From the new July-August 2012 issue of News & Letters:
Woman as Reason
by Terry Moon
Mona Eltahawy, an American-Egyptian journalist, wrote an eloquent essay published in the May/June edition of Foreign Policy titled “Why Do They Hate Us? The real war on women is in the Middle East.” The myriad negative responses to it reveal serious examples of counter-revolution from within the revolution in the wake of Arab Spring.
ARAB SPRING FACES COUNTER-REVOLUTION
Eltahawy takes up “the pulsating heart of misogyny in the Middle East.” It is crucial that her essay is about the need for the revolutions of Arab Spring to continue and deepen. So important is this to her that she begins and ends with that point. On the first page she declares:
“An entire political and economic system–one that treats half of humanity like animals–must be destroyed along with the other more obvious tyrannies choking off the region from its future. Until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors on our streets and in our homes, our revolution has not even begun.”
And on the last page she writes:
“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…. Our political revolutions will not succeed unless they are accompanied by revolutions of thought–social, sexual, and cultural revolutions that topple the Mubaraks in our minds as well as our bedrooms.”
Not one of the critiques I read mentions that this is what her essay is about. Rather than speaking to her essay’s content–the unbearable sexism that women experience in the Middle East–they try to discredit her. Where she talks of how “more than 90% 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,” she is chided for using the “wrong” word, genital mutilation instead of circumcision. Another critic attacks her by reminding the reader that genital mutilation of women did not originate with Islam or in the Middle East. But none speak to the actuality of genital mutilation, under whatever name.
FORM ATTACKED, CONTENT IGNORED
She was also widely criticized for publishing the essay in Foreign Policy, as if that somehow silenced other Arab women’s voices, even though Foreign Policy invited four responses from Arab women. Or, critics say, it was wrong to publish in Foreign Policybecause her audience was presumed to be Americans, but no publications or websites the critiques were in would have printed her essay, and it is crystal clear from the responses that her essay was widely read by an Arab audience.
Then there was this age-old shibboleth, used whenever someone wants to shut up a woman who dares to bring up the fact that we live–all of us–in a deeply misogynist world: Eltahaway “blames and hates all men.”
Any who doubt the importance of what Eltahawy raises need only remember the Iranian women who, in the midst of revolution in 1979, came out by the thousands against Khomeini’s order to wear the chador. They cried out: “At the dawn of freedom we have no freedom.” They were calling for the Iranian revolution to continue. Had their demands been taken seriously by the Left, Iran might be in a very different place today.
NEED FOR PERMANENT REVOLUTION
In an interview given several weeks after her essay was published, Eltahawy reiterated that she is talking about deepening revolution:
“So what my essay is trying to do, is to say that the women…now have two revolutions that need to be completed: The revolution against the regime, which oppresses all of us; but also a second revolution against a society that oppresses us as women.”
While Eltahawy is not talking directly of Marx’s concept of revolution in permanence, that is what she is calling for. As Arab Spring faces counter-revolution from within and without–and is now facing an election where both candidates may well worsen women’s oppression–we call for the greatest possible solidarity with what Eltahawy is raising.