Getting it right on Syria and the Arab revolutions

Excellent article in The Socialist Worker – affiliated to the trotskyite SWP – on Syria:

The past few days may have seen the balance of forces tilt decisively against Bashar al-Assad and his regime. Paradoxically, a significant section of the Western left seems to have tilted as decisively in their favour.

Take, for example, a widely circulated interview with Tariq Ali, where he claims that the struggle in Syria is part of “a new process of recolonisation”. Although I have great respect and affection for Tariq, I think this is nonsense. (…)

Those in the Western left who allow a reflexive and unthinking “anti-imperialism” to set them against the Syrian revolution are simply confessing their own bankruptcy.

I agree wholeheartedly. Not only are many on the left (not only there though) unable to think through the Arab Spring and its spinoffs in reality-based terms, but they are hostage to old ways of thinking, notably as to the role of Western powers. If there is something that has to be completely dismissed in today’s Arab world, it is the ability of Western powers to shape an Arab country’s politics according to their wishes. While Arab countries do not live in a bubble and are of course amenable to foreign influence, no longer will foreign – read Western – powers be able to dictate the terms of leadership struggles or even foreing policy (Libya is an odd case here). They can weigh in, but their influence is limited as compared to the weight of public opinion and the political forces present in the institutions of the state.

What influence did any Western power have over the Tunisian revolution, or even the Egyptian one? The height of US influence the last year was its ability to get its NGO workers out of Egypt, but that’s hardly a decisive influence on an issue of substance in Egyptian politics. The issue of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel is probably the one issue on which the US government has been able to exert influence, but it is also arguably an issue that Egyptians themselves would solve through some sort of statu quo – no Egyptian I know has any aptite for a military stand-off with Israel to start with, although many want the peace treaty to remain just that, and cease to be the fealty oath it turned into under the Mubarak years.

Take the case of Iraq: sure, the US was able to invade and occupy that country, smash its political structure, entrench sectarianism and kill and maim well over one hundred thousand Iraqi civilians – but the end result is a government they do not control – if any foreign country wields decisive influence over Iraq it is Iran – and which basically kicked US troops out of the country. Bombing and killing the USA may continue to do in Iraq in the future, but they are not able of directing its politics the way they once dreamt of.

Tunisians and Egyptians gained their freedom by relying on their own strength and commitment, rejecting any foreign involvement. While quite some Syrian revolutionaries are now asking for foreign military intervention – understandably so in view of the massacres committed by régime forces – not all of them do so, and interest for such an option seems lukewarm outside of the armchair editorialist and liberal interventionism cottage industry. But what is undisputed is the massive lack of domestic legitimacy that Bashar el Assad’s régime has – you don’t need to have actually read Michel Seurat’s "L’Etat de barbarie" to recognise that.

Not any dictator opposed – although in the case of Syria that claim would be dubious, as he wasn’t actively opposed by any Western country since the end of the Bush presidency (France let go of its opposition once Syrian troops left Lebanon in 2005 and Hariri-funded Chirac left the presidency to Sarkozy) before he started slaughtering his own population – by Western powers is necessarily worthy of support. That was true in Serbia in the 90’s, Iraq from 1991 to 2003, and is still true in Syria today. Not everything that happens in Arab countries is the result of CIA memos, Mossad plots, Foreign Office instructions or Open Society grants, and if the State Department wants to see the back of Bashar, for all my hostility to the successive US governments’ foreign policy, I find it hard not to share that wish. And I remain adamantly opposed to any NATO intervention, in the Middle East or anywhere else for that matter – it is dubious whether this military alliance still has a raison d’être, but whatever is left only justifies defensive missions.

Mona El Tahawy or native neo-orientalism

It’s probably a particularly sterile waste of time, but here are a few lines on the polemical "Why do they hate us?" article written for Foreign Policy magazine by Egyptian-born US debater Mona El Tahawy. The cover chosen for that issue of Foreign Policy – a black niqab painted on a woman’s naked body – caused even more furore than the article, a disparity which probably makes to justice to the intellectual substance of El Tahawy’s article.

Let me cite the gist of her argument:

In a crisp three-and-a-half pages, Rifaat lays out a trifecta of sex, death, and religion, a bulldozer that crushes denial and defensiveness to get at the pulsating heart of misogyny in the Middle East. There is no sugarcoating it. They don’t hate us because of our freedoms, as the tired, post-9/11 American cliché had it. We have no freedoms because they hate us, as this Arab woman so powerfully says.

Yes: They hate us. It must be said. (…) 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. (…)

SO WHAT IS TO BE DONE?

First we stop pretending. Call out the hate for what it is. Resist cultural relativism and know that even in countries undergoing revolutions and uprisings, women will remain the cheapest bargaining chips. You — the outside world — will be told that it’s our "culture" and "religion" to do X, Y, or Z to women. Understand that whoever deemed it as such was never a woman. 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.

It’s of course not the need to dramatically improve the condition of women in the Arab world in order to achieve a long overdue parity  that is at fault – on the contrary, witness the recent statement by Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al Sheikh according to which girls are ripe for marriage at 12. It’s rather the tone and lexical and discursive resources which El Tahawy taps into: essentialism, reduction of social and political phenomena to simple psychological factors (fear, hate), and even more so the lumping together of all men into a vague and threatening "they" – the kind of manicheism she resented when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, but I suppose one has to distinguish between good manicheism and bad manicheism. That piece could have been written by David Pryce-Jones, Fouad Ajami or the staggeringly inane Lee Smith, a US journalist who wrote a 2010 book called "The strong horse" aiming to show that Arabs only understood and bowed to force and violence – unfortunately for him, 2011 came after 2010.

An American journalist writing exclusively for European, US and Israeli media outlets, Mona El Tahawy is not interested in helping Middle Eastern activists to bring about the legislative and social changes required, or to identify the practical ways this might be achieved. No easy clues here: there’s only hate to confront. How does one confront hate – by drone attacks, invasion or forced conversion? She does not say. More importantly still, Arab men and women are not really her main target – her piece is written in the tone of a native informer bringing the White (Wo)Man her exclusive insights about the twisted minds of her fellow natives. That article is more a career move, à la Irshad Manji or Ayaan Hirsi Ali (but without the latter’s islamophobia), than a sincere contribution to a fight for equality that is both morally necessary and socially unavoidable, as Youssef Courbage and Emmanuel Todd have shown.

As often with these polemical mainstream media pieces, the response to them has been both massive and impressive – even by Mona El Tahawy’s own standards – remember, she had the gall to write, during the 2009 war on Gaza, that she preferred "sitting on the fence" when asked about her reactions to Israel’s onslaught on Gaza’s Palestinian population (her reaction then? "Israel is the opium of the people"). The negative reaction against Mona El Tahawy has been massive – especially from those same Arab women on whose behalf El Tahawy writes. Here’s a short list – a full run-down is available here – but the following ones are those that caught my attention.

First, Us and Them: On Helpless Women and Orientalist Imagery by Roqayah Chamseddine. She correctly asks:

There are also unanswered questions:

1. Why not publish the article in Arabic, therein engaging with the intended audience more directly?
2. Why choose Foreign Policy as the platform and not a media outlet which would direct her piece at those she addresses?
3. Why is there so much orientalist imagery present? If she was not aware that these photographs would be used, did she take it up with Foreign Policy after realizing this?

Then Nahed El Tantawy’s "I don’t really think they hate us!":

And before I go any further, I realize of course that I will be accused by some (which already happened on the FP comments sections) that I am in denial and that I refuse to air my dirty linen in public. Well, I’m NOT in denial; I am well aware that Arab women have their fair share of problems. But I refuse to be lumped into this monolithic group of oppressed, abused and hated victims. Arab women’s problems are not the same across the board. Even within one country like Egypt, what I see as a problem, might not be the most pressing issue for the woman next door. So, I refuse to have Eltahawy talk on my behalf as if she is the expert who can accurately identify my plight.

Foreign Policy (FP), anticipating  the response to El Tahawy’s piece, published "Debating the war on women" (you have to admire this American tendency to transform all social problems – poverty,drugs, terrorism – into a war to be embarked upon) – Egyptian academic Leila Ahmed takes El Tahawy to task for misinterpreting the Alifa Rifaat novel that she cites in her article, and urges on FP to invite Egyptian activist Asma Mahfouz and Yemeni Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman to express their views on the the gender issue – it is indeed quite stunning that FP couldn’t get Tawakkol Karman’s to share her views. Female Muslim Brotherhood activist Sondos Asem’s critical views should also be mentioned.

Tom Dale wrote the following piece – "Hatred and misogyny in the Middle East, a response to Mona el Tahawy" – in Open Democracy:

Firstly, Mona identifies hatred – pure, transhistorical, misogynistic hatred – as the cause of women’s oppression in the Arab world. This hatred itself, el Tahawy explains in terms of men’s desire to control women’s sexuality. Even if this explanation wasn’t largely circular, which it arguably is, hatred is a woefully insufficient lens through which to understand the problem. Why is sexism stronger in some places and times than others? Why does it take specific forms? And aren’t there some things about women’s oppression which can’t be explained by hatred, even as there are things that can?

Secondly, because the article lacks a coherent explanation for the misogynistic practices it identifies, it also lacks the capacity to suggest effective solutions. Instead we get the slogan “call out the hate for what it is.” As if repeatedly pointing out the psychological form of the worst misogyny could bring down the walls of the patriarchal Jericho.

Thirdly, the article singles out ‘Arab societies’ for criticism. Whilst, relative to Sub-Saharan, Asian, or Latin American societies, Arab nations are disproportionately grouped at the bottom of the 2011 Global Gender Gap Report ↑ (based on a list of nations which is far from comprehensive, leaving out Afghanistan and Somalia for instance), this is no excuse for not building an analysis which integrates other offenders: half of the bottom six are not Arab. As an Arab woman herself, el Tahawy undoubtedly does not intend to essentialise Arab societies, but by treating the problems she describes as specifically Arab ones, and lacking in historical origins or non-Arab equivalents, she will unavoidably be perceived to have done so.

Dale has well-informed comments to make on Female Genital Mutilation, one of the main arguments in El Tahawy’s article:

Let’s take a look at one of the issues which el Tahawy identifies, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Egypt. The practice has its roots in Africa, and is not practiced in the Levant or Gulf, except in isolated pockets. It is not mandated by Islam, although it is widely believed ↑ to be. The re is strong evidence ↑ that local women’s economic and social empowerment is the best strategy for fighting FGM, and that denunciations on a national level are relatively ineffective. Better educated parents are less likely to endorse FGM, and women ↑ are typically the main organisers of FGM. So there it is. It isn’t ‘hate’, but a cocktail of economic factors, poor education, and social disempowerment against a particular – but not particularly Arab – background, which causes FGM. The women who take their daughters to the excisors do not hate their daughters, and telling them that they do is not going to change anything for the better.

Then we have Kuwaiti Beidoon activist Mona Kareem and her "‘Why Do They Hate Us?’ A Blogger’s Response":

Eltahawy argues against Arab claims that Jews or Israelis hate us, but she uses the same logic when she puts Arab men under an umbrella of a single emotion: hate.

What should be considered is that we live in patriarchal societies, and the foundations of Middle East-based monotheistic religious texts are established on this patriarchy. Eltahawy’s claim not only degrades Arab culture in general but also patronizes Arab men and women by making the whole struggle for gender equality a conflict between the two sexes based on personal emotions.

Another problem I have with the general speech of “Arab feminism” is the term in itself. I really dislike seeing more than 20 different cultures put under one roof. Eltahawy is not a Pan-Arabist, I am assuming, yet she falls for this very common oriental division imposed by the media and others. Anyone knows how radically divergent the “Arab World” is: the North-African Arab culture is a far different culture from that of the Arabian Gulf.

Her concluding remarks are a strong refutation of El Tahawy’s arguments:

Last point: I think that Eltahawy has had many chances to present her thoughts on women’s rights. If western publications, including Foreign Policy, are interested in focusing a spotlight on so-called “Arab feminism,” then similar chances should be given to other Arab women. A variety of media outlets have included the stories of different women from the Arab world after the uprising, yet they rarely give them chances to speak about their experiences and to express their opinions.
Women like Manal Al-Sharif, Rasha Azab and Samira Ibrahim are not less “feminist” than other prominent female figures in the world. The veiled Bahraini protester Zainab Alkhawaja, for example, can speak well of the women’s struggle as she protests alone in the street and gets arrested for the sake of her detained father. He is Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, the prominent Bahraini-Danish human rights activists who has been on a hunger strike in prison for 76 days. He, I am sure, does not hate her.

Moroccan blogger Samia Errazzouki is as dismissive in "Dear Mona Eltahawy, You Do Not Represent “Us”":

Foreign Policy’s decision to choose this photograph of a naked woman with a body-painted niqab embodies this problematic narrative in more ways than one:

  1. This inherent sexualization of the niqab through the pose and exposure of the female form 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.
  2. All of the women close to me who wear the niqab do so for different reasons. One friend only wears the niqab when she attends protests because she feels comfortable in it. Another friend has chosen to wear the niqab, against the will of her family since she was 14. The representation of the niqab as splattered body paint on a naked woman degrades the decision of women who wear the niqab as a choice.
  3. The feature of an Arab woman’s article on the front cover does not justify the editorial choice to use the image. Mona Eltahawy was notoriously owned during a debate over the niqab ban in France, where she took the position in favor of the ban. Her stance on the niqab is convenient to the narrative being perpetuated by the problematic image.

Zeinobia ("US , them and breaking the stereotype !!") invokes the Arab heroines of 2011 as witnesses for the prosecution:

I am fed up as Egyptian Arab Muslim African woman of that stereotype Westerners and orientalists put me in that I am being oppressed and needed to be saved as soon as possible by the Western values , you know the White man complex !! I am fed up of that stereotype at the time the Egyptian and Arab women like Samira Ibrahim , Zeinab El Khawja , Tawakel Karman, Bothiana Kamel , Noha El Zeiny made history for real in 2011 and 2012 !!?

The women who wear Niqab in Bahrain and Yemen made the dream of freedom possible , these are the same women insulted in the disgusting photos of FP.

Al Jazeera’s journalist Dima Khatib sided with El Tahawy’s critics ("Love, Not Hatred, Dear Mona !"):

I was attracted to the opening of your article. Your style is interesting and you do poke the issues, and our issues are one, Mona. There’s no doubt that the facts in your article are accurate, that the problems highlighted are real, and that the suffering you write of is experienced by Arab women, even if they are not always aware of it. My anger faded as I read, slowly…until I reached the section where you explain “The Arab men’s hatred toward women”. Hatred?

Let’s see. In our Arab society, does the son hate his mother? The brother his sister? The father his daughter? And the husband hates his wife, and the lover his beloved? And the male colleague hates his female colleague, and the male friend his female friend, and the male neighbor his female neighbor? I don’t think our culture teaches us to hate women. In fact, mothers are sacred, grandmothers are sacred, aunts are treasured, and so are female cousins.

Jadaliyya has a comprehensive critique of El Tahawy in "Let’s talk about sex":

We would suggest, as many have, that oppression is about men and women. The fate of women in the Arab world cannot be extracted from the fate of men in the Arab world, and vice versa. El Tahawy’s article conjures an elaborate battle of the sexes where men and women are on opposing teams, rather than understanding that together men and women must fight patriarchal systems in addition to exploitative practices of capitalism, authoritarianism, colonialism, liberalism, religion, and/or secularism. (…)

One would have to also critically and historically engage how women’s movements have been implicated in the policies and longevity of authoritarianism. After all, the two countries where women enjoyed the broadest scope of personal status law were Tunisia and Egypt, before the recent revolutions. Indeed, of all the countries of the Arab world, it was only in Tunisia and Egypt that a woman could pass her citizenship on to her children if she was married to a foreigner. (In Egypt there was a small qualification for women married to that other other, the Palestinian; post-revolutionary Egypt has, at least in law if not in practice, done away with this exception).

How can we account for these legal achievements under authoritarian regimes?

Not to forget Egyptian Palestine activist Sarah Hawas on Ikhras "Mona el Tahawy and the Transnational Fulul al Nidham":

In recent exchanges on Twitter, Mona el Tahawy refused to respond to myriad demands for a statement of her position on the Palestinian-led global BDS movement against Israel. She resorted, instead, to making pre-emptive defensive accusations of libel and defamation, name-calling, and multiple other condescending insinuations of superiority. She went as far as to play the authenticity card and question the relevance of a non-Egyptian, Lebanese activist – namely, @LeilZahra – who has been at the heart of the uprising throughout the seven months – by dismissing his input as “conformist” to “make up for the fact that he wasn’t Egyptian”. This kind of discourse dangerously echoes General Hassan al-Roueiny of the ruling SCAF and his denigration of Egyptian-Palestinian poet Tamim al Barghouthi’s criticism of Egyptian foreign policy, on account of Tamim’s having a “weird accent” and “features that are not very Egyptian”.

And lastly, the only ironic response to Mona el Tahawy – Colonial Feminist‘s "Dear Mona Eltahawy":

Mona, may you continue in your fight for media slots and nods of acceptance from mainstream media outlets, despite a slew of Arab women from all walks of life refuting your oversimplification of our plight. We pray that you continue to close your ears and eyes to logical rebuttals of your articles, as you pursue complete dominion over our voices, a pursuit done only out of the kindness of your own heart and on our behalf.

Thank you dearest Mona. We remain forever silently yours, awaiting your call for us to advance in the war against the barbaric men of the Middle East. We raise our chains in thanks and pray that one day we will meet in a free Middle East, where you will be hailed as our deliverer.

Some further reading, unrelated to Mone El Tahawy’s piece:

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