I wonder what Edward Said would have said about the Orientalist imagery that accompanies Mona Eltahawy’s recent publication had the man been alive.
But let’s put this argument aside for a moment and take a closer look at the long-time controversial feminist’s publication. “Yes, they hate us” she claimed on Foreign Policy’s “Sex edition,” spurring hundreds of online readers to either commend her for fearlessly speaking the “truth,” or launch a hostile wave of criticism demanding that she steps down from her self-appointed position as a spokesperson for Arab-world women.
Indeed, Eltahawy’s argument that the reason behind Middle Eastern and North African oppression of women is “hatred” is a simplistic one that ignores the social, cultural and political contexts in which these women live. But not only that. Eltahawy went as far as to say that it is the Islamic philosophy that enables men to “hate” and hence “oppress” and “sexually harass” women.
While this is true for certain groups that practice religious exploitation to justify crimes against all sectors of a society, including women of course, the Arab world, especially prior to the outbreak of the Arab Spring, had long lived under the rule of secular authoritarian governments who took no issue with their “security apparatus” committing sexual harassments here, virginity tests there and in some few cases rape crimes.
Judging from my own experience as a Middle Eastern woman who lives under an Islamist rule in Gaza Strip, and who had previously lived under the rule of the secular Palestinian Authority, sexual harassment, both verbal and physical, was more prevalent under the later than is the case with the former.
Lamentably, Eltahawy made no mention of hate crimes that happen to take place in democratic countries such as the United States. Only one month ago, Shaimaa Alawadi, an Iraqi-American Muslim, was beaten to death in California. A note left by her murderer reportedly read: “Go back to your own country. You’re a terrorist.”
Nowhere in the publication does the reader note any indication to the fact that violence against women is a worldwide phenomenon that is rooted in both the Arab and Western worlds alike. Nor does she make any effort to explain why women organizations can be easily found in almost every country around the world. Although she never makes it explicit in her four-page long argument that the man of the West, unlike his Arab counterpart, cherishes and respects women, one can read her piece once to find that this implied meaning is as clear as the egregious illustration that accompanies the story.
The illustration is that of a nude woman fully covered in a black body-paint with the purposeful exception of her eyes. This sort of Orientalist imagery not only sexualizes the niqab – the Arab face veil- but the very anonymous creatures underneath too. Portraying the Arab woman as an exotic object, completely owned by the Arab man’s sensuality, or “hatred” as Eltahawy prefers, reduces us, the women of the Middle East and North Africa, to nothing more than static creatures devoid of voice or even a defined personality.
“Why the Orient seems to suggest not only fecundity but sexual promise (and threat), untiring sensuality, unlimited desire, deep generative energies,” Said writes in his Orientalism, “is something on which one could speculate”
What is the purpose of presenting, actually representing, an Arab costume as something sexual if not to emphasize the same reductive dogmas that have long persisted since the eighteenth century? Why, from all women across the globe, were the Arab ones selected for discussion, if not definition, by a mostly western audience if not to falsely “prove” that the Arab world remains in need for the western euphemism of colonialism and neo-colonialism; in this case, enlightenment.
By being originally Arab, Mona Eltahawy not only misrepresented us, she also confirmed our already-distorted image in the eyes of her western and westernized readers. “Why,” a non-Arab may ask, “would an Arab woman lie about the very society from which she descends?”
It is not fair, however, to indefinitely blame Eltahawy for everything she writes and says. Whether we agree or disagree with her views, we are obliged to respect her freedom of speech. I ask her, however, not to generalize when she uses personal pronouns such as “we.”
On a different note, one cannot but be affected by the societies in which they grow up. It is worth noting, nevertheless, that the degrees to which our societies impact our persons and modes of thought vary in relation to other variables like the schools we enroll in, the friendships we make and the very cultural patterns of our families. Mona Eltahawy is no exception.
When the Arab world rose up and toppled decades-long dictatorships, women, men, children, adults, healthy and disabled together took part in the demonstrations in a unified call for human rights, democracy and gender equality.