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April 30, 2012 / Man in the Mirror

The Arab Spring and Women’s Rights

Posted by Josh Rothman  April 30, 2012 09:12 AM

In the May/June issue of Foreign Policy, writer Mona Eltahawy argues that there are two revolutions happening in the Islamic world: A revolution to overturn political tyranny, and a revolution to end misogyny. Her piece, “Why Do They Hate Us?,” has incited a fascinating and urgent conversation about gender and the Arab Spring.

This is from Eltahaway’s article:

What hope can there be for women in the new Egyptian parliament, dominated as it is by men stuck in the seventh century? A quarter of those parliamentary seats are now held by Salafis, who believe that mimicking the original ways of the Prophet Mohammed is an appropriate prescription for modern life. Last fall, when fielding female candidates, Egypt’s Salafi Nour Party ran a flower in place of each woman’s face. Women are not to be seen or heard — even their voices are a temptation — so there they are in the Egyptian parliament, covered from head to toe in black and never uttering a word.

And we’re in the middle of a revolution in Egypt! It’s a revolution in which women have died, been beaten, shot at, and sexually assaulted fighting alongside men to rid our country of that uppercase Patriarch — Mubarak — yet so many lowercase patriarchs still oppress us.

It’s time for women in the Islamic world to own the fact that they are oppressed differently from men, Eltahaway says, and to march under the banner of women’s rights specifically. (It’s important to “stop pretending,” she writes, and “call out the hate for what it is.”) On the other side, critics have argued that Eltahaway’s account ignores the extraordinary complexity of gender in the Islamic world — that, in fact, it’s a red herring, since political and religious reactionaries, who are of both genders, are oppressing everyone who wants freedom, both women and men. Here’s Leila Ahmed, of Harvard Divinity School, on MSNBC (above):

Bouazizi, the young man who set fire to himself in Tunisia in an act of suicide and ignited the Arab revolution…. How did the suicide come about? He was ordered by the authorities to stop, he had a cart, he was selling things trying to make a living for his family, he was ordered by the authorities to stop — and the authority was a policewoman, who slapped his face, spat at him, and overturned his cart. How do you read this in terms of gender? Is it only women who are oppressed? I think we have a… majority of people who are living very tough lives, and I don’t believe they’re against women.

As someone who only reads about the Islamic world, it seems to me that they can both be right — the Islamic world, after all, is a big place. Take time out to read Mona Eltahawy’s article, as well as this thoughtful Foreign Policy roundtable discussion, which features Ahmed’s rebuttal alongside others’ responses.

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