Mona Eltahawy Explains Why Women Are Hated In The Middle East

Apr 23, 2012
Originally published on April 24, 2012 9:58 am

We don't usually point out opinion pieces on this blog. But Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian-born and U.S.-based journalist, is making a statement worth noting. She wrote a cover essay titled "Why Do They Hate Us?" for this month's Foreign Policy.

At its core, the essay is an indictment of the misogynist culture of the Middle East. Eltahawy throws out a lot of stunning facts — 90 percent of ever-married women in Egypt have had their genitals cut, for example — and doesn't pull punches: She's equally critical of the Gadhafi regime in Libya and the Muslim Brotherhood, the political party that encouraged the revolution in Egypt but holds the view that a woman can't be president.

We encourage you to click over to the piece; it's worth a read, yet it doesn't quite answer the central question posed in the headline.

Eltahawy talked with Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep about her essay, and she addressed the question at the center of her piece. He asked her plainly why she thinks Muslim religious conservatives obsess over women in this way.

Eltahawy said women are "vectors" of culture and religion.

"Our wombs are the future," Eltahawy said. "And if you don't control the future by controlling women's bodies, you've lost control generally."

Much more of Steve and Eltahawy's conversation will be on Tuesday's Morning Edition. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show. Later in the day, we'll also add audio of the as-aired interview to this post.

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The writer Mona Eltahawy paid a price for covering the Arab Spring. During demonstrations in Egypt, the Egyptian-American was seized by security forces who sexually assaulted her and broke both of her arms. She is still writing what she regards as uncomfortable truths, including facts about the condition of women in Arab countries. And in Foreign Policy magazine she has written an article called "Why Do They Hate Us?" It's a familiar question to which she has applied a new meaning.

Who are they and who are us when you say why do they hate us?

MONA ELTAHAWY: Absolutely. I'm turning upside down that cliche question that we would often hear in the U.S. when the they were, you know, Muslims, and us were freedom-loving Americans. And in my essay I turn them upside down and make the they basically misogynists and patriarchs in the Middle East, and the us being women.

And the point that I'm making is, unlike after 9/11, when we would hear they hate us because of our freedoms, the point of my essay is that we have no freedom because they hate us.

INSKEEP: What do you mean no freedom?

ELTAHAWY: When you look at the situation of women in the Middle East and North Africa, I mean almost every single index is incredibly miserable, whether it's literacy rates in the countries that are less advantaged or less affluent, or even in the countries that are incredibly wealthy like in the Gulf. If you look at their legal rights, if you look at their social rights, it's incredibly miserable.

So when you look at everything - social, cultural, sexual, legal, educational - women score incredibly low when it comes to the Arab world.

INSKEEP: You also quote a disturbing statistic from Egypt - in fact, a statistic that was so bad we doubted it and went and checked and found that it seems to be correct. According to Egyptian government studies, more than 90 percent of women in Egypt who have ever been married - that's who they studied - had gone through female genital mutilation.

ELTAHAWY: Yeah. This is something that personally disturbs me on many levels, because my own mother and five of her six sister underwent this. And Egyptians are in complete denial when it comes to FGM. And I get into these long discussions with people where they just don't want to accept that it's more than 90 percent, and as you said, you had to go check it because you think this is Egypt, how could this be happening in Egypt?

Unless we start talking about this stuff and making people feel really uncomfortable in saying it's 90 percent, face it, we're never going to be able to fight it. And so it's one of these things that I've become obsessed with. But I'm hoping that in the telling it again and again, it shocks enough people beyond the denial.

INSKEEP: Did your relatives who have gone through that, are they as upset about it as you are?

ELTAHAWY: Yes. I mean, one of my aunts, and I think this is - she's the reason that my grandparents stopped this practice in our family - one of my aunts almost bled to death at the age of seven from this practice. And the aunt right after her who would have undergone it had this not happened, is only four years older than me. So I often say that I'm the first generation basically in my family that did not go through this.

And, you know, when people think of FGM, unfortunately there's this terrible stereotype that it's, you know, these tribal people who wear beads and shiny things because we like to push them away and make them very foreign and alien. And so I tell this story of my mother and her sisters because I want to normalize it. I want to humanize it. But I also want to shock people into the awareness that it happens in Cairo. It happens to people like me.

INSKEEP: You must run into people who say, well, you know, this is just tradition, this is culture. It's a different region. It's a different religion and you're just trying to impose your outside values on us.

ELTAHAWY: Yeah, I get that all the time, of course. Sometimes I'll be speaking about this, and someone who's not from the region, who's not of that culture or religious background, to protect the region from, you know, Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism and discrimination, they'll just try to shut anyone who speaks out down.

And the point of my essay is that if this is not the time to speak, when is the time to speak? We're going through a revolution. This is the time to shake everything.

INSKEEP: How do you answer that argument that you're just trying to impose Western values?

ELTAHAWY: I don't think that rights or living a dignified human life are Western. Arabs have shown that we are no different from anybone else. We want to be free. We want to lead dignified lives. And so I'm using that same argument now when it comes to women's rights, because now I'm making the point that women in that part of the world deserve rights as human beings, and these are not rights that are exclusive to the Western world or any other world.

INSKEEP: You also said that people don't want to hear this argument, the concern for woman, because they're afraid of feeding Islamophobia. What do you mean by that?

ELTAHAWY: Because there are stereotypes of Muslim men as being these savage barbarian beings who just love to beat their wives. And so when a Muslim woman, or a Muslim man, for that matter, speaks out and says there are things - there are many things that are wrong in Islamic communities, people out of concern for these discriminatory attacks that try to paint all Muslims as these barbaric savage people, well, if they know(ph), they'll stop saying that because you're fueling the right wing. Because there is a political right wing out there that is Islamophobic. And so one of the points I tried to make is that I am fighting both the right wing that is without - the political right wing - but also fighting a right wing within - within the Muslim community. And for me that Muslim right wing is the Muslim Brotherhood, who control almost 50 percent of the Egyptian parliament.

And they have been more concerned with things like taking away women's rights to initiate divorce. A female parliamentarian from the Muslim Brotherhood actually said that FGM, female genital mutilation, is a form of beautification, like plastic surgery. And so they obsess over women and they obsess over our bodies and our vaginas. And so that's my right wing inside.

So I put myself firmly between those two right wings and I will not be silenced just because what I say might feed into the discrimination. Because if I don't speak out, then the Muslim right wing, the right wing within, will continue to silence us and will continue to abuse our rights.

INSKEEP: What do you think prompts religious conservatives, Muslim religious conservatives, to obsess over women in this way?

ELTAHAWY: I think because women are the vectors - they're considered the vectors of religion and culture; our wombs are the future. And if you don't control that future by controlling women's bodies, you've lost control generally. So sex and women are - by controlling those, you basically control your culture, you control your religious well-being, and you control your future.

INSKEEP: Are there cultural problems here that you think put this problem beyond the ability of any given government to make a lot better or a lot worse?

ELTAHAWY: I think it's religion and culture, which makes it even harder to really get - have an honest conversation about this. So it's the way that the particular cultures of that part of the world marry into Islam and interpret the religion in their way. So you look at Saudi Arabia, for example, which has married its culture with Islam in a very different way than Egypt has. There are problems for women in both countries, but hands down in Saudi Arabia it's much worse.

So I think there are levels of difficulties and there are levels of challenges that will take a long time to unwind. But I think we've definitely started it, because by watching what's happening in the countries in the region, even women and men in Saudi Arabia are becoming revolutionary. And I'm convinced it's the women in Saudi Arabia who will launch their country's revolution because they have nothing to lose.

INSKEEP: Mona Eltahawy is the author of "Why Do They Hate Us?" - an article in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine. Thanks very much.

ELTAHAWY: Thanks for having me.


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