Hatred and misogyny in the Middle East, a response to Mona el Tahawy

Egyptian journalist Mona el Tahawy caused a twitter storm with her latest article in Foreign Policy: Why Do They Hate Us? Tom Dale deconstructs the piece, writing that there are deeper historical roots and that el Tahawy's argument "lacks the capacity to suggest effective solutions."

A veritable twitter storm has sprung up around an article by Mona el Tahawy in the latest issue of Foreign Policy, entitled Why Do They Hate Us?  In the article, El Tahawy documents and condemns the abuses meted out upon women throughout the Middle East.  So far, so uncontroversial, you might think.

But in fact, the article treads across a terrain peppered like a mine-field with complex issues relating to the representation of women's struggles in the contemporary Middle East.  Many of the criticisms have been unfair, or down-right abusive, but there are real questions which ought to be raised about the piece.

What follows will make most sense if you've read the article.  I'm going to set out three main criticisms and then show why they matter.

Firstly, Mona identifies hatred – pure, transhistorical, misogynistic hatred – as the cause of women's oppression in the Arab world.  This hatred itself, el Tahawy explains in terms of men's desire to control women's sexuality.  Even if this explanation wasn't largely circular, which it arguably is, hatred is a woefully insufficient lens through which to understand the problem.  Why is sexism stronger in some places and times than others?  Why does it take specific forms?  And aren't there some things about women's oppression which can't be explained by hatred, even as there are things that can?

Secondly, because the article lacks a coherent explanation for the misogynistic practices it identifies, it also lacks the capacity to suggest effective solutions.  Instead we get the slogan “call out the hate for what it is.”  As if repeatedly pointing out the psychological form of the worst misogyny could bring down the walls of the patriarchal Jericho.

Thirdly, the article singles out 'Arab societies' for criticism.  Whilst, relative to Sub-Saharan, Asian, or Latin American societies, Arab nations are disproportionately grouped at the bottom of the 2011 Global Gender Gap Report (based on a list of nations which is far from comprehensive, leaving out Afghanistan and Somalia for instance), this is no excuse for not building an analysis which integrates other offenders: half of the bottom six are not Arab.  As an Arab woman herself, el Tahawy undoubtedly does not intend to essentialise Arab societies, but by treating the problems she describes as specifically Arab ones, and lacking in historical origins or non-Arab equivalents, she will unavoidably be perceived to have done so.

But what are the historical origins of contemporary misogyny in the Middle East?  In this short article, it is impossible to do justice to a vast topic. (See for example, Sami Zubaida.) I will only be able to make gestures at the sort of explanations which suggest themselves. 

Although it is hard to imagine now, in the 1970s gender relations in many major Arab countries were much more liberal than they are today, at least in urban centres.  Matters of dress are ultimately superficial, but it is telling that in the 1978 Cairo University graduation photograph not one woman wears a headscarf.  Over 30 years that position has gradually reversed.  The inexorable spread of more conservative forms of Islam, dubiously described by scholars as the 'Islamic revival' was heavily encouraged by funding from conservative Saudis, made rich by the development of the country's vast oil-fields. 

This took place against a backdrop of the economic chaos of neoliberalism.  El Tahawy implicitly dismisses economic factors – Yemen and Saudi Arabia are placed similarly by the Gender Gap Report, yet “aeons apart” in GDP, she notes.  In itself this is true, but the leading economic explanations for these changes, such as that of Jean-Paul Carvalho, do not rely on absolute national income, but on relative social inequality and the lack of social mobility.  Carvalho shows how frustrated expectations, especially amongst the lower middle class, lead to the empowerment of religious institutions.  If the predominant religious institutions are conservative, so will be the consequences.  Most explanations of the growth of women's rights in the 'West' rely on the economic changes which brought women into mass employment in the first half of the twentieth century, opportunities which have been scarce in the oil-rich economies of the Middle East.

There are deeper roots.  The strength of conservative forms of Islam in Saudi Arabia in the twentieth century was partly a product of the British Empire's decision to encourage Wahhabism as a force to weaken the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth.  British and US support for the coup against Mossadegh in Iran, and subsequent support for the Shah laid the groundwork for the current regime in that country.  This itself only encouraged international Saudi evangelism, founded on petro-dollars, as a bulwark against Iran's regional ambitions.  In Iraq, Palestine, and elsewhere, war and the omnipresent risk of death empowers conservative religious forces.  Such dynamics have not only affected the Arab world.  Afghanistan, once the seat of relatively liberal gender relations, is the most obvious case in point.

So historical explanations are possible.

Let's take a look at one of the issues which el Tahawy identifies, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Egypt.  The practice has its roots in Africa, and is not practiced in the Levant or Gulf, except in isolated pockets.  It is not mandated by Islam, although it is widely believed to be.  The re is strong evidence that local women's economic and social empowerment is the best strategy for fighting FGM, and that denunciations on a national level are relatively ineffective.  Better educated parents are less likely to endorse FGM, and women are typically the main organisers of FGM.  So there it is.  It isn't 'hate', but a cocktail of economic factors, poor education, and social disempowerment against a particular – but not particularly Arab – background, which causes FGM.  The women who take their daughters to the excisors do not hate their daughters, and telling them that they do is not going to change anything for the better. 

Admittedly, very different issues are at work when we think of the lash in Saudi Arabia.  But that's precisely the point. 

It must be said that the decision of the Foreign Policy art director to illustrate their 'sex issue' with pictures of a naked woman wearing black body paint, except for a strip across her eyes has probably not helped its reception amongst critical voices.  It's as if someone got told to take some photos which were of a “woman, kind of with a veil, but a little bit sexy with it”. 

Mona el Tahawy herself has reminded us forcefully of some of the appalling gender dynamics present in various parts of the Middle East.  No doubt, many men do hate and fear the women who they oppress.  But there's far more too it than that.  And unless we have coherent explanations of why these things happen, of why they're contingent, but not essential to “Arab societies”, we'll be in a much worse place to bring them to a final end.  Everywhere.

About the author

Tom Dale is a British journalist, writer, and photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. He tweets from @tom_d_