Monday, 30 April 2012

Mona, We Don't Hate You

VIEWPOINT: Mona Eltahawy, Your Facts Are Wrong But We Don’t Hate Women

Mona Eltahawy’s recent article in Foreign Policy “Why Do They Hate Us?” (as in why do Arab men hate Arab women?)  fell far short of my expectations for such a widely read columnist. Not only as an Arab, Muslim man who doesn’t hate his mother, sister, wife or daughters (nor knows, or has even anecdotally heard, of any other Arab Muslim man who hates his), but also as someone with some insight (some 30 years of it) into the Middle East, having lived in Kuwait and Egypt and travelled and worked in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Libya, the Sudan, Iraq, Syria and the Emirates.

From the selected platform, title and subtitle, to the accompanying artwork, arguments and conclusion, everything about this article is, well, just wrong. Even the interpretation of the opening paragraph quoting Egyptian author Alifa Rifaat. Even, (yes it’s true), even the “facts.”

Let there be no doubt that on the premise of the existence of misogyny in the Middle East, Eltahawy and I fully agree. But that’s the extent of our accord, except perhaps for the natural consequence of that concurrence, namely the need to do something about it - presumably the purpose of the article. This purported purpose raises the first question/objection.

Why Foreign Policy?

Why indeed?

It is not a widely read publication in the Middle East, least of all by the very people we assume Eltahawy wishes to address. Arab women in need of emancipation and Arab men in need of hate reduction are hardly typical FP enthusiasts. According to the breakdown of readers for the printed version - 84% of readers are male (Do women hate FP?) and their average household net worth is almost $ 1.5 million (99% of all Arabs will never make that much money throughout their entire lives, let alone own assets of that value). The number of subscribers outside the US at large (never mind the Middle East in specific) is clearly so small it does not warrant a mention in their advertising material.

So again, why FP? Who is supposed to read this article? According to the same source, most are American opinion leaders and policy makers and shapers.

Had I been a conspiracy theorist (I’m not), I would have said that Philip Brennan’s intelligent and brilliantly analyzed response to Eltahawy’s article, as well as Monica Marks’ insightful commentary offer a clue. Titled respectively “On Arab-Muslim Issues and the Danger of Aiding the Neo-Liberal Colonialist Agenda” and “Do Arabs really Hate Women: The Problem with Native Informers”, Brennan and Marks argue, among other things, that articles such as Eltahawy’s provide ammunition to those who would further the “War on Terror...for geo-political or material gain” and support the “manufacturing of consent” by telling Westerners in general and conservative Americans in particular (read Rush Limbaugh et al), what many already believe: “Arabs and Islam are misogynistic; let’s bring them and their women democracy รก la Iraq”. There’s even a hint in Eltahawy’s article itself (if you’re a conspiracy theorist and I am not). Coming under Eltahawy’s whip, Saudi Arabia, she says , has the “double whammy advantage of having oil and being home to Islam's two holiest places, Mecca and Medina.” Oil and Islam, huh?

But let’s not assume conspiracy, let’s just say, articles such as this one may do harm and do no good, and in any case this conspiracy theory is not claiming to be fact. Which is more than can be said for the subtitle, which does claim to be fact and is just plain incorrect.

“The real war for women is in the Middle East” it reads.  Is that true?

 Every piece of information Eltahawy quotes to bolster her argument is, I assume, true. But here are some more relevant gender facts, ignored for some reason, despite them originating in, of all places, the very same issue of FP via Valerie Hudson’s infomaps:

Discrepancy in education: Half of the world’s women fare worse, or far worse, than the Middle Eastern ones. Girls in Sub Saharan Africa, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China (total population of these countries is about 3 billion or about ten times that of the Arab world) all get a worse deal than their Arab counterparts.

Inequity in Family Law – Apart from Saudi Arabia all Arab countries are on par with China, most countries in South America and most of Sub Saharan Africa.

Child Marriage Practices – Apart from Saudi Arabia and the Sudan the whole of the Arab world is on par with Western Europe and in some cases ahead of the US and well ahead of sub-Saharan Africa, Pakistan, India and most of South America.

Maternal Mortality – Most Arab countries are level with Asia, ahead of South America and ahead of sub Saharan Africa and India. On this particular statistic, Saudi Arabia is on par with US and Western Europe.

Polygyny - Apart from Saudi Arabia, all Arab countries are on par with all of Asia as well as the US both of which are worse off than South America and Europe.

Son preferences - All Arab daughters are more welcome than their counterparts in India and China (again practically half of the world’s population). Furthermore all Arab daughters are either as welcome or more welcome than daughters born into European, Russian, Indian, Chinese, Australian and even Canadian homes.

Yet we hate our daughters and wives?

None of the information quoted in Eltahawy’s piece is incorrect as mentioned earlier, but it falls so short of qualifying that subtitle.

Clearly the Really Real War for Women is in China, India and sub-Saharan Africa, consistently the darkest green of misogyny represented in the maps.

But please also note this: the Arab world generally doesn’t do much better on pretty much any indicator, gender-linked or not, not GDP/per capita, hospital beds/citizen, child labor rate, not literacy, not life expectation, nothing. We are for the most part a mediocre part of the world, in the middle or thereabouts.

But back to those maps. If Saudi Arabia were removed, the Arab world would rank at, or above, the 50th percentile in all but one or two categories. No better, but certainly no worse than about half the world.

Not to belittle in any way the suffering of Saudi Arabian women (although Eltahawy pretty much reduces it to their inability to drive and get into cars with strangers – incidentally countered by the fact that the men there don’t choose their leaders nor frequently their own wives- but there are about 13 million Saudi women to (generally far worse off) China and India’s 1.3 billion, almost exactly 1%.

Yet the REAL war is in the Middle East?

It seems to me, Eltahawy noticed this small, billion-woman+ problem, not only with the rest of the world but with her decade-long chosen homeland, and deftly brushed it aside with a simple “let’s put aside what the United States does or doesn’t do to its women.”

But allow me to move beyond the subtitle


The by now somewhat infamous naked lady with painted-on niqab was objectification at its most Western (one can almost hear the conversation - we’ve got to have a naked lady on this, it’s about women. But she has to look Arab Muslim. Errr...mmmm....grey cells in full swing! Naked AND niqabbed). I will not comment except to say that I agree fully with Naheed Mostafa’s verdict that the depiction is nothing more than “lazy and insulting.” Read the rest of what she brilliantly has to say here. Her analysis and reasoning are as incisive as they are inarguable.

Sadly, Eltahawy’s analysis and reasoning are both non-existent. She jumps from the too sadly very true suffering of Arab women to her conclusion: Arab Muslim Men Hate Women (and, not-so-subliminally, Islam itself is misogynistic), without so much as a nod to ergo. I read, and re-read and re-re-read Eltahawy’s piece in search of a missing link, but there was none. At one point she says “They hate us. It must be said.” That’s all I could find.

But there are more leaps and bounds.

About half way through, “Arabs” become “Islamists” and now it’s not Arab men who hate Arab women, but Islamist men who hate all women. Quotes from clerics, moderate and otherwise litter the article, but one of the most poignant is the opening paragraph, lifted lock, stock and sexually bored Arab Muslim wife from Alifa Rifaat’s short story Distant View of a Minaret.

Eltahawy paints a picture of a woman who, hating her sex life with her careless husband, finds “sublimation in religion.” It seems, according to Harvard Divinity School’s first professor of women studies and personal acquaintance of Rifaat, Leila Ahmed, that this is far from true. In her rebuttal Ahmed says the happily veiled author told her in a meeting that she found “joy in her religion.. In fact Ahmed says “I find it entirely unimaginable that Rifaat in fact shared, as Eltahawy assumes she does, Eltahawy's own sweepingly dismissive views of prayer and religion”. It seems then that Eltahawy has completely misread the author.

Is it possible she has just as sweepingly misread the men and women of the Middle East?

Apart from the articles quoted above, there have been several brilliant responses to Eltahawy’s article, some critical, some arguing different roots to the problem, some offering alternative solutions to what is undeniably a very serious issue. I point you towards the best I have read.

These are all by women, all Muslim, all Eastern, all free.

And none of whom I hate.

Ayesha Kazmi’s equally Muslim, equally American and equally female perspective

Gigi Ibrahim’s of Egyptian revolutionary socialist fame

And, last but by no means least, the consistently impressive Dima Khatib’s mona.html

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Make a deal please

Banking on typically uncompromising logic, Socrates chose hemlock. I salute his choice but cannot recommend replicating it.

But first....

As the latest gambits flew in rapid succession across the chessboard that is the Egyptian political scene, with Shater's check leading to Omar Soliman's stalemate, we the Egyptian people are now between an army Glock and a hardliner's face.

After months of opening gambits and weeks of  pawnish nudges - appealing formation of cabinet - met by knightly rebuffals - threatening disbanding parliament - parried into reprising ripostes - requesting IMF loan details - and so on and so forth, the gloves are now off.

The introduction of the equally regal Khayrat el Shater and Omar Soliman, ends the gentle, tactical moves (so gentle they were frequently understood to be the harmless quibbling of secret lovers) and signals the beginning of the end-game.

Now on show is a no-holds-barred, bare-knuckled, winner-take-all rush to kill. And assuming no fraudulence, we the Egyptian people, must stop spectating and pull the trigger one way or the other.

Our top choices appear to be :

1. A revolution-insulting, 14-month throwback to a stable, secure and secular sadism (Soliman reportedly offered the CIA a suspect's arm in response to their request for a DNA sample)


2. A potentially freedom-limiting, Koran-thumping, Israel-provoking, bearded boardroom (Shater sounds  like he's applying for leadership of an investment bank not a country)

I say "potentially" in Shater's case for a purpose I will come to in a paragraph or so. Hang on.

We pretty much know what Soliman means. His history and school of thought speak for themselves. His presidency would replicate Mubarak's with human rights abuses and corruption galore and little or no development on the democratic front. On the upside, it would send a comforting signal to our cousins across the Sinai that "plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose", and allow SCAF to maintain its cozy, regionally stabilizing relations with our benefactors in the US. Funds (IMF, World Bank, Gulf investors etc...) may well flow freely again, but possibly/probably into the same old pockets. On the street it would be chaos, with revolutionaries blaming Islamists, Islamists (violently) blaming the army and the bread queues getting longer and longer.

That's the Soliman story.

Back to Shater's hanging "potentially" (excuse the pun)

Islamist front runner Shater represents a body which does not recognize Israel and, despite assuring trips across the Atlantic, he has consistently and increasingly elegantly, dodged questions on his own recognition of the Jewish State, arguing his personal view is irrelevant given Egypt's formal peace treaty and his interest in moving Egypt's rule from individual to institutional.

We are not sure what Shater (or Mohamed Morsi, Aboul Fotouh, el Awa or even Abu Ismail) would really mean for Egyptians. Ostensibly, they are all (with the possible exception of Aboul Fotouh and perhaps El Awa) radicals in moderate clothing. Yet if you listen to the rhetoric, the right to the two Bs - bikinis and booze - is safe in any of the their hands. With hardliner Abu Ismail's exception, they all promise "a civil state based on Islamic broad guidelines", with only the slightest of nods towards the more radical among their constituencies.

If for no other reason than considering the next elections, any Islamist president would not touch personal freedoms nor minority rights. Hijab will not be enforced, usurious banks will not be shut down. In fact an Islamist government/president would probably focus all energy on the economy for the first four or five years after re-establishing internal security.

But the problem with Shater et al is not internal. After all, every single litmus test from the 2005 parliament to  the Constitutional amendments referendum and the 2012 parliamentary elections says the Islamists own close to 80% of the active street. (The MB only got 88 parliamentary seats in 2005, but were only allowed to contest the first round's 112 openings, and 88 out of 112 yields an eerily familiar 78%)

The problem with the Islamists lies abroad. Should they win, the pragmatic Americans may well deal with them, but it will be the cold discomfort of a forced relation, not the warm closeness of old (which Soliman's win would automatically recreate). More dangerously, an Islamist government in Egypt, historically and ideologically close to the one in Gaza and already promising closer ties to Iran would send shivers up Israel's spine.

History tells us the Israelis don't  grab a hot water bottle when they shiver, they get busy.

It is no coincidence that Israel claimed rockets were fired from the Sinai and threatened retaliation, albeit rather sheepishly, as soon as Shater announced his candidacy and then conveniently forgot the incident as soon as Soliman announced his.

And so where does that leave me and my 84,999,999 compatriots?

Well, in a nasty position to be frank.

Most seem unaware of the regional implications and see the situation as either:

A fight between the evil, domineering army and the puritan Islamists


A fight between the evil, domineering Islamists and the patriotic army.

If I were Socrates I would pick the unconfirmed evil of the Islamists (regional stability be damned), over the six-decadely confirmed evil of military dictatorship. But first, I am not Socrates and second, I have to live here, all the sage had to worry about was death!

I am not going to propose that we should base our vote on what Israel may or may not do, nor on our estimate of which is the lesser evil, the AK-47'd guy prodding you into a detention center or the man ending your dream of the perfect tan.

Either winner means Egypt loses and it looks deadlocked.

Several candidates with considerable followers have already announced their belief that Soliman can only win through fraud and have promised a second revolution in that case. A second revolution which may not be as peaceful as the first and which Egypt can't afford, literally.

At the same time, the army under external pressure and the threat of an Islamist stranglehold on parliament, presidency and ultimately cabinet will not sit by and watch Shater win.

Given the complexity of all the internal and external variables, it is not as simple as one will win and the other lose, we all shake hands and go for a coffee.

There is a way out though. A solution, which I hope the wise and connected will hear and heed.

A deal (dirty as the word has become) needs to be made.

In a clash of the two only real powers in the country, the only loser is the country itself, no matter who wins.

We need a deal which:

a.  Allows elections to run free of fraud. (Any messing about could be disastrous both immediately and in the longer term), and
b.  Leave the army in complete control of its national security responsibilities and its economics (they have all the tanks, so let's be reasonable)

Such a deal might look like this:

The establishment of a National Security Council headed by Field Marshall Tantawy or Soliman, and made up predominantly of military and intelligence representatives with a smaller number of  parliamentary National Security Committee members and an even smaller number of civilian specialists.

The NSC would be responsible for all national security related matters which the statute of its establishment would define. It would have responsibility for, under presidential oversight, of all national security matters. It would further be responsible for reporting to the National Security Committe at parliament on the army's budget. Finally the NSC would play an advisory role for strategic foreign relations.

A truly free and fair presidential election which all previous evidence says would lead to an Islamist in the Egyptian White House.

Apart from the authorities enjoyed by the NSC, all remaining authorities to be split by constitution between President and Prime Minister with parliament having the right to appoint the cabinet. In order to remove cabinet parliament needs a 75% majority ensuring no one party or faction has complete control over government.

This kind of setup seems to me the only way to avoid:

1. A clash between the revolutionaries, the MB, the Salafis on one hand and SCAF on the other should any monkey play take place to ensure Soliman wins
2. A complete and immediate withdrawal of SCAF from politics which neither they will allow nor Egypt needs
3. Any silliness on our borders
4. Complete control of executive and legislative branches by one body
5. Setbacks to the achievement of the revolution's goals through bringing back into the presidency what is essentially a reincarnation of Mubarak.