Unsolicited advice for Mona Eltahawy


Mona Eltahawy has sparked a long overdue debate over misogyny in the Arab world through her hard-hitting and intentionally provocative article in Foreign Policy, “Why Do They Hate Us?” Eltahawy’s commentary is what both Arabs and non-Arabs alike needed to hear: a cri de coeur about widespread, unacceptable, abusive attitudes, practices and indeed government policies directed against women.

The article not only brought into the public sphere gender-related subjects that have been largely restricted to the academic world, but, crucially, Eltahawy also placed the question in the context of the Arab uprisings. These “revolutions,” she was quick to point out, have yet to promise any improvement and, in many cases, actually threaten the already unacceptable status most women face in most Arab societies.

We should praise Eltahawy for her stimulating intervention. However, I would like to offer her some unsolicited advice, which I hope will be taken in the constructive spirit in which it is presented.

Eltahawy should and undoubtedly will use this article as the basis for a book. But there are some very important pitfalls I would urge her to avoid. Her polemic was appropriately angry and provocative. But it was also, perhaps unavoidably, reductive and over-simplified. A book should give her the opportunity to expand on her fully justified anger, but also correct such oversimplification.

First, Eltahawy should pay close attention to critiques by other Arab feminists. Arab women younger and less established than her, such as the Kuwaiti blogger Mona Kareem, and those older and more accomplished, like the Egyptian-American Harvard professor Leila Ahmed, offered insightful critiques that greatly enriched the debate, challenging Eltahawy on some key points that she did not take into consideration. Kareem points out that she paints both Arab males and devout Muslim women in broad brushstrokes, stereotyping them. Ahmed adds that the causes of Arab misogyny and the nature of Arab feminism are both more complex than the article acknowledges.

Second, Eltahawy is going to have to pay a great deal more attention to the diversity of Arab women’s experiences in different countries, communities and social classes, among other crucial distinctions. She’s also going to have to take into consideration how attitudes toward women have evolved in postcolonial Arab societies.

A telling example of this is a revelatory video of the late Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, in the mid-1950s mocking the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood for, he claimed, placing the issue of the hijab at the center of its national priorities. Both Nasser and his audience found the idea uproariously funny. Whether the story he tells was true or not, the fact that he used the hijab issue to dismiss the Muslim Brotherhood as a serious political player demonstrates the enormous changes, and indeed deterioration, that attitudes toward women and “modesty” have undergone in many Arab societies in recent decades. What is now regarded as “traditional” is either new or a dramatic reversion to attitudes toward women that had been dispensed with in many Arab societies decades ago, but that have since returned with a vengeance.

Third, Eltahawy has to go much further in interrogating the role that Arab women themselves play in enforcing misogynistic practices. No doubt this is a form of “false consciousness,” an idea that feels natural but is ultimately self-delusional. But it has to be accounted for, even if it is to be seen as a kind of “internalized patriarchy.” For this, Eltahawy can draw on a large body of scholarly work that has investigated the question. A more detailed investigation cannot simply be about why some of them hate us, but also why some of us hate ourselves.

Fourth, Eltahawy must give more serious consideration to the socioeconomic basis for the epidemic of sexual harassment in many Arab societies. Her article seemed to dismiss this factor, which is a mistake. Moreover, she needs to consider that sexual repression affects Arab men as well as women, and that as long as young Arab men are denied a healthy degree of sexual freedom, women will more likely be viewed as prey rather than potential partners. By anticipating harassment or other forms of sexual mischief as inevitable, social repression shuts down healthy sexuality for both genders, and abuse therefore becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Finally, it’s vital that Eltahawy not fall into the trap of pathologizing the Arabs, and repeating Orientalist stereotypes, for a largely Western audience. Otherwise, she could find herself repeating the mistake of Canadian writer Irshad Manji, who published a book that appealed to Westerners ill-disposed toward Arabs, but ultimately did little to affect Arab thinking and discourse because her attitude was seen as opportunistic and fundamentally hostile rather than constructive.

The article published by Eltahawy is an excellent beginning. A book-length treatment on misogyny will give her the opportunity to produce a politically important work. She will have to pay close attention to her Arab feminist interlocutors and approach the topic with the nuance and complexity it merits, as much as with reasonable outrage.