Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Beyond Mona

Fully understanding the abuses women suffer

By: Gulamhusein A. Abba

Note: Mona Eltahawy’s rage against the injustices and indignities suffered by women at the hands of men is palpable and comes through loud and clear in her article ‘Why Do They Hate Us” published in Foreign Policy magazine. The cruelties that women suffer, as described by her so graphically, are painful to read about. They need to be talked about, understood and addressed.

However, the subject is complex and an in-depth look is needed. Towards providing such a look I have selected ten pieces for reproduction here, starting with the six published by Foreign Policy magazine itself. These are followed by four essays carefully selected by me from dozens that have been published. I have rounded up this post by adding two revealing videos of Mona.

All material appearing here is copyright and is being published here purely to spread awareness and understanding.

For original please see:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

The six contributions requested for and published by Foreign Policy magazine:

Sondos Asem: Misogyny exists, but blaming it for women's suffering is simplistic
Sondos Asem is senior editor of and a member of the Freedom and Justice Party's foreign relations committee. Follow her on Twitter @SondosAsem or @Ikhwanweb.

When I marched to Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, 2011, I was driven by the indignities and suffering endured by all Egyptians, men and women, from decades of corrupt and oppressive rule. Despite the oppression, I believed in my power to effect change. I believed then and I believe now that to bring about that change, we need lots of determination and hard work.

Although I share many of her concerns, I respectfully disagree with Mona Eltahawy's simplistic assertion that the plight of women in the Arab world is the result of being hated by the rest of society -- more specifically, by men, and even more so by newly elected Islamists. In taking issue with Islamists' view of women, Eltahawy uses a combination of hyperbole and perhaps benign neglect to highlight offensive stances and bury more women-centered ones. Far from constituting a solution, this type of one-dimensional reductionism and stereotyping is one of the problems facing Arab women. Let's be clear: There is misogyny in the Arab world. But if we want progress for Arab women, we must hack at the roots of evil, not at its branches.

Shadi Hamid: Arab women have more agency than you might think
Shadi Hamid is director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. You can follow him on Twitter at@shadihamid.

Unquestionably, the plight of Arab women is cause for considerable alarm. And it only seems to have gotten worse since the Arab uprisings began. For this reason, Mona Eltahawy's recent Foreign Policy essay makes for vital reading. But how and why did it get this bad? The answers to this question are perhaps just as troubling, and require far greater consideration than Eltahawy allows. In Egypt, women were at the frontlines of revolt. But when it came time to cast their votes, the majority of Egyptian women voted for parties that do not believe in "gender equality" as most Westerners would understand the term. Presumably, men did not force them to do so. The fact of the matter is that Arab women, throughout the region, are exercising their moral and political agency, but not necessarily in the ways we might expect.

In Kuwait, Islamists vocally opposed giving women the right to vote. But when women were eventually granted suffrage, Islamist parties did just as well, if not better, in subsequent elections. In other words, women, in large numbers, were exercising their right to vote for candidates who did not believe they had the right to vote in the first place. Meanwhile, in an April 2011 poll, only 18 percent of Egyptian respondents said they would "support a woman president." Breaking it down by gender, female respondents were more open to the idea than men were. But the vast majority -- 73 percent -- still said they would not support a female presidential candidate.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf: The Prophet Mohammad was a revolutionary feminist
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is chairman of the Cordoba Initiative and author of Moving The Mountain, which goes on sale May 8.

As Islam has spread throughout the world, it has combined religion with native cultural practices. Many centuries later, separating the religion from the underlying culture has become difficult. That's why Islam as practiced in Egypt differs from, say, Islam as practiced in Malaysia.
Mona Eltahawy describes cultural practices in Egypt and the Middle East that predate Islam yet have been embraced by many people now as part of Islam. The practice of genital mutilation of women, for example, is found only in Africa. If it were part of Islam, it would be practiced by Muslims all over the world.

For his time, the Prophet Mohammed was a revolutionary feminist. Before him, Arab women had no rights; they were men's property. Before Islam, men could have as many wives as they wanted. While it might sound outrageous to Americans today, the Quran insisted that men could have no more than four wives and that the wives must be treated equally -- a radical idea at the time. In another major breakthrough, the Quran decreed that female children must be given a share of their parents' inheritance. In fact, with the explosion of wealth in some of the Gulf states, women are now accumulating economic power through inheritance.

Hanin Ghaddar: We need more badass ladies
Hanin Ghaddar is the managing editor of NOW Lebanon and a journalist based in Beirut.

I was 16 when I first recognized that my father was terrified of me. We were at a grocery shop in my town in southern Lebanon when my classmate, a boy, came in. All I did was say "hi" and smile, but that was horrifying enough for my father to spend the night screaming and banging his head against the walls because he did not want to hit me. His little girl had turned into a woman with a natural sex drive that he could not put off.

I was a woman, one who could cause him shame and dishonor by talking to men in a public space. His reaction triggered a tornado of mixed thoughts and feelings in my mind. But in the midst of the confusion and deep fear, I sensed a strange quiver of power.

In the years that followed, I used this power against him and everything patriarchal in my community. I gradually raised his expectations and, with them, his fears. His alarm about me and my body made him more repressive, but it was his fear that exposed his weakness and made me realize that I could break him.
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Naheed Mustafa: "Nekkid Burqa Woman" is lazy and insulting
Naheed Mustafa is a freelance writer and broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada

Let me just state right off the top: I have nothing against naked women. But as with all things, there's a time and place. When they appear out of context, naked women quickly become nekkid chicks. Now, granted, I'm hard pressed to point out exactly when -- outside of three or four very specific scenarios -- it's appropriate to plunk down a picture of a naked woman. But I'm certain it's not smack in the middle of a serious essay about gender-based violence in the Arab world.

Here's a quick reenactment of me reading Mona Eltahawy's cover essay as my eyes involuntarily (I swear!) flit over to Nekkid Burqa Woman. "So, yes, women all over the world have problems -- BOOBS! -- yes, the United States has yet to elect a female president -- BOOOBS! -- and yes, women continue to be objectified in many "Western" countries -- BOOOOOBS!" And so on
When I was asked to contribute this critique, I had to ask myself what exactly my problem was. I've narrowed it down to two things: The image of Nekkid Burqa Woman is lazy and insulting.
Let's talk lazy first. And by lazy I mean editorially. Illustrations for print stories are meant to illuminate the text, to present a further dimension to the written word. They are not incidental to the item. The image of a naked woman with a painted-on burqa does nothing to illuminate the essay it accompanies. It's trite and boring -- been there, done that.
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Leila Ahmed: Eltahawy misreads Alifa Rifaat
Leila Ahmed is Victor S. Thomas Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. She is the author of A Quiet Revolution: the Veil's Resurgence, from the Middle East to America, an adapted excerpt of which ran in Foreign Policy.

Alifa Rifaat, whose writing frames Mona Eltahawy's essay, was a wonderful and deeply subtle writer -- one of Egypt's finest writers of the last century.  Her stories are typically brief, powerful meditations on themes of human desires and failures, and people's anguished loneliness in the midst, supposedly, of intimacy -- between husband and wife, mother and daughter, even mistress and maid. Publishing her work mainly in the 1970s and 1980s, Rifaat was probably the first Egyptian woman author to write fairly directly about women's sexuality. She penned, among other things, a story in which a woman whose husband figures only marginally in the story experiences ecstatic sexual fulfillment with a jinn who comes to her in the form of a woman.

Rifaat was herself forbidden to write by her husband, a policeman, for a good many years. She was thus intimately familiar with male chauvinism, as her stories, written mostly from the perspective of a female character, make clear. But she was also capable of writing very empathetically of men's travails, loneliness, and failed hopes.

Disconcertingly, Eltahawy strangely misreads (in my view) the Rifaat story with which she begins her essay. After enduring "unmoved," as Eltahawy correctly says, her husband's sexual exertions, the story's central character then eagerly rises to wash herself and perform ritual prayers. Eltahawy reads these actions as indicating Rifaat's "brilliant" portrayal of "sublimation through religion."

Rifaat, when I met her in Cairo in the early 1990s, wore the hijab, the Muslim head scarf. And she explicitly spoke to me --in the course of a long, rambling conversation in which she also talked of the tremendous importance to her of sexuality -- of how much joy she found in prayer, and of how she (like the character in her story) almost lived for those moments of prayer.
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This ends the asked for contributions that have been published in Foreign Ploicy magazine. What follows are four selections by the editor.

Samia Errazzouki: Dear Mona Eltahawy, You Do Not Represent “Us”
Samia Errazzouki is a Moroccan-American writer based in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. Her research focus is Morocco's political economy and reforms. She blogs at
(Courtesy of Almonitor)

When I first came across Foreign Policy’s recent “Sex issue” cover, I thought it was an attempt at blackface, but upon zooming in and reading the title of the article by Mona Eltahawy, my eyes were not fooling me. It really was a nude woman covered in a black body-painted niqab.
They tell you do not judge a book by its cover. But as an Arab-American Muslim woman, I could not get that image out of my head long enough to even begin reading Eltahawy’s article. I kept thinking about how the image degraded and insulted every woman I know that wears or has ever worn the Niqab. This was the image Foreign Policy chose to set up an article about the treatment of women in the Middle East and North Africa.

The face veil is rooted in pre-Islamic history, and Leila Ahmed’s Women and Gender in Islam goes into a comprehensive explanation of its roots in the region. Today, those who are fixated on the Niqab believe that focusing on what a Muslim woman wears is what defines her thought, her intellect, her capabilities, her sexuality, her gender and her very existence. It is a narrative that’s been framed by the West and fed by the likes of Qasim Amin and even Hoda Sha’rawi. Foreign Policy’s decision to choose this photograph of a naked woman with a body-painted niqab embodies this problematic narrative in more ways than one:
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Ayesha Kazmi is an American Muslim.
(Courtesy of American Paki)

Since yesterday it appears Mona Eltahawy has had her hands full fending off the massive outrage her  Foreign Policy article entitled “Why do they hate us? The real war on women is in the Middle East East” provoked. Even much to the dismay of disappointed feminists, her tweets suggest those disagreeing with her have not bothered to provide intelligible debate. However, it was pretty clear, even yesterday, this was certainly not the case.

I realise Mona has likely been quite swamped with responses. But her tweeting patterns suggest that she is responding mainly to two types of people: those that are lauding her work, and those that have been shamelessly slandering her. The problem is that there is a whole host of people in between who want to engage with her intellectually and respectfully while explaining to her precisely why they disagreed so deeply with her piece. After my own numerous attempts to try and engage with her, it appeared pretty clear she wasn’t particularly interested in this type of engagement.

So, here I am, irritated and disappointed, attempting to add to the host of blog responses to Mona Eltahawy – unsure of whether or not she will even bother to read the many sensible rebuttals, or whether she will continue to push the idea that no one is providing coherent retorts. I have made peace with this likelihood before I even sat down to write this.
To continue reading this post, click

Roqayah Chamseddine: Us and Them: On Helpless Women and Orientalist Imagery
Roqayah Chamseddine is a US based Lebanese-American journalist, commentator and international human rights activist; she was a member of the first Gaza Freedom March which took place in December of 2009 in Cairo, Egypt.
(Courtesy of The Frustrated Arab)

The web is abuzz with talk of Mona Eltahawy’s latest entry, which made its way onto the front cover of Foreign Policy, ‘Why Do They Hate Us‘, the “war on the women in the Middle East”; reactions vary from unwavering support to venom-laced condemnation, and a multitude of other postures in between. 

In the latest Foreign Policy feature, a part of their “sex edition”, Eltahawy laments that “they hate us”, an unashamed amalgamation directed towards men.

She writes:
“Yet it’s the men who can’t control themselves on the streets, where from Morocco to Yemen, sexual harassment is endemic and it’s for the men’s sake that so many women are encouraged to cover up.” “…women are silenced by a deadly combination of men who hate them while also claiming to have God firmly on their side.”

“I’ll never forget hearing that if a baby boy urinated on you, you could go ahead and pray in the same clothes, yet if a baby girl peed on you, you had to change. What on Earth in the girl’s urine made you impure? I wondered. Hatred of women.”

And as per usual, Eltahawy ends with what has become her catchphrase:
“We are more than our headscarves and our hymens.” 

The laundry list of crimes committed against women, including “virginity tests” and genital mutilation, are serious charges which should not be ignored nor should they be denied. Eltahawy, in her attempt to highlight indefensible crimes against women, reaffirms the banal archetype of the poor, helpless woman of the Middle East-North Africa.

    To continue reading this post, click

Dr. Lamya Almas: A Yemeniya’s Response to Mona Eltahawy
Dr. Lamya Almas has a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Minnesota, M.A. in English Language and Literature from Iowa State University, B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Education from Aden University/ Faculty of Arts, Science and Education in her home city Aden/Republic of Yemen. She is the recipient of Fulbright Scholarship in 1997 and Myron Allen Fellowship from the University of Minnesota in 1999.
(Courtesy A Yemenia’s Corner)

*For the record, although not a niqabi myself I am tremendously proud of the amazing women of Yemen—all of them, niqabis included. I am thus compelled to respond.
As the international media is captivated by images of thousands of veiled women protesters in the cities of Yemen, their ‘visibility’ and ‘participation’ is increasingly obvious. Indeed, they were too visible that politically bankrupt Saleh was compelled to resort to religious sensitivities by criticizing the mingling of sexes at Change Square. In defiance media coverage intensified as thousands of Yemeni women poured out of their homes, most clad in black Islamic dress and full face veils declaring their roles in the protests as religiously sound. They added their voices to raise the volume to a ‘roar’ demanding the ouster of Saleh. Saleh’s fatwa was followed by the kidnapping of four female physicians whose valor in the face of their kidnappers, and insistence on continuing the quest to ouster the regime made headlines. 

Meanwhile, Egyptian-born writer and lecturer on Arab Muslim issues Mona Eltahawy and the Muslim feminists she speaks for, claims they are “absolutely horrified by the Niqab.” In an appearance onNewsnight to discuss the Niqab ban in France Eltahawy says,
If you speak to all the Muslim feminists I know, they will say that they are absolutely horrified by the Niqab. The Niqab is not empowering. The Niqab is dehumanizing. . . In 1923 in Egypt, the Egyptian feminist Huda Sha’rawi removed the face veil and said this is a thing of the past. [Newsnight]

Who is Huda Sha’rawi? And seriously, when 1923? Mona Eltahawy’s is referring to an event in May of 1923, when Huda Sha’rawi and her protégée Saiza Nabarawi who were delegates from the Egyptian Feminist Union [EFU] to the International Women’s Alliance in Rome, removed their veils as they stepped off the train in Cairo. It was a symbolic act of ‘emancipation’ that was influenced by Sha’rawi’s readings of her friend and mentor, the Frenchwomen Eugenie Le Brun. Le Brun conveyed to her the belief that “the veil stood in the way of their [i.e. Egyptian women’s] advancement.”[1] 

Henceforth, Sha’rawi acted as the liaison between Western feminists and “Arab” feminists of the upper and upper-middle class. She imported western feminist ideas valorizing the western, in this case the European, as more advanced and “civilized” over the native who had to abandon its religion, customs, and dress; and if unwilling then at least reform its religion and habits according to the recommended imported guidelines. This was justified by a genuine concern to civilize Arab societies, and save women from a horrendous culture and religion they had been born into. Huda Sha’rawi’s version of Arab feminism isolated indigenous women who believed they possessed both the mental faculties and background that endowed them with a sense of their right to autonomy, and the right to follow their own sense of what was morally correct.
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To round up and get a look at Mona Eltahawy, two videos:

The in your face Mona:
Mona Eltahawy & Bill Maher

Mona at the receiving end:
CNN: French Niqab Ban Debate between Hebah Ahmed and Mona Eltahawy

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