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Thursday May 03, 2012

Starting the Revolution on Women’s Rights

Posted by Emily Manna at 1:50 pm

Last week, Mona Eltahawy’s article for Foreign Policy, Why Do They Hate Us?, received both strong praise and harsh criticism for its take on misogyny and gender inequality in the Arab world. Eltahawy correctly identified several problems impacting many Arab women, including sexual harassment, limited civil rights, and female genital mutilation, but the framing and objectives of the piece were called into question by a multitude of critics (the best of which include Tom Dale, Mona Kareem, and Leila Ahmed).

One of the most important criticisms raised in several of the responses is that Eltahawy chose to put her piece in an English-language publication with a mostly Western audience, leading many to question her motivation. By delivering her argument mainly to Americans, an argument in which she asks the reader to “resist cultural relativism” and “call out the hate for what it is,” Eltahawy is placing her audience in a position of power and responsibility to help put an end to an Arab problem of gender inequality.

This approach is problematic in its oversimplification of misogyny as an Arab or Muslim issue, and its perpetuation of such a stereotype to a Western audience. Gender inequality is one of the chief challenges facing every part of the world today, including the United States. Eltahawy’s article raises the question of the nature (or existence) of the United States’ role in promoting women’s rights in other countries. Even more importantly, it compels us to ask about the state of women’s rights in our own country, and the rights of Arab American women in particular.

Arab American and American Muslim women do feel hate in this country, and by and large it is not from Arab and Muslim men. Instead, there is a disturbing culture of hate toward Arabs and Muslims that affects women in a distinctly harsh way. American Muslim women who wear hijab are easy targets for racism and Islamophobia, and their mantle is often taken up by unwanted “saviors” who paint an image of helpless women needing to be liberated from the cruel tyranny of “sharia law” and the Muslim oppression that threatens the beacon of American religious freedom.

One example of such fear-mongering was the “Jessica Mokdad Human Rights Conference,” an event hosted by Pamela Geller and other well-known Islamophobes in Dearborn, Michigan on April 29, supposedly aimed at educating the community on the perils of Islamic law in the United States. The conference used, without permission and to the objection of her family, the name of Jessica Mokdad, a young American Muslim woman murdered in 2011. The organizers placed ads on buses and taxi cabs urging young women to leave Islam lest they be the next victims of honor killings, but despite the alleged goal of educating young Muslim women, AAI’s Omar Baddar and Omar Tewfik caught on video the intentional exclusion of the Arab American and Muslim women who tried to attend the event.

Eltahawy rightly commands us to “listen to those of us fighting.” However, looking to religion, culture, and region is simply not the answer. We need not look to the women who are fighting Islam, as this leads to an unhelpful rhetoric that only serves to promote further discrimination. Instead, we must allow all women into the conversation to examine the socioeconomic, historical, and political reasons for their exclusion and mistreatment. Unfortunately, the conversation on Arab and Muslim women’s rights as we see it today is representative of only a very small, carefully selected set of women’s voices. In order for the discussion to be productive, we must welcome the ideas of all Arab and Muslim women, not just the ones who agree with stereotypes of Arab Muslim society or the “silent victims” who must be saved from themselves. It’s time for Arab American women to make their voices heard on their unique successes and challenges, so that a true dialogue can begin with their Arab counterparts and the revolution for women’s rights can begin both here and abroad.

Tagged as Issues, Arab Spring, Bahrain, Egypt, US-Arab Relations, Posted by Emily Manna

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