A New Day in Politics: Complicated conversations about Muslim women’s rights

I have been heartened by the substantive conversation happening in thought leadership publications about the plight of women in predominantly Arab and Muslim nations. Referring to Muslim women as people with desires, agency, needs and destinies is a new direction in how “the West” has ever talked about the real lives of women within these cultural contexts. But despite this continued desire to have these conversations–larger narratives about Muslim women and their bodies and Western intervention still dictate how these conversations play out.

Much of this was spurred by Mona Eltahawy’s controversial piece in Foreign Policy linked in yesterday’s Weekly Feminist Reader that came out last week called “Why do they hate us?” Her argument is pretty provocative calling out the reality that as progressives we might be excited by the “Arab Spring” but conditions for women are still terrible and the deep-rooted misogyny embedded in Islam must be addressed. She writes,

Yes: They hate us. It must be said.

Some may ask why I’m bringing this up now, at a time when the region has risen up, fueled not by the usual hatred of America and Israel but by a common demand for freedom. After all, shouldn’t everyone get basic rights first, before women demand special treatment? And what does gender, or for that matter, sex, have to do with the Arab Spring? But I’m not talking about sex hidden away in dark corners and closed bedrooms. An entire political and economic system — one that treats half of humanity like animals — must be destroyed along with the other more obvious tyrannies choking off the region from its future. Until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors on our streets and in our homes, our revolution has not even begun.

Eltahawy’s piece has been widely criticized as giving too much ammo for those trying to legitimately fight the war against women in these states–in making assumptions about women’s agency, ignoring the role that women have had in the uprisings against oppressive governments and that these types of arguments give more credence to the wars that are fought against these nations by the West.

Eltahawy addresses early in her piece what she considers a knee-jerk leftie impulse to resist critiquing the condition of women’s lives in Arab states. Eltahawy, like many women of color, falls into a trap where if she says anything she will be critiqued and if she doesn’t say anything she knows there are certain problems that will never get the proper light of day. This is something I wrote about a while ago in response to Eltahawy debating a Muslim blogger on CNN about veiling.

My firm belief is that because of the pervasive nature of colonialism, racism and anti-Muslim sentiments, it is downright impossible to have a conversation about women within these cultural contexts without a) including them in the conversation and b) without continually acknowledging the role that war, Western intervention and colonization has on the rise of conservative ideals about women.

As I mentioned in this week’s podcast, I want to always be saying things that are historically accurate and responsible in depicting groups I am not a part of–but I also don’t want to be called a traitor when I dare speak out about sexism within what is considered a community I am representing. How do we have these conversations without polarizing communities and reigniting the very hateful anti-Muslim sentiments that are often fueled by the question of women’s lives?

Well, firstly we can talk about it. Check out this segment on Melissa Harris-Perry between Eltahawy and noted Egyptian feminist and scholar Leila Ahmed. They have a respectful disagreement about the best way to have this conversation–Ahmed emphasizing that accurate details is one way to go.

Ahmed has a very legitimate point that adding details and being specific about conditions will only help people fully get a complicated view of the way we understand women’s rights in other cultural contexts. Eltahawy’s piece would not have been as effective had it not had the salacious title and the very grotesque imagery of the very real oppression of Muslim women. But, I’m OK with salacious titles and I’m OK with a little shenanigans to get media attention, if it leads to a mindful conversation about women’s rights–but what I felt was truly missing from Eltahaway’s piece was any connection between what is happening in predominantly Muslim countries and what is happening against women in the United States.

Ultimately, the more we see sexism as this far off thing, in far away places that we are disconnected from–the more our solutions mirror this distance and lack of understanding. Unfortunately, the cut backs to women’s rights in some of the most poorest and most religiously fundamentalist parts of the country aren’t because Christian fundamentalists are more humane, it’s because in comparison their living conditions are slightly better–so a woman has a better shot at getting a job, an education and getting the hell out of oppressive conditions. Considering how aggressive the cuts to women’s rights have been in certain parts of the country, the mindset that leads to the oppression of women is not that different.

The fundamentalist belief that women’s sexuality should be contained, controlled and legislated is a global phenomenon–not something unique to Muslim nations. It is the combination of this toxic idea with horrible living conditions, general class oppression, and a history of violence that makes those conditions uniquely appalling in places like Egypt or Saudi Arabia, but the misogyny itself is not unique.

Max Fisher writes compellingly at The Atlantic,

The Arab Muslim women who criticized Eltahawy have been outspoken proponents of Arab feminism for years. So their backlash isn’t about “Arab brother before Western sister,” but it does show the extreme sensitivity about anything that could portray Arab misogyny as somehow particular to Arab society or Islam. It’s not Eltahawy’s job to tiptoe around Arab cultural anxieties about Western-imposed values, but the fact that her piece seems to have raised those anxieties more than it has awakened Arab male self-awareness is an important reminder that the exploitation of Arab women is about more than just gender. As some of Eltahawy’s defenders have put it to me, the patriarchal societies of the Arab world need to be jolted into awareness of the harm they’re doing themselves. They’re right, but this article doesn’t seem to have done it.

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