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Politics at the Tip of the Clitoris: Why, in Fact, Do They Hate Us?

[Two migrant domestic workers, not allowed a day-off on Sunday, wave to the parade from their employer’s balcony during Migrant Workers May Day Parade in Beirut on 29 April 2012. Image by Hisham Ashkar] [Two migrant domestic workers, not allowed a day-off on Sunday, wave to the parade from their employer’s balcony during Migrant Workers May Day Parade in Beirut on 29 April 2012. Image by Hisham Ashkar]

What baffles me most about Mona Eltahawy’s Foreign Policy article is that it does not accomplish the task it sets out for itself; it does not, in fact, answer its foundational question: Why do they hate us?

Instead of focusing on the why, identifying the structural reasons behind sexism and misogyny in the Arab world, Eltahaway provides illustrative evidence of the oppressions Arab women face; the list is by now all too familiar both in the West and in the Arab world. The images of a naked woman’s flawless body covered in a niqab of black paint, spread throughout the article (and on the Foreign Policy special sex issue cover) is only a bitter reminder of the resilience of a clichéd fetishization of the oppressed Muslim/Arab female body in the media, as pointed out by Seikaly and Mikdashi.

Eltahawy’s description—and it is merely a description, not an analysis—disappoints many Arab, Muslim, and non-Western feminists because it thrives on cultural essentialism: They, Arab men, hate us because this is how our culture is, because something is inherently wrong about the culture itself that they have created. Instead of moving the discussion beyond essentialist claims—the sort that Christian fundamentalists, racist Islamophobes, neoconservatives, LePen supporters in France, and Rick Santorum, to name a few propagate—Eltahawy  as a native speaker and herself a victim of Arab misogyny, provides fodder for such misconstrued claims that Arab feminists have been desperately trying to deconstruct. The disappointment lies not in the fact that Eltahawy made us look bad in public—as she claimed in a television appearance on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show—but in the failure to perform the very task her article title promised: Providing an answer. The result is a tautological piece, that starts with the conclusion and misidentifies the who and the what of that hate.

To be sure, the answers to such a complex question cannot be provided in one article. However, Eltahawy’s intervention could have benefited from much needed constructive deconstruction. For instance, she unproblematically collapses her diverse oppressed subjects into one category: Arab women. The first problem with such a category is that it screens away the different—nationally-specific—types of oppression that these women face. As a Lebanese woman, I feel hated by the secular state and its civil laws that deny me the right to give my nationality to my hypothetical children. As a Muslim woman living in the United States, I feel hated whenever I am subjected to screenings and secondary inspections during my travels. As a Sunni woman I feel hated by the religious establishment that does not grant me an equal right of inheritance as my brother. As a young Arab woman, I feel hated by society—with its men and women—when I refuse to adhere and subscribe to certain values that I find outdated. As a woman from the middle-class, I feel hated by my government that enacts neoliberal economic policies that are making the prospects of one day renting my own apartment in the city nearly impossible. Oppression is always multilayered. It is exercised by different jurisdictions, institutions, and discourses—from the secular to the religious, from the local to the transnational, from the private to the public, and from the social to the economic. This is what makes the hate so difficult to locate. This is what makes our predicament that much more complex: we are waging daily struggles against a system that oppresses us in different spaces and multiple ways. And here I concur with Eltahawy, we have yet to remove the Mubarak in our head and in our bedrooms. But it is a deeply troubling and dangerous mistake to identify the Arab man—and the Muslim Arab man at that—as our sole enemy.

Here is another question that may help us provide better answers: What happens when, instead of using “Arab women,” we refer to “women in the Arab world” as an object of study?

The plights of migrant domestic workers in the Arab world—from Saudi Arabia to Lebanon—have recently found their way into public discourse. Thanks to activists and grassroots movements and initiatives, the current racist and deeply flawed sponsorship system regulating the work of migrant workers from South Asia and different parts of Africa has been subjected to public scrutiny and criticism. The most vulnerable segment of the already exploited class of migrant workers is the domestic worker who, of course, is a woman—a woman of color in deeply racist societies. What is both disturbing—and useful—in the case of the migrant domestic worker is that her oppression brings forth new culprits: Arab women themselves. As the managing head of the household, the boss, the Arab woman, the madame, is often the one who holds the key to the misery of these vulnerable women, whose labor within the domestic sphere makes their plight invisible and much harder to regulate. Eltahawy urges the West not to fall prey to cultural relativism when formulating their foreign policies vis-à-vis Arab states: These laws and cultural norms oppressing women were not made by women! But…of course they are! And yes, women can also be oppressors!

This is where gender, as a category of analysis, hits its theoretical and practical limit. When we deploy gender as a man-woman binary (indeed, a very modern construction), we fail to account for the diversities within each supposedly uniform gender role. Instead of pitting man against woman, gender can be deployed to pit young woman against older woman, and nuances in the politics of gender oppression will ensue. [1] Indeed, as women of all ages and classes we are subjected to similar forms of oppression; but as I have attempted to show in my previous examples, our identities are themselves so stratified: to prioritize gender (and a binary formulation of gender at that) above all other categories of affinity—class, race, education, age, sexual orientation—is misleading at best and dangerous at worst. It pits us against others whom we have much more in common with, both in terms of our oppressions and our aspirations. It creates antagonisms where potential alliances could be forged. But it also, whether Eltahawy admits it or not, distinguishes us as a category that needs to be saved from the barbaric men of our societies. She rehearses the same imperial refrain that our enemy is always from within, never from without. Although she hints at the supportive role played by the United States in sustaining authoritarian regimes, she fails to openly recognize that its violence too is gendered and sexualized. Footage from Abu Ghraib is too recent, too fresh in our memories to be forgotten. [2] Only when we juxtapose the sexual torture in Abu Ghraib and the virginity tests of Tahrir Square do we get the full picture of the workings of power today, where militarized authorities serving global capital are aligned in their oppression of Arab bodies, blurring the gendered binary of us and them and the unidirectional vector of women oppression it presupposes.

Postcolonial feminisms have worked tirelessly to highlight the complexities of identities and resistance. Let us not undo all the blood, sweat, and tears with a comfortable yet taxing regression to a binary mode of thinking. Foreign policies, exclusionary domestic politics, racist immigration laws, and wars have been formulated and launched “at the tip of the clitoris,” to borrow Elizabeth Povinelli’s expression. [3] This is the preferred site where anxieties about national identity and cultural diversity are played out; this is where Eltahawy drives her argument of hate home. Povinelli shows that in the mid to late 1990s, debates on “genital mutilation” and clitoridectomy abounded in the Western European and American public spheres that were increasingly dealing with the presence of ethnic others. Outlawing these practices as barbaric made it possible to exclude the uncivilized other while producing the fantasy of a national civilized collective will. In the United States, the urgency that an Illinois legislature expressed around the issue in 1997, “which suggested that the Midwest was in the grip of a clitoridectomy epidemic, was perhaps rather more motivated by their anxiety that urban areas like Chicago were haunted by the Black Muslim movement.” [4] This is not to suggest that genital mutilation and other cultural practices should not be subjected to scrutiny, nor to accuse, as some did, Eltahawy of merely performing for a Western audience. These are discussions we should necessarily be having, in both local and international public fora. However, holding up the clipped bundle of nerves to public scrutiny is not an answer. It is only when we start looking beneath the nerve endings to identify the roots and layers of our multiple oppressions that we can begin to ask the right questions; and the best answers, to be sure, lie beneath the tip of the clitoris.

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[1] For a more detailed analysis on deconstructing gender, see Afsaneh Najmabadi (2006) Beyond the Americas: Are Gender and Sexuality Useful Categories of Historical Analysis? Journal of Women’s History, 18(1), 11-21.

[2] Jasbir Puar (2004). Abu Ghraib: Arguing against Exceptionalism. Feminist Studies, 30(2), 522-534.

[3] Elizabeth Povinelli (1998). The State of Shame: Australian Multiculturalism and the Crisis of Indigenous Citizenship. Critical Inquiry, 24, 575.

[4] Ibid.

10 comments for "Politics at the Tip of the Clitoris: Why, in Fact, Do They Hate Us? "

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Yay! Thank you, Sara Mourad, for articulating all the things I felt about al-Tahawi's article, but did not know how to say. Beautifully written. Cogently argued. Self-critical without falling into the orientalist trap. Bravo.

maia tabet wrote on May 03, 2012 at 09:09 PM
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Why the sudden shift in discussion ... theoretical framework, discourse.. etc.. does not erase the fact that this author is riding on Mona's work and does not bring anything new to the discussion... instead of dealing with the issue at stake!

jenin66 wrote on May 04, 2012 at 04:08 PM
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i watched the debate on MSNBC.without taking position on Mona's article,i was shocked that prof leila ahmed saw fit to use the tragedy of bouazizi immolation by fire just to illustrate a point

ferida ayoub wrote on May 04, 2012 at 06:50 PM
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In response to jenin66:

Not bringing anything new to the discussion? Clearly you did not read this piece closely enough. Sara's point is not solely to 'ride on Mona's work' as you suggest but to articulate how oppression in the Arab world is in fact much more layered and complex than what Mona puts forth. Sara argues that pitting Arab men against Arab women is counterproductive in that it overlooks the common oppression that these people face from various local and transnational institutions. Mona's piece on the other hand while perhaps effective in its illustrations merely reinforces essentialist claims and constraining binaries.

zeina wrote on May 05, 2012 at 09:18 AM
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A stupid response to Mona's provocative piece. Why do academics feel the need to retreat into jargon? How is "blurring the gendered binary and the unidirectional vector of women's repression" going to get women the right to drive in Saudi or free them from genital mutilation in Egypt?

Hoda Sharawi wrote on May 05, 2012 at 10:38 AM
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one of the most lucid and poetic answers to the irresponsible depiction of Arab men. Thank you Sarah.

zelamine wrote on May 05, 2012 at 11:08 AM
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Here's another good article in response to Eltahawy's article:

http://www.opendemocracy.net/tom-dale/hatred-and-misogyny-in-middle-east-response-to-mona-el-tahawy

firas abi ghanem wrote on May 06, 2012 at 02:49 PM
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Respondinng to Hoda Sharawi:

That's easy. Because it sees the constructs that oppress women for what they are: constructs.

A dialogue of hate more often than not leads to...yes, more hate. As the article pointed out so well. What academics like Sara Mourad do is look at things in more creative ways so we may address oppression properly.

ldegeneve wrote on May 06, 2012 at 08:03 PM
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When will we all just realize that improving the situation of women in the Arab world (or anywhere else for that matter) requires ALL SORTS of interventions and questions and statements. It's not EITHER the Mona elTahawy/journalistic/simplistic (sic) approach, OR the academic, feminist/post colonial theorizing, but BOTH, and more!

We need a passionate call for struggle, which is NOT a place to use complex let alone obfuscating information about vectors and binary discourse, but rather one that grabs you in the gut and inspires outrage and action, AND an analytical, measured, inquisitive, pensive approach which is necessary in designing and improving effective reforms, policies, interventions, development programs, etc.

If we waited until our expressed passion against whatever injustice was done just the correct way satisfying proscribed academic rigor, etc then NOTHING in the world would ever change! Again, good luck getting an average politician for example, engaging with ideas about vectors and binaries. Come on, people, let's cut the unnecessary pussy-footing, and just GET TO GODDAMN WORK ON THIS THING!

Umm Ali wrote on May 07, 2012 at 09:32 AM
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When will we all just realize that improving the situation of women in the Arab world (or anywhere else for that matter) requires ALL SORTS of interventions and questions and statements. It's not EITHER the Mona elTahawy/journalistic/simplistic (sic) approach, OR the academic, feminist/post colonial theorizing, but BOTH, and more!

We need a passionate call for struggle, which is NOT a place to use complex let alone obfuscating information about vectors and binary discourse, but rather one that grabs you in the gut and inspires outrage and action, AND an analytical, measured, inquisitive, pensive approach which is necessary in designing and improving effective reforms, policies, interventions, development programs, etc.

If we waited until our expressed passion against whatever injustice was done just the correct way satisfying proscribed academic rigor, etc then NOTHING in the world would ever change! Again, good luck getting an average politician for example, engaging with ideas about vectors and binaries. Come on, people, let's cut the unnecessary pussy-footing, and just GET TO GODDAMN WORK ON THIS THING!

Umm Ali wrote on May 07, 2012 at 09:48 AM

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