Let’s Talk About Sex

Four takes on Mona Eltahawy's cover piece on misogyny in the Middle East and Foreign Policy's inaugural Sex Issue.


I had long been waiting for an article like Mona Eltahawy’s (“Why Do They Hate Us?,” May/June 2012), without which the Arab Spring would be little more than a reshuffle of political leadership. Eltahawy struck all the right notes. She questioned the “revolutionary” nature of the uprisings, explored the “toxic mix of culture and religion” in the region, and correctly blamed the West for the “cultural relativism” that allows medieval practices in the Arab world to go unchecked.

By publishing such a daring article — in a “Sex Issue” with pictures of a nude woman, no less — Eltahawy exposed herself to accusations of blasphemy by Muslim readers. This makes Eltahawy a brave Egyptian, one of the few true revolutionaries the nation’s uprising has produced. Revolutionaries must sometimes rely on generalizations to provoke. While Eltahawy’s title suggests that all Arab men hate all Arab women, she in fact takes a swipe at the entire Arab-Islamic establishment, which includes men and women.

Like Eltahawy, I have been disappointed with the results of the Egyptian uprising. But while the rallies in Cairo’s Tahrir Square might not constitute a revolution, Eltahawy’s article certainly does. Discussion about the essay may still be taking place largely in elite circles, but this kind of article is a prerequisite for steering the debate on the street away from meaningless political bickering and toward talk of change that matters.

Washington Bureau Chief, Al Rai
Washington, D.C.

Do They Really Hate Us?

Does Mona Eltahawy’s thesis that terrible things happen to women in the Middle East because Arab men “hate” women square with reality on the ground?

Let’s start with one of the most high-profile examples of gender discrimination in the Arab world: Saudi Arabia’s female driving ban. According to Gallup surveys, the majority of women and men in the kingdom say they oppose the ban. Saudi women, in other words, continue to be barred from the wheel because of political calculations by a small but powerful group of conservatives — not generalized male antagonism. This complex dynamic is harder to fit into a sound bite than “they hate us,” but is far closer to the truth. The majority of Arab men also support equal access to education for boys and girls, equal legal rights for men and women, and even a woman’s right to work at any job for which she is qualified.

Do men support all these rights as strongly as women do? No. And the biggest gender gap is on women’s employment. But men’s views of women’s rights matter. Gallup found that the more men support women’s participation in the workforce in a given country, the more women are likely to work in professional jobs.

So the key question is: What propels progressive views of women’s rights among men in the Arab world? The data show that men’s views of sharia law have no correlation with whether they support women’s equality — and that this support is predicated on far more pragmatic factors. In a report to be published this summer, Gallup analysts found that across the Arab world, men’s support for women’s equal legal status and right to hold any job was positively linked to high male employment, life satisfaction, and other measures of economic and social development, such as education and the country’s score on the U.N. Human Development Index. This suggests that economic trouble is a greater threat to women’s rights than public support for religious legislation — not as sexy a conclusion, but a far more actionable one.

I trust Eltahawy cares as much as I do about the injustices perpetrated against women in the Middle East. She’s not our adversary. Those who beat and rape women, or let those who do so get away with it, are the enemy. But conflating women’s rights advocacy with Arab self-hate or Islam-bashing doesn’t empower the champions of change — it aids their enemies and alienates Arab men from the cause of women’s advancement. Any solution toward greater gender justice should embrace — not eliminate — indigenous cultural and religious frameworks that grant women the rights they desire and deserve.

Executive Director and Senior Analyst
Gallup Center for Muslim Studies
Washington, D.C.


Where’s The Love?

I don’t think they hate us. Hatred is an emotion that requires a degree of equality. It’s more that they don’t see us. This is especially true in a culture that teaches young boys to feel superior to their sisters and even their mothers, and women to be ashamed of their feminism and hide it in every way.

This is a personal reflection based on my upbringing and experience as an Egyptian woman. I don’t want to generalize, and I cannot speak of the “Arab world” or “all men.” I know many young men who appreciate the women in their lives and share our fights more than many women do. Yet I don’t feel loved when I walk in the street and hear insults. I don’t feel loved when I get better grades than my male colleagues and hate myself for it. My friend doesn’t feel loved when she gets divorced from a man who beats her every day and feels guilty about it. Women don’t feel loved when they run for elections and are pressured to quit. All simply because we are women!

We revolted, and we are asked to go home. We stood at the front lines of the revolution, and we are asked to shut up. We give birth, and they want to take away our womanhood. We bring generations into this world, and we are accused of meaning nothing more than a meal and a clean shirt. Do they love us? I don’t think so.

Youth Initiatives Associate, U.N. Women
Cairo, Egypt       

On Special Issues

In introducing its Sex Issue, Foreign Policy explained that “Women’s bodies are the world’s battleground, the contested terrain on which politics is played out. We can keep ignoring it. For this one issue, we decided not to.” The statement suggested that 1) it is possible to capture “women’s issues” or “sex” within a single issue (can you imagine a special issue on “power” or “economics?”) and that 2) sex, women, and gender are all “special issues” that FP readers can by and large ignore. The introduction was almost an apologetic warning: “Don’t worry, we’ll return to our regularly scheduled programming after this issue.” The topics that FP considered relevant for this issue, moreover, seemed dated, simplistic, and out of touch with some of the amazing research happening in these areas.

To be clear, this wasn’t a “sex” issue — it was a “women’s” issue, at best. But an issue focused on women could have included analyses that went beyond trite questions about why the world needs more women leaders and which world leaders are the most sexist, and a list of “The Most Powerful Women You’ve Never Heard Of” — unless you have heard of them, which may very well have been the case if you follow the news closely. Rather than having Mona Eltahawy reproduce a clichéd narrative of “why they hate us” (and please, the cover photograph was a sensationalized, sexist embarrassment), why not include perspectives from someone like journalist Dorothy Parvaz, who actually lives in the Middle East and has written on not only the Arab Spring but also on the Syrian crisis and Egyptian feminist movements?

A special issue on sex and international relations, meanwhile, could have been fantastic. In addition to Karim Sadjadpour’s article on sex and politics in Iran, FP might have explored research on sexual violence as a tool of war, the Republican Party’s current fixation on bedroom politics, the impact of sex scandals on political leaders, and the withholding of sex by women for political leverage. If FP wanted to focus on gender rather than sex or women, it might have highlighted cutting-edge research on gender norms and international relations, including Claire Duncanson’s research on “peacekeeper masculinity” within the British military, Marianne Bevan’s analysis of international policing and gender, Swati Parashar’s work on female militants, Caron Gentry’s analysis of female suicide bombers, or work on Palestinian masculinity.

Women are half the population (are we still having this discussion?), and norms associated with gender and identity affect everyone. So forget the special issues. Instead, start publishing more articles that focus on gender and pay more attention to the excellent research on gender, feminism, and sex that is happening all around you. Your readers will thank you.

Department of Government and International Relations
University of Sydney
Sydney, Australia

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