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Misgoyny in the West versus the Middle East

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This piece was published in The Age last Thursday (May 3) and was a response to this essay by the incomparable Mona Eltahawy, who, unsurprisingly, has copped a huge amount of flak for her trouble. But back to me, it never ceases to amaze me how angry people get when I dare compare the treatment of women in the West to those in the Arab world. To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that we have it just as bad. In fact I clearer state within the article that we do not. But, our own marginalisation and the oppression of Arab/Muslim women stem from the same place: the fear of female sexuality.

My only regret in this op-ed is that I fell into the trap of using the word ‘hate’ without clarifying what that word means to me. I think misogyny, and any sort of what we call ‘hate’, is really a manifestation of fear and a desire to control. Women’s sexuality is feared, both here and in the Middle East, and there exists in both realms, a desire to control it (often at all costs).

Anyway, here it is.

Misogyny has reduced women to headscarves and hymens.

‘WOMEN have very little idea of how much men hate them,” wrote Germaine Greer in The Female Eunuch. So outraged were men that wives reportedly took to concealing their copies by wrapping them in plain brown paper.

More than 40 years later, Egyptian-American commentator Mona Eltahawy has caused a storm with her Foreign Policy essay, Why Do They Hate Us? ”They” being Arab men and ”Us” Arab women. Forget America’s so-called inequality, Eltahawy implores, ”The real war on women is in the Middle East.”

Women, she writes, have not benefited from the Arab Spring because they remain oppressed by the men in their lives who consider all is ”well with the world as long as women are covered up, anchored to the home”. ”Until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors in our homes, our revolution has not even begun.”

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Not surprisingly, Eltahawy has also sparked outrage. What is surprising is that so many of her detractors are Arab women. Gigi Ibrahim, a blogger and activist who came to prominence in the Egyptian revolution, called the essay ”disgraceful”. Samia Errazzouki, a Moroccan-American writer retorted, ”Dear Mona Eltahawy, You Do Not Represent ‘Us’.”

The consensus is that Eltahawy uses simplistic, Orientalist arguments to ”otherise” Arabs and drive a wedge between Arab men and women. ”Women in the Middle East are not oppressed by men out of male dominance,” writes Ibrahim. ”They are oppressed by regimes (who happened to be men in power).”

This is a facile argument. Men do not just ”happen” to find themselves in power. Men are in power because the patriarchal system that dominates the world favours men by systematically demeaning and marginalising women based on sex and sexuality.

Astonishingly, Eltahawy’s critics have managed to miss her central thesis: men hate women out of a deep fear of female sexuality, which has reduced women to ”their headscarves and hymens”, and it is up to women to wrestle control of their sexuality back from men.

Eltahawy made two vital errors leaving her open to those claims of Orientalism. The first was her decision to ”put aside what the United States does or doesn’t do to women”. The second was her failure to explore how women themselves also perpetuate patriarchy. Consequently, she divorces the struggle of Arab women from millions of others around the world, thus making misogyny appear a peculiarly Arab problem. In doing so, she unwittingly adds fuel to the myth that Arab men are more monster than human.

As an Australian woman of Arab Muslim background, I have often been struck not by how different but by how similarly women are treated in the West and in Arab/Islamic cultures. In both societies women’s sexuality is treated with suspicion and distrust.

Muslim women are required to dress ”modestly” to ward off attention from men. With the onus on women to alleviate male desire, victims of sexual assault are likely to find themselves blamed for their attack.

So too in the West. How many rape victims have had their sexual history and choice of clothing called into question? How many times have we wondered if ”she asked for it”?

They may not be required to cover their hair or faces, but Western women are derided for being sexually active in a way men never will be, as Sandra Fluke, the US college student who testified before Congress about the necessity of including birth control in health insurance, can attest. Fluke was called a prostitute and a slut by shock jock Rush Limbaugh.

Limbaugh is not known for his reasoned commentary but, sadly, women also joined in the attacks. Political pundit Michelle Malkin called Fluke ”a poster girl for the rabid Planned Parenthood lobby”, while Everybody Loves Raymond actress Patricia Heaton tweeted: ”you’ve given yer folks great gift for Mother’s/Father’s Day! Got up in front of whole world & said I’m having tons of sex – pay 4 it!”

The Fluke saga demonstrates how patriarchy isn’t just men oppressing women. It’s a system so entrenched in our collective psyche that it demands and acquires unconscious participation of both men and women in order to perpetuate itself.

Moroccan teenager Amina Filali swallowed rat poison after being forced, by the courts and her mother, to marry her rapist. Shortly after her death her mother pleaded, ”I had to marry her to him, because I couldn’t allow my daughter to have no future and stay unmarried.”

This mother is not a monster. She has simply internalised misogyny to where she honestly believed her daughter, no longer a virgin and thus doomed to a life of spinsterhood, would be better off married to her rapist.

Yes, the magnitude of Arab women’s suffering is greater because of the lack of laws protecting them. But, while their oppression is different in degree, it is the same in kind. It all comes down to sex. How can women ever hope to attain equality when an act as natural, and vital, as sex is regarded an acceptable means to devalue them?

Both Greer and Eltahawy are correct. But I would change ”men” to ”patriarchy”. Patriarchy hates women.

That some of Eltahawy’s fiercest critics are female only serves to show that many women continue to have very little idea of just how much.

Written by Ruby

May 7, 2012 at 12:45 am

Today in unintentional irony, David Cameron edition

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David Cameron, the British PM, is in Saudi Arabia, otherwise known as one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. Despite this, Cameron is seeking to ‘strengthen co-operations’ between Britain and the Kingdom. Cameron took this important opportunity to ignore Saudi Arabia’s own repressive rule, as well as its involvement in the crushing of public dissent in nearby Bahrain, and instead lambast Russia for its own co-operation with Syria:

I would urge the Russians and the Russian Government, even at this late stage, to look very carefully at why it keeps doing what it’s looking to do on Syria.

“This is appalling bloodshed, appalling murder on the streets of Syria. The whole Arab League has come together and said it’s unacceptable and others need to listen to that and act on that at the UN. Britain stands ready to do that”.

Considering how brutal much of the ‘whole Arab League’ has been to their own people during the Arab Spring, I’m not sure how much of a position they are in to cast judgement on Syria. Not to condone the Assad regimes handling of the crisis, but surely Cameron can see how hollow his statements are considering where he is saying them?

Can’t he?

Can’t we?

Written by Ruby

January 14, 2012 at 10:14 am

The three myths of Israel

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There are three attributes for which Israel is frequently praised. First, that it is the Middle East’s only democracy. Second, that it is a nation built up from nothing to miraculously become one of the world’s most advanced nations, and third, that as a tiny, solitary state it punches far above its weight in its never-ending battle for survival.

Problem is, none of these are entirely true. Not that anyone who had watched last Monday’s (August 21) episode of Q&A would be any the wiser, when all three of these mythological praises of Israel were sung by two of the panel’s guests.What’s worse, with the possible exception of the first, none of these assertions were challenged by the other members of the panel. This is indicative of the wider mainstream media’s consistent failure to provide accurate contextual information vital to a true understanding of this most acrimonious of conflicts.

Visiting American conservative blogger, Daniel Pipes, was the first panellist to sing Israel’s democratic praises, claiming the Jewish State provided a strong role model for the Arab Spring. Here he was briefly challenged by author Hanifa Deen, who, despite calling Pipe’s viewpoint a fantasy, wasn’t able to go into any detail as to how Israel fails in its claim to be a true liberal democracy. Deen could have pointed out the segregation that, amongst other things, deems certain roads for “Jews only” and forbids the Palestinian spouses of Israelis from gaining Israeli citizenship.Then there is the fact that unlike actual liberal democracies, Israel does not even have a constitution.

Whilst Israel’s democratic status is arguable, it is the other two myths are perhaps the most damaging and long-running. As part of my master’s degree I recently researched how the Israel-Palestine conflict was reported in the US media. There have been many such studies before mine, and they continuously turn up the same results: that the media exhibits a strong, pro-Israel bias.

According to media researchers from the famed Glasgow Media Group (GMG),  the media plays a key role in extending the conflict by not providing two crucial historical facts. The first takes us back to Israel’s formation in 1948. Far from being built from ‘nothing’ as former liberal Senator Nick Minchin claimed on Q&A, Israel was founded on land that had been continually occupied for many hundreds of years by indigenous Arabs. Tens of thousands of these occupants were displaced, some forced from their homes, others fleeing the impending violence, but all taking their keys with them. Many of these displaced families still hold onto these keys, desperately clinging to the hope they will make their way home again. The keys, which have come to symbolise the Right of Return of the Palestinian refugees, even get passed down from generation to generation.

The GMG reports that this information; that the Palestinian refugees exist, and that the United Nations has consistently upheld their Right of Return by the United Nations for 63 years, is largely missing from the common media narrative. Without this vital piece of information, it is not surprising that media audiences believe it when commentators such as Minchin insist that Israel appeared, as if by magic.

The second factor missing from the media’s narrative of the conflict is the reality of Israel’s military occupation. On Q&A, Pipes and Minchin sought to blame “the Palestinians” for all the violence in Israel/Palestine. To do to so they drew on the common narrative that Israel is locked in an existential battle for its very survival, and as such, its actions are purely retaliatory.

This too is a myth. Both Pipes and Minchin, conveniently overlooked the fact that Israel continues to occupy, in a manner deemed illegal by international law, the West Bank of the Jordan River and East Jerusalem, territory it first captured in 1967. The West Bank also happens to be where so many of the original refugees had fled to in 1948. Furthermore, Israel continues to build and expand residential settlements in these territories, again in defiance of international law. Not only does Israel divert water to these settlements, it also confiscates Palestinian farms to allow for this expansion, with some Palestinian farmers suffering the humiliation of working as farmhands on land that has been in their family for generations. The Jewish settlements are linked to each other and to Israel proper by an intricate system of roads forbidden to Palestinians who are literally cut off from one another, further diminishing the hopes of a continuous Palestinian state.

Without this information the public accepts the so-called “Washington Consensus” that is forwarded by the media: that both sides are to blame in their own way (Palestinians by being aggressive, Israel through disproportionate response); that the US is not a direct party to the conflict; and that it is up to both sides to reach a solution.This approach has merit only if one fails to consider the billions of dollars in aid the US supplies Israel and the diplomatic cover it provides in the UN. Israel is in absolutely no danger of being “wiped off the map”. It has nuclear weapons (the only Middle Eastern country to do so), the fourth strongest military in the world, and the unrelenting support of the world’s only superpower.  If anything, it is the Palestinians hope for a homeland that is being scrubbed away.

These three persistent myths, all of which were presented on Q&A, ignore the basic motivations of the conflict’s participants: Palestinians seek to overthrow Israel’s 44-year military occupation, whilst Israel aims to maintain it. The media’s failure to highlight this simple fact is clearly to Israel’s favour and the Palestinians detriment, as Israel has far more to gain from continuing the conflict and the Palestinians from ending it.

Written by Ruby

August 30, 2011 at 4:28 am

Egypt: Toppling Stereotypes and Dictators

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A lot can happen in a month. When Egypt saw in the New Year with a suicide bomb attack that killed 24 Coptic Christians at a midnight mass, the symbolism was as clear as it was ominous. This is only the beginning.

For those of us who hail from the Muslim Middle East, whether we are religious or not, the escalating violence and intolerance that culminated in that attack, were a source of shame and grief.

With every death, the line between moderate and radical seemed to blur. How much longer could we implore not to be judged by the most extreme amongst us, when it appeared the extremists were leaving the moderate voices drowning in a sea of intimidation and fear?

For decades, Arabs have been offered a false choice: secular despotism or radical Islamism. For those of us who believed the Middle East deserved better, the future was looking bleak indeed. The circle seemed never-ending: the dictators held onto power by invoking the radicals causing the oppressed population to seek solace in religious-based organisations as the only organised opposition. The increasing persecution of Christian minorities and growing influence of fundamentalists were signalling an unstoppable march towards Islamism.

But that was before the death of Mohammed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian graduate who set himself on fire in a desperate protest against the authoritarian regime that made his life impossible.

If only he could have known what his death has done for the Arab world, both in the Middle East and those of us in the Diaspora. His act of desperation set off an unprecedented wave of protests across the region that finally put to rest the stereotype of the lazy, passive Arab. For decades, Arabs have been told they needed a ‘strong man’ in power to fight off the radical waiting in the wings.

Iran was the bogeyman, the warning of what would happen if the secular dictators lost their grip on power. Treating their citizens as if they neither longer for, nor deserved democracy, these strongmen have had the support of the West who, despite their professed love for freedom, decided that a ‘stable’ Middle East was preferable to a free one.

But the Middle East was never stable so much as stagnant, and such stagnancy can never last. In 18 days, the people of Egypt, led by the web-savvy youth have not only toppled the strongest dictator in the region, they have toppled stereotypes about Arabs themselves.

Hungry for freedom and yearning for a representative government they have changed the face of the Middle East forever.

 

Written by Ruby

February 14, 2011 at 12:11 am

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