When Robert Fisks’ article about the abuse and racism meted out to migrant and domestic workers in the Arab world was published it was received with much praise, likes, comments and re-tweets in the world of social media. It was indeed a much needed and timely reminder of an unacceptable social and cultural phenomenon in this part of the world. Interestingly enough, when Mona El Tahawy riled against a similar abuse and prejudice experienced by women in the Middle East the reaction was very much mixed. In some cases a torrent of personal abuse, declarations of her ignorance and accusations of her being an agent of Western oppression were made.
When comparing the reactions to the two articles it is interesting to note that to me, excuses of cultural relativism are made and tolerated when pointing out the abuse and inequality experienced by women of the region, whereas most people universally accept that racism is repugnant and intolerable in any culture. It appears that there is a hierarchy of intolerance and prejudice when it comes to the Middle East.
As a practicing Muslim and a British-Arab who grew up in various countries in the Middle East, watching the birth of the Arab spring was like watching the sun rise over a dark and desolate landscape. I desperately searched for footage of women in demonstrations aired on TV screen, trawled the internet for articles, blogs and videos of women’s involvement in these revolutions and the reaction of their peers and male counterparts to their new found equality in the search for the most basic rights of humanity, the right to dignity and a life free of fear and abuse. Women more than most know what is like to experience fear and abuse at the hand of the state but also their own community and some times their very own families. Heartened by the practical and strategic in put of women from all walks of life (secular, religious, mothers, young and old) I felt that perhaps finally we were on the cusp of a real shift in gender relations in the Middle East, then reality took hold when abuse and harassment of women by the state and fellow warriors of democracy started to be documented and it marked the suspension of the equality utopia many had been hoping for. For now at least, women would have to carry on living in the dark and desolate landscape.
The essay by Mona clearly communicates the bitter disappointment and anger at the denial of women the fruit of their democratic labour, women had to literally fight, put up with harassment and accusations of dishonour and in some very sad cases die to give birth to this new era of fearless expression of hope and desire for a better way of living. We are good enough to work shoulder to shoulder with the men to topple oppressive regimes but not worthy of living an equally oppressive free life with our brothers and fathers. That is the sad perception of many who were not allowed to reap the benefits what they sew. It is no wonder then that the question “Why do they hate us?” is asked.
Some responses to Mona’s essay have compared her list of examples of oppression and abuse to the misogyny that exists in the ‘West’ or have accused her of misunderstanding Islamic principles of gender equality or at best ask her to be patient until education takes its effect in society. Important though debate is, I think such responses miss the point of the original essay.
It is because Mona sees herself as an Arab just as much as a woman living in the West that she is so passionate about the experiences of women in the Middle East. She too marched and campaigned to topple Mubarak and others like him. I do not know or care for her religious convictions but I do think precisely because of her understanding of Islam’s emancipatory power and the belief that it can afford people equality and democratically compatible principles in life that she highlights the abuses of women in the name of Fiqh (often confused with Shari’a) and Islam. She is not talking on behalf of women in the region, she is a woman of the region and there are many like her who are constantly working towards a better life and future for all who live in the Arab world regardless of their gender or religious convictions.
Perhaps some people were upset that she washed ‘our dirty laundry’ in the wrong journal, wrong language and at the wrong time? But when and where is the right time and place? No one demanded that of Robert Fisk. If Arab and Muslim women don’t make the demands for a better and more equal existence within the principles of respect for faith and diversity then who else will?