Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian activist, wrote an article for Foreign Policy last week called Why Do They Hate Us? about the situation for women in Arab nations.
The article is being intensely debated, emotions are high, all kinds of colorful words are flying around.
Here are some of Foreign Policy’s responses to the uproar.
I hesitated to bring this up because, honestly, I don’t know what to say. But I can’t ignore it either, because of where we live and what I write.
Some people praise the article because she sensationally brings to light an important issue about the human rights of women in Arab nations. They hope this will get things moving. Eltahawy herself tweeted: “As a writer, it’s my job to poke the painful places. So agree/disagree with what I write, but if it makes you think and pisses you off, then good.”
Others argue that she has made her point emotionally and simplistically, demonizing every Arab male and turning Arab women into helpless victims. They also argue she is unfair in her comments about the role of Islam.
The pictures in the story are of a naked woman painted black, other than her eyes, to give the impression of the hijab and niqaab, or face veil. Intense, provocative, disturbing.
So, how to respond?
It is hard to know because I want to respond to a question that was never asked, but was answered while the question that was asked, remains unanswered. Why do they hate us essentially turned into Do they hate us, and she answers with, unequivocally, yes. Arab men hate Arab women.
My response to that is to disagree, to say ‘some’. Some men hate some women. I can’t just say yes. Or no. Some American men hate some American women. Some…some…The abuse of women isn’t a 100% kind of topic. This is sort of like a non-answer, refusing to take sides. Some presidents make bad decisions, some make good decisions. Some aid work is beneficial, some isn’t. Articles that talk like this don’t make the cover of magazines and don’t stir things up and I think that’s where her tweet comes in – if it makes you think and pisses you off, good.
I know about FGM (female genital mutilation and which is often an example to show the sexual abuse of and violence toward women, as Eltahawy does in her article) and I know about the arguments to call it circumcision and for western women to stay out of the debate. I have friends who aren’t bothered by it, who would do it to their daughters. I have friends who are begging, literally, to earn money for visas to a country where a doctor could reverse theirs, who say they would kill the woman who performed it on them if they ever saw her again.
I have experienced sexual harassment, almost on a daily basis, in Djibouti. But I would never give a blanket statement that ‘Djiboutian men sexually harass women’ because I have also been vehemently defended and protected from it.
I’ve written about the horrors women face in Somalia. I’ve also written about the hope of women running, working, raising families.
So, while I would come up with a different answer to the question she writes about (and I didn’t answer the question she actually asks), I think Eltahawy knew exactly what she was doing and was intentional in being so divisive and lacking in nuance. There is a problem in the world with how women are treated. That is true. It might not be the entire truth on the issue of women or on the issue of human rights or on the issue of religion, but it is true.
And that is what she (probably) wants to stir up debate and action around. I don’t know that Eltahawy’s article will bring about the change she desires, but it has certainly gotten people talking.