Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

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.

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  1. reaction to the writer’s personality, as much as to the content, seems a possibility in this story.

    • I think that’s oversimplified – I don’t think people (particularly these women I cite) would react to her personality so strongly if they didn’t find her framing problematic. I’d also note that, in terms of sheer gutsiness, many of these women share Mona’s personality type.

  2. Suggested reading for you: Orientalism.

    • Have read it. I’m curious what you’re trying to imply though – I intentionally chose not to criticize Mona’s piece much, instead focusing on the criticism of the criticism.

  3. Great response. A voice that has been here for some time is the voice of Leila Ahmed, Harvard professor who has released a book on a 10 year study of the veil. Her voice is one of longevity, common sense, and research – all important in this rightfully passionate conversation.

  4. Really, Jillian,the reaction due the writer’s personality is oversimplified, particularly these women you cite? You’ve got to be kidding. Don’t these 24 hour explosions of vitriol towards Mona occur on a pretty regular basis mainly driven by the Egyptian leftist Twitter clique. These happen regardless of whether she writes or says anything newsworthy. Look at the timeline of one of the “women you cite” for the last 48 hours and that is consistent with what has happened in the past. Nothing seems to energize and unite this group these days more than their attitude towards Mona Eltahawy.
    There are probably better places for them to direct their energy.

    • Of the eight or so responses I’ve read, only two were written by Egyptian leftists. Others came from Samia Errazouki (Moroccan-American), Dima Khatib (Palestinian-Venezuelan I think), Naheed Mustafa (Pakistani-Canadian), and so on. So while you might be willing to dismiss Gigi Ibrahim because she regularly criticizes Mona and happens not to share her politics, I would take a second look if I were you.

  5. Thanks for your response. I happen to love Mona’s essay, its tone, its intensity. It made me cry. Now, I am from middle east, and I am not [very] ignorant about the life in middle East. :-)

    But, I found the universally angry response of Muslim Feminists truly troubling. And so I made several angry [and highly emotional] responses to folks/bloggers and twonks.

    Reading your response on Listening calmed me. Actually, yesterday Dima Khatib responded to me gently and nice on twitter. That was impressive, but your take is more comprehensive and, surprisingly, I happen to agree with you on a great many points you have made. U are the “first” response I agree with which disagrees with Mona on something. Seriously. Its either praising Mona, or condemning her. Yours is totally different.

    Thanks for your writing On Listening.

    Now, I am gonna go and practice Listening. :-)


  6. I think the tweet you describe was from Shadi Hamid (https://twitter.com/#!/shadihamid/status/194777259578630144). Given the thrust of his other tweets–that the lack of agreement from Arab women is a problem for Eltahawy’s argument–I think you may be misreading him. I see his point as being rather that those most affected by the alleged (a word I use in this case to sidestep rather than question the substance of Eltahawy’s article) hatred of Arab men don’t agree with her, while those most predisposed to see the Arab world in overly simplistic terms (whether specifically Orientalist or otherwise) are the ones agreeing with her.

    That said, I’ve noticed the strain of comments that you rightly describe, and that Hamid’s tweet doesn’t fit into that frame doesn’t really change the general point you make. But I do think we need to take more seriously the effectiveness of agency among Arab women, a question represented at the extremes by Hounshell and Hamid. Hounshell’s tweet about agency has to be seen as a response to the overly powerful idea of agency at work in Hamid’s tweets. I think there is some real substance going on in the particular examples you use of a line of criticism that is unquestionably present in other places.

    I’m leery of false consciousness explanations; too, perhaps most, often they are used only to shut down heterodoxy. But surely it is the case that for whatever reason (social structures, ideological hegemony, lack of exposure to alternatives) some people will not be in a position of full intellectual independence, and the repression of women in the Arab world makes Arab women more likely to be in such positions. One would have to question whether their disagreement with Eltahawy is, as Hamid argues, evidence against her argument or, as Hounshell suggests, an example of it. I don’t think that’s the case for the bloggers you cite–no one could reasonably say that Dima Khatib is any less independent that Mona Eltahawy. I have to believe, though, that there are many other Arab women (like many other disadvantaged people worldwide) who are not offered the opportunity to think for themselves, and thus need someone to represent their interests.

    I’m not sure that’s Eltahawy in this case. Nor am I really comfortable moving from the general argument that people in such a position are almost certain to exist to the argument that any one particular person is making an argument from such a position. It seems a bit unreasonable, in fact, to think that someone making any argument is in such a position without further evidence; the ability to argue is, prima facie, evidence of intellectual independence. The inability to operationalize a distinction between suppression of dissent and false consciousness is what makes such arguments so dangerous. But I do think this is an issue with which this debate needs to wrestle more extensively.

  7. Thanks Jillian for a great post. I’ve been waiting for your response. I believe I saw you tweet something to the effect that there’s a trust issue when it comes to Mona. I couldn’t believe how angered I was while reading the article, but I think my anger level was heightened by the fact that I could hear Mona’s voice in the background. I didn’t know or follow Mona very much, but after she was attacked in Cairo, and the media rounds she was doing afterwards were making me very uncomfortable. I’m not from Egypt, but can’t imagine what Egyptians were making out of the media spotlight she was getting for something they were suffering and continue to suffer, while she visits Cairo every few months. Her self indulgence became too much and she stopped sounding sincere. To see so many taking her seriously and falling for her as an expert for the region still blows my mind.

  8. Nevermind blasphemy laws and repeated attacks on freedom of expression.

    Nevermind inheritance laws in islamic countries.

    Nevermind criminalization of sexual relationships.

    Nevermind oppression of minorities.

    Nevermind jailing, torturing and killings of apostates.

    Let’s all criticize the woman who hasn’t fallen prey to moral relativism!

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