Naqib's Daughter

Naqib's Daughter
North Carolina,
November 11
Born and raised in Egypt, educated at London University, immigrated to the United States in the eighties. Author of two novels, The Cairo House, about growing up in a political family in Nasser's Egypt, and The Naqib's Daughter, about Bonaparte's occupation of Egypt in 1798. A collection of short stories, Love is Like Water, addresses in part Arab Americans post 9/11. Also published nonfiction on Islam, Egypt, women in Muslim societies, and terrorism. Have taught at university and in journalism. An editor of South Writ Large, an online magazine of stories, arts and ideas from the Global and US Souths.


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Editor’s Pick
APRIL 29, 2012 5:19PM

The Egyptian Feminist's Dilemma: Mona Eltahawy

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Mona El-Tahawy 

 ‘Why Do They Hate Us?” Egyptian-American writer Mona Eltahawy laments on the cover page of Foreign Policy, in an article illustrated by provocative photos of a naked woman painted to look as if she were wearing a niqab. Who are the ‘They’ and who are the ‘Us’ referred to in the title of Eltahawy’s piece? She claims, in her many television interviews since the publication of the piece, that her intention was to turn the 9/11 mantra ‘Why Do They Hate Us?’ on its head. But in fact, she subscribes to it. The ‘Us’ she claims to speak for are Arab/Muslim women, but the ‘They’ accused of hatred are the same: Arab/Muslim men. In subscribing to that sweeping generalization, Eltahawy created a media controversy in the States but forfeited the support of a considerable segment of the women she purports to champion.

It is easy to understand and sympathize with Eltahawy’s bitterness and disillusionment: a vocal supporter of the January 25th Revolution in Egypt, she was assaulted sexually and had both her arms broken by riot police during a demonstration in Cairo. But Eltahawy’s article is a blanket condemnation, not only of the tactics of the riot police under Mubarak and his loyalists; not of a misogynist interpretation of Islam pushed by an extremist sect called Salafis; not even of regressive attitudes toward women arguably prevalent, especially among the less educated, in the Middle East.

Eltahawy’s generalization tars all men in the Muslim/Arab world with the same harsh brush, as if the riot policeman stripping a female protester were indistinguishable from the young man trying to protect her. She ignores the experience of thousands of Egyptian women who camped side by side with men in Tahrir Square day and night during the heyday of the revolution, without being subjected to harassment or intimidation.

With similar lack of distinction, she makes sweeping generalizations about all Arab countries, as if Saudi Arabia, the only country where women are not allowed to drive and are forced to wear a niqab, were indistinguishable from Tunisia, where policewomen direct traffic.

Eltahawy selects the worst instances of abusive laws or practices from each country and throws them indiscriminately into her quiver of accusations: for instance, the abhorrent practice of female circumcision is still common in parts of Egypt, but it is a Nilotic practice, not an Islamic one, and is unknown in the Muslim country most repressive against women: Saudi Arabia. On the other hand Egypt and most Arab countries enforce a minimum age of sixteen for marriage for girls, whereas Saudi Arabia does not.

By wielding her weapon so bluntly and indiscriminately, by making the same mistake Western feminists have historically made in trying to disassociate the ‘Oriental’ woman from her context, Eltahawy risks alienating the support of the women she may sincerely be trying to champion. A woman does not exist in a vacuum; she is a mother, daughter, wife, sister; she is a Muslim or an Arab. There are claims to her loyalty other than gender.  At a time in history when her sons or brothers are indiscriminately branded as potential terrorists for being Arab or Muslim, she will shrink from comforting those dangerous stereotypes by subscribing to an equally reductionist diatribe against them as misogynists; at a time when wars are being waged, or threatened, against Arab and Muslim-majority countries partly with the justification of ‘saving women’, these same women fear the consequences of such reasoning.  

But perhaps the most misguided aspect of Eltahawy’s indiscriminate attack in ‘Why Do They Hate Us?’ is that it leaves the women’s rights movement in these countries with nowhere to go. If feminists in Arab and Muslim-majority countries are to gain the full measure of rights and liberties for women, they will need to enlist the support of a sizeable segment of the male population, not antagonize it wholesale. Women’s rights cannot be imposed from outside, by marshalling public opinion in the West. Eltahawy’s courage and sincerity must be tested by the same measure as any feminist facing the same dilemma: by her efforts to change facts on the ground in Egypt, not by success in creating a media uproar in America.



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Thank you for this interesting question. I haven't read this Foreign Policy article, so I can't comment on it at all. All I know about Mona Eltahawy is from a few excellent articles she had written, which I have read in the past, and then some interviews I saw after she was assaulted.

To me, both from her writing prior to her attacks and in her interviews shortly thereafter, she expressed herself as a very thoughtful and nuanced writer and speaker. Looking at it from the outside, it seems she has shown great courage and sincerity, and she has joined in trying to change things on the ground in Egypt.

Her question of hate may be a good one, because sometimes when one individual or a group is harming another individual or group, it is actually not out of hate. Sometimes it is just that they feel their needs are more important than others' needs. Sometimes they feel their actions are protecting something, and the ends justify the means. Sometimes they are doing it to fit in with their peers, or because that is the way it's been done for a long time.To have someone say, "Why do you hate me, why are you treating me like this? This is not love, this is not respect, this is not in accordance with basic human rights," can be very helpful.

Her question may come from a very personal place, her own attack, but it applies to many women who are hurt for no other reason than being female.

I do not know for sure, but maybe Mona Eltahawy's goal is to start a conversation among people. The mistreatment of women is such a huge problem worldwide, it really is a good conversation for all of us to have, and to keep having.

Thank you for sharing this very thought-provoking post, and the view from within Egypt...I always appreciate your excellent posts and insights, Naqib's daughter!

Mona Eltahawy
Thank you for you long and thoughtful response, Clay Ball. You seem to have unusual insight into Mona Eltahawy's thinking. Best of luck!
I am always impressed by the gutsy posts you have here.... it is a sobering thought, the voices of the "new Muslim women" that have become free to share their voice. "There are claims to her loyalty other than gender." So true...
In response to Torrito, I think we are agreed as to how abhorrent a practice FGC is, and that it is practiced by both Christians and Muslims in Africa. But it sounds as if you are not aware that it is already illegal in Egypt, and has been so for many years. That it continues to be take place- with the collusion of the mothers of the girls, not just 'men'- sadly demonstrates how hard and long a road it is to eradicate cultural prejudices.
I don't doubt that Mona Eltahawy is braver than I am- I have demonstrated in Tahrir in January 2011 and since then, but was fortunate never to have felt threatened , let alone had my arms broken and been sexually assaulted.
Nor would I cast doubt for a moment that women in the Arab world have a long struggle ahead to gain their full rights, liberties and dignity. But, in my view, Eltahawy's article, by playing into the stereotype of the Arab male as terrorist abroad and brute at home, is unlikely to further the cause she espouses, and which I espouse as well.
As long as Islam rules women will be pieces of meat.
Well if she's cherry picking one bad practice here and another there then it sounds like sh could have benefited from a better editor. I haven't seen the article but thanks for raising the issue here.
Eltahawy's piece is essential reading. She may be an outlier but, in her words, she was "traumatized into feminism" (by an earlier stay in Saudi Arabia, not by the later assault and abuse by the Egyptian police).

Perhaps you have been fortunate to have been less traumatized.

Her irrefutable point is that virulent, violent misogyny is deeply institutionalized in all Islamic societies. Her essay challenges men and women to recognize that and take responsibility for it.

I think both approaches — hers, more confrontational; yours, more conciliatory — will be needed to liberate Muslim women. Eltahawy is not your enemy, save your energy for the real fight.
Brunhilde, of course she is not my 'enemy'! But neither was my loving and wonderfully supportive father, or my supportive brother, or so many other men I have known in 'Islamic society'. And the enemy of the girl who is subjected to FGC is as much her ignorant, culture-bound mother as her male relatives. My point is that making an enemy of an entire gender in 'Islamic societies' is too simplistic an approach, and, to be fair, too simplistic for Eltahawy to subscribe to herself.