The battle for the soul of the Arab man

The highly polarized debate over the status of Arab women overlooks the fact that men can be victims of the patriarchy too.

May 14, 2012 21:50
Women in Egypt [illustrative]

Veiled women in Egypt 370. (photo credit: Amr Dalsh / Reuters)


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The highly polarized debate over the status of Arab women overlooks the fact that men can be victims of the patriarchy too, and that the identity of Arab men is a battlefield in the cultural war between East and West.

“Why do they hate us?” was the controversial question posed by the Egyptian-American columnist Mona Eltahawy in the hotly debated May/June issue of Foreign Policy magazine. “Until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors on our streets and in our homes, our revolution has not even begun,” writes Eltahawy. “Name me an Arab country, and I’ll recite a litany of abuses fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion.”

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Although Eltahawy’s essay is, sadly for Arab women, factually accurate and I agree with almost everything she says, I find myself differing with her about what she does not say.

To borrow her own words, Eltahawy’s essay, despite the substantial space available to her, does not move beyond reciting a long “litany of abuses.” She makes no attempt to depict the complexity of the situation and highlight the gray areas. Largely missing from her analysis are the diverse shades of opinion and attitudes across the Arab world, and the very real gains made by Arab women in many countries, especially in the professional and educational spheres.

As a long-time admirer of Eltahawy’s journalism and activism, I find it hard to fathom why liberal, empowered Arab women who have challenged discrimination in every walk of life hardly feature in her article, though she does mention some who have resisted the abuse of “virginity tests” and forced marriage, or defied the Saudi ban on female driving.

Her loaded “why do they hate us?” question also turns a blind eye to a highly inconvenient reality for advocates of gender equality like myself: many Arab men and women do not regard traditional gender attitudes to be a sign of hatred, but rather of love and respect.

In an interesting turning of the tables, conservative Arabs are reciprocating the Western interest in the subordinate position of Arab and Muslim women by setting up think tanks to examine the “oppressed” status of the Western woman.

Weird, you say? Yes, until you consider that many conservatives in the West hold similar views of their societies, as reflected by the recent so-called “war on sex” launched by many of the candidates in the Republican primaries. And I’m sure many haredi (ultra-Orthodox) women in Israel do not regard a “dignified” dress code or the erasure of women’s faces from billboards or de facto gender segregation on some buses, with women forced to sit in the back, as signs of their inferiority.

In fact, you could say that one major factor behind the patriarchal order’s durability and longevity, which survives to some degree even in the more egalitarian West, is its ability to co-opt and condition certain women into accepting and even embracing the status quo and linking the status of some women to the oppression of others.

THIS BRINGS me to another breed of Arab men completely absent from Eltahawy’s essay: those who believe in women’s rights and have stood shoulder to shoulder with women in their quest for (greater) equality.

In fact, perhaps the first advocate for greater rights for women in Egypt was Qasim Amin, who predated Eltahawy more than a century ago in his The Liberation of Women (1899).

“Throughout the generations our women have continued to be subordinate to the rule of the strong and are overcome by the powerful tyranny of men,” he wrote. “The inferior position of Muslim women is the greatest obstacle that prevents us from advancing toward what is beneficial for us.”

It would also seem that just as women have become a political football in the culture war between a hegemonic West and a defensive Arab world, it is my view that men have, too. Western discourse, especially in conservative circles, tends to focus on the Arab man as a woman-hater or terrorist, ignoring the liberal breed of Arab men I mentioned above. Meanwhile, in a supposed bid to defend their culture against the onslaught of modernity, as well as to protect the patriarchal privileges they enjoy, conservative Arab elites talk up traditional gender roles and mock and demonize men who deviate from them as either weaklings or Western stooges.

Moreover, one factor behind the enduring presence of patriarchy in the Arab world is what the academic Deniz Kandiyoti called the “patriarchal bargain” in which the Ottomans, British and French bought the submission of men by offering them absolute power over women. Arab dictators like Hosni Mubarak have played similar tricks. As one Egyptian feminist put it to me: “If you can’t control your income, the fate of your family or the politics of your country, then you will try to control what you can, that is the private sphere.”

In addition, though women are the traditional patriarchy’s greatest victims, many men suffer too. After all, the patriarchal order is in place primarily to serve the interests of the top dogs, the alpha males, with the beta and gamma males often oppressed severely, as the beatings and rapes of young male protesters in Egypt clearly illustrate.

Traditional concepts of manhood can also hurt those men unwilling or unable to live by them. The gap between the regular Arab man, the “average Mo,” and the Arab myth of manhood is bound to breed feelings of inadequacy, because, in societies where many women have become men’s equals and even surpassed them in schools, universities and the workplace the chasm between fantasy and reality is a yawning one.

Moreover, it can leave impressionable men who hold no grudge against women and have no objections to living in equality with them unwilling to do so publicly to avoid mockery from their peers and superiors. As long as conservative circles continue successfully to equate female emancipation with male emaciation, capitulation to foreign powers and the loss of cultural authenticity, the quest for gender equality will stall.

What we need are mainstream, “average Mo” role models who demonstrate that believing in gender equality squares with being a man, and that empowering women also empowers men and society as a whole. And this is one lesson that the revolutionary youth in Egypt and Tunisia who have inspired the Arab world can teach over time.

The writer is a Belgian-Egyptian journalist and writer who currently lives in Jerusalem.

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