Does Mona Eltahawy’s approach hurt women?

Mona Eltahawy’s Foreign Policy cover story “Why Do They Hate Us” triggered an avalanche of passionate responses. But few have … Continued

Mona Eltahawy’s Foreign Policy cover story “Why Do They Hate Us” triggered an avalanche of passionate responses. But few have addressed how her arguments impact indigenous Arab women’s rights activists or the article’s primary audience– how American policy makers– can best support the cause of gender justice in the Middle East.

Why Mona Eltahawy’s Approach Hurts Arab Women

Eltahawy draws attention to crimes committed against women in the Middle East that should outrage us all. Unfortunately, rather than discuss the complex social, economic and political dimensions of these issues (see Max Fisher’s useful analysis), she offers the radically original notion that Arab men, and by extension Middle Eastern culture and even “moderate” interpretations of Islam, are backwards and barbaric.

Well-meaning fans of the piece applaud what they see as Eltahawy’s courage for raising public awareness of Arab women’s struggles.

Critics question not the crimes Eltahawy describes but the causes she assigns, namely Islam and Arab culture’s inherent “hate” for women, alleging that her analysis is not only pedestrian but panders to prejudice.

The real danger however is that Eltahawy’s narrative harms the very cause she claims to champion. Conflating women’s rights advocacy with Arab inferiority or Islam bashing doesn’t empower the champions of change, it aids their enemies.

Religion is the dominant social currency in the Arab world. Everyone from pro-democracy activists to anti-woman authoritarians invokes its imagery, moral authority and emotional appeal for legitimacy.

As a result, those who defend anti-woman practices in the Arab world often do so in the name of protecting faith and tradition against Western hegemony.

For precisely this reason, nothing can damage the cause of women’s rights in the Arab world more than pitting gender equality against Islam, or associating it with orientalist archetypes of the savage Arab man.

How Western Advocates for Arab Women Can Best Help “Us”

These sentiments don’t mean that Westerners should simply apply “cultural relativism” regarding women’s suffering and stand quietly on the sidelines. But it does mean that well-meaning Western advocates for Arab women must proceed with caution, consistency, and respect. Our analysis yields the following recommendations.

Put First Things First

Before Westerners can help Arab women, they must understand their priorities. Arab women, like Arab men, say their most pressing issues include economic development and political reform.

Moreover, progressive views among men toward women’s rights are linked with higher overall human development, not secular or Islamist views. To increase the ranks of Arab men who support women’s rights, and thus facilitate progress, the research suggests policymakers should focus on job creation, economic development, and good governance, not secularization, which men and women alike would likely oppose.

Show Consistency of Concern

Even supporters of women’s empowerment in the Arab world are suspicious of American advocacy that begins with casting Arabs as inferior and uncivilized. They point to what they see as Western hypocrisy in its advocacy for Arab women, alleging that “white men saving brown women from brown men” has conveniently justified everything from colonialism to the Iraq war, all “civilizing missions” seen as hurting many more women than they helped.

This perception can be altered by making Western advocacy for “women’s rights” more consistent within the greater context of human rights, including harm caused by poverty, political repression, and war, especially when Western policies are perceived to have caused these hardships.

Move Beyond Feminism vs. Fundamentalism

There is a strategic danger of approaching women’s rights in majority Muslim societies as a struggle between the presumed backwardness of Islam and the enlightenment of Western egalitarian values. It leaves women and their supporters with no options, and empowers those who oppose rights for women in the name of resisting Western dominance.

According to our research, most Arab women see no contradiction between the faith they cherish and the rights they deserve. Any solution toward greater gender justice should use, not eliminate, indigenous cultural and religious frameworks that grant women the rights they desire.

Eltahawy draws an image of Arabs that for centuries animated the argument that “these people” did not want democracy, making her piece better suited for a journal in 1912 than 2012. If the events of the past eighteen months have proven anything it is that we must unlearn much of what we thought we knew about the region, and approach the Arab world in the spirit of partnership not paternalism.

Dalia Mogahed is Executive Director and Senior Analyst at the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. The Gallup research referenced in this article is in the forthcoming report “After the Arab Uprisings: Women on Religion, Rights and Rebuilding.”

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  • soulartist

    I am quite disappointed by yet another “opinion” piece on an opinion piece. I thought reading statistics, facts from a “senior analyst at Gallup”. I would like to know where exactly is El Tahawy “bashing Islam”? And why would MENA women need the West? At least El Tahawy did not call for Western advocacy. They need resources, education, real, on the ground policies and not “cute” theories.
    Of course it is far more complex than what is mentioned by FP’s article but the point is not a dissertation on patriarchy or misogyn. She just raised the issue of Arab women and I, as an Arab woman like to see some of the oppressions I am enduring in my country beig mentioned since I cannot really speak up against it in my own country!! I wanted to see more in-depths responses. Among the dozens so far, not one article focuses on the main problem. What is wrong with Arab women in the West?

  • ccnl1

    A safe and easy solution:

    From the studies of Armstrong, Rushdie, Hirsi Ali, Richardson and Bayhaqi————–

    The Five Steps To Deprogram 1400 Years of Islamic Myths:

    ( –The Steps take less than two minutes to finish- simply amazing, two minutes to bring peace and rationality to over one billion lost souls- Priceless!!!)

    Are you ready?

    Using “The 77 Branches of Islamic “faith” a collection compiled by Imam Bayhaqi as a starting point. In it, he explains the essential virtues that reflect true “faith” (iman) through related Qur’anic verses and Prophetic sayings.” i.e. a nice summary of the Koran and Islamic beliefs.

    The First Five of the 77 Branches:

    “1. Belief in Allah”

    aka as God, Yahweh, Zeus, Jehovah, Mother Nature, etc. should be added to your self-cleansing neurons.

    “2. To believe that everything other than Allah was non-existent. Thereafter, Allah Most High created these things and subsequently they came into existence.”

    Evolution and the Big Bang or the “Gib Gnab” (when the universe starts to recycle) are more plausible and the “akas” for Allah should be included if you continue to be a “creationist”.

    “3. To believe in the existence of angels.”

    A major item for neuron cleansing. Angels/devils are the mythical creations of ancient civilizations, e.g. Hitt-ites, to explain/define natural events, contacts with their gods, big birds, sudden winds, protectors during the dark nights, etc. No “pretty/ug-ly wingy thingies” ever visited or talked to Mohammed, Jesus, Mary or Joseph or Joe Smith. Today we would classify angels as fairies and “tinker bells”. Modern devils are classified as the demons of the demented.

    “4. To believe that all the heavenly books that were sent to the different prophets are true. However, apart from the Quran, all other books are not valid anymore.”

    Another major item to delete. There are no books written in the spirit state of Heaven (if there is one) just as there are no angels to write/publish/distribute them. The Koran, OT, NT etc. are simply b

  • Kingofkings1

    Maybe Eltahawy has the Pocahontas syndrome?

  • Solomon2_2

    “Any solution toward greater gender justice should use, not eliminate, indigenous cultural and religious frameworks that grant women the rights they desire.” – DM

    Dalia Mogahed’s piece allows room to rationalize leaving everything the way it is, implying that the West should pay no attention to what the old man is doing to the little girl behind the curtain.

  • sakura_eeno

    Explain houses haunted by demons slamming doors open and shut, with not even a streak of wind in the house. Yes, I’ve witnessed it several times. People who are possessed are not demented. Angels exist. Demons exist. God exists. Satan exists. And DENIAL (which is not just a river in Egypt) also exists.

  • lbruce

    I believe that you witnessed that, but I do not believe that you know the cause for a fact. Your religion just provides one possible explanation for the paranormal–not fact or science.

    The world would be a better place if more people admitted that they don’t KNOW anything.

  • poppysue85

    If a society free from routine violence to women is Western- then let me be Western. Non- violence has nothing to do with democracy. Non-violence and respect for all members of a group is an advanced social platform.

  • JeffreyImm

    I understand and agree with the need not to generalize on any identity group or culture. We can best promote progress by respectfully urging for change.

    However, Dalia Mogahed claims that Mona Eltahawy’s defense of women’s rights was attacking Islam. For context, let me point out this is the same Mona Eltahawy who has defended the Islamic right to freedom of religion and worship, including at the Park Place center in NYC, known (incorrectly) to the media as the “Ground Zero mosque.” I provide this context to offer how illogical it would be to then suggest Mona Eltahawy is now attacking “Islam.” In fact, Mona does not do this at all in her article. Mona is critical of extremists in Saudi Arabia. Mona is critical of political Islamists in other parts of the world. But where does Mona Eltahawy criticize “Islam” as Dalia Mogahed states in the Washington Post?

    You won’t find it, because Mona Eltahawy NEVER does state this. Dalia Mogahed simply makes it up, when Dalia writes here in the the Washington Post that Mona argues “even ‘moderate’ interpretations of Islam, are backwards and barbaric.”

    Whether you agree (or not) with Mona Eltahawy’s article on women’s rights in Foreign Policy, the facts are that Dalia Mogahed has simply invented something she claims Mona Eltahawy states, and the Washington Post prints this without any fact-checking. Last time I checked inventing something that someone never said is not an “opinion.”

    This is troubling, because we do need to have such discussions on topics respectfully, but also fearlessly. We have had to challenge cultures in America that called for segregation and disrespect for other races, just like we continue to struggle for full Constitutional equality for women in America today. We must show compassion to one another, but we must not live in fear to challenge those who deny the natural law of human equality and equal rights for all – anywhere.

    The last time I heard Dalia Mogahed was when she was doing an interview

  • Kingofkings1

    if one needed to avenge the injustces done to women and being exploited, then Iran has a strong case to attack the US to ‘liberate” its women. Some will say my statement is incorrect and women are not exploted in the western world for the benfit of men; to this, I say: “you have been brainwashed”

  • WmarkW

    Do American women move to Iran to become “liberated” or do Iranian women move to the United States? Do Muslims move to Western countries, or do Westerners move to Muslim ones?

    People generally try to move from more-to-less repressive nations.

  • rentianxiang

    Mona’s piece does not hurt women. It is the barbaric and backward aspects of the culture, predominantly informed by Islam, that hurts women. By your rationale, we should not speak out against the culture that is the root cause of the problem because that would only marginalize the voices of reform by empowering the forces of reaction? What a load of garbage. If you don’t clearly identify the problem then you will not find a workable solution. I can understand the writer’s discomfort with criticizing her religion since it is so much a part of who she is and her culture but it is precisely the failure to criticize the culture that prevents any meaningful change for women there. If Islam and the culture is the problem, then the protection of and preservation of the culture and Islam is certainly not the solution.

  • Kingofkings1

    Eltahawy is simply Irshad Manji and Ayaan Hirsi Ali Lite.
    This brand sells in the western countries, and can also help fledgling daily publications

  • islam4all

    Yeah, Dalia has the point. It is wrong to put Islam in any awkward position. The best possible rights which any Muslim woman can get in general and Arab woman in particular is within the premises of Islam. The best she can get in this world is with Islam. Being an Arab man, I am confidant that there is not hatred towards Arab Women.

  • SODDI

    Islam, judaism and christianity hate and oppress women. Their patriarchies (and wannabe patriarchs) cannot abide free women.

  • SODDI

    You are either deluded or lying. Or maybe a mix of both.

    “It is wrong to put Islam in any awkward position”? Islam IS an uncomfortable position and only maintains its power by violence and coercion.

    That’s why the Taliban poisoned those little girls last week.

  • Justin_Case1

    Citing the names Rushdie, Hirsi Ali (not familiar with the others your cited) completely and utterly invalidates your cut-n-paste job.

    Nothing need be added to my statement.

  • Justin_Case1

    WmarkW:

    But when those Muslims move to the West and REMAIN Muslim, that tells you that they were “running from Islam”…..!

    Just a matter of common sense deduction.

  • Justin_Case1

    soddi:

    Do you have more evidence you’d like to spew to verify that you know little to NOTHING about Islam….?

  • brm22

    Soddi, have you actually ever spoken to Muslims or visited MENA (Middle East, North Africa)?

    I’m going to assume that you’re American– are you unaware of the violence that is committed towards women and girls in this country? Do molestation, rape, domestic violence ring a bell? We haven’t had a female president yet–and it’s the USA! Have you not noticed how some politicians want to lessen domestic violence laws (thus putting women’s lives at danger) and are trying to cut funding that would actually help women’s health and well-being? I could give you plenty of examples… however, I’m beginning to notice a trend (in the USA, Egypt, and maybe it’s like this in other places), men need to actually start asking about what it’s like to actually be a woman in our respective countries! You can be polite about it and say–do you know if anyone that has experienced violence, harassment, the glass ceiling, etc. etc. Yes, the United States has made advances towards women’s rights, but it’s actually silly going around acting as if women are treated like goddesses here. We’re not!

  • brm22

    to be more specific– the backlash she is experiencing should be essentially transformed into action to get rid of the injustices she does mention.
    -so forth, STILL manipulate or misunderstand the information provided to them**

  • SODDI

    Despite their problem with the Girl Scouts, I don’t think the American catholic bishops have poisoned any of them… yet.

    There are terrible problems with violence towards women and with male domination of women in America. You only need to read the WaPo’s comment sections to see the barely veiled threats of sexuaL violence to women in power and in general. One of the main roots of this hostility to women is the Abrahamic religions’ (christianity, judaism and islam) stated tenets of the domination of women. We let Romney skate on mormonism’s disenfranchisement of women and the Teahadist Republicans hold a hearing on women’s reproductive rights with no women on the panel.

    But this can be changed in western cultures. Women can vote.Women can walk out on bad marriages and bad religions (which they should, much more often than they do now.)

    In islam and under shariah, 14 year-old girls can be raped, then charged with adultery for BEING raped and then stoned to death for adultery. AND THERE IS NO ESCAPE.

  • inthenick111

    Mona has NOT made the article open to the very people she speaks of in their language, Arabic. All well and good ,to rant to the west, as it is not not out of her comfort zone.Mona the darling of the west , MONA the new american, is a good dog for the west media Mona likes to tweet in broken Arabic and english , the smallest detail of her life, tweeting images of the food she consumes , the sunrise, how much fun she is having, the song she is *now dancing* to,.but ,when it comes to tweeting the fine details of her FP article ,”Why Do They Hate Us?” Seems Mona has a problem. Mona Has over 130 followers via twitter, hob nobs with the outsiders of Egypt,The Godless Secular, self absorbed crowd a full decade younger then she is , the wine nibbling party going crowd in Cairo . Tries to show the masses and Herself how “oh so happy” she is , and is “just so excited to be in Cairo!” Meanwhile housed at a hotel in Cairo like an typical American tourist , ya Mona … Mona put your Arabic where your mouth is and MAN UP, If you feel so strong, tell it to the people of Egypt in their language. YOU DID SAY a friend TRANSLATED YOUR ARTICLE TO ARABIC???Did the dog eat it?