The Real Roots of Sexism in the Middle East (It's Not Islam, Race, or 'Hate')

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Arab societies suffer from deep misogyny, but the problem is not as particularly Arab or Islamic as you might think.

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Women pray at Hussein mosque in the old city of Cairo. Reuters.

Picture a woman in the Middle East, and probably the first thing that comes into your mind will be the hijab. You might not even envision a face, just the black shroud of the burqa or the niqab. Women's rights in the mostly Arab countries of the region are among the worst in the world, but it's more than that. As Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy writes in a provocative cover story for Foreign Policy, misogyny has become so endemic to Arab societies that it's not just a war on women, it's a destructive force tearing apart Arab economies and societies. But why? How did misogyny become so deeply ingrained in the Arab world?

As Maya Mikdashi once wrote, "Gender is not the study of what is evident, it is an analysis of how what is evident came to be." That's a much tougher task than cataloging the awful and often socially accepted abuses of women in the Arab world. But they both matter, and Eltahawy's lengthy article on the former might reveal more of the latter than she meant.

There are two general ways to think about the problem of misogyny in the Arab world. The first is to think of it as an Arab problem, an issue of what Arab societies and people are doing wrong. "We have no freedoms because they hate us," Eltahawy writes, the first of many times she uses "they" in a sweeping indictment of the cultures spanning from Morocco to the Arabian Peninsula. "Yes: They hate us. It must be said."

But is it really that simple? If that misogyny is so innately Arab, why is there such wide variance between Arab societies? Why did Egypt's hateful "they" elect only 2 percent women to its post-revolutionary legislature, while Tunisia's hateful "they" elected 27 percent, far short of half but still significantly more than America's 17 percent? Why are so many misogynist Arab practices as or more common in the non-Arab societies of sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia? After all, nearly every society in history has struggled with sexism, and maybe still is. Just in the U.S., for example, women could not vote until 1920; even today, their access to basic reproductive health care is backsliding. We don't think about this as an issue of American men, white men, or Christian men innately and irreducibly hating women. Why, then, should we be so ready to believe it about Arab Muslims?

A number of Arab Muslim feminists have criticized the article as reinforcing reductive, Western perceptions of Arabs as particularly and innately barbaric. Nahed Eltantawy accused the piece of representing Arab women "as the Oriental Other, weak, helpless and submissive, oppressed by Islam and the Muslim male, this ugly, barbaric monster." Samia Errazzouki fumed at "the monolithic representation of women in the region." Roqayah Chamseddine wrote, "Not only has Eltahawy demonized the men of the Middle East and confined them into one role, that of eternal tormentors, as her Western audience claps and cheers, she has not provided a way forward for these men." Dima Khatib sighed, "Arab society is not as barbaric as you present it in the article." She lamented the article as enhancing "a stereotype full of overwhelming generalizations [that] contributes to the widening cultural rift between our society and other societies, and the increase of racism towards us."

Dozens, maybe hundreds, of reports and papers compare women's rights and treatment across countries, and they all rank Arab states low on the list. But maybe not as close to the bottom as you'd think. A 2011 World Economic Forum report on national gender gaps put four Arab states in the bottom 10; the bottom 25 includes 10 Arab states, more than half of them. But sub-Saharan African countries tend to rank even more poorly. And so do South Asian societies -- where a population of nearly five times as many women as live in the Middle East endure some of the most horrific abuses in the world today. Also in 2011, Newsweek synthesized several reports and statistics on women's rights and quality of life. Their final ranking included only one Arab country in the bottom 10 (Yemen) and one more in the bottom 25 (Saudi Arabia, although we might also count Sudan). That's not to downplay the harm and severity of the problem in Arab societies, but a reminder that "misogyny" and "Arab" are not as synonymous as we sometimes treat them to be.

The other way to think about misogyny in the Arab world is as a problem of misogyny. As the above rankings show, culturally engrained sexism is not particular to Arab societies. In other words, it's a problem that Arab societies have, but it's not a distinctly Arab problem. The actual, root causes are disputed, complicated, and often controversial. But you can't cure a symptom without at least acknowledging the disease, and that disease is not race, religion, or ethnicity.

Some of the most important architects of institutionalized Arab misogyny weren't actually Arab. They were Turkish -- or, as they called themselves at the time, Ottoman -- British, and French. 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.

Of course, those first seeds of misogyny had to come from somewhere. The evolutionary explanations are controversial. Some say that it's simply because men are bigger and could fight their way to dominance; some that men seek to control women, and particularly female sexuality, out of a subconscious fear being of cuckolded and raising another man's child; others that the rise of the nation-state promoted the role of warfare in society, which meant the physically stronger gender took on more power. You don't hear these, or any of the other evolutionary theories, cited much. What you do hear cited is religion.

Like Christianity, Islam is 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. The colonial rulers who conquered Muslim societies were skilled at pulling out the slightest justification for their "patriarchal bargain." They promoted the religious leaders who were willing to take this bargain and suppressed those who objected. This is a big part of how misogynistic practices became especially common in the Muslim world (another reason is that, when the West later promoted secular rulers, anti-colonialists adopted extreme religious interpretations as a way to oppose them). "They enshrined their gentleman's agreement in the realm of the sacred by elevating their religious family laws to state laws," anthropologist Suad Joseph wrote in her 2000 book, Gender and Citizenship in the Middle East. "Women and children were the inevitable chips with which the political and religious leaders bargained." Some misogynist practices predated colonialism. But many of those, for example female genital mutilation, also predated Islam.

Arabs have endured centuries of brutal, authoritarian rule, and this could also play a role. A Western female journalist who spent years in the region, where she endured some of the region's infamous street harassment, told me that she sensed her harassers may have been acting in part out of misery, anger, and their own emasculation. Enduring the daily torments and humiliations of life under the Egyptian or Syrian or Algerian secret police, she suggested, might make an Arab man more likely to reassert his lost manhood by taking it out on women.

The intersection of race and gender is tough to discuss candidly. If we want to understand why an Egyptian man beats his wife, it's right and good to condemn him for doing it, but it's not enough. We also have to discuss the bigger forces that are guiding him, even if that makes us uncomfortable because it feels like we're excusing him. For decades, that conversation has gotten tripped up by issues of race and post-colonial relations that are always present but often too sensitive to address directly.

Spend some time in the Middle East or North Africa talking about gender and you might hear the expression, "My Arab brother before my Western sister," a warning to be quiet about injustice so as not to give the West any more excuses to condescend and dictate. The fact that feminism is broadly (and wrongly) considered a Western idea has made it tougher for proponents. 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. The louder our calls for gender equality get, the easier they are to wave away.

Eltahawy's personal background, unfortunately, might play a role in how some of her critics are responding. She lives mostly in the West, writes mostly for Western publications, and speaks American-accented English, all of which complicates her position and risks making her ideas seem as Westernized as she is. That's neither fair nor a reflection of the merit of her ideas, but it might inform the backlash, and it might tell us something about why the conversation she's trying to start has been stalled for so long.

The Arab Muslim women who criticized Eltahawy have been outspoken proponents of Arab feminism for years. So their backlash isn't about "Arab brother before Western sister," but it does show the extreme sensitivity about anything that could portray Arab misogyny as somehow particular to Arab society or Islam. It's not Eltahawy's job to tiptoe around Arab cultural anxieties about Western-imposed values, but the fact that her piece seems to have raised those anxieties more than it has awakened Arab male self-awareness is an important reminder that the exploitation of Arab women is about more than just gender. As some of Eltahawy's defenders have put it to me, the patriarchal societies of the Arab world need to be jolted into awareness of the harm they're doing themselves. They're right, but this article doesn't seem to have done it.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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