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.