Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Tag: Blake Hounshell

On Listening (a response to the Mona Eltahawy criticism)

Unless you live under a rock, dear blog reader, you’ve probably witnessed the hulabaloo over the past 24 hours about an article by Mona Eltahawy entited “Why Do They Hate Us?” I don’t feel the need to comment on the article’s content, particularly as many already have, but I would instead like to comment on a thread of commentary that I find particularly bothersome.

I can’t find the tweet, but last night I noted someone–a journalist, no less–tweet something along the lines of “Hmm, interesting – most of my [American? foreign? can’t remember] friends like [the article], most of my Arab friends don’t.” While the tone of the comment was ambiguous and I’ll assume a bit of irony, I’ve seen other similar comments that are a bit more…obtuse. The problem, of course, is that while the audience for Eltahawy’s piece was obviously highbrow-ish English speakers interested in foreign policy (I mean, c’mon, Foreign Policy ain’t USA Today), the idea behind some of these comments is essentially: “Hey – foreigners find this valuable, shut up dissenters!” I even spotted one foreigner–who presumably lives in Egypt–telling various Egyptian women on Twitter that they were simply wrong.

The thing is, Arab women, in Eltahawy’s piece, are not active participants in the conversation, but subjects. That, I think, is why so many women took issue to her use of “us” — it felt disingenuous. I realize, of course, that there’s backstory here and she has a considerable number of non-fans and trolls, but this article in particular provoked a stronger reaction than any I’ve ever seen, and there’s a reason for that.

So the problem that I have is that, while the majority of long-form responses have come from Egyptian or other Arab women, most have been dismissed outright. Take, for example, this tweet from Foreign Policy editor Blake Hounshell:

That one is particularly ironic given that Foreign Policy appears to have pre-commissioned five responses to Eltahawy’s piece, indicating they knew how controversial her piece would be. Another:

(Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think Hounshell is amongst those not listening to Arab women, but his comments were nonetheless tone deaf – below one response, from Pakistani-Canadian Sana Saeed)

More troubling is the fact that, as Gigi Ibrahim points out in her post, “Many who have criticized Mona’s article get accused that we are defending the actions of discrimination against women or simply denying it and that couldn’t be farthest from the truth in understanding the fundamental problem with Mona’s argument in the first place.” I can’t tell you how many tweets I’ve seen claiming that, in opposing Eltahawy’s framing of the issue, any dissenters must not be taking the real issues seriously. This, I will say outright, is bullshit. I read approximately eight of the bloggy responses (including some of those in Foreign Policy) and every one was written by someone who does speak out about vital issues to women. The dissent is not coming from apologists, it’s coming from women who take issue with Eltahawy’s particular framing of the issue…and there’s nothing unfair about that. I think everyone agrees with Eltahawy when she says FGM is awful and must be eradicated – where I think most disagree is with her take on the root cause.

Ultimately, and even though I disagree with it, I’m glad Eltahawy wrote the piece. When you acquire a certain amount of clout, as she has, you have also acquired a platform from which to shout about whatever you choose, and I would rather, on any day of the week, see Eltahawy using that platform to talk about women’s issues–of vital importance to all of us–than to call Israel the “opium of the people.” I also hope, earnestly, that amongst the criticism of her piece a few more voices arise that can step up, take such an amplified platform, and speak about threats to women in a way that doesn’t cause such a visceral reaction and allows us to learn, and eventually, conquer these threats.

Safety and Social Networks in the Middle East

Not to beat a dead horse, but I came across a few tidbits last night that I found fascinating. While these pertain specifically to Facebook, in this case, I actually don’t meant to suggest that Facebook itself is the problem, rather, the larger point is whether activists are moving away from social networking tools because authoritarian governments have caught up with their use. We know that, in Syria, social media platforms have been used as a tool of surveillance and capture by authorities. I suspect that Syria may not be alone in this.

Last night, Foreign Policy’s managing editor Blake Hounshell tweeted “#Saudi: “It is a clear message that you cannot organize anything on Facebook. That is why she is in prison” along with a link to this NYTimes piece. Journalist Shabina Khatri responded: “Hence why FB usage has fallen so much since last month in Saudi and neighboring countries – fear!”

Khatri also included a link in her tweet, to an article from Doha News claiming that social media usage has dropped considerably in GCC countries in recent months. And no wonder: Protests organized (or promoted) on the world’s most popular social networking site are ripe for surveillance, without requiring any sort of technological savvy from authorities — all they need is a Facebook account.

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