Friday, May 4, 2012

Are women hated in the Middle East? The Mona Eltahawy debate

It is no secret that the state of women's rights in the Middle East and North Africa is nothing to write home about. Violations of women's rights and limitations on their fundamental freedoms in region abound. The sorry state of women's rights in Egypt and the Middle East was recently highlighted by Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian-American journalist, in an article published in Foreign Policy magazine. In the article, which contained  a telling photograph of a woman brutalized by Egyptian security forces, Mona Eltahawy took the Arab world to task for "a litany of abuses" against women "fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion." She pins violations of women's rights squarely on misogyny and strongly argues in critical terms that women are hated in Arab societies. This assertion sparked a heated debate.

The article, titled "Why Do They Hate Us?", puts the spotlight on violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms suffered by women in the Middle East. Some violations cited in the article include female genital mutilation (FGM), virginity tests, child and forced marriage, driving ban, no right to vote, endermic sexual harassment, assaults and intimidation by Islamists, and no right to marry without male guardian's blessing. It also brings to limelight scandalous statistics in the region: 90% of ever-married women in Egypt have undergone FGM. In Yemen, 55% of women are illiterate, 75% do not work and only 1 woman serves in the 301-person parliament.

Violations condemned by Mona Eltahawy in this controversial article are indisputable. The world knows about FGM, virginity tests in Egypt, child and forced marriages (case in point: Fawziya Ammodi, a 12-year-old Yemeni girl who was reportedly forced into marriage and died in a painful child birth), the driving ban and no voting rights for women in Saudi Arabia and many other untold violations endured by women in the Middle East.

No one who knows something about women's rights would deny the endemic discrimination and oppression suffered by women in the Middle East. However, many people (including women) have surprisingly kicked against Mona's article. I have read many blog responses and comments provoked by a simply question posed by a concerned women: "Why do they hate us?"

Rather than respond to the violations discussed in the article, critics have attacked the author for focusing on the Middle East and for generalization. One blogger argued that Mona's article is "irresponsible at best". Some have termed it a "misdirected call to arms". Others have argued that it incites hatred and disdain towards the religion the author "pretends to represent". Such strong accusations and negative responses are misdirected attempts to obscure or minimize the plight of women in Egypt and the Middle East - as captured in Mona Eltahawy. It is unfortunate that many would rather defend the status quo that oppresses women than echo a dissenting voice.

Some counter arguments have been more measured and reasonable like the argument put forward by Leila Ahmed. But irrespective of what people think of Eltahawy's article, there is no denying that women's rights are limited in Egypt and in many Middle Eastern societies.

Unlike Mona Eltahawy, I do not think women's rights are violated in the Middle East because women are hated. I would argue that women's rights are violated because the cultural, religious, political and judicial environment in the region is conducive for perpetrators. Make no mistake, the oppression of women is not exclusive to the Middle East. Women are oppressed and discriminated against in varying proportions all across the world. It is primordial to seize every opportunity to highlight the problem.

1 comment:

  1. Whenever one stands up to fight, you always think that it is the enemy who will come forward to attack and not the oppressed one you are fighting for.

    It is a great shame that women are still being treated this way. Unless women fight for their human rights nothing will change and yes, the perpetrators will in no doubt get worse.

    I wonder if ALL these same men would be quite happy and comfortable watching this happen to their own mothers, wives, sisters, aunts etc...? unbelievable.


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