Despite many rueful sighs to the contrary, feminism isn’t dead. Or at least, it isn’t in the Arab World. The Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy has caused some controversy – I will not describe it as a veritable storm, as some have, because the reaction is surprisingly muted – by writing an article in Foreign Policy on attitudes to women in the Arab world, much of which should be uncontroversial. Her central contention, that misogyny is widespread, is verifiable. Indeed, she discusses at some length the political disenfranchisement, sexual abuses and socio-economic inequalities that result from what she calls a ‘toxic mixture of culture and religion,’ not to mention an unwillingness to challenge attitudes for fear of offending or blaspheming.
Like all good polemicists, Ms Eltahawy uses strong language and a broad brush. Predictably, the blogosphere has objected rather facetiously to the implication that all Arab men are consumed with hate for the fairer sex. Yet however polemical Ms Eltahawy’s article, there is a germ of truth that deserves more credit than condemnation. The difference between Ms Eltahawy and the editors of a Danish magazine who mocked Islam some years ago to widespread derision is that Ms Eltahawy is not wilfully ignorant, as those magazine editors were. On the contrary, she is well aware of the issues she is describing. So to deride her sensationalist style, as Nesrine Malik does in The Guardian, is beside the point. Ms Malik goes on to admit that all of the issues described are true enough but suggests, isn’t politics the answer?
On the strength of the response from the Freedom and Justice Party, the political offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, one shouldn’t get one’s hopes up. NATO will leave Afghanistan in two years time with meaningless commitments to women’s rights by whatever government is left behind (quite possibly including the Taliban by that time), despite many lives that were, on some level at least, lost in the fight for human dignity. In Bahrain, politics is belittled when sport and big business is at stake and in Egypt itself, Tahir Square has been cleared to reveal something akin to a military dictatorship. In Saudi Arabia, one conservative monarch will give way to another.
Moreover, there will be no political space for women subject to any form of cultural or religious curtailment. One commentator has drawn on her knowledge of the Muslim world to conclude that:
Ms. Eltahawy has every right to speak out aggressively against injustices — both real and perceived — in the Arab world. It is important for her readers, however, to understand the dangers of sensationalist coverage that over-simplify complex matters of gender, politics, and religious observance in Muslim-majority countries.
Over-simplification is an odious description of what Ms Eltahawy is agitating for, while to be compared to Ayaan Hirsi Ali should not be an insult. The Arab Spring, diverse as it has been, has shaken the kaleidoscope. Many thousands have risked life and limb, suffered abuse and much worse in order to see a change in their lives. To offer them liberty for quietude is an insult, and very easy for those who enjoy the very rights which are abused elsewhere.
Other obnoxious arguments are deployed with disarming ease. Men are also the victims of repression; the cause of women has been set back as much by the wars in Iraq as it has been by Islamic culture; misogyny should not be treated as a monolithic structure; feminism is equated with neo-conservativism. None of these are reasons why Ms Eltahawy should not have written her article. Others try to divert the issue to the niqab, which is barely mentioned by Ms Eltahawy. As for sniping at injudicious editors, who have admittedly chosen a pictorial and headline designed to shock rather than convince, please be serious.
So often, moderates pick fights for argument’s sake that excuse the extremists from answering for their views. Because of Mona Eltahawy, those who disagree with her vision of female empowerment have an opportunity to say why, and those who seek to defend the attitudes to women she eviscerates can do so. Both groups are conspicuous in their absence.
The empowerment of women is part of the pacification of politics and is indispensable to development. However much the Arab world denies that it needs these, evidence suggest otherwise. Oscar Wilde once observed that before women will call each other ‘sister,’ they will call each other much worse besides. Sadly, that still rings true.