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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.”