The Real War on Muslim Women





5-1-12

Daniel Martin Varisco is the editor of the journal "Contemporary Islam" and professor of anthropology at Hofstra University. This article is crossposted from Varisco's blog Tabsir.

One of the most revered journals on the political front has taken a cue from Sports Illustrated: Foreign Policy now has a sex issue, indeed what is billed as “the sex issue.” Someone forgot to tell the editors that there is such a thing as “gender,” since there is very little bedroom-variety “sex” revealed in the articles. If a review of “Women in Politics” is about “sex,” then the journal misses out on the real sex going on, like politician John Edwards cavorting while running for President and several secret servicemen strip clubbing the night away in Columbia. And if what is going on from India to Iran is “the new politics of sex,” it looks a lot like the old. The reader might even accuse the journal of false advertising, since the seductive pose of a model clad in hijab black on the cover suggests more politically incorrect eye candy inside.

The lead article by the journalist Mona Eltahawy has launched a barrage of commentaries and counter commentaries in the academic community. Echoing the cover tag, she asks “Why do They Hate Us?” with a less than subtle subtitle of “The Real War on Women is in the Middle East.” Were this “really” the case, it might be seen as good news, since I have always been under the impression that the real war on women was more or less worldwide. How wonderful that women in Africa, Asia and Latin America no longer have to worry about real warfare. Of course, we all know the real war against women ended in Europe when the wielders of the Malleus Maleficarum burned the last witch and in the United States when women started voting in 1920. And I am sure the GOP is quite relieved to know that the war on women announced for the upcoming election is phony.

I understand the author’s frustration at the lack of progress for promoting women’s rights in the aftermath of the now rather chilly “Arab Spring.” Her experience in Tahrir of being groped and sexually assaulted is despicable. But to assume that those men stand for all Egyptian men and that all Egyptian women are hated is what one says in anger. The “real war” here is not about groping; it is a battle for minds, not bodies. The “real” enemy is a politics charged with a dogmatic rhetoric that is less about what men and women do in the bedroom than how they conform to an imposed tyranny that benefits the proverbial one percent, be they dictators or clerics. After the opening tease of a fictional Egyptian woman unmoved by sex with her husband, Eltahawy identifies the broader problem: “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.” Yes, but the numerous dead bodies of young men martyred in opposing these tyrannies prove that it is more than half of humanity that is being treated like animals.

I completely agree with Eltahawy that this is not a time for cultural relativism. Genital mutilation, forced marriage of teenage girls, sacrosanct polygyny and the host of abuses that many women suffer in the Middle East in Islamic contexts are deplorable. But what must be said is that the problem is hate as such, not just that men hate women. As a polemic that stirs debate, her call to speak out against sexism is useful as advocacy journalism, but it suffers from the othering trope of there being a clearly defined us vs. them. This is what polemics do, stinging with angry rhetoric but not actually contributing to a solution. There never really is a “they,” nor a definable “us” outside the passion of rhetoric. The picture at the start of the article shows a woman being dragged by riot police in the Cairo protests, just as “they” dragged young men and beat them. I doubt these same men would drag their mothers, sisters or daughters. If the “they” is all Arab Muslim men and the “us” all Arab Muslim women, then Eltahawy is throwing back the same kind of mud slung by the clerics who lump all women as temptresses.

My problem is less with the provocative commentary of an angry journalist than the shameless pseudo-intellectual voyeurism of the forum that exploits her anger. In the online version which I read the cover girl is exposed on each page like some kind of Super Bowl ad. On page 4 the model in black is placed in an add that says “Don’t Miss the Sex Issue.” How can the reader miss it, while reading it and being constantly reminded that this is “the sex issue”? It is telling that the images of women provided to illustrate the article further the gaze on the female body as the selling point. The images contradict the message of the commentary, sharing only in the shock value which seems to the real point of the piece.

As Eltahawy rightly observes about Egyptian and Middle Eastern women in general, “We are more than our headscarves and hymens.” I believe that the majority of Muslim men and women, especially the ones I have met in Yemen, Egypt and Qatar, would agree. But consider what allows such sexism to thrive politically in the Middle East (and not just int he Middle East). Historically Islam as a moral system was no more sexist than any of the other major religions; indeed there is a strong basis for promoting women’s rights based on the Quran and the many traditions related by Aisha. But the cultures shaping religious interpretation in the Middle East have been stymied by Western colonialism and economic hegemony swept along by an Islamophobic current. The dictators that have fallen over the past year were not put in power by clerics, nor were they religious moralists. Their political tyranny of men like Mubarak or Qaddafi only encouraged extremist religious views. The sexism we see, from draconian Saudi fatwas to the ideology of wives as totally submissive, is as much a product of modernity as an assumed uninterrupted continuum of past custom.

The “real” war is not in the bedroom, not in Egypt or anywhere. Nor can we set up the players with broad bias-begging pronouns like a white “us” and black “them” in a chess match. Arguing where women are most abused is ultimately a partisan issue. Any rape, anywhere at any time, is equally abusive. Not being allowed to drive is annoying, but hardly on the same scale as the domestic abuse women face even in the most “developed” societies. Yes, there is endemic gender-based conflict that in most countries is more against women than men, but it is more like the tragedy of a civil war than the hubris of a just war against a Satan. In promoting the “sex issue” the editors of Foreign Policy argue that “Women’s bodies are the world’s battleground, the contested terrain on which politics is played out.” Politics plays out on all kinds of bodies, but hate is never just about gender. If the editors want to apologize for ignoring gendered politics in the past, trying to be like Cosmopolitan is not the way to get real.


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