Women in the Middle East, in politics and in view of Muslim society, were covered in Foreign Policy’s previous issue with an attractive title: “Why Do They Hate Us?” With very irritating cover photos, this article created a tremendous influence on both women from the Middle East and on Western intellectual women. Some of them took the side of Mona Eltahawy, the author, and said that Arab men, especially the Muslim ones, really hate women. That is a much disputed claim, but is now very popular owing to Eltahawy. Others took a stand against her, claiming “Eltahawy, you cannot speak on behalf of us!”. In the shade of all these debates, there was something worth-mentioning: The method she used to give voice to Middle Eastern women’s problems. It played a small part in Western perceptions of Eastern women, small but crucial.
The author, Mona Eltahawy, has Middle Eastern cultural roots, but her point of view is strictly Western and that is an out-and-out problem. Thanks to her ethno-cultural roots, she knows what is happening in Egypt now and also what has been happening to women there up to today. Eltahawy is a victim, a witness and an observer depending upon her role in society; that means she knows and experiences all layers of being a woman in the Middle East. However, it can be argued that the method she prefers poses a risk to her ideal.
First, Eltahawy, in her very rip-roaring article, uses ultra-provocative photos and illustrations to bring the issue of women in the Mideast to the world’s agenda. In these photos, there is a woman clothed with a cloak-like black painting. This image is noteworthy in revealing the mindset of Eltahawy. She is criticizing sexual discrimination and abuse against women, but it can be said that this kind of viewpoint reproduces and deepens the effects of power on women by the same, sexual way. Anywhere in the world, you can see this kind of work which uses its subject as a commodity. This manner, I think not only injures Eastern women, but also further tarnishes their image.
Second, she emphasizes a “hate-based” relationship between women and men throughout the entire Arab world. It is true that she and a lot of women were tortured, abused and treated badly during and after the Arab Spring revolts. But, to come a conclusion like “all Arabs (men) hate women, and the source of problems is that hate,” is a very generic and unfair judgment of as well as thought toward women, also claiming “women must be in control of men”.
Because of these points of view, Eltahawy is criticized by lots of women. But the well-founded criticism is especially found in those written by Samia Errazzouki from Al-Monitor, and Dalia Mogahed from the Washington Post. Samia Errazzouki first criticizes the inherent sexualization of the “niqab” (veil) due to the pose and exposure of the female form. She says this image “revives the classic harem literature and art, presenting the Arab and/or Muslim woman as exotic and mysterious, but still an object: an object lacking the agency to define herself, thus defined by others.” At the beginning of her article, Eltahawy says that she lives in a “Western” country where women continue to be objectified; and then she makes the same mistakes—using femininity as a catalyzer to let her article boom. Eltahawy abuses womanhood by using it as advertisement material or an object of the latter in addition to criticizing the abuse. She also speaks of emancipation, but her discourse produces a new form of captivity for women.
Another criticism is that Eltahawy’s perspective is purely Western, and she believes the Middle East and Arab women to be awaiting rescue by Westerners. Dalia Mogahed of the Washington Post says that this perspective is typical of “all civilizing missions seen as hurting many more women than they helped.” These kinds of external interventions imply that Arabs—especially Arab women—are unable to demand justice, to produce new ways of democracy or modernity, and so on. This manner, of course, causes a reaction against Western attitudes, and “empowers those who oppose rights for women in the name of resisting Western dominance”.
This process as a vicious circle continues to harm women in society physically, psychologically, politically and economically. Unfortunately, the views of the Western world’s authors, who heartily want to help or resolve problems of Eastern women, mostly neglect the socio-economic and structural aspects of the gender issue in the East. And thus, they inevitably fall into the error of being ignorant. As noted above, this unawareness is not only a problem for the authors themselves, but also for the women they try to defend.
As Dalia Mogahed pegs it down, “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.” It is a fact that violence and pressure on women are caused by poverty, political repression, and war. We must look for more realistic and socio-structural causes than “just hate,” because hate is not a cause, but a result.
Samia Errazzouki, “Dear Mona Eltahawy, You Don’t Represent Us!”, Al-Monitor, 24 Nisan 2012, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2012/al-monitor/dear-mona-eltahawy-you-do-not-re.html, (erişim tarihi: 24 Mayıs 2012).
 Dalia Mogahed, “Does Mona Eltahawy’s Approach Hurts Women?”, The Washington Post, 15 Mayıs 2012, <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/guest-voices/post/does-mona-eltahawys-approach-hurts-women/2012/05/15/gIQAXnqSSU_blog.html> (Erişim tarihi: 24 Mayıs 2012)