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They Hate Us': Writer Criticized for Provocative Article on the 'Toxic Mix of Culture & Religion' Harming Middle Eastern Women


"We are more than our headscarves and our hymens."

Foreign Policy Magazine's cover story for its May/June 2012 issue, entitled "Why Do They Hate Us?", is certainly stirring up controversy. The article, which provides a lens into the lives of women who reside in Arab countries, reinforces much of what we already know about the challenges they face in the region. But some women -- particularly feminist Muslims who would typically be praising the fact that these tragic details are being exposed -- are criticizing the article's writer, Egyptian-American Mona Eltahawy.

The piece delves into the ugly side of fundamentalism and covers female genital mutilation, physical violence that has worked its way into the legal code and the overall denial of fundamental rights in the Arab world. Eltahawy's words do anything but hide the problematic mindset she believes has taken hold in the Middle East.

"Name me an Arab country, and I'll recite a litany of abuses fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend," she writes. "When more than 90 percent of ever-married women in Egypt -- including my mother and all but one of her six sisters -- have had their genitals cut in the name of modesty, then surely we must all blaspheme."

Eltahawy was also careful to state her view that many nations -- including the United States -- also mistreat women (or, at the least, do not treat them equally). But her claim, when it comes to the Middle East, is that Arab societies hate women. From economics to human rights abuses, the writer tackles many of her qualms with the region, while tying all of the elements back to an overall issue she sees embedded in the culture:

Not a single Arab country ranks in the top 100 in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report, putting the region as a whole solidly at the planet's rock bottom. Poor or rich, we all hate our women. Neighbors Saudi Arabia and Yemen, for instance, might be eons apart when it comes to GDP, but only four places separate them on the index, with the kingdom at 131 and Yemen coming in at 135 out of 135 countries. Morocco, often touted for its "progressive" family law (a 2005 report by Western "experts" called it "an example for Muslim countries aiming to integrate into modern society"), ranks 129; according to Morocco's Ministry of Justice, 41,098 girls under age 18 were married there in 2010. [...]

How much does Saudi Arabia hate women? So much so that 15 girls died in a school fire in Mecca in 2002, after "morality police" barred them from fleeing the burning building -- and kept firefighters from rescuing them -- because the girls were not wearing headscarves and cloaks required in public. And nothing happened. No one was put on trial. Parents were silenced. The only concession to the horror was that girls' education was quietly taken away by then-Crown Prince Abdullah from the Salafi zealots, who have nonetheless managed to retain their vise-like grip on the kingdom's education system writ large.

And the aforementioned information is only a sliver of the examples and facts she provides in the article. When it comes to her concluding thoughts, Eltahawy urges individuals to stand up against the widespread hate that has been thrown in females' direction:

First we stop pretending. Call out the hate for what it is. Resist cultural relativism and know that even in countries undergoing revolutions and uprisings, women will remain the cheapest bargaining chips. You -- the outside world -- will be told that it's our "culture" and "religion" to do X, Y, or Z to women. Understand that whoever deemed it as such was never a woman. The Arab uprisings may have been sparked by an Arab man -- Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in desperation -- but they will be finished by Arab women. [...]

We are more than our headscarves and our hymens. Listen to those of us fighting. Amplify the voices of the region and poke the hatred in its eye. There was a time when being an Islamist was the most vulnerable political position in Egypt and Tunisia. Understand that now it very well might be Woman. As it always has been.

Although compelling, the author's claim of this "toxic mix of culture and religion" in the Middle East is being met with resistance from those who see the article as an overall simplification of the issue at hand. Some even maintain that it reinforces negative stereotypes and provides a basis through which Western politicians can more readily rail against Arab society.

The three arguments that Business Insider (BI) recaps from critics are as follows: "It just reinforces negative stereotypes of Islam in the West," "It reinforces a false monolithic view of the Arab world," and "It perpetuates the notion that Arab society itself is anti-women." For these reasons, among others, Eltahawy's piece is being dismissed by some and lambasted by others. Here are some of the critiques, as presented by BI:

Books by "native voices" like Eltahawy have become increasingly popular post-9/11 in a Western world attempting to justify its wars and invasions against Islam and the Middle East, Monica Marks writes in The Huffington Post. “...these native ‘testimonials’ tell us what we in the West already know -- that there's something inherently misogynistic about Muslims and Arabs,” she explains, providing war-mongering politicians a justification no one would argue with: Islam and Arabs must be fought because they oppress women.

And instead of acknowledging the pre-Islamic socioeconomic roots of patriarchy, she instead blames only religion, pandering to Islamophobia, according to Al-Monitor’s Samia Errazzouki. [...]

Critics say there are wide differences among the Arab countries that Eltahawy fails to take into account. They believe her premise of “all Arab men hating all Arab women” is too simplistic. “Why did Egypt's hateful "they" elect only 2 percent women to its post-revolutionary legislature, while Tunisia's hateful "they" elected 27 percent, far short of half but still significantly more than America's 17 percent?” says Max Fisher in The Atlantic.

Regardless of what critics say, the article does, indeed, shed light on an important and timely issue. Additionally, it provides many Middle Eastern women who live under the thumb of authoritarian rule a shining light and reassurance that their stories and their plight are making their way into the headlines.

(H/T: Business Insider)

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