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 á 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


  1. Hatem -

    Thank you for writing this thoughtful and sensitive reflection on the issues Mona El Tahaway raised in her provocative article. It's *always* important to address the context of the use of words that describe people. Context is one important factor, and intent is another.

    I give Mona credit for righteous intent - as you and others have confirmed, yes, there is misogyny in the Arab world and work to be done to address it. Nevertheless, I agree with you that the context of her article was less than ideal.

    The question facing Arab men and women - as well as so many men and women in other countries and other cultures - is what should be done after we recognize misogyny exists. Sadly, I'm not sure anyone has an answer for that yet.

    With 200 million "missing" girls and women worldwide and with violence against women existing as a problem everywhere, this is a global issue that will likely find its answers at a local level.

    Dialogues such as the one sparked by Mona and to which you have contributed are steps along that journey.

    Leah McElrath

  2. Sorry off topic but how do I reach you for headhunting?

    1. This is extremely late, just saw it now, email me at