Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Tag: Mona Eltahawy

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.

Digital Activism, the U.S. Government, and the Arab World

A few weeks ago, the New York Times published an op-ed by respected journalist Rami Khoury, entitled “When Arabs Tweet.”

In the piece, Khoury questioned the State Department’s role in promoting digital technologies in the region. Anyone who has ever spoken with me at length about this topic knows how I feel: that the U.S. government cannot be taken seriously in promoting digital tools for democracy until it stops supporting dictatorships and policies that undermine their work, such as export controls.

Khoury, in the following statement, echoes my feelings on the matter:

One cannot take seriously the United States or any other Western government that funds political activism by young Arabs while it simultaneously provides funds and guns that help cement the power of the very same Arab governments the young social and political activists target for change.

When the United States government upholds the tyrannical rule of the likes of Moubarak while simultaneously implementing programs in Cairo to help young activists on the ground, that, my friends, is what we call hypocrisy. When the government implements export controls on Syrians and Iranians that prevent their ability to tap into important communications tools whilst simultaneously sending young State Department employees to Damascus to promote the influx of American business, we know we should be questioning their motives. And when the United States government helps young Iranians undermine their government by urging Twitter to stay open at crucial moments but ignores the pervasive online censorship and myriad protests against it in secular ally Tunisia, you know we have a problem.

At the same time, Khoury’s statement that “all the new media and hundreds of thousands of young bloggers from Morocco to Iran have not triggered a single significant or lasting change in Arab or Iranian political culture” is patently false.

There are various examples to choose from: Iran’s Green Movement might not have sparked a Twitter revolution, but it’s an undeniable fact that Twitter, and the media that covered it, helped create awareness of the nascent movement amongst Americans. In Tunisia, offline protests against online censorship rely on the networks available because of social media. In Morocco, each blogger arrested has been released soon after, undoubtedly with the help of online activists, whose loud online protest most certainly sped up their release. Even the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement could not possibly have gained the ground it has globally without the power of new media.

In Egypt, where bloggers and activists can easily be arrested under emergency law, the beating of young businessman Khaled Said by police sparked an online protest that garnered support from around the Arab world and beyond, resulting in real change. As Egyptian columnist Mona Eltahawy stated in a recent Washington Post piece:

Thanks to social media’s increasing popularity and ability to connect activists with ordinary people, Egyptians are protesting police brutality in unprecedented numbers. On July 27, the two police officers connected to his death stood trial on charges of illegal arrest and excessive use of force. If convicted, they face three to 15 years’ imprisonment.

Of course, protest and civil disobedience were around long before the onset of ubiquitous social media. But what social media offers is the ability to more easily connect–not just with people in one’s own community, but with people outside of it as well. Though Egyptians deserve the credit for the tangible results that came from protesting Khaled Said’s death, the mobilization of fellow Arabs–and others–on Twitter, Facebook, and blogs spurred the media into reporting on it.

Another question remains: Do these activists truly benefit from U.S. government support? Again, the pundits are torn. Fellow blogger and activist Nasser Weddady believes that Arab activists are just fine without it:

My answer is very simple, these activists might actually NOT, I repeat, NOT NEED US government’s funds or support. They have done fine for themselves so far and grew their skills tremendously. most of them factor already in their game plans that there is no cavalry that will be forthcoming from DC to do a job they already figured how to do for themselves, thank you very much…

…As of now, it looks to me like Washington DC politicians need Middle East activists a heck lot more than Middle Eastern activists need them…

Sami Ben Gharbia, Global Voices Advocacy Director, echoed Weddady’s sentiments at the Global Voices Summit in Santiago, Chile earlier this year, stating that some U.S.-backed initiatives, such as those by Freedom House, actually do more to endanger the lives of local activists than they do to help. I’m inclined to agree; in some places, collaborating with the U.S. government, even on an initiative you believe in, is to wear a scarlet letter, often T for traitor.

I’m also inclined to agree with Weddady, at least in part. I attended the the session on funding in Beirut that he ran, and heard the same sentiment: “We’re doing our own thing, leave us alone.”

Native initiatives, meaning those launched by local activists or NGOs, are in most cases the ones most likely to gain local support and succeed, certainly. But, in many cases, such initiatives lack funding. So is there room for funding from foreign governments, particularly the U.S.?

For me, it all goes back to my first point; there is perhaps a place for U.S. funding to back democracy-related initiatives, but first the contradictions in policy must be lowered or eliminated. More efforts must be made to protect the safety of those who take part in U.S.-backed initiatives. And funding must be prioritized for native (or native-partnered) initiatives, rather than those implemented by outsiders.

But in the end, we need to accept that digital activism is real. It may not have effected long-term change just yet, but it has made short-term strides, and in any case, with Facebook celebrating its sixth birthday and Twitter barely a toddler, it’s all too soon to tell.

How to Write About Muslim Countries

I’m a little peeved at myself for my last post…I don’t regret what I said, but it was more self-centered than I would have liked, and left out the incredible parts of living abroad. With that in mind, I’m going to look today at another article – Judy Bacharach’s “Twice Branded – Western Women in Muslim Lands” (bint battuta already dug into it here). You may also want to take a gander at the growing catfight between Phyllis Chesler and Naomi Wolf (documented pretty clearly on Chesler’s site)

The article, which you ought to go read before continuing here, basically outlines how western* women are treated in Muslim countries – according to Bacharach, we are forced into marriages, or if we choose to marry, our husbands will turn on us Not Without My Daughter style, or if we don’t marry, we’ll be branded as loose women. Real thoughtful stuff.

Okay – let’s get the truths out of the way first. Yes, there have been cases of women moving to certain Muslim countries with laws on the books that take away former nationality upon marriage (Iran has done this, whether you’re a believer of Betty Mahmoody’s story or not). Yes, there have been some highly publicized cases of forced marriage in Egypt. And yes, there is a prevailing attitude among some young men in some countries (including non-Muslim ones – anyone been groped in Italy?) that western – especially American – women are loose. Acknowledged, moving on.

That said, the first rule when writing about Muslim countries is to lump all Muslims together, as if they are one brainless homogeneous blob. The second rule, of course, is to ignore all of the happy, positive, and successful marriages between western women and Muslim men (or, assume that if there is a divorce, that it must have been because the man was Muslim…because, you know, no two people from the same culture ever divorce!) And while you’re at it, simply ignore any positive experiences in general from women in the Middle East and North Africa that don’t fit your agenda. The third rule is that you must never, ever, place blame on the poor western woman who went to a chatroom, met her husband-to-be, fell in love without ever hearing his voice or seeing his face, then flew a thousand miles to marry him and then – oh noes! – found that he wasn’t who he said he was. The fourth is that you must only trust the viewpoints of “Muslim reformers” and apostates: Muslim women are never to be trusted. And of course, never forget the most important rule of writing about Muslim countries – you must, must take every anecdotal incident as gospel.

Let’s go through these again, with examples.

Rule #1: All Muslims Are the Same.

Because of her experience, the occasional young American woman who is thinking of marrying a Muslim with an urge to return to his own country visits Chesler for advice. And she tells them what she knows: “This man you love will change overnight before your eyes. You will live but you will wish you were dead.”

Oh yes, Phyllis Chesler. The same Phyllis Chesler who says things like:

Most Muslim girls and women are not given a choice about wearing the chador, burqa, abaya, niqab, jilbab, or hijab (headscarf), and those who resist are beaten, threatened with death, arrested, caned or lashed, jailed, or honor murdered by their own families.

Ahhh yes, the ol’ argument that Muslim women are forced to wear hijab. Exempting Iran and KSA, which both have laws on the books, I fail to see how Chesler could arrive at the conclusion that “most” Muslim women aren’t given the choice. Is she privy to some information that I’m not? Has she entered the households of Muslim men and women to determine who is, and is not, forced by their families? Even if she had, would she listen?

But let’s move on, to Rule #2: Ignore Positive Examples

My friend Nasser says that he was told by “a leading female American journalist” that the press is “not interested by success stories of western women.” I don’t disagree. Take this lovely story in Saudi Aramco World: Nancy Abeiderrahmane is a British woman who has lived in Mauritania with her husband for 30 years and is responsible for commercializing camel milk in the country. Of course, the story doesn’t even touch on Nancy’s marriage (why would it?), making it totally uninteresting to western feminist journalists. Even if they were to pay attention, Nancy’s success in Mauritania would be treated as an anomaly.

In other words, nobody hears about the tons of western women who have successful marriages with Muslim men. No one hears statistics at all, let alone personal stories. That would simply blow their minds, and screw up their perspective that allows them to keep their hate nice and fresh.

Rule #3: It Is Always the Muslim’s Fault

There are lots of horror stories – some of which I’m sure are true – of western women marrying Muslim men, going to live in their country of origin, and finding out that things were not as they previously seemed. As much as I can’t stand Phyllis Chesler, I don’t doubt her life story (she married an Afghan peer in the U.S., moved to Afghanistan with him, and was mistreated by him and his family). And yet, I can’t doubt her naiveté: Who moves to a foreign country on a lark without doing their research? Same goes for Betty Mahmoody, who was blissfully unaware that Iranian law would consider her an Iranian, not an American. I feel sympathy for these women and how they were treated, but I also question the lack of blame placed on them – and the surely hundreds of women since – who have gone to a country with their husband or to marry someone, not learned the language, not studied the culture, then placed all of the blame on Islam, capitalizing on their stories in the process.

As one commenter on Bint Battuta’s post remarks:

The women I have tried to help in Jordan had no clue what they were getting into. Some of them were just plain uneducated and not smart. Some were mentally imbalanced or so thoroughly victims their marriages never would have made it in the US.

I’ve seen plenty of this myself, too. It’s becoming very common for Canadian and American women to meet Moroccan men online then travel there to live for a time, get married, and return home with their new husbands. Some of these marriages are successful – typically when the woman lives in Morocco for awhile before the wedding – but plenty of others fail precisely because the woman goes into it without bothering to understand her husband’s culture, or find out what he believes about things like religion and children, or assumes that she can change him.

Rule #4: Only Trust Muslim “Reformists.”

When was the last time you heard the opinion of a woman wearing hijab cited in popular media? Never? Exactly. That’s because all women are forced to wear hijab, of course!

What I find particularly funny is how these criticists (what else can you call them?) frequently remark upon how Muslim women are oppressed and silenced by Muslim men, then continue to oppress and silence them by not considering their voices in the media.

The rule, of course, is that you can only consider the voices of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Irshad Manji, Wafa Sultan, and Mona Eltahawy. Theirs are the only valid voices of Muslim women, because they’ve realized the error of their ways.** Never trust a woman wearing hijab – obviously someone put her up to it. Which brings me to the last rule…

Rule #5: Take Every Anecdote As Gospel

In her piece, Bachrach shares an anecdote about being told she should take her hamburger to her room rather than eat it in the hotel’s restaurant as if it were gospel. Chesler, in a recent piece, uses sweeping generalizations like “It is well known that the Arabs and Muslims kept and still keep sex slaves” and “A fully ‘covered’ girl-child, anywhere between the ages of 10-15, may still be forced into an arranged marriage, perhaps with her first cousin, perhaps with a man old enough to be her grandfather, and she is not allowed to leave him, not even if he beats her black and blue every single day.”

It’s important, of course, that whenever you have a negative experience in a Muslim country, you make general, sweeping statements about how that experience is the norm. Nevermind the thousands of Muslim women who are waiting until they finish their educations to get married. Nevermind the legal reforms. Obviously, only negative experiences count. Because…

Remember: All Muslims Are The Same

And don’t forget – all Muslims are exactly the same. If one forces his daughter to wear hijab, they all must. If one beats his wife, it must be because the Qur’an told him to do it. And if one young Muslim woman gets a PhD and then chooses a husband…oh wait, no…that would obviously never happen.

*I hate the term “western” but until somebody finds a better way to reference a population, I will continue to use it. But let it be known…I think it sucks.

**I totally respect all four of these women, but that does not make their opinions more correct or valid than the opinions of women who disagree with them.

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