At any given moment in the Egyptian revolution, or the Arab Spring for that matter, the question of women or the role of women arises. I cannot recall the number of emails, and questions I usually get, mostly from foreign journalists, about the “role of women in the Egyptian revolution.” My answer is (if i ever answer at all) usually the same and consist of something like “women have been fighting in the forefront of the struggle paving the way to this revolution. They have been beaten, tortured, stripped naked, imprisoned, sacked from their jobs and much more just as much as men if not more including getting their virginity checked. However, they are not acting as one block of women, but rather as revolutionaries or ordinary people fighting for the revolution’s demands: freedom, dignity, social equality.”
It might take some aliens to not understand this, especially as an Egyptian, even for an Egyptian living abroad who visits Egypt a lot for some people. If any of these journalists who usually ask this question happen to have joined one protest or one strike, he or she would immediately know that women are the backbone of this revolution. In my experience, the most militant, radical, brave people I encountered in this revolution happened to be women. Samira Ibrahim, Aida Seif Al Dawla, Layla Sweif, Rasha Azab, Salma Said, Mona Mina, Mary Daniel, Tahrir girl, to name a few, not to mention all the mothers, sisters, and wives of martyrs and working class women.
This post is not supposed to convince you how courageous women are in the Middle East, or how they are fighting for freedom, minimum wage, social equality, or good education, because that is shown everyday through the heroic stories that the western press fails to cover, but Egyptians encounter them on a daily basis. You can view some stories of brave ordinary women here. This post is rather a response to the disgraceful, one-dimensional, article “Why Do They Hate Us?” by Mona El Tahawy.
Titles like “Why do they hate us?” can only describe Geroge-Bush dichotomies of “them” versus “us” paradigms, where the making of the “other” into a monster can only add to “our” vulnerability and righteousness. I never thought that this dichotomy could be used as an argument for feminism, but the astonishing Mona El Tahawy have found a way. In her article, she based her whole vague-over-generalized-orientalist argument of why women are oppressed in the Middle East to a simple reason of “because they hate us.” To give Mona the benefit of the doubt, as I skimmed through the title before reading the first paragraph about a woman so unmoved by sex with her husband, I imagined an article written on why dictatorships hate women or why exploitative systems hate women and turn them into objects, even if it is not about love or hate in my opinion, but I was imagining this to at least make the article readable for me after the disturbing title, the horribly chosen picture to accompany the topic, and the overt opening. Naive I was to think that Mona El Tahawy could write something I might slightly agree with given her history in writing about “women issues in the Middle East.”
Her sole argument on why women are oppressed in the Middle East, since this is a special place in the world where only backward thinking can be found, is because men and/or Arab society hate women. What is very troubling is her belief that she is the “voice” for so many unheard women, who are oppressed and beaten by their husbands or shunned by the patriarchal Arab societies. She is the beacon of hope for Arab Muslim women living the male-dominated Middle East forced to wear the niqab and do slave work at home. Not only does she believe that she is speaking for these women, but she believes that she is one of the few (if not the only) who is brave, eloquent, and educated enough to vocalize these suppressed voices to the Western media like FP, BBC, CNN, who are of course incapable to reach these suppressed creatures, Middle Eastern women.
I think the only factual thing Mona brings up is that there is discrimination against women more in the Middle East than in other countries, but she blames it on all the wrong reasons. She brings all statistics and backed-up research on how women are subject to unequal laws, genital mutilation, sexual harassment, domestic violence, and rape, etc. I am not minimizing or dismissing these facts at all and I do encourage and believe discussion about these crimes as healthy and the only way to move forward is by acknowledging the problem. Many who have criticized Mona’s article get accused that we are defending the actions of discrimination against women or simply denying it and that couldn’t be farthest from the truth in understanding the fundamental problem with Mona’s argument in the first place.
The fundamental problem of Mona’s essay is the context and framework of how she analyzes why women in the Middle East are oppressed and the only reason she could give is because men and Arab societies (culturally and religiously) hate women. This is offensive to most women I know, who read the article and shared the same view. Women in the Middle East are not oppressed by men out of male dominance, they are oppressed by regimes (who happened to be men in power) and systems of exploitation (which exploit based on class not gender). Having women in power in a flawed system will not “fix” the problem either. We had a women’s quota in Mubarak’s parliament, did that change anything for women in reality? It was all ink on paper. Even after revolution, women are consistently used for political grounds by crony political parties. Explaining why women are oppressed without touching on any of the historical, political, or economical aspects of Arab countries, which are not all the same as she tends to generalize in her article, couldn’t be more delusional than this piece.
The answer is in the picture FP used as a “sexy” caption alongside a sexist article full of disgrace to brave Arab women including one of the bravest in that picture. Did Mona El Tahawy ask herself, “what would this brave young girl who exposed an army think of what I write about her oppression?” I don’t think Mona is even capable of this thinking given her stance. Did this girl feel hated by those men in uniform because she is a woman? or did she feel betrayed by the men who were supposed to protect her as part of their duty? She was standing for social justice, freedom, human rights, she stood against an army for Egypt as a whole, men, women, Christians, Muslims, young, old, Nubians, and immigrants. It is hard to believe that if she had a choice she would only choose women because “they (men) hate us (women).” Mona, on the other hand would disagree. I don’t know how the girl felt, I don’t know how she feels about this article and nobody does except her.
I am not here to tell you how every woman in the Arab world, which is a very big divers place, full of all kinds of women, feel about men and about this article. I can only speak about my feelings and my experience. Mona El Tahawy’s article does not represent me. I am an Egyptian American Muslim woman, who was raised to Egyptian parents, spent all my childhood in Egypt, studied high school and partial college in the US and now living in Egypt since 2008 and I am happily married to an amazing Egyptian man, who loves me and doesn’t hate me because I am a woman.
Our society is far from fair towards many groups not just towards women. My fight and our revolution’s heart lay in this struggle itself, to have every Egyptian living a decent life, living a humane life, and for some to simply live. For decades, Egyptians in all sectors of society have suffered the iron fist and corruption of dictators ruling Egypt and still ruling them. This transcended through generations and found its place in almost every household and institution (with relative degrees). How can all this very complicated complex be summed into a zero-sum equation of men versus women, love versus hate? It is much more complicated than that, but Mona doesn’t bother to mention any of this, but portrays the Middle East as if it is an anomaly, where the only measure of women success or women equality is how many seats she got in parliament or if we will ever see a woman president of Egypt. Does Mona El Tahawy know that nearly 3,000 Egyptian women workers started one of the first Mahalla’s strikes (in the recent decade) in December 2006, when they started chanting, “where are the men, here are the women!” Which paved the way to the revolution that is inspiring and shocking to the world right now? of course that wouldn’t fit into the perception of the average American Foreign Policy reader, who is used to images of American soldiers with guns going to “liberate” Afghani and Iraqi women from Muslim extremists. Simply, Mona’s audience are neither Arab women nor most women who took part in this revolution. To give you an idea, here are some examples of responses to this disgraceful article. Some written by Arab women, who agree Mona only represents herself in that article.