Many women are doing incredible things for their gender in the Middle East and in a way, Eltahawy’s article waters down their accomplishments by reinforcing the stereotype that people in the West obviously already have of Arab women, writes Katy Gillett.
When I first saw the front cover of Foreign Policy magazine’s May/June 2012 issue, which depicts a naked women painted in black to symbolise the abaya and niqab, I felt the urge to get my hands on a copy because I knew it was going to be an iconic issue. It has since caused uproar. At the time, I showed it to a Muslim girlfriend of mine and her initial reaction was to feel “so angry” that she could not even bring herself to read the lead story at first.
Since then, the cover story - Mona Eltahawy’s “Why Do They Hate Us?” about the war on women in the Middle East - has become even more talked about and controversial.
Now it was my turn to feel annoyed.
I am not an Arab woman and neither am I a Muslim, but I grew up in the Persian Gulf – in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain - where I also spent 24 years, and I know for a fact that women are not generally hated there but often revered. For instance, fathers treat their daughters like princesses and brothers would die to protect their sisters. Granted the girls in the family have stricter rules imposed upon them, which I am not saying is right, but it is certainly not because they are hated.
In many cases, of course, Eltahawy is 100 per cent right. Saudi Arabia, for example, sets a shocking precedent for women’s rights in general, and even in the more liberal countries like Bahrain and the UAE there are very outdated practices and laws such as one that states an Arab woman married to a foreign man cannot pass on their nationality to their child. Or how commonly a thief will be given a far harsher prison sentence than a rapist.
I do understand however that her article was meant to jolt people awake; to not allow them to forget that there is a serious issue of women’s rights abuses throughout the Middle East. Which there definitely is and which she certainly did. But it is dangerous for a journalist, writing for such a widely circulated magazine that goes out to countries where not enough is known about the Middle East, to paint all of these women with the same brush.
In fact women, particularly in Bahrain (the country I know the best), regularly get irritated by the fact that their Western counterparts often pity them, thinking they are all repressed and down trodden. This is a place where women have long been able to vote, they are widely represented in parliament and in the ministries, and they often take top positions in corporate companies.
One Bahraini lady, an interior designer called Eman, whom I interviewed about wearing the niqab around the time France were talking about banning it, sighed and said: “It is just a piece of material. I choose to wear it and my husband and family prefer I didn’t. Why does everyone in the West have such a problem with it?”
What shocked me the most about Eltahawy’s piece was that she did not mention regular women like Eman. Nor did she mention, in the only paragraph that discusses their country, women like the Yemeni 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakul Karman who was lauded for her efforts during the so-called “Arab Spring”, or the Yemen Times editor Nadia Al Sakkaf who is looked up to by Yemeni men and women all over.
In a previous interview I did with Al Sakkaf about the role of women in the Arab Spring she told me that last year’s uprising created many opportunities for women in terms of equality, education and economic empowerment. She said: “The Yemen I see is very different to the Yemen the West portrays… To me, the other face of Yemen lies behind the veil and it has so much potential. Many young girls look up to me and I am trying to prove to them that you can still be married, you can still be a mother and you can still be respected in society.” Whenever I have spoken about Al Sakkaf to the Yemenis I come across, including men, they have always spoken very highly of her.
Esra’a Al Shafei, a 25-year-old Bahraini cyber activist and entrepreneurial blogger I spoke to for the same article told me women throughout the Middle East are constantly standing up for their rights and although some became more well-known throughout the Arab Spring, it was nothing new. She was voted as one of the Daily Beast’s World’s Bravest Bloggers and for her work she has to travel all over the world. She told me that particularly in the West she is singled out and congratulated for being an Arab woman and an activist as if the two do not generally go together. She said: “It is not a newfound discovery that women are somehow more powerful, it’s just that they are easily more discoverable now because of the internet.”
These are just two examples of women who are doing incredible things for their gender in the Middle East and in a way, Eltahawy’s article waters down their accomplishments by reinforcing that “damsel in distress” stereotype that people in the West obviously already have of Arab women.
Of course I am not saying that her experiences and the points she makes do not matter. There is a definite global need to improve women’s rights even in the countries that are supposed to be leaders of equality like the UK and US.
I am also not saying that she is not very brave to write such an article. It is as Nadje Al-Ali, a professor of gender studies at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, said in response to Eltahawy’s article: “I would not have put it myself the way Mona did, but I think we need to have this discussion.”
But while she may have brought up examples of women who have stood up for their rights with a single action in the conclusion of the article, she failed to inform people of the women that do it every single day in the way they live and work.
Al Shafei summed up her feelings on gender inequality in the Middle East like this: “I have always argued that the best way to fight for women’s rights is to succeed as a woman and I really believe in this. So if anyone ever asks me if gender was an obstacle in what I was trying to achieve the answer would be no because I never let it become an obstacle. It could have been if I’d focused more on it but I never let gender come in the way of my achievements or my work or my mission.”