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.

Join the Conversation

  • http://feministing.com/members/alita/ Alita

    “but conditions for women are still terrible and the deep-rooted misogyny embedded in Islam must be addressed.”

    are these her words or yours-because its crap like this which makes me headdesk so hard and this sort of crap that has people mansplaining and whitesplaining to me about my own religion. there is a difference between culture and religion, and if commentors cannot tell the difference between the two they really need to go back to the library and start reading up!

  • http://feministing.com/members/courtkneestl/ Courtney

    I will commend Eltahawy for sparking a really important conversation and I loved watching her and Ahmed discuss their disagreements and respect for each other on MHP – it’s so great to see two women who disagree NOT being pitted against each other.

    I think discussions of women and Islam are often hijacked by white people in the western world (yes, people who look like me) and we rarely let Muslim women speak for themselves. I think the disagreements surrounding Eltahawy’s piece are important learning opportunities for those who may not be so familiar with the experiences of Muslim women in the Middle East.

  • http://feministing.com/members/andrea1234/ Andrea

    It’s fine to link sexism in predominately Muslim countries back to practices in Western nations – not wanting to come off as “holier than thou”, but I will never ever forget sitting in a Women’s Studies graduate seminar and listening to earnest feminists say that female genital mutilation was an acceptable cultural practice because hey, Western women get breast implants. I raged so hard I actually quit the class and complained to the VP Academic and brought down harsh consequences on the department.

    No, we are not perfect, but hell if I will ever agree that cutting the genitals off a five year old girl is an acceptable practice anywhere at any time under any circumstance. And yes, I think circumcision of male infants is totally heinous, too. My son’s penis is intact. I don not accept ANY argument that allows adults to mutilate the genitals of any child. NOT COOL FULL STOP.

    Did Christianity hate on women? Yup. Still does. That does not mean Islam gets a pass. They are both wrong, and we need to stand up and speak up for every little girl having her labia scraped off tonight. And we need to support Muslim women who are standing up and speaking out.

    I find the refusal to criticize Islam for its hatred of women to be the most depressing aspect of current academic “feminism”. So disappointing.

    • http://feministing.com/members/alita/ Alita


      again sick of this whole fgm=islamic. no the fuck it is not its cultural-many non-muslims have this aborhant act done to them too.

      Andrea, if you really want to help muslim women, you would do your research into Islamic beliefs before getting all angry by a misrepresentation of a faith that unfortunatly, some muslims and non muslims believe. a lot of crap is done and Islam is used as a justification-the perpetrators relying on the ignorance of people like yourself to further their cause. Islam should be critizied, to do this people will hav to learn about it first which i think its great because it means the crap done in its name or unrightly linked to it like FGM will lose ground.

  • http://feministing.com/members/jerin/ jerin

    Thank you, Alita, for pointing out the problem with equating a religion that represents over 1 billion people to any one culture. We can have a conversation about religion, but let’s discuss the facts – not the patriarchal mutation of faith.

    The following statements from Women Living Under Muslim Laws explains how Islamic laws can be feminist, instead of the way the name of Islam is used to justify many patriarchal and un-Islamic laws such as FGM (female genital mutilation) – which is nowhere to be found in The Qur’an.

    Some of my favorite statements:
    “WLUML knows from its own research that laws said to be Islamic, which laws are said to derive from Islamic jurisprudence or ‘fiqh’ (often wrongly referred to as ‘sharia’), or considered in conformity with Islam vary enormously from country to country – hence proving laws and the jurisprudence (fiqh) they are said to have been derived from are man-made rather than God-given. Furthermore they include elements from culture and traditions that have nothing to do with religion, as well as colonial laws when these best suit the interests of local patriarchy. This is how local traditions such as muta’a marriage or FGM (female genital mutilation) are adopted as part and parcel of ‘religion.’ This is also how the newly independent Algeria in the 1960s deprived its women citizens of any access to contraception and abortion, using a long abandoned French law dating from 1922.”

    From the religious point of view alone, the Qur’an itself can be read and interpreted in different ways. Diversity (iktilaf) is an accepted tradition in Islam. Tunisia took the historic decision in 1956 to forbid polygyny (aka polygamy), as legislators pointed out that the Qur’an clearly indicated both that equal treatment between wives is required and that it was not possible for a man to treat several women perfectly equally; conversely Algeria in 1962 used the same verse to allow a man to have 4 wives and legitimize polygamy. Which of these contradictory interpretations conforms with ‘sharia’?

    For feminism,