Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Tag: women’s rights

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.

A Step Forward for Women?

As Hisham notes here, the Moroccan elections were significantly overshadowed on the world stage by those in Iran, and no wonder – no matter the outcome, they would have been met with little protest anyway.  What was notable this time around however was a rise in the number of female candidates, as reported by MAP: 20,458 women ran for 2009 local elections; 15.7% compared to only 4.8% in 2003, according to the Interior Ministry.  Even more notable is that Morocco’s second ever – and third – female mayors were elected…Fatima Zahra Mansouri was elected mayor of the growing city of Marrakesh (population of a little over a million), and Fatima Boujnah is the new PAM Mayor of Tizeght, at only 21 years old.

Now, as my friend Anas points out, she is backed by the newly formed Party for Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), dubbed the “King’s Party” by the blogoma, and is therefore perhaps just a royal pawn.  On the other hand, the ascendancy of a woman to a role that has almost exclusively been held by men since its inception (Asmaa Chaabi was the first female mayor in the country, elected in 2003 to Essaouira’s city hall) can’t be a bad thing.

On the other hand, the influx of women into candidacies is not a coincidence: a number of U.S. governmental organizations helped train female candidates, and party leaders are certainly aware that, in order to keep relevant, they must cater to the new voter demographics (young, and often female).

In a country where the literacy rate for women still lingers under 50%, it would seem that any step forward for women is a good thing.  But when those women are played as pawns by the governing elite, is it really a step in the right direction?

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