History has a way of finding itself in the voice of the heroes. Not so much for the heroines. Women, often the backbone of revolution, almost always find themselves relegated to the backdrop before the honeymoon of victory wears off. Equals during protest, but second-class citizens under new governments and bandaid-approach “reforms.” Empowerment does not necessarily mean equality.
That’s not to say that we’re not making progress, but it’s often uneven and stalled, and in the case of the Middle East, many times marred by either Orientalist ideas of powerless women dominated by men or self-induced inferiority amongst women in the region who suffer from internalized oppression. Both sides play into the stigmatized and negative identity that is best encapsulated by the worn out, overmedicated and clichéd image of the veiled Muslim woman, often dominated by the trifecta of male power: the state, religious institutions and husbands. Rarely is the average revolutionary woman portrayed by her standard strengths: educated, socially aware, politically active. Instead, we latch on to her modest, “traditional” appearance, assuming that if she’s veiled that means she has no voice. As if she were a passive force of internal and untapped strength, what these images really do is reduce women to the one image the West has of her, making her cheap ammunition in an already simplified debate over the complex issues that make up gender inequality in the Middle East.
Feminist debate over the status of women within democratic reforms fueled by the Arab Spring is an ongoing discourse, reinvigorated this week with the publication of Egyptian-American Mona El Tahawy’s controversial article “Why Do They Hate Us?” published in Foreign Policy. Many (including myself) looked at the title and assumed the article to be one about the state of gender rights within the totalitarian regimes that dominate the Arab world. “They,” as it turns out, refers to Arab men in general, portrayed as inherently hateful towards women, as evidenced by all the sexual violations women experience on a daily basis in the Arab world.
The article stirred a controversy amongst Middle Eastern feminists, many (myself included) of whom agree that the region is plagued with institutionalized gender inequality and do not dispute the research and facts that El Tahawy uses to substantiate her claim, but have a problem instead with her shrill voice in how it set up “the other” Middle East affliction- that is, the overdone Orientalist “us versus them” mentality, which instead of creating an equal playing field for dialogue, only sets up a power discourse where one side is immediately assumed to be more entitled, more astute, than the other. In this case, the dichotomy feeds into the idea that gender relations in Arab culture are inherently sado-masochistic, where women are helpless and conquerable by predatory men.
Sensual and sensationalist, it’s an argument that’s flashy enough to get immediate attention, but completely neglects the idea that “they” may not be men as a sweeping generalization, but rather the dictators and exploitative systems, dominated by men, that were put into place to keep women suppressed. To go by this argument would be almost like saying American men hate women because of measures taken by the Republican party establishment and the Christian right to curtail women’s reproductive and workplace rights, not to mention all the hypocrisies in our culture regarding the sexual behavior of men versus women. While it does reach an extreme in the Middle East, gender equality is not purely an Arab issue, but a universal one, and its roots in the Middle East stem not from Islam (which granted women rights that were unseen in the West for at least another millennium), but from power struggles and Colonialism, where women were denied entitled Islamic rights in order to keep Western or Western-backed colonizers in power. Talk about an Orientalist’s dream come true.
Add to that fantasy the article’s accompanying photos of a nude woman painted almost completely in black, implying that she is completely veiled in a niqab. It’s a image reminiscent of other Western media cover images of Middle Eastern women: the anonymous Afghan refugee girl on a 1985 issue of National Geographic, the Time January 2010 shot of the young Afghan girl facially mutilated by her Taliban husband. Yet unlike National Geographic and Time, which featured women encountered in Afghanistan and photographed as they are, Foreign Policy chose to use staged photos and artistic liberty to present the stereotypical, well-worn-to-the-point-of-laziness idea that Muslim women are defined by what they wear, not for how they act or what they stand for. In effect, Foreign Policy already took care of that for them, oversexualizing the image of the veiled woman, in essence, assuming the right to speak for her in very much the same manner as the men the article claims “hate” her. She has nothing to say, but simply poses, like an object of consumption in an ad campaign for the newest designer fragrance.
Today, what is seen as hatred towards women by male-led establishments is actually fear, and it’s only increased since the Arab uprisings began last year, placing gender equality at the center of social and political reform. As we continue to see so-called reforms fall through, women, again, have become a bargaining chip, positioned as inherently wrong against the men who are right, and many have slinked back into a state of victimhood where they learn to fear the power behind their sexuality, but rather than face it, use it as a means to seek protection from men.
But it’s not about right or wrong; it’s about choice. While I have my issues with the framework and tone of El Tahawy’s article, I do agree with the core of her argument, that is, the real fight for Arab women is the right to express and define themselves.
While not necessarily an art topic per se, it’s an important one to introduce and remember for this series’ next post, which will look at how female Arab artists explore what it means to genderize revolution and nationhood within the uncertainty of women’s rights and reform following the uprisings of the Arab Spring.