“What does freedom mean if we accept the fundamental premise that humans are social beings, raised in certain social and historical contexts and belonging to particular communities that shape their desires and understandings of the world?”
— Lila Abu Lughod, Do Muslim Women Need Saving?
The complicated relationship between feminism and anthropology is eloquently described by Marilyn Strathern as an “awkward relationship”, in which she states that “insofar as the feminist debate is necessarily a politicized one … to present an ethnographic account as authentic cannot avoid being judged for the position it occupies in this particular debate” (Mahmood 223). While anthropological research focuses on observations of behaviors and experiences that are evaluated through the lens of the subject, feminism urges a politicization of women’s struggles across the globe.
As a result, anthropology conducts a holistic analysis of societies, focusing on the various components which form their positions from within the community. The inability for the two disciplines to coincide is therefore a result of the disconnect between feminism’s generalization of what liberties and freedoms symbolize, versus the ethnographic approach that focuses primarily on narratives from within.
In her work, Lila Abu-Lughod follows the trajectory of feminist organizations and activist projects throughout the Western world that aim to save Muslim women. What she suggests, is that Western responses to phenomena in distant lands are understood through a widely simplified lens in which the consideration of underlying factors is often neglected. “These contexts are shaped by global politics, international capital, and modern state institutions, with their changing impacts on family and community,” she says (202).
By using examples of ethnographic projects and comparing them to the discourse produced by the educational elite of Egypt, this paper aims to highlight the gaps in native feminist discourse. It will assess the role of the Muslim woman in the Arab world — a position that has been discussed thoroughly in Western scholarship and given increased attention throughout the years. Through an evaluation of the work by Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy, it will point toward the missing concepts and elements that frame her arguments, illuminating the consequences that this one-sided approach entails for the larger representation.
Eltahawy writes about women’s issues in the Middle East using a sensational style that is robust in its nature. As an Egyptian woman, she positions herself as an inner voice, and her work is, therefore, a result of her lived experiences. Her feminist agenda focuses on her struggles as the premise of her arguments against the misogyny and patriarchy that she proposes is omnipresent throughout the region. What does it mean to be an Egyptian feminist? Is this an all-encompassing term that speaks to all of women’s struggles equally? This entitlement exaggerates the preconceived Western stereotypes of women’s oppression in the Arab world, which has intensified in a post-September 11th milieu.
Cultural relativism is defined as a “methodological position that explains the practices and ideas of other cultures within the terms of their own cosmologies, without necessarily sanctioning them” (Howson 5). Eltahawy’s work opposes this methodology by deeming her personal cultivation as prominent over the experiences of other women. She states in her work that cultural relativism is “as much [her] enemy as the oppression [she] fights within [her] culture and faith” (Eltahawy 25). This is because the application of relativity in gendered discourse counters the existence of a utopian feminist framework that centralizes the social, political, and economic equality between genders.
Accordingly, it insinuates that these desires are not ubiquitously craved, since these categories tend to mean vaguely different things for different people. As a result, generalizations cause damage toward the outliers, who are the women within those spaces existing on the margins of the feminist project.
This research will investigate the major arguments in Eltahawy’s book, Headscarves and Hymens, while deciphering her feminist thesis against the role of culture and religion in the Middle East. It will elucidate the importance of the power that is in her positionality, and assess the missing pieces in her feminist manifesto that leave the masses out of her rationale. What integral factors has Eltahawy left out in her work? Why is this problematic for her scholarship? What structures does she represent at large? What are her main arguments? The privilege in her writing is an essential component to consider before analyzing her work.
POSITIONALITY AND PRIVILEGE
Born in Port Said, Egypt, Mona Eltahawy moved to the United Kingdom at the young age of fifteen years old. Her parents were Egyptian PhDs in medicine and soon shifted their work to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, which is the critical point in which her life took a drastic turn. As a result of the sexual harassment she faced and her inability to conform to Saudi society, she states that she “was traumatized into feminism–because to be a female in Saudi Arabia is to be the walking embodiment of sin” (Eltahawy 8). She stresses the dependency on her father that she and her mother were subject to due to the strict rules against women’s participation in society. Since he was their mahram (close male relative), they relied on him for even the most minuscule tasks, which forced a dependency that was foreign to her mother who was previously the breadwinner of the family in the United Kingdom. These strong restrictions for women who reside in Saudi Arabia are not unique toward Eltahawy, yet the representation of these experiences in scholarship and media are limited.
This is because the ability to express resentment toward the system in Saudi Arabia entails an accelerated level of privilege and power — one which Eltahawy immerses in deeply through her journalism. Most women who reside within these boundaries fear ostracization and violence if they are to raise their voices. This is not to suggest that the injustices that she was subject to were minor or negligible, but rather, highlights that her ability to explicitly share her views about a hegemonic monarchy and publish them requires an advantage — one that is not shared among the women that she speaks for. This accessibility is a result of her migration to the West in which she received a form of asylum for her views and gained a curious audience that would listen to her unleash her anger toward this foreign land.
In 2000, Eltahawy moved to the United States to continue her career in journalism after a ten-year period of working for media outlets in the Middle East. It is at this point in time where her personal narrative began as she shifted from writing objectively to publishing opinion pieces. As she stated in a lecture at Columbia University, “the ‘I’ in my writing became important because I am Muslim and Egyptian”.
The emphasis on a personal narrative that Eltahawy takes pride in is superior in that it serves to replace previous discourse produced from the outside. This personal trajectory causes harm to the widespread interpretation of what and who the Muslim woman is.
The strength in this portrayal is an exceptional story from within, in which a woman relays the injustices that she faced in the world, as opposed to the outsider view that merely observes. It receives a response of empathy for these oppressed women from the Western audience that was also moved by Laura Bush’s plight to save Afghan women from the Taliban after the September 11th terrorist attack. The similarity between Bush and Eltahawy is remarkable, in that they both suggest through their monologues that what is inherently wrong with the Muslim world is their men.
As a result of her fieldwork in Egypt which recorded the experiences of religious women, Saba Mahmood proposes a critique of native voices like Eltahawy’s, in which she states that “the popularity and ideological force of … the Muslim woman author to embody the double figure of insider and victim [is a] key subject within Orientalist understandings of women in Muslim societies” (Mahmood 84). Reading about the gendered constraints in the Middle East from one Egyptian woman solidifies the orientalist assumption that all Arab women are subject to these realities. It further entails that those who exist within the context of religion and culture that Eltahawy contests take a subordinate position.
This is not to propose that women who live under dire constraints and are subject to misogynist realities have invalid sentiments. Instead, this view simplifies and illustrates a one-sided image that assumes that only bad things happen to women in this part of the world, as years of colonial scholarship suggest. Mahmood argues that “in order for us to be able to judge, in a morally and politically informed way, even those practices we consider objectionable, it is important to take into consideration the desires, motivations, commitments, and aspirations of the people to whom these practices are important” (225).
The emphasis on a personal narrative that Eltahawy takes pride in is superior in that it serves to replace previous discourse produced from the outside. This personal trajectory causes harm to the widespread interpretation of what and who the Muslim woman is by assuming that this identity has one face. In addition to delving into the position that Eltahawy takes, it is integral to contextualize the transition of the Muslim woman in Egypt throughout time.
WOMEN IN RELIGIOUS MOVEMENTS: EGYPT
Religion in Egypt was formalized in the politics of the Arab world as a result of the Israeli war of 1967. Leila Ahmed states that “the defeat profoundly shook people’s confidence in the government, and they began to see its promises as false and its ‘secular’ ideologies as empty. For answers, people now turned to Islam and to religion” (66).
The shift toward religion in the 70s, therefore, emerged out of a response to a political defeat and was invoked by the public. The binary of the private versus the public in which the former represents an inferior space where women and religion rest and the latter is the high-functioning domain of society where men reside, as Sherine Hafez states, is a “liberal modernist principle of thought that normalizes the strict separation of religion from the public stage of the political sphere” (Hafez 28).
Anwar Sadat, the president of Egypt in the 1970s, sought an alignment with the United States which entailed releasing the Muslim Brotherhood members from prison and inviting those in exile back to the country. Ahmed points toward the neutral relationship between the United States and the Brotherhood: “When the Saudi based league had begun funding Islamist groups in the 1960s in Egypt, the U.S. had viewed that development approvingly” (69).
The way in which women have participated in religious arenas throughout Egyptian history suggests an account of empowerment that is disregarded in Eltahawy’s work. In the late seventies, the American anthropologist Fadwa El Guindi conducted a new development within Islamic organizations in Egypt, in which women became critical agents of these movements.
Her observations portrayed that while the ideal Muslim woman in the Brotherhood was homebound, she used her knowledge to enlighten other women in ‘public’ spaces. “The Sisters’ hierarchy paralleled that of the Brothers, and a sister leader could even serve as a vital link to university authorities or in relation to the Brothers’ hierarchy” (Ahmed 80). The domestication of these women in this context is not a sign of weakness. Instead, their ability to persist side-by-side with their male counterparts expresses a strength within their ambition that is driven by religion.
In the context of the Muslim Sisters, their involvement and beliefs gave them the opportunity to educate other women about Islam, which consequently emphasized social equality and justice across classes within their spaces. They were not confined to the home, but instead, chose to reside in these territories as a result of their faith. To assume that the Sisters in El Guindi’s research were trapped in their ‘private’ spheres where nothing important occurred neglects their influence and agency in society, specifically among other women. The private is an area of operational developments which serve as the backbones of the community at large. This point of view limits the understanding of women whose desires do not adhere to the liberal notions of freedom, justice, and change.
The interlocking of culture and religion in Eltahawy’s work suggests that “[these] women constantly sublimate themselves in religion, even as this faith is used against them by clerics and a male-dominated society” (6). This implies that women who willingly associate with religion and thrive in culture have internalized misogyny. The version of religion that Eltahawy points toward is produced out of a male-oriented interpretation that only represents one dimension. As a result, in the Arab world, the role of religion in society is a mix of cultural normalities and constructed interpretations of the way in which it benefits society as a whole. Accordingly, religion functions separately in each circumstance.
As El-Guindi points toward, participating in religious practice is the way in which these women express their agency. This mobility entails that they serve as the upper echelons of the Islamic movement. Existing alongside the men of the Muslim Brotherhood asserts that the positions that women take in these spiritual realms offer other elements than simply assimilation into a patriarchal society. Instead, these women are able to mobilize their influence into these spaces — which eventually leads to a reinterpretation of preexisting categories of gender roles. Eltahawy’s book further offers an angled perception of what constitutes as oppressed or liberated in the Arab world.
HEADSCARVES AND HYMENS: A DISTORTED VIEW
For a Muslim woman to grow up in conflict with identity crises and a questioning of the role of religion in her life is no anomaly. Eltahawy’s journalism surfaced out of anger toward a society that she disassociated her views with. This motivated her piece, “Why Do They Hate Us?” which was published in the Foreign Policy outlet for a Western audience. This article eventually became the first chapter in her book Headscarves and Hymens, which maintains her arguments against misogyny, patriarchy, culture, and religion. The title of this piece illustrates a controversial image in the reader’s mind, pointing toward two important symbols of femininity in the Muslim world.
In this book, Eltahawy attends to the curiosity among readers in the West who are detached from this foreign region where abnormal things occur. Interestingly, the opening dedication of her book addresses a different crowd, which states: “To the girls of the Middle East and North Africa: be immodest, rebel, disobey, and know you deserve to be free.” This statement serves as the structure behind what follows in her text — a specific brand of liberation that is defined through her outlook.
Major support for her work is positioned within the statistics and stories she shares of women who were subject to atrocious experiences within the region. These women, as she suggests, justify why “they” (Arab men) hate “us” (Arab women). For example, the first page of the book narrates the life of the Egyptian writer Alifa Rifaat, who wrote in the late 1900s about controversial topics such as female sexuality and relationships. The premise of Eltahawy’s argument can be summarized in the following statement that she expresses: “We Arab women live in a culture that is fundamentally hostile to us, enforced by men’s contempt. We have no freedoms because they hate us, as Rifaat powerfully says” (6).
The blending of Arab women’s identities in this statement is the true hostility toward the broader population of women in the Arab world. To assume that all Arab cultures parallel one another is an ethnocentric view that aims to simplify what is instead a complex dynamic. Within one Arab city, women’s positions in society differ. The indicators of this reality include socioeconomic disparities between different women, in which the elites are not subject to the same difficulties that the poor are. By stating that all Arab women do not have freedom misconstrues the upper hand that privileged women have over women who reside in lesser conditions.
Anne Meneley conducted fieldwork in an elite society of Zabid, Yemen, in which she observed the differences between the conditions of two factions of the Zabidi society. Throughout her work, she applies an economic lens in evaluating the diversity of women’s lives as a result of their social statuses. What she indicates is that elite women are among the ‘able’ population who have the liberty to focus on social issues and build relationships within their community, whereas “poor women in nuclear families have very little opportunity to maintain wide-ranging social connections because unless their husbands agree to come home in the evenings, they have no one to watch their children” (46).
There is a dramatic difference between these women just within Zabid based on their accessibility or the lack thereof, yet Eltahawy’s work implies that the entire population of women in this region exists under one strain of oppression. Most importantly, she neglects the integral economic dimensions that shape their conditions by focusing on men’s hatred against women as the root cause behind the discomforts in their existence.
The objective of this analysis is to evaluate Eltahawy’s work through a comparative lens toward ethnographies that offer encompassing perspectives. It is important to point out that Eltahawy is not an anthropologist; she is a journalist who writes opinion pieces about what she has faced. This field entails the production of work that a given audience will likely pick up and read. The implicit risk in the narrative that Eltahawy holds is the judgement toward all experiences as a result of her own. She questions whether her feminism would have emerged if she had remained in the United Kingdom instead of moving to Jeddah, which describes how circumstances invoked her feminism, as they do for most freedom fighters.
The influential agents in Eltahawy’s work include eminent Arab scholars such as Fatima Mernissi, Qasim Amin, and Huda Sharawi — all of which have shaped her perceptions on the veil, freedom, and oppression. While it is unclear what specific books and movements invoked feminism in her life during her time in Jeddah, she mentions Huda Sharawi as an important influence on her feminist agenda. The connection between Eltahawy and Sharawi’s positionalities is worth examining, as they both represent a similar narrative against the women of the Egyptian society.
THE WOMEN FROM WITHIN
Melville Currel’s 1974 study examines the rise of women in power within political contexts, in which she emphasizes that kinship advantages and the background of women in these spaces are two revealing factors in understanding their positions. Between 1908 and 1923, Sharawi founded and participated in numerous women’s organizations, fighting for issues such as women’s suffrage and equal education opportunities (Ahmed). Eltahawy highlights Sharawi’s famous act of removing her veil in a Cairo train station upon returning from the International Woman Suffrage Alliance Congress in Rome in her book.
The connection between the two women and their agendas expand beyond their sentiments toward the Islamic veil. Most pioneers require a certain level of privilege that enables success in their initiatives. Like Eltahawy, Sharawi’s background entailed accessibility to a foreign education which sharpened her agenda and views from the outside. Had Sharawi belonged to a lower-class family in a rural setting, her access to the necessary materials to enact this monumental removal of the veil would have been highly unlikely. It is her ableness that allowed these advancements in her political agenda to occur.
Like Eltahawy, Sharawi shared a similar passion for speaking for all Arab women. In the preface of her book Women Between Submission and Freedom, she states:
“I consider myself a messenger for women, carrying their message, whether from the East or West, to define the true meaning of being a woman. This definition is a culmination of stories and experiences from different perceptions and angles of life, and I hope that they can make all women proud of their womanhood” (Sharawi).
This self-proclamation of being a “messenger for women” poses an aura of elitism in Sharawis work, which is mirrored through the tone throughout Headscarves and Hymens. Packed within the notion of an “Egyptian woman” is a ubiquitous claim of the way in which gender functions in all contexts. Throughout Egyptian history, not only have women shared different experiences between classes, but the upper-class women’s resonation with some of these struggles was a foreign concept to the poor.
Homa Hoodfar’s fieldwork on a community in Egypt evaluated the important indications of a household’s social standing. Her findings concluded that women in this specific society deemed the general characteristics of a household’s accommodations as superior, rather than obtaining an education. “To acquire one’s home, however humble, was the most important aspiration of all households, and those who owned their residence had a feeling of achievement” (Hoodfar 38). The context in which Hoodfar’s research was produced was a poor neighborhood that consisted of three households.
This observation expresses an alternate view of understanding how opportunity functions within a society. Hoodfar’s work within this low-income community suggests that it is more economical for women to stay at home than for them to go out and work. Most importantly, this ethnography illuminates how the maintenance of social ties is a type of labor that is time-consuming in and of itself.
This example illustrates the importance of what liberal-secularist theories would define as “private” sectors of societies. As Leela Fernandes states in her book on transnational feminism in the United States, “feminist efforts to invoke global or transnational perspectives are continually challenged by the nation-centered narratives and visions of the world” (2). Applying a transnational feminist approach to Hoodfar’s community would entail certain definitions of progression that may not necessarily align with the conditions of the given society. The rationale that Eltahawy maintains throughout her work diminishes the voices of the women within Jeddah, Cairo, and the Arab world at large to satisfy a Western audience.
THE RECIPIENTS: WESTERN AUDIENCES
Eltahawy’s anger is justified only to the extent that it does not generalize experiences for all women. Stories of sexual assault experienced by real women stark pain and anger, and often times the only way to alleviate this grief and regain one’s power is to write — specifically in Mona’s case as a journalist who writes opinion pieces. However, the audience of her work is not the Muslim Brotherhood, nor is it most Egyptian women; it is instead a Western community of people who will not apply the tools of differentiating an elite versus non-elite experience while reading her work.
Throughout the book, she argues against a post-September 11th conception of Muslims, yet writes to the same entities that illustrated a misogynist culture that Muslim women are suffering from through this depiction. If change is to be generated, it must be geared toward the appropriate crowds. In her book, she addresses these issues in which she states:
“When I write or give lectures about gender inequality in the Middle East and North Africa, I understand I am walking into a minefield. On one side stands a bigoted and racist western right wing that is all too eager to hear critiques of the region and of Islam that it can use against us. I would like to remind these conservatives that no country is free of misogyny and that their efforts to reverse hard-earned reproductive rights make them brothers-in-hatred to our Islamists” (24).
The acknowledgment of the existence of global misogyny goes a long way when engaging with a Western public. It forces the audience to think about their own contexts and reflect on whether or not these distant lands of oppression are as removed from their realities as they may seem. However, a book dedicated to Muslim women’s headscarves and their hymens unavoidably shines a light on the issues that occur “over there.”
The purpose of journalism is to provide readers with information that would benefit their own understandings of the world. Eltahawy’s work speaks to the Western audience in a reassuring tone as she states that yes, they do indeed hate us, and our society is undeniably the result of a culture and religion that explicitly strips women of all of their rights and freedoms. Consequently, a foreign reader who is unfamiliar with the ethnographic work that offers a different perspective from Eltahawy’s thesis is bound to this arbitrary perception of Arab women in the Muslim world.
The Polish sociologist Ludwig Glumpowicz used the concept of ‘ethnocentrismus’, or ethnocentrism for the first time in print in 1883, in which he stated: “So far most writing of history is dominated by limited ethnocentric viewpoints. … One can comfortably say that the largest part of historical writing so far actually has only sprung from this subjective need of human beings to glorify their own and nearest and at the same time humiliate and sully what is foreign and distant” (Bizumic 2).
Respectable women like Mona Eltahawy and Huda Sharawi maintain this limited view of society from their own lens, in which they attempt to speak for all women in their region. What this paper suggests is a reconceptualization of this credibility through the centralization of ethnographic fieldwork that reflects on contrasting realities. Despite being from within these communities, their privileges have subjected them to form a lens that overlooks the majority of women’s experiences. In other words, there is an ethnocentric attitude toward their own communities.
There is a critical need for an anthropological framework to be applied to public feminist scholarship. Transnational lenses attempt to view the world from within the cultural context, yet lack the ability to delve even further to understand the differences that exist inside individual communities. Within one city in the Middle East, experiences differ based on numerous factors, some of which have been evaluated by Hoodfar and Meneley as the consequences of economic disparities. The field of journalism cannot prevail when a snapshot image is portrayed to the public about women’s experiences in a distant world while dimming the details that compose these realities, to begin with.
In Headscarves and Hymens, Mona Eltahawy proposes that to be a feminist in the Western world and also belong to a Muslim background entails a certain degree of sacrifice toward one’s religion. This is because Islam encourages discriminatory actions against women, and it has influenced the Middle Eastern culture to promote misogyny. Eltahawy’s work serves the purpose to describe her own experiences, definitions, and outlooks on Arab women’s lives in the Middle East. As a result, any voices that counter these views from within the region are discredited.
However, Islam in the Middle East extends beyond a theological discipline — it is a hegemonic component that has previously shaped and is consistently reshaping society through its fluidity. The stories of women who are subject to violence like Eltahawy and those mentioned in Headscarves and Hymens are vital in understanding the effects that these constructs have on real people, as long as they include those voices that are silenced as well.
The answer, then, to Eltahawy’s question of why “they” hate “us” is invalidated by the scholarship that offers a holistic view of these communities, stressing that in a society where economic disparities and differences in opinion exist, there is no “us” in the context of women in the Middle East.
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