Monday, April 23, 2012

Why Do They Hate Us?

So asks Mona Eltahawy in an article about women in Arab countries. The article is a wail, a scream, a plea to understand why the circles which define women's lives in those countries are so oppressively small, why their walls are so tall and so heavily and religiously guarded. Eltahawy, an Egyptian-American journalist, reported having been brutally assaulted by the riot police in Cairo last fall, and this piece is not only about the status of women in Arab countries. It is about anger, about fear and about betrayal.

Eltahawy's despair should be taken seriously. Yes, she quotes only the most extreme evidence in support of her thesis. But the events she describes took place. Twelve-year-old girls are dying in childbirth in Yemen because child marriages are legal. A woman caught driving in Saudi Arabia was sentenced to ten lashes and needed a pardon to avoid them, another woman, gang-raped, was sentenced to prison for having entered a car driven by a man not related to her. And in Morocco, a sixteen-year-old did drink poison because she had been forced to marry her rapist (which the law allows for him not to be punished for the rape) who then continued beating her.

These events are real. They do not describe the lives of every woman in those countries but they are newsworthy events. So is the outcome of the Arab spring for the women of Egypt. One quarter of the parliament consists of salafis whose agenda about women truly is medieval and the number of women in the parliament is miniscule. The next crown prince of Saudi Arabia is rumored to have truly frightening views on women, and the victories of various Islamist parties cause women's rights activists worry and sleepless nights.

 Eltahawy asks why the Islamists hate women so much. Her wail resonated with me, after my recent travels on the misogynistic hate sites (though the two issues are not intended to be seen as equated here). I had to go for several long walks to re-settle my brain and heart after those, to remind myself about the real wide world out there, about people who are kind and caring and logical.

And that gave me an inkling about the hatred of women. However it is created, it is stoked in the furnace of like-minded people, increased by exposure to similar arguments and made moral by the support of religion or pseudo-science. It is not then seen as hate but as god's commands, as necessary for stability, as The Way Evolution Intended It. As justified and obvious, even to many women. The more those messages are allowed to stand uncontested, the more the hate settles in, curls itself into a circle like cat and purrs out its justifying messages. Daylight is the best sanitizer and silence in this context is like darkness.

Whether what Eltahawy describes is truly a hatred of women or of uppity women or something more complicated can be debated. But it certainly is based on the arguments about The Other.

Women are different and that difference is the only real explanation ultimately required. The Other Must Be Controlled/Protected, For The Good Of All. What drops out of sight, completely, are all the similarities between men and women, what all human beings share.

If "we" (in the abstract sense) stay silent about what it means to be a human being (and not just a man or a woman) we contribute to the Othering.  If "we" (in the abstract sense) stay silent about the misogyny, hoping that not giving it oxygen will make it go away, we contribute to the Othering by leaving the lies unchallenged. If "we" (in the sense of western commentators) avoid discussing the issues Eltahawy poses because of fears of being seen as supporting the Islamofascist hate groups in the West we also contribute to the Othering. It should be possible to address the issue of women in Arab countries without demonizing whole cultures or without arguing for violence. Indeed, that approach is the only one which would ever work.

 Eltahawy refers to that last comment in her article:
Yes: They hate us. It must be said.  Some may ask why I'm bringing this up now, at a time when the region has risen up, fueled not by the usual hatred of America and Israel but by a common demand for freedom. After all, shouldn't everyone get basic rights first, before women demand special treatment? And what does gender, or for that matter, sex, have to do with the Arab Spring? But I'm not talking about sex hidden away in dark corners and closed bedrooms. An entire political and economic system -- one that treats half of humanity like animals -- must be destroyed along with the other more obvious tyrannies choking off the region from its future. Until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors on our streets and in our homes, our revolution has not even begun. So: Yes, women all over the world have problems; yes, the United States has yet to elect a female president; and yes, women continue to be objectified in many "Western" countries (I live in one of them). That's where the conversation usually ends when you try to discuss why Arab societies hate women. ... 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.
On the other hand, it wasn't just Egyptian men who voted in the parliament Egypt currently has but women, too. As I've written before, many times, water has no taste to the fishes which swim in it, and values of a culture are inculcated in all its members with more or less success. But usually with more success.

The cultural problems are always deeper than one initially thinks, the justifications for women's lower status have their roots in the distant pasts of various cultures and how many of those roots have been cut varies across the globe. Religion is a powerful force: If you are told that your eternal life depends on agreeing to an oppressed life here on earth, what are you going to decide? Be a feminist here and go to hell for the rest of the eternity? Those are the kinds of trades the right-wing religious fanatics offer women in most religions.

Writing about the topic Eltahawy chose: the status of women in Arab countries, should be something we see critics (including many women) from the affected countries doing in the largest numbers. Because outsiders, however well informed, are still outsiders who lack the lived-in experience of that culture.

But what is the best response if such critics are few and lack access to the media? What is the proper response in balancing out the need to avoid neo-colonial accusations (aimed at Western feminists) and the need to avoid giving support to global warmongering with the very urgent need to speak out about problems of unfair laws and traditions against women all over the world?