Don’t take my word for it…

Yasmine El Rashidi interviewed Egyptian American activist Mona Eltahawy in the last issue of Bidoun. In her introduction, El Rashidi shares her misgivings about the meeting, recalling some of the uproar caused by Eltahawy’s article ‘Why Do They Hate Us?’ and the abuse she received from diverse sources she received on its publication. I proceeded with caution

I had a big problem – I agreed with everything Eltahawy said. When she compares the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia to apartheid, tells America to back off so that Egyptians can decide their own destiny, and accuses the Muslim Brotherhood of abusing their halo of religious sanctity for political manipulation, I’m shouting ‘right on, sister!’ on the Tube.

But I’m not Egyptian, not Arab, not a Muslim, so it’s not for me to make these arguments, tempting as it is, for a non-religious western feminist, to shout them from the rooftops. I guess part of the vitriol against Eltahawy comes from the fear that westerners will hear only negative stereotypes, stoking the fire of Islamophobia and acceptance for the ‘humanitarian’ foreign policy rhetoric cloaking interference that serves corporate interests in the Middle East’s energy resources.

All I can say is, I know there are millions of women whose voices DO belong in the discussion, who are still being denied the right to speak, to participate in politics and even more basic protections, by structural and overt oppression and violence.  I passionately want to support and empower them, without imposing my own idea of what freedom looks like. Yet Eltahawy says ‘the international community has to stick to its conscience, because there are international standards by which you have to treat human beings’. If we can agree on that (and, precariously, we have), then we should be able to back Eltahawy’s fight. Clearly not all Egyptian, Arab, Muslim, or Middle Eastern women agree with her, but she is battling for their right to say so.

I’m in solidarity. I’m behind Mona.


3 thoughts on “Don’t take my word for it…

  1. Hello Rose Anna,
    I liked your piece which introduces the affect of individual beliefs into the issue of gender oppression. Individuals willingly in this situation may seem to be, certainly in my eyes, doubly disadvantaged. It is an incredible challenge to square ones own sensibilities with others’ humble compromises. Personally I find that ancient doctrines, divinely ascribed, but obviously of narrow human origins, are hopelessly inadequate and flawed in the present. I applaud your efforts, which lead me too to admire Eltahawy’s tenacity and heroism, but at the same time I lament what I feel to be a hopeless situation. In Britain there may well be optimism that moderate muslims can greatly accommodate feminist aspirations, but I fear for any such progress in any place in the Middle East.

    1. Hi Tony,

      Many thanks for your kind comment. I sympathise with your view on the situation of women in the Middle East, but I think you are too pessimistic. There are strong feminist movements within the region and among Muslims. They might differ from western feminist movements (themselves diverse in perspectives and agendas), but it’s clearly the worst kind of supremacist orientalism to deny their validity! Saira Khan, a Pakistani American feminist, quotes Gloria Steinem:

      “A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.”

      Many people from the Muslim tradition fit this description, and interpret the same message inscribed in the texts of Islam itself. There are also many people, Muslims and non-Muslims, living in these regions, who do not call themselves feminists, but nonetheless campaign for women’s rights to participate in democracy and achieve autonomy in other areas.

      Like you I feel that religious fundamentalism, whether in Islam, Christianity or another faith presents a deadly threat to women and to human rights. Like you, I feel women living in places where the mainstream culture is strongly influenced by conservative Islamic doctrines face more severe barriers than those in western ‘secular democracies’, where for example we enjoy protected access to education and are permitted to drive around unaccompanied. In many cases, however, we are confronting the same issues. This morning I heard an instalment of ‘Egypt’s Challenge’, a documentary project presented by Shaimaa Khalil. A man was heard saying that ‘women shouldn’t go to Tahrir, because they get raped’. This victim-blaming statement is shocking, but it’s hardly different from the constant messages women hear in the UK telling us to avoid going out alone at night, getting too drunk, wearing revealing clothes and so on. A woman reporting a sexual assault will inevitably asked how she was dressed at the time, as if a short skirt were a ‘provocation’ somehow diminishing the responsibility of the attacker for his behaviour.

      What I’m saying is, we might be better off than our Egyptian sisters, but we certainly have plenty in common with them, and I wouldn’t say the UK is setting a shining example. If we want to help those women, we must listen to them and support them on their own terms.

      1. Many thanks for your enlightening reply. I see that the support you offer through your writing is an essential antidote to dismissive pessimism. It is indeed a universal struggle hard fought on many and diverse fronts.

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