Last week, Mona Eltahawy triggered a polemic firestorm with her blanket assertion that Arab men’s hatred of women explains the abysmal gender inequities found in the Middle East. Many Arab women are perturbed that her article “Why Do They Hate Us?” in Foreign Policy has received so much attention while millions of women leaders throughout the Middle East are reduced to a footnote by Western media. These women are the unsung heroes in the trenches struggling to shed the yoke of patriarchy infiltrating the crevices of their lives.
But because they do not adopt the direct and radical approach in Mona’s piece, they are often overlooked. Their empowered lives do not satisfy our craving to fulfill the stereotypes of the oppressed and subjugated Arab woman in need of saving by the West.
By failing to cover the courageous efforts of the millions of women leaders who incrementally chip away at patriarchy, as opposed to bulldozing it with a sledge hammer, Western media exacerbates the underlying problem — the objectification and infantilization of Arab and Muslim women.
And so when a bold voice that “pokes the painful places” is published alongside a sensually naked woman painted in all black but for her seductive eyes, we perk up in admiration for her willingness to break the silence.
The silence is due to our deafness not the absence of voices.
Arab women, both Christian and Muslim, have been struggling for equality for more than a century. Despite strong resistance from some men and women, every new generation treads new ground. Whether it is the right to vote, the right to serve as judges, or the right to run for political office, Arab women have made much headway. But there is still much work to be done on multiple fronts. From disparate literacy rates, unequal wages, flawed personal rights laws and underrepresentation in government, gender equality in the East (and the West) remains an aspiration rather than a reality.
The past few decades have witnessed setbacks as the diverse nations arbitrarily grouped as the Middle East have experienced political upheaval, religious revivals or foreign occupation. Just like men, women’s status is affected by their society’s plight. Thus, when a country is invaded by the United States, is permanently occupied or undergoes a religious revolution, women’s rights are quickly subsumed into a larger nationalist fervor. And those who dare demand that women’s rights take precedence are quickly decried as trouble makers, agents of foreign powers, or traitors.
Thus it should come as no surprise that political realities force most women, both in the East and the West, to adopt incrementalist approaches to eradicating deeply rooted, and sometimes subconscious, gender biases. These incrementalists are coined the “good” feminists who are then pitted against the “bad” feminists whose time table for attaining equality is more accelerated and whose demands for change are more radical. This phenomenon, however, is not unique to the Middle East.
Indeed, the same occurs in American Muslim communities with regard to gender rights. Since the Sept. 11 attack, Muslim communities across the country have been under siege. The government has infiltrated their mosques, student groups and charities. Their religious leaders and vulnerable young men have been selectively prosecuted and imprisoned as part of an aggressive counterterrorism campaign. Meanwhile, Muslims are subjected to discrimination in the work place, schools and public places. Muslim women wearing head scarves are attacked in public, fired from their jobs, bullied and suspected of complicity in terrorist plots. All the while American feminists groups disregard these women’s civil rights as they obsess about patriarchy in Arab countries.
Despite the primarily male leaderships’ good faith efforts to protect their constituency, gender rights are simply not on the agenda. Muslim women continue to be inadequately represented in mosque and community groups’ leadership. Women who vocally challenge allegedly patriarchal practices are often labeled as troublemakers, agents of Islamophobes or self-promoters. Often times, character assassination becomes a substitute for much needed discussions on the merits of the concerns.
Which puts Muslim and Arab women in the United States in a similar position as those in the Middle East. Should they push their families, communities and governments to prioritize women’s rights despite other macro challenges or should they wait for better timing? Should they continue to attend mosques with inferior spaces and amenities for women or should they demand community funds be spent on making mosque facilities more equitable? Should they continue to support organizations founded and run by men, with a few token women on the board referenced to counter allegations of patriarchy, or should they vociferously campaign for meaningful representation?
History has shown that it is never the right time to fight for women’s rights. And that is precisely why the incrementalists need the radicals to “poke the painful places.” Without the latter, the millions of Arab and Muslim feminists who are the real heroes will not have the political space to permanently heal those painful places.
Sahar Aziz is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy and an associate professor at Texas A&M University School of Law, where she teaches national security and Middle East law. She is also a member of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association. This article was initially published by the Huffington Post on May 1, 2012.