Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy has a piece in this month’s Foreign Policy on the problems faced by women in the Arab world. This is a very important article and I would encourage you all to read it, but I want to highlight the central point in her thesis — which has been proven overwhelmingly by the response that has exploded literally hours since her article went online (the print edition is not even out yet).
Eltahawy begins her essay with the point that when anyone normally brings up the issue of Arab women, they are shouted-down with problems women face in the West. As if this is a reason not to speak about something far, far worse.
This is the third-worldist cultural relativism that I have highlighted a few times. It is the insipid prejudice of low expectations — using “cultural differences” to justify holding others to a lower standard. It’s hard to even imagine the outcry that would follow a white, American pastor coming out in support of female genital mutilation — yet one of the leading clerical celebrities in the Arab world does so unashamedly and no one blinks. He even gets invited to hang out with London Mayoral candidate and career antisemite Ken Livingstone.
If no one says anything, nothing will ever get done about this. Good on Eltahawy for standing up to the cultural pressures trying to crush her into silence. Elections in Egypt will not bring democracy so long as female candidates cannot even have their faces on electoral material.
So: Yes, women all over the world have problems; yes, the United States has yet to elect a female president; and yes, women continue to be objectified in many “Western” countries (I live in one of them). That’s where the conversation usually ends when you try to discuss why Arab societies hate women.
But let’s put aside what the United States does or doesn’t do to women. Name me an Arab country, and I’ll recite a litany of abuses fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend. When more than 90 percent of ever-married women in Egypt — including my mother and all but one of her six sisters — have had their genitals cut in the name of modesty, then surely we must all blaspheme. When Egyptian women are subjected to humiliating “virginity tests” merely for speaking out, it’s no time for silence. When an article in the Egyptian criminal code says that if a woman has been beaten by her husband “with good intentions” no punitive damages can be obtained, then to hell with political correctness. And what, pray tell, are “good intentions”? They are legally deemed to include any beating that is “not severe” or “directed at the face.” What all this means is that when it comes to the status of women in the Middle East, it’s not better than you think. It’s much, much worse. Even after these “revolutions,” all is more or less considered well with the world as long as women are covered up, anchored to the home, denied the simple mobility of getting into their own cars, forced to get permission from men to travel, and unable to marry without a male guardian’s blessing — or divorce either. …
First we stop pretending. Call out the hate for what it is. Resist cultural relativism and know that even in countries undergoing revolutions and uprisings, women will remain the cheapest bargaining chips. You — the outside world — will be told that it’s our “culture” and “religion” to do X, Y, or Z to women.
Understand that whoever deemed it as such was never a woman. The Arab uprisings may have been sparked by an Arab man — Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in desperation — but they will be finished by Arab women.