Egyptian women protest against the army’s use of violence against them in Cairo in 2011 after images of women who had been brutally beaten were circulated. Photograph: Mohamed Omar/EPA
Mona Eltahawy’s ‘Arab men hate women’ article sparks demands for a sea change in engagement between the sexes
An explosive call for a sexual revolution across the Arab world in which the author argues that Arab men “hate” Arab women has provoked a fierce debate about the subjugation of women in countries such as Egypt, Morocco and Saudi Arabia.
Women are deeply divided over the article, entitled “Why do they hate us?”, by the prominent American-Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy, which fulminates against “the pulsating heart of misogyny in the Middle East” and builds to an early crescendo by stating: “We have no freedoms because they hate us … Yes: They hate us. It must be said.”
Eltahawy is not alone in stressing that a revolution has come and gone, but done little for Arab women. There are only eight women in Egypt’s new 500-seat parliament – and not one female presidential candidate. Domestic violence, forced marriage and female genital mutilation are still part of the status quo across a region covering more than 20 countries and 350 million people.
“Even after these ‘revolutions,’ all is more or less considered well with the world as long as women are covered up, anchored to the home, denied the simple mobility of getting into their own cars, forced to get permission from men to travel, and unable to marry without a male guardian’s blessing – or divorce either,” Eltahawy argues in Foreign Policy. “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. Until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors on our streets and in our homes, our revolution has not even begun.”
Eltahawy draws on anecdotal and empirical evidence for her tirade: 90% of women who have ever been married in Egypt “have had their genitals cut in the name of modesty”; not one Arab country is in the top 100 nations as ranked by gender equality; Saudi women have been prosecuted for daring to drive a car. Eltahawy nails the paradox that it is women who must cover up – because of the sexual impulses of Arab men.
But plenty of women across the Arab world have taken objection to Eltahawy’s blanket condemnation of men.
“I agree with most of what she said but I think that the one thing that she might be reluctant to admit is that it’s not about men hating women, it’s about monotheistic religions hating women,” says Joumana Haddad, a Lebanese author and journalist. “They continually reinforce patriarchal standards and patterns that have existed long before. There is no harmony possible between monotheism and women’s rights. The teachings deny women their dignity and rights.”
Dalia Abd El-Hameed, a researcher on health issues at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, added: “It is oversimplistic to say Arab men hate Arab women; it presents us as needing to be saved. I don’t want to be saved, because I am not a victim. We can’t put all Egyptian women in one category, let alone Arab women. My problems are not the same as a rural woman from Upper Egypt.”
Sarah Naguib, a political activist in Egypt, said: “I honestly think it’s almost offensive to be asked if Arab men hate Arab women. That’s like saying all Muslims are terrorists and all Jews are evil and the American dream still lives on.”
Lina Ben Mhenni, a Tunisian lecturer nominated last year for the Nobel peace prize, said: “It seems to me that this article inaccurately lumps all men together; from a purely personal perspective, if today I’m seen as a blogger who defends the rights of women as well as of other groups, it’s because I have a father who is more feminist than I am myself.”
Mhenni notes that in Tunisia men and women are working together to defend the freedoms and rights of women. “The examples cited by Mona are real enough, but to speak of hatred as the reason behind discrimination between men and women is exaggerated, uncalled-for even. You have to look at all the historical, social and political factors which are behind all this. Arab regimes have always limited our horizons, undermined our educational systems, and restricted access to culture. It has been a strategy to manipulate the crowd and send it in a certain direction.”
In Beirut, Haddad points out that just as not all men are culpable, some women are. “Many women support such negative notions of femininity: endorsing the alpha male, reinforcing the patriarchal system, obedience, submission, financial dependence. There are many women who do not believe in women playing a role in business or demanding their political rights. According to much of the religious teachings it’s impossible.”
Although that may be true, there is no doubt that even Lebanese law militates against women in places. “There is no law that protects women from domestic violence,” notes Lebanese MP Sethrida Geagea. “A husband can violate his wife and even rape her and there is nothing to protect her. Two months ago we passed a draft law that banned so-called honour killings. Before then, if a father or brother thought a woman from his family was seeing another man he could kill her and would spend no more than two months in jail.
“That has now changed but real change in attitudes will take a lot longer.”
Others say that women are only one of many oppressed groups. In an article on Comment is Free this week, Nesrine Malik argued: “Yes, in Saudi Arabia women cannot drive, but men cannot elect their government; instead they are ruled over by a religiously opportunistic dynasty. In Egypt, it’s true that women were subjected to virginity tests, but men were sodomised. In Sudan women are lashed for wearing trousers, but ethnic minorities are also marginalised and under assault. We must not belittle the issues women face, or relegate them to second place, but we must place them in a wider context where wholesale reform is needed. One cannot reduce a much more universal and complicated problem merely to gender.”
Laila Marrakchi, a Moroccan film-maker, takes issue with the word “hate”, arguing that many Arab men are repressed too. “It’s not hatred, it’s fear of women – which in turn brings the hatred. There is so much frustration among men in the Arab world, it begins with sexual frustration, and the frustration of not being able to speak out, and not having political freedom.”
Tunisia may historically have enjoyed the most liberal attitudes towards women’s rights, but some fear that may be changing, despite last year’s revolution. Saloua Karoui Ounalli, a lecturer in American and English literature at Tunis University, said: “Things have changed in just a few months. I can’t wear miniskirts at work now, on the campus, for fear that someone will attack me. I only wear trousers now. This change in environment began a couple of years back, when the number of women wearing the veil started to increase.”
She says a sexual revolution is desperately needed. “But right now is not the best timing. First you need a cultural revolution to train people to think with a critical frame of mind, to take into account the plurality of cultures in the world, so that they can see Arab culture as just one among thousands of cultures; it isn’t necessarily the best one and doesn’t necessarily possess the truth. A sexual revolution would be a waste of time until you have first taught people to evaluate their own culture with some detachment from the sacred.”
Moroccan journalist Nadia Lamlili says the Arab world does not need a sexual revolution so much as a cultural revolution in the way people are brought up and the way the sexes are segregated.
“It seems to me that the problems facing Arab women derive more from a lack of understanding between the sexes, which is above all due to the two sexes not being allowed to mix, and of the morbid desire on the part of the Arab regimes to keep society divided: men to one side, women to the other,” she says. “By separating the sexes, the Arab regimes want to manage sexual temptation. But it doesn’t take away the temptation. In fact it exasperates and amplifies the temptation, and ends up with violence in dealings between men and women.
“The problem with our societies is that the women are in love with their sons instead of their husbands, and the men are in love with their mothers instead of with their wives,” she adds. “Men and women don’t understand one another due to the fact that their dealings are not at all clear, as they don’t spend enough time together or don’t engage with each other enough.”