Criticism and Women in the Arab World

Most of the news in the international media about women in the Arab world is extremely negative. I would like to start this post by offering some contrasting news; I work at a public relations agency in Amman, Jordan, and most of my colleagues are women. They are amazing, intelligent, highly-educated, empowered Arab (or Circassian) women, and I am so thankful to have met all of them and to work in this office. The head of the agency is a woman and so is her second in command.

There are many professional women like my colleagues in Jordan – this isn’t Saudi Arabia after all – but by no means do they represent the majority of Jordanian women when it comes to any number of socioeconomic indicators, from income to education levels to freedom of movement. This blog post isn’t about the state of Jordanian women though. I’m not going to start posting links to UN reports on rates of domestic abuse in the Kingdom or Rana Husseini articles on honor killings; the topic is far too complex to be covered in something as superficial as a blog post. What I do want to address is how Jordanians (and in a larger sense, the pan-Arab world if such a thing exists) responds to what they perceive as “outside” criticism of women’s issues in the region.

Let me set the scene; the other day I decided to make a Facebook post with a chart from the Economist showing results from a UN report on women’s attitudes towards domestic violence .  According to the survey, Jordanian women have the highest percentage of respondents – regardless of economic status – who believe that in some circumstances it is acceptable for a husband to hit their wife. Almost immediately I had two of my female Jordanian colleagues (of the impressive type described above) at my throat suggesting that I ‘mind my own business’ and stop trying to be the ‘hero for Arab women.’ This reaction did not surprise me – I heard it from the same two young women weeks before when I made a post criticizing institutionalized gender discrimination in Jordanian citizenship statutes.


The next day I read Mona Eltahawy’s explosive piece in Foreign Policy, “Why They Hate Us.” Critics called it sensationalized; the fact is, the legal discrimination, physical abuse, and individual tragedies of women in the Arab world are often nothing less than sensational. The choice of accompanying photos for the piece – naked women painted in black to represent the niqab – is a horrendously unfortunate choice by the editors and gives many critics of Eltahawy the means to dismiss the piece without addressing the content itself. I had recognized long ago from personal experience the sensitivity that Jordanians/Palestinians had of cultural criticism coming from me, a white American, and accepted it as a part of life here. What amazed me is the backlash by Arabs themselves against Eltahawy, and specifically the backlash from Arab women. Three examples can be found here, here, and here.

Eltahawy is often described as an “Egyptian-American.” Don’t be mistaken; Eltahawy was born in Egypt, grew up in UK and Saudi Arabia, graduated from university in Cairo (AUC), worked for years as a journalist in Cairo and Jerusalem, and only gained American citizenship in April 2011. If Eltahawy cannot comment on issues related to women in the Arab world, who can? Is the issue the actual speaker, or the damning nature of the criticism itself? Perhaps it is the fact that the Arab world’s dirty laundry was being aired so openly in front of a Western audience. The point is, Eltahawy received pretty much the same reaction that I, as a white American male, get when I bring up women’s issues around here;  basically, ‘What do YOU, an American, think you’re doing speaking for ME!’

Well, if you’re on Facebook commenting on my status updates, or writing a blog post response in English to the Eltahawy piece, chances are neither myself or Ms. Eltahawy are trying to speak for you. You happened to be lucky enough to be born in a socioeconomic bracket where you have to deal with little, if any, of the type of injustice that Eltahawy describes in her article (or you live in America or Europe). Just because YOU did not have a clitoral circumcision (or female genital mutilation as critics all it), or weren’t forced to marry a 1st cousin at 14, or risked death having a boyfriend, does not mean that these things are not happening across the region at this very moment.

Martin Luther King Jr famously said that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I don’t think I have any less right than anyone else to comment on the issue of women’s rights in the Arab world. Yes, it means something to me. Yes, I will state my opinion, thank you. Yes, I understand that issues like domestic abuse and honor killings are used by right-wing American/European critics of Islam to bash the religion and people who practice it, but that ain’t me!

I respond the same way to the Christian right’s “War on Women” in America. When I read a negative report about the United States online from al-Jazeera, I don’t start freaking out about my country being criticized. You want to know why? Because I am the NUMBER ONE critic of the United States of America! I feel in the deepest depths of my soul that it is my PATRIOTIC DUTY to slam the domestic and foreign policies of the U.S. when I don’t agree with them (which is often) as vocally and unreservedly as I can. This is an aspect of Jordanian society that is woefully missing; the ability of people to connect criticism and patriotism.

Jordanians would rather take the easy path of putting up a framed picture of King Abdullah II in their home or office and take frequent breaks to wave the Jordanian flag, rather than honestly and civilly engage with others on the issues that are holding this country back, ranging from corruption to the Palestinian question to women’s rights and economic involvement.

What can be done? What can YOU do personally?

Someone always brings this up when these debates start raging on Facebook or other platforms.

Let’s start by speaking truth to power; the fact is, King Abdullah II could make several critical changes to the legal system to remove state-sanctioned discrimination against women, most notably by amending statutes that give perpetrators of so-called “honor crimes” reduced sentences. He could do this because he is an absolute monarch, not a constitutional one. He can dissolve parliaments at will and he hand-picks and dismisses prime ministers at his leisure (along with members of the upper house of parliament). King Abdullah II chooses not to make these amendments because he risks inciting conservative rural tribesmen. Queen Rania attempted to push amendments through parliament in 2003, and rural parliamentarians with tribal affiliations blocked passage of the legislation. The King could have pushed the fight. Hell, he could have just dismissed the parliament and simply ordered the legislation into law. He didn’t though, which indicates that the equation is now as follows: international pressure < threats of tribal shananigans.

So there’s one thing that can be done – apply pressure to the absolute rulers of Arab countries. Of course I wish that real representative democracy could replace all of the Arab dictatorships (benign or otherwise) but in the event that it cannot, this is all I’ve got for the short term. We must always remember that these rulers are individual human beings, and I’m sure they don’t enjoy travelling abroad and being looked upon as leaders of women-oppressing countries.

Can a critical mass of international pressure (especially from the West) result in top-down reform of Arab legal systems? I personally think it can. Sensitivities about bad international media coverage certainly affected the way the United Arab Emirates treats its South Asian laborer population, and it could be used to target individual leaders and pressure them to make reforms. For those who say that change has to occur at the grassroots level, I disagree; just look at the success of Kemal Mustafa Ataturk in forcefully institutionalizing rights for women in Turkey following World War I.

On a macro, long-term level, I believe that all U.S. military aid should be cut off in the Middle East, with money being diverted instead to rural infrastructure and development. This will provide rural communities critical exposure to other attitudes towards women. A major reason that negative treatment of women persists in these areas is that they can be incredibly isolated, thereby allowing traditions that have existed for centuries to continue unchallenged. These views need to be challenged, and I think that the only way they ever will be is when these communities finally feel the full weight of the modern era pressing upon them.

I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes from the days of another great moral battle in human history, that of slavery. These words were spoken by William Lloyd Garrison, but they could just have easily been said by Mona Eltahawy; “I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch – AND I WILL BE HEARD.”

Keep fighting the good fight Mona.


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9 responses to “Criticism and Women in the Arab World

  1. The Intellectual Eater

    Really nice post, Dave. It is rather shocking to see so much backlash against Eltahawy.

    However, I’m not sure that international pressure on monarchs will be as effective as you think. If the rural tribes then revolt and depose the king…Or else if the rural tribes revolt and the king crushes the rebellion with the army…neither of those outcomes are preferable either.

    • Becky, I understand your point. Jordan is such a complicated country, with one problem being the outcome of the events of Black September civil war, which is that more “modern,” progressive urban Palestinian areas in Amman are underrepresented in parliament, in favor of over-represented conservative rural tribesman. These tribal communities are heavily armed and heavily represented in the Army/Security Forces through their family connections and influence. King Abdullah II would have to risk his throne to remove the institutionalized discrimination against Palestinians before any parliament could produce effective legislation. At least for the time being, the King has proven that he does not have the strength of will to challenge these people, and as long as that is the case Jordan will remain in the sad state it is in today.

      • Katrina

        I’d like to hear more about this:

        “money being diverted instead to rural infrastructure and development. This will provide rural communities critical exposure to other attitudes towards women. A major reason that negative treatment of women persists in these areas is that they can be incredibly isolated, thereby allowing traditions that have existed for centuries to continue unchallenged.”

        I wonder if the Economist data were broken down by region, the urban areas with access to international television, Internet, and other forms of exposure would really show different results. I do think infrastructure projects would help, but because of improvements in socio-economics, not (as much) increased exposure to other attitudes.

        I wish I knew more about the long-term history of these attitudes and crimes.

        What do you think?

  2. It is not “clitoral circumcision,” It is genital MUTILATION. Please correct it in your post, if u can! 🙂

  3. found something factually wrong in your blog post. Mona corrected it for me: Correct is Mona is “born in Egypt, grew up in UK and Saudi Arabia, was journalist in Cairo and Jerusalem, cane to US 2000, citizen ’11” Please correct your blog post info. 🙂

  4. Yassmin

    Hey, thanks for writing this, even though I don’t totally (respectfully) agree. As an arab woman who has grown up in the West and am now spending time again in the East, I very keenly understand the issues that face arab, african and many disadvantaged women across the globe. There is *no doubt* that women in these parts of the world don’t have the same rights, the same standing in society, level of respect, safety etc etc etc. Rarely will an arab women (I’ll just go with that for now, for the sake of brevity) argue otherwise. However…

    You make the point that people may have “issues with Arabs’ dirty laundry being aired in front of a Western audience”. Fair enough, not many people like to see their race/people etc vilified, even rightly so. However, the article is *written* for a western audience, which brings into question its aim. If it were written in arabic, for an arabic magazine (which..would probably never happen, admittedly) it might have more of an influence, but here is is an Arab woman, essentially confirming what many western viewers believe about arabs, and because it is coming from her it is seen as legitimate — I doubt this article achieves much for Arab women in arab states, apart from encouraging a large population of western readers to nod and think *mm yes, we always did know it was bad there…*

    I also agree with a previous commentator. I don’t think what you are thinking — institutionalised change from the top — is really going to achieve what you want it to — and what do you want it to achieve? Because I do believe that equality and safety can exist for both genders without the country *becoming the same as the west*, which is what I often think people want to see when they see a country “develop”. Ataturk? Haven’t decided how I feel about him completely, but many in the West applaud his changes why? Because he modernized Turkey…but by turning it into a secular state. Does this not imply that a nation ruled by Islamic based law is not modern?

    You say you don’t feel incensed when someone attacks the US, but that is perhaps because you see yourself as an individual, separate from the administration. Articles like Mona’s doesn’t given Arab women the right to be seen as individuals, they are “others”, that need saving from Arab men — hell, Arab men aren’t given the opportunity to be seen as individuals. She mightn’t have meant to be speaking on my behalf, but it certainly comes across that way when she used the word “us”.

    It is a long post, and I am still processing how I feel about the article and the issue. I don’t deny a lot should change, but I do believe that if people want to help, it should be by empowering people to change their own circumstances and showing them how it can be done, rather than doing it for them and taking their agency away.

    • Yassmin, thanks for your comment.

      First, regarding top-down reform, I don’t think Ataturk did a perfect job, but he did prepare the country to enter the modern, globalized economy by giving protections and educational opportunities to women, thereby putting Turkey in the position it is today as a regional economic powerhouse. In my experience living in rural areas of Jordan, I would say that one of the greatest inhibitors of economic development in this country is the fact that women in many conservative communities are restricted from the workforce, both because of the cultural Arab/Central Asian fear of women’s sexuality and what they would do if left unsupervised, as well as the idea that in a time of high unemployment in Jordan, jobs should go to male breadwinners. In essence, there is the concept that the job market is a zero-sum game, where women with jobs are taking those jobs away from men who are married/preparing for marriage.

      I absolutely believe that Ataturk went too far in his program of secularization, especially when it comes to the ban of the hijab in government buildings and universities. When I first came to Jordan I became friends with a religious Turkish female university student in Amman who I studied Arabic with. As much as I am thankful for meeting her and becoming friends, I think it is a travesty that she felt she had to come to Jordan and attend an inferior university (in comparison to those in her hometown of Istanbul) in order to remain true to her religious desire to wear the hijab.

      On the larger issue of Turkey and secularization, I don’t think a Muslim country has to have a secular system of government to govern effectively, but they must have protections for vulnerable communities, such as women, homosexuals, religious minorities, etc, in order to govern justly and be a part of the modern community of nations. I don’t think that protecting these vulnerable groups is antithetical to the tenets of Islam, and in fact if you believe that the ultimate goal of Islamic governance should be social justice, then having laws that respond firmly and justly to some of the atrocities we now see in the Arab world (particularly those involving women) should be the desire of all Muslims.

      We know that clitoral circumcision of women is a sub-Saharan African tradition, so why aren’t Egypt’s male religious figures speaking out against it and why are there not harsh legal punishments. Why is the pan-Arab obsession with female (though CERTAINLY not male) pre-marital virginity so strong that many families (and Arab legal systems) believe that it is better for daughters who have been deflowered by rape to marry their rapists rather than risk her not being married having become “damaged goods.” Why are there special legal provisions made for so-called “honor killings,” when the clear punishment in Islam for pre-marital sex is a mere 100 lashes (though we certainly don’t want that either)?

      In short Yassmin, it’s not about Arab countries becoming “more Westernized,” it’s about Arabs actually practicing the religion that the majority of Arabs claim to follow, that of Islam. The obsession with virginity, the use of female genital mutilation as a means to promote virginity, the punishment of death for loss of virginity before marriage – these are all pre-Islamic traditions that need to stop, and they need to stop now. It’s a true culture war, and the idea of stepping aside to let “insider” Arab women slowly chip away at these problems (with negligible progress) will not do.

      I don’t think Eltahawy should have used the pronoun “us,” but at the end of the day that is a minor issue with semantics. I know it caused Arab women all over the world who are either elites living in Arab countries or those living in the West to cry out indignantly that Eltahawy “does not represent me,” but seriously, why spend your energy petulantly crying out over one disagreement (basically, ‘I am privileged, so stop lumping me together with those Arab women who aren’t’) when the veracity of the overall message is undeniable for anyone who has lived out here and is familiar with the common institutionalized discrimination and injustices in the legal systems of all of the Arab countries.

  5. Zaina

    Yasmin, some of what you referred to I agree with in principal. Others, in relation to which language an issue is brought to the forefront is empirically important, but just because it’s written in English for a Western audience doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have been written at all. To say that Mona’s writing of the article encourages a negative way of thinking about the Arab world is just moot. If it’s happening, which it is, people should know about it, wherever they are. Hopefully, fluent Arabic writers with access to notable publications will make such bold attempts to bringing up a topic that effects, directly or otherwise, *every* Arab woman, and that they will, in turn, find editors/ publishers to support their writing.

    Given Jordan’s current political economy at the moment, I would very much doubt the government or the King’s political inclination to address this issue in any overt or concrete way. “There are other priorities” that will, alas, sweep this under the carpet, along with a barrage of other forms of female abuse and discrimination. That’s not to say that something can’t be done about it though; it’ll just take longer, require a lot more willpower and steadfast support from the bottom. Education and employment are, I believe, the biggest empowering factors. Jordan does well in the former (at least in terms of quantities of graduates, etc, quality is another story) but falls steeply when it comes to employment (various bodies document just how low unemployment and participation among Jordanian women is). Unfortunately this amounts to ‘creating value for women’ beyond the current value system that is in place with some members of society. Various policy options have already been put in place around the world, meaning that Jordan, again, doesn’t have to be particularly inventive or innovative about how to tackle this. It just needs solid leadership and governance to contextualise it and implement it.

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