Civilizations theory pit the Judeo-Christian West against the Muslim world. How very fitting that Mona Eltahawy’s us vs. them article was published in the magazine he founded.
Eltahawy’s audience is clear:
You — the outside world — will be told that it’s our ‘culture’ and ‘religion’ to do X, Y, or Z to women.
Monica Marks writes:
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.
Indeed, the issue of human rights was routinely used by the colonial powers to justify the conquest and expropriation of land. The Americas, including the land that is now the United States, was brutally conquered and stolen by Europeans on this very basis. The indigenous peoples were portrayed as savages needing civilizing. The white man would bring them “democracy”, “freedom”, and “civilization” (Operation Iraqi Freedom?).
In her article, Mona Eltahawi enumerates numerous abuses Arab women face. However, none of these inhumanities–not even female genital mutilation–can be considered as problematic as the cannibalism and human sacrifice that the indigenous peoples of the Americas sometimes engaged in. And yet, whatever failings the indigenous peoples had in their culture and civilization, it is now widely understood who the real savage was.
We can continue to pat ourselves on the back for how civilized we are, how free our women are, how we are so much better than them. But, none of that will change the fact that we are the ones waging wars of aggression and occupation in the Muslim world. We are the ones killing hundreds of thousands of their innocent men, women, and children.
It was in another article, also published in Foreign Policy with almost the exact same title–Why They Hate Us?–that Prof. Stephen Walt calculated the number of Muslim lives the U.S. has extinguished: “a reasonable upper bound for Muslim fatalities…is well over one million, equivalent to over 100 Muslim fatalities for every American lost.” To use a jazzy catchphrase of my own: mutilating a baby girl’s genitals is horrible, but dropping a bomb on her head is much worse.