Mona: Why Do You Hate Us?

25 Apr

Women's march in Tahrir #April20

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.

Not Hatred, But Love! Dear Mona

Us and Them: On Helpless Women and Orientalist Imagery

Dear Mona ElTahawy: You Don’t Represent “Us”

I Don’t Really Think They Hate Us!

In response to Mona Eltahawy’s hate argument

On Muslim-Arab issues and the Danger of Aiding the Neo-Liberal Colonialist Agenda

Hatred and misogyny in the Middle East, a response to Mona el Tahawy

Oh, Mona!

Let’s Talk About

Debating the War on Women

Mona el Tahawy and the Transnational Fulul al Nidham

A Critique of Mona Eltahawy’s Perception of Misogyny in the Middle East

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26 Responses to “Mona: Why Do You Hate Us?”

  1. Roqayah Chamseddine April 25, 2012 at 1:03 am #

    Thank you Gigi, for relaying to us, quite eloquently, how you feel; as a woman, an Egyptian, an Arab and a human being.

    Thank you comrade!

  2. Adele April 25, 2012 at 1:33 am #

    We waited for your response and you did not fail us, it is brilliant!!! I am so glad that all these blogposts are repudiating Mona’s shameful article!

    I posted this comment on the “frustratedarab.com” blog but will post it here too:

    Mona El-Tahawy’s article, “Why Do They Hate Us?” completely misses the roots of the problem of women’s oppression. Mona’s article is to be commended for addressing the symptoms but clearly her diagnosis/analysis is severely lacking. Simply using this sensationalist “Men Hate Women” diatribe is analogous to when Bush and his cronies said that Al-Qaeda hates the U.S. for its freedoms. As if!! It totally misses the historical/social/economic undercurrents.

    Women all over the world, regardless of their faiths and geographical location, are subjected to violence, from the Middle East, to Europe, and the Asian and American continents. If one wants to analyze this further, one can make the undeniable argument that there is a socio-economic dimension to this violence. It is so very much complex than just simply putting the blame on men and their supposedly inherent, pathological issues. There are layers and layers of history, colonialism, poverty, etc that needs to be accounted for in any analysis on women’s oppression.

    Furthermore, I take issue with Mona’s article because it panders to a Western audience that will use her article as proof of their already-entrenched racist beliefs, the same audience that reads Ayaan Hirsi Ali as gospel for why the Christian world is more advanced, more progressive, etc. All nonsense of course but this audience will love this article and will praise it and Mona will become their darling Arab woman. (Do you really want to become this kind of spokesperson Mona?)

    Lastly, Mona’s article does not contribute in any singular way toward the improvement of women’s circumstances in the Middle East. Not one iota! The reason for this is that Mona simply does not address the real causes of oppression. If she were to write an article that addresses the real causes of oppression I can assure you that it would not be featured on the front page of any widely-circulated media outlet. The real, underlying causes simply are not as “sexy, provocative, and sensationalist” as stating “Why Do They Hate Us?”. The real causes of oppression may even be inherently threatening to the power bases that sustain oppression.

    All that was gained by this is that Mona will receive more coverage from Western media outlets, and she will be more in demand as an “Arab spokesperson”. And this is simply shameful. And we who try to provide in-depth analysis will have to battle one more simplistic, self-publicizing voice that provides easy, propagandistic, junk food fodder to the pro-Western mindset.

  3. Heba Farouk Mahfouz April 25, 2012 at 1:45 am #

    I totally agree with you ya Gigi. I was told my friends that I totally love and appreciate the messages of support I receive from many foreign brothers and sisters, over FB and Twitter, expressing their pride and support for the women who were part of our revolution. But I just started feeling weird, somehow offended, receiving more of those “surprised” messages. Some people, unconsciously, internalize the sexist and discriminatory thoughts on women, especially Arabs and Muslims, and it shows in the: “I am dazzled and surprised. Wow, did not expect them to do this” messages. I mean, why should you be surprised that women in my country go out of their homes and protest? Why should you be astonished that I am as great a citizen as any other man taking part in the revolution? At least I hope you now deconstruct this stereotypical images and stop being so surprised when we do the normal.:)

  4. Yasmine April 25, 2012 at 9:27 am #

    This made my cry, and I rarely do that!

  5. CrazyBear April 25, 2012 at 12:25 pm #

    It would be better if you looked at the evolution of Egyptian society in the last decades. I mean it is valid to point the great involvement of women in Mahalla strikes, but still: the share of women in wage non-agricultural employment is technically stable at 20% for over 20 years. Maybe the stats are done poorly, maybe things take more time to translate into real changing figures, maybe after reaching a certain threshold the progress gets slower. I don’t know. Other indicators seems promising and are changing fast in the past decade like the genital mutilation, the cousin marriage rate, the fertility rate.
    So you are right to feel that there is a growing wave to come, but you can also guess that this wave that started in the 60s was delayed by the former Egyptian regime [social indicators in Egypt took a lesser slope compared to other post 60-70s revolutions]. Creating much frustration and making way for people like Mona to unload their scam,

  6. Kim April 25, 2012 at 1:20 pm #

    Great post and a fascinating debate which is challenges the way we think about and discuss the issue of gender-related oppression not just in Egypt, but all over the world.

    I would like to appeal for a similar degree of thought/analysis when considering ‘Western views’ on this and other matters. ‘The West’ and indeed America alone is not an amorphous block of people thinking and behaving with one mind, any more than the women of the Middle East are. Indeed, I suspect you would desperately struggle to find an “average American Foreign Policy reader” (although I would like to think that most were more intelligent than to buy into the simplistic and flawed view of “American soldiers with guns going to “liberate” Afghani and Iraqi women from Muslim extremists”.

  7. Maria April 25, 2012 at 4:52 pm #

    Your text was good, but I still dont believe that orientalistic picture of arabic women is the biggest problem of them. And yes, maybe there were some women in Mubarak government, but c’amon, all the main leaders were men? So how could women alone do any kind of chance there, in the goverment?

    You wrote:

    “. 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” and “Having women in power in a flawed system will not “fix” the problem either”

    Are you really that naive? The statistical fact is that the more gender equal society is, the better it usually goes. Statistics show that when women get in the power, they usually start promoting women rights (like better birth controlling, better health services for women, equal status under marriage law etc..), children rights, enviromental issues. In Scandinavian countries, e.g., half of the parlament members are women – and the social equality is, by all means, good in those countries. And many of those changes were created by women themselves, women who also made men aware of inequality problems. So I really think it DOES matter are women in the parlement or not. I don’t know how you, describing yourself as a feminist, can serioisly say that it doesen’t matter are there women in the power or not? I don’t claim that women right’s are the only problem in Egyptian democratical system, but serioisly, they are one very big main issue, as women are half of the population.

  8. Maria April 25, 2012 at 5:05 pm #

    And I really wish all you Mona-haters would calmn down. She doesen’t deserve this. We are ignoring the elephant in the room and focusing on the stupid debates if she is orientalistic or not. The things and grievances Mona wrote about are much more important than questions if she is orientalistic or not. You are just hiding the real problem here!

  9. Ian (@incommonworld) April 26, 2012 at 12:50 am #

    interesting response. angry, passionate, insightful, well-reasoned. readable.
    but what about the shock value of Mona’s essay?
    a well overdue debate has started.
    it’s passionate & everyone has their own unique response. response-ability. and it takes guts to start a revolution. Beloved Egypt deserves to be a Light of our new World.

    Most men are baffled by women. and scared of their inherent strengths. man has always attempted to subjugate women. quite recently in the western world, men listed their woman as ‘chattel’

    Now a grand muft says it’s ok to marry off girls at 10 years of age.
    Look at his picture & imagine him utilizing in his own words … “Good upbringing makes a girl ready to perform all marital duties at that age”.
    http://www.arabianbusiness.com/girls-ready-for-marriage-at-12-saudi-grand-mufti-455146.html

    and that’s a man who Loves women. Mona has an oblique point, don’t You think?

    bless You.

    • Catherine Jean April 29, 2012 at 11:02 pm #

      I agree the article (and the entire FP “sex” issue) was problematic for many of the reasons you listed above and more. If she was trying to start a serious and important conversation about sexism and mysogyny, this was not the way to go about it (and it is not just a problem of “orientalism” as suggested by Maria). As you did a great job of highlighting some of the problems with the article, I will not rehash them. However, in critique of part of your argument, ignoring the role of patriarchy and sexism in the oppression of women is also problematic.

      You wrote: “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).”

      Yes, regimes can oppress women, and yes, systems of exploitation can oppress women- one of them being patriarchy. There are systems of patriarchy and male priveledge (throughout the world) which place women (and feminity) as “less” then men and masculinity. This can manifest itself in a variety of ways depending on the context. When couples pray for a boy child, when women are bombarded with beauty products and constantly told they are not good enough as they are naturally, when women are harassed and raped, when brothers and fathers try to control a woman’s sexuality, when women’s legal rights are less than a man’s, when women are told they are not clean or pure throughout the month, when women receive less pay for the same work (we all could add a thousand more to this list) then we are looking at a system that goes way beyond the government in power or the economic and labor system.

      This does not mean that an individual man is sexist (just as an individual does not have to be racist in order to live and participate in a racist soceity), but we are all living in and in many ways participating in a variety of systems (social, legal, religious, etc.) that ultimately perpetuate the myth that women are less than men (less important, less intelligent, less human…). Ignoring this, especially in the midst of a revolution, is dangerous. How many times has history shown women at the forefront of movements and revolutions, and once the political battles are over, women are left pretty much in the same place as before with unfulfilled hopes and aspirations? Anyone who believes that a change in regime will stop sexual harrassment, stop female genital cutting (stop all the many abuses of women) and create a world in which everyday men treat everyday women as true equals, will wind up sorely disappointed.

      Yes, women should fight alongside men against corruption and for a better world, but at the same time women (along with the real men who do not need to hold onto their patriarchal privledge) also need to face the realities of patriarchy and how that, as a system of power, continues to harm women and their ability to live fully human lives.

      [And, no Maria, I also do not believe it is simply a matter of putting women in powerful places. Women should be a part of the system, but that does not always mean they are trying to change things. Women can participate in patriarchy just as fully as men. There have been plenty of self-hating women in power who have done nothing for women at large. Routinely in the US, it is women in gov. (alongside conservative men) who are putting forth legislation to restrict women's rights. What is needed is people who care about equality. However, as women have received the short end of the equlity stick, it will most likely be women who will lead the charge and demand for change.]

  10. Ahmed April 27, 2012 at 1:08 pm #

    Love and respect to Hebah. If it’s freedom for one, it’s freedom for all.

  11. horizon2012 May 1, 2012 at 7:21 pm #

    Gigi, I admire you, I see you on Al Jazeera and I love what you have done and what you stand for. In regards to Mona’s article, I never took it to mean that all arab men hate women. I read it with the same idea as Ian did: This is just a provocative article aiming to draw attention and spark debate about the kind of discrimination that women disproportionately face in this region. Of course, we cannot read her article outside of today’s political situation and so I can see why people are upset and suspicious about her writing an article on this in FP (mainly read by people from the west).
    I can also see why people are angry because they view her broad claim as a gross oversimplification and generalization. I attributed that to her intention to create a shock, but I can see why people are concerned that some readers (especially in the west) will take it to mean every household in this region treats their women as such.

    Now going back to how many households do treat their women as described…well, that number is alarming. I saw lots of articles saying that we are not as bad as Sub-Saharan Africa or China….ok, but just because other people have it worse, should we not address this point?

    Since some religious and cultural customs that are invoked in the treatment of women today date back to 700 AD, and are widely embraced across the region, it is fair to ask what motivated/s men to think, feel and behave in that way towards women then and today? Mona’s contention is that they hate us. I don’t agree with it. But neither do I agree with you that the sole reason for which women are treated in this way is an outside political regime. Most certainly, political regimes do affect the dynamics in the household and as witnessed first hand poverty breads violence and discrimination. BUT, we can’t blame it all on outside forces, there’s something deep within the male psyche that makes him universally comfortable to want to dominate and possess not only women, but also nature. And my major problem is that the belief system that prevails in the region plays into this desire and some (way too many) feel that it’s even a divine right to feel that way.
    So, yes, regimes need to be changed but let’s not pretend that individuals have nothing to do with this issue and they are merely puppets whose emotions are dictated by their government.

  12. yehiaelga3fry May 8, 2012 at 2:01 am #

    good analyzing but
    ur wrote a great analyzing for the role of Egyptian women in the political & Revolutionary scene , women had had a great role we cann’t miss ( mama 5adega ) neither u gigi and other actitvists like asmaa mahfouz ,israa abdelfatah and the 1st brave Presidential candicate (Bothaina Kamel ) all of u had made a great role but to be fair guys and girls were on equal footing in their struggle against this fucken regime neither girl more brave nor guy
    it’s my opinin

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