Us and Them: On Helpless Women and Orientalist Imagery
The web is abuzz with talk of Mona Eltahawy’s latest entry, which made its way onto the front cover of Foreign Policy, ‘Why Do They Hate Us‘, the “war on the women in the Middle East”; reactions vary from unwavering support to venom-laced condemnation, and a multitude of other postures in between.
In the latest Foreign Policy feature, a part of their “sex edition”, Eltahawy laments that “they hate us”, an unashamed amalgamation directed towards men.
“Yet it’s the men who can’t control themselves on the streets, where from Morocco to Yemen, sexual harassment is endemic and it’s for the men’s sake that so many women are encouraged to cover up.”
“…women are silenced by a deadly combination of men who hate them while also claiming to have God firmly on their side.”
“I’ll never forget hearing that if a baby boy urinated on you, you could go ahead and pray in the same clothes, yet if a baby girl peed on you, you had to change. What on Earth in the girl’s urine made you impure? I wondered.
Hatred of women.”
And as per usual, Eltahawy ends with what has become her catchphrase:
“We are more than our headscarves and our hymens.”
The laundry list of crimes committed against women, including “virginity tests” and genital mutilation, are serious charges which should not be ignored nor should they be denied. Eltahawy, in her attempt to highlight indefensible crimes against women, reaffirms the banal archetype of the poor, helpless woman of the Middle East-North Africa.
Eltahawy pens a lugubrious tale, where women of the Middle East-North Africa seem to have been forever chained to the floors, as captives. History is conveniently left out of this verbose condensation. There is no talk the Arab women of her native Egypt who defiantly took part in the forceful, countrywide revolution against the British occupation of both Egypt and Sudan in 1919, which led to Britain’s recognition of Egyptian independence in 1922; women, men, merchants, workers, religious leaders, students et al. held unified strikes against the British occupation on a daily basis, not in separate stalls but in the company of one another.
It can be argued that Mona Eltahawy’s piece superficially condenses a complex subject into an easy-to-swallow ‘them vs. us’ dichotomy, where the role of totalitarian leaders and authoritarian politics are both grotesquely marginalized in order to mournfully examine the cruelty of men, purposefully grouped into one easy to attack assemblage. They hate us, she laments, in a most puerile manner. Men hate women. A dichotomy which not only appoints Mona Eltahawy as the representative for all women of the Middle East-North Africa, but has caused many of her backers to argue that women disagreeing with her premise are suffering from a sort of internalized oppression, brought about due to a stigmatized, negative identity they have come to accept due the reoccurring torment women face at the hands of men. The argument that women are hapless casualties of either mans domineering, possessive ”hatred” or of our own inability to see ourselves as such. It is an irony of sorts.
There are also unanswered questions:
1. Why not publish the article in Arabic, therein engaging with the intended audience more directly?
2. Why choose Foreign Policy as the platform and not a media outlet which would direct her piece at those she addresses?
3. Why is there so much orientalist imagery present? If she was not aware that these photographs would be used, did she take it up with Foreign Policy after realizing this?
The imagery used in Eltahawy’s piece are transcribed with words from her article; displayed are a number of nude women painted over in black, their eyes the most prominent feature. This ‘artistic’ representation is arguably an oversexualization of what Mona Eltahawy has long despised, the niqab.
When I first saw the images, including the cover of Foreign Policy featuring her article with the same type of visual representation, it reminded me of at least two others; the January 2010 TIME cover featuring a young Afghan girl with her nose removed and a recent photograph taken of Sweden’s culture minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth , who took part in a bizarre event wherein people cut into a cake made in the shape of a naked upper body of an African woman, filled with a blood-red sponge.
The late Edward Saïd would be rolling in his grave – the above images are an orientalists dream; what is foreign and alien through the eyes of the West, as seen here in all of its sensual and sensationalist glory.
In “Orientalism” Saïd notes that ‘the Orient’ “almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.” In essence, it is a grandiose sweeping generalization.
In this case women are written of and portrayed as conquerable, inferior creatures who are either waiting on saviors or in denial as to how subjugated they truly are, while men are domineering barbarians whose primitive behavior is construed as being due to their almost inherent “hatred” of women. The female is exotic and forsaken and the male is sadistic and beastly.
These are the roles that have been written in our names, on our behalf, and marketed as being for our own good; often in our sweat, tears and blood.
The photograph on the cover of Foreign Policy, the nude woman painted over so she may appear to be a niqabi, is not “us”, nor is Mona Eltahawy “us”, nor do her contentions define “us” – the women of the Middle East and North Africa.
It has been assessed by many who are now lining up in droves in Eltahawy’s defense that she did not make herself out to be a spokeswoman for the varied and unique women of the Middle East but any person, man or woman, who has read the piece even once can see that she does. They and Us. The tired and tried adage, the old and unfortunate sensationalist clash. Who is the “us” Mona speaks of so passionately if it is not all women of the Middle East? Does the word “us” lose its collective meaning, does it lose its sweeping incorporation?
Eltahawy’s article is mangled with oversimplification; it is not what she ‘meant’, another empty contention being thrown about in her defense, but what she has written that is up for debate. This abstract principle, to brush an entire group, in this case men, with the brush that they are inherently hateful towards women reeks of absurdity. 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. Are they eternally damned? Is this their own manifest destiny, one which has been predetermined at the point of conception? Do they have no way out of the sweeping accusation which brands them as natural haters of women? What of male feminists, are they forever struggling against their innate urge to hate women?
Mona Eltahawy has penned both men and women into a non-negotiable situation, charging men with hatred and women with helplessness; and as a woman of colour, of Middle Eastern origin, I will not allow my voice to be co-opted. Mona Eltahawy may be one of us, but she is not “us” nor does she define us.