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.

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

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