26 November 2012

Religion and Patriarchy (2): Problematizing the Connection

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Egyptian women protest against the army's use of violence against them in Cairo in 2011 after images of women who had been brutally beaten were circulated. Photograph: Mohamed Omar/EPA Egyptian women protest against the army's use of violence against them in Cairo in 2011 after images of women who had been brutally beaten were circulated. Photograph: Mohamed Omar/EPA http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/apr/27/after-arab-spring-sexual-revolution?newsfeed=true

In my first installment on this theme, I argued that there is a problematic relation between religion and the status of women. But as we looked at this nexus in Egypt and Israel in particular, plainly what’s involved is a traditionalist and textualist (taking texts literally and applying them to the letter) kind of religion, hard to distinguish from the preexisting patriarchal culture. Here I want to deconstruct – or problematize – that relationship even more in light of some post-Arab Spring debates.

Not surprising, many religious rules as seen from a secular perspective isolate, devalue, silence women, and even in some cases (like Qur'an 4:34 allowing a man to "gently" hit his wife as a last resort) can be seen to encourage violence against women. Many have noticed the upswing in patriarchal discourse and practice in the wake of the “Arab Spring.” Let me be clear, however, I am NOT saying that …


a) “Islam,” “Judaism” and “Christianity” necessarily correlate to patriarchal mentalities that oppress women – sacred texts are “alive,” they evolve, being reinterpreted all the time, with surprising results

b) male fear of the power of female sexuality is the main reason religious men seek to control women


The first point I will discuss on other occasions. Just this one remark: it is instructive to see how conservative Protestants in the US (evangelicals, and even self-declared “fundamentalists”) have evolved over the years on the issue of women. Though many still consider female pastors heresy, they have no trouble allowing their daughters to become doctors, lawyers, or maybe even politicians, if the occasion allowed. This is the same in practice in Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood circles (less so, of course in Salafi ones). The majority of Jews in the USA are either Conservative or Reformed. In either case they ordain female rabbis. This kind of mentality, naturally, makes for added tensions when they “make aliyah” (or emigrate) to Israel, which is controlled by the Orthodox, and heavily influenced by the Ultra-Orthodox in places like Jerusalem.

On the second point, even though in my first blog I quoted a western and a Muslim feminist who both believed fear was at the root of misogyny wrapped in religious clothing, I want to get beyond that opinion here. Gender relations in the Arab world – and in the world more widely – can be explained by a variety of factors, and in the end, as I hope to show, religion serves mostly to justify a cultural status quo. Yet religion can also be a tool for radical change, something I explore in the next installment.


Mona Eltahawy: lightning rod and catalyst

Mona Eltahawy is the award-winning Egyptian-American journalist who was beaten and sexually assaulted by the Egyptian “security forces” in November 2011. Both her arms were broken and had she not been a dual citizen, she would likely have been raped and spent several days in prison.

But Eltahawy also made headline news when she spray-painted a poster in the New York subway sponsored by Pamela Geller’s Islamophobic organization, American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), which read: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man” and “Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” The New York Post filmed the whole incident, which ended with Eltahawy’s arrest – an arrest, I would add, that lasted much longer than the one months earlier in Cairo (22 hours).

“I’m exercizing my right to free speech. This is a racist and bigotted poster,” she shouted to the AFDI woman trying to keep her from defacing the poster and then a few minutes later to the policemen arresting her.

Naturally, Pamela Geller writing in her Atlas Shrugs blog jumped all over what she called "the irony so thick on all levels." Here’s a secular Arab woman who was molested by the police in Egypt, who has complained multiple times about how Arab women’s rights are trampled, and who now wants to defend Arabs and Islam!


“Read on, Ms Geller,” I say. “The issues are a lot more complicated than you make them out to be. Because you believe ‘Islam is inherently violent’ and ‘oppresses women’ you make out all Arabs – and all Muslims, by implication – to be ‘savage and uncivilized’ and Israel as a beacon of enlightenment. Read what Eltahawy writes about Arab women and then see how her writing is sparking some revolutionary debates among both sexes there and elsewhere. She has a lot to teach you if you could only listen!”


Feisty she certainly is, but Mona Eltahawy is also bright, articulate, and with over ten years of journalistic experience in the Middle East. Her most provocative action was in fact an article which appeared in April 2012 for the “Sex Issue” of the journal Foreign Policy, “Why Do They Hate Us?” (subtitle: “The real war against women is in the Middle East”). In very passionate, angry and even strident tones, Eltahawy sounds very much like the secular feminists I quoted in the previous blog, Drexler and Boianjiu. For her, islamism – whether the traditional brand of Saudi Arabia, the puritanical Wahhabi-Salafi brand, or the reformist kind pushed by the Egyptian Brotherhood – will only aggravate the bile of “the pulsating heart of misogyny in the Middle East.” The cause, in one word, is “hatred”: men hate women.

Understandably, Eltahawy was still seething from here own beating and assault in Tahrir Square. But too, she had spent a few years in Saudi Arabia as a teenager – a life-changing experience, as she puts it:


“I turn again to Saudi Arabia, and not just because when I encountered the country at age 15 I was traumatized into feminism – there’s no other way to describe it -- but because the kingdom is unabashed in its worship of a misogynistic God and never suffers any consequences for it, thanks to its double-whammy advantage of having oil and being home to Islam’s two holiest places, Mecca and Medina.

“Then -- the 1980s and 1990s -- as now, clerics on Saudi TV were obsessed with women and their orifices, especially what came out of them. I’ll never forget hearing that if a baby boy urinated on you, you could go ahead and pray in the same clothes, yet if a baby girl peed on you, you had to change. What on Earth in the girl's urine made you impure? I wondered.”


Understandably, Eltahawy’s article caused a firestorm of debate in the region. Men and women reacted with equal passion to her linking of religion with hate as the common roots of female subjugation in their society. Still, few questioned her statement of the problem.


Reactions to Eltahawy – this is really complicated!

Most women responded by agreeing with many of the indignities forced upon them that Eltahawy cited, but disagreed with her diagnosis. Painting all men with the same brush stroke of hatred is wrong. What’s more, can male violence and oppression of women in many forms be reduced to one explanation, whether “hate,” “fear,” “cultural taboos falling away” or “misguided religion”?

I think not. For starters, have a look at the reaction of six other Egyptian women to Eltahawy’s piece. To be sure, her “religion + hate” is too simplistic an explanation and thereby plays into western stereotypes about Islam tyrannizing women. What’s more, you have to take into account the historical context, the political, economic and social factors that have kept women down as well. Sherene Seikaly and Maya Mikdashi offered deeper and more involved arguments about their disagreements with Eltahawy (“Let’s Talk About Sex”): “In her sloppy indictment of Arabs, Muslims, authoritarian rulers, and Islamists, El Tahawy has papered over some messy issues that complicate her underlying message: liberalism is the solution.” Whether it’s female genital mutilation, the Saudi ban on women drivers, child marriages in Saudi Arabia and in many rural areas from Afghanistan to Yemen, or the initiative for divorce still a strictly male prerogative in many places – surely hatred isn’t the issue for most men.

Take the case of female “circumcision,” Seikaly and Mikdashi propose:


“…the reality is that women are often those that insist on the practice because of ways that gender and political economy regimes together make it a necessary rite of womanhood. In fact, critical thinkers have long argued that this practice has more to do with the lack of economic opportunity for women, the imperative to marry, and the hardening and modernization of tradition in response to colonial and neocolonial interventions (including rights frameworks) than some irrational and razor crazed ‘hatred.’”


And what about the vastly different conditions obtaining from one country to the next, or the sociopolitical fallout of the Arab Spring? As the picture above indicates – and as media coverage of the demonstrations in the spring of 2011 clearly showed – women were out in the streets crying out for freedom and human dignity. This will no doubt continue to spill over in all kinds of areas. Too, as Seikaly and Mikdashi put it, this resurgence of female protest isn’t new, though its “liberal” predecessor in the 1920s never affected the masses:


“Critics have pointed to the long history of the Egyptian women’s movement and that formative moment in 1923 when Huda Sha‘rawi took off her face veil at the Ramses train station. This is a useful point to revisit, if only to reflect on why the liberalism that Sha‘rawi and her cohorts fought for—men and women—drastically and resoundingly failed. One reason, and there are many, was that liberalism resonated with only a small elite. As Hanan Kholoussy points out, women under domestic confinement who like Sha‘rawi were expected to don the face veil made up only two percent of Egypt’s five million females at the end of the nineteenth century.”


Another reason that these feminist movements across the Arab landscape never truly got off the ground in the 1980s and 1990s is that they were co-opted by the authoritarian regimes in place, thus deligitimizing them. That is precisely the problem in Palestine, as Hamas’ star has risen and the Palestinian Authority is waning – women’s rights are now on the back burner, though Palestinian women fare much better than many of their sisters in other places. Seikaly and Mikdashi quote a 1999 study by Rema Hammami and Eileen Kuttab on this point:


“Examples are myriad—eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union saw massive attacks on women’s rights issues after the fall of communist regimes because they came to be associated with other undemocratic and unpopular regime policies. Turkey, Algeria, Egypt are situations where you have small women’s movements whose popular legitimacy is lost because over time they have been seen as linked to or sponsored by authoritarian secular regimes” (“The Palestinian Women’s Movement: Strategies Towards Freedom and Democracy,” News From Within 15:4, April 1999, p. 3).


In my last section, I want to summarize some research paths that must be followed, if you are seriously intent on explaining both the poor treatment of women and the current bubbling up of protest and debate on this issue in the Middle East.


What you must include in your analysis

Max Fisher, a former writer and editor for The Atlantic and now a blogger on Foreign Affairs for The Washington Post, also wrote a piece in April 1012 on the brouhaha surrounding Eltahawy’s cover article. In my view, he falls prey to some of the media’s over-dramatic depiction of the issues, but he also puts forward an informed and balanced analysis of the causes. So to his question, “How did misogyny become so ingrained in the Arab world?” he offers the following answers, which I put in bullet form:


It’s not just “an Arab issue.” Though the Egyptian post-revolutionary legislature had only 2 percent of women, the Tunisian one had 27 percent – much higher than our US figures (17 percent). South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa have as bad or worse records in this area. In fact, just this week I ran across an article that chronicles the growing violence against women in Latin America, while activists in several countries redouble their efforts to draw public attention to the tragedy. A 2011 Newsweek study on women’s rights and status listed only two Arab countries in the bottom 25 countries. So let’s keep some perspective here.


Many of the legal structures of misogyny in the Arab world were put in place by the Turks (Ottoman Empire), French and British. In fisher’s words,

“These foreigners ruled Arabs for centuries, twisting the cultures to accommodate their dominance. One of their favorite tricks was to buy the submission of men by offering them absolute power over women. The foreign overlords ruled the public sphere, local men ruled the private sphere, and women got nothing; academic Deniz Kandiyoti called this the ‘patriarchal bargain.’ Colonial powers employed it in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and in South Asia, promoting misogynist ideas and misogynist men who might have otherwise stayed on the margins, slowly but surely ingraining these ideas into the societies.”


Just about all traditional societies historically have had ingrained sexist practices. Evolutionary explanations are certainly controversial: men are stronger than women and thus use their physical power to subjugate them; men are afraid of female sexual power, especially when this could lead to their being cheated by rivals and then raising another man’s child, etc. The same goes for racial or cultural explanations (think of Geller’s label of “uncivilized”). Still, what about the origins of sexism in the Arab world?


Judaism, Christianity and Islam all arose in a thoroughly patriarchal context, as their sacred texts indicate. Yet Islam, like its older sisters in the monotheistic faith, is just as much “an expansive and living religion. It has moved with the currents of history, and its billion-plus practitioners bring a wide spectrum of interpretations and beliefs” – a fact I keep repeating in my own writings. There’s no doubt too that the colonial rulers were eager to single out religious leaders who would go along with their “patriarchal bargain.” So religious family law suddenly became the legal codes of the colonies. Then in the early 20th century when independence movements were forming, many leaders fell back on a more patriarchal interpretations of their religious tradition, if only to counter and repudiate the legacy of the colonial powers.


The widespread harassment of women in the Arab street may well be tied to the brutal, authoritarian regimes that have emasculated the men. A female journalist who had experienced this for many years in the region said to Max Fisher that the intrigue and brutality of Egypt’s, or Syria’s or Algeria’a secret police, must be at least one factor in making the “Arab man more likely to reassert his lost manhood by taking it out on women.”


The colonial history still frustrates the efforts of Arab feminist movements. The fact that the west is still seen as trying to impose itself over the Arab world through cultural, economic and political means continues to frame women’s rights as a western ploy to dominate them. As he puts it, “After centuries of Western colonialism, bombings, invasions, and occupation, Arab men can dismiss the calls for gender equality as just another form of imposition, insisting that Arab culture does it differently.” Of course, this also mutes Eltahawy’s credibility among Arabs.


A cultural revolution also has to take place. I end with the three-author article in The Guardian that featured the picture above, because it rings true with my own 16 years in the Arab world. Moroccan journalist Nadia Lamlili is the one referring to a required “cultural revolution.” Arabs will have to rethink the way they raise their children and in particular the way they segregate the sexes. Instead of 'managing' sexual temptations, this practice only amplifies them “and ends up with violence in dealings between men and women.” Then this observation that closes the article – something that my wife and I have observed again and again over the years:


“The problem with our societies is that the women are in love with their sons instead of their husbands, and the men are in love with their mothers instead of with their wives. Men and women don’t understand one another due to the fact that their dealings are not at all clear, as they don't spend enough time together or don’t engage with each other enough.”


This isn’t to say that religious, historical, socioeconomic and political factors aren’t also in play. But it does mean that there is certainly more than just “religion + hatred” that explains the struggles of women in the Arab world – and indeed, in the rest of the world.

The last blog in this series brings some of these strands together to highlight those who are effecting positive change.