Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Why Do They Hate Us: Culture NOT Religion

In an article published in US-based Foreign Policy Magazine, titled Why Do They Hate Us, Mona Eltahaway, who is often a guest commentator on news shows, brings up some very legitimate issues affecting women in the Middle East. She raises some good points, though paints all the issues with the idea that women are "hated," which is untrue.

She tries to link "Islamists" to the status of women in the Middle East:

"This, however, is no mere Saudi phenomenon, no hateful curiosity in the rich, isolated desert. The Islamist hatred of women burns brightly across the region -- now more than ever."


"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"
 [Let me say I have literally no idea what she is talking about. Urine is considered unclean in any circumstance I know of and no Muslim I know would pray in clothes ANYONE peed on.]

But this is a political and cultural issue, not a religious issue.

Numerous times Saudi Arabia, an easy target, was used as an example of a lack of women's rights:

"Saudi Arabia, the country where a gang-rape survivor was sentenced to jail for agreeing to get into a car with an unrelated male and needed a royal pardon; Saudi Arabia, where a woman who broke the ban on driving was sentenced to 10 lashes and again needed a royal pardon; Saudi Arabia, where women still can't vote or run in elections, yet it's considered "progress" that a royal decree promised to enfranchise them for almost completely symbolic local elections in -- wait for it -- 2015."

Having lived in Saudi Arabia I have to agree that women are treated more like second-class citizens. The entire infrastructure, from banks to airports to restaurants separates men from women with two doors marked WOMEN and MEN, invoking images of the US's segregated south before the civil rights movement.

But it is unfair to pin these ideologies on Islam. Within every country in the Mideast there are also other religions including Christians and Jews, and also many sects of Islam. Particularly Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, have large Christian populations.

The issue that needs to be addressed is deeply rooted in culture across all religions in the Middle East, and needs to be tackled from a religiously-objective standpoint. Even if you take God out of the discussion, some Arab men still believe women should be married and stay at home. And some of the ones who don't, still believe that women should live close to their families (or in their parent's home) and get permission from their fathers or male relatives to travel, marry, divorce, etc. In relation to other grievances these are not particularly suppressive norms, but it speaks to the very core of the issue. And when you compare these expectations of Arab women to the expectations of Arab men who are almost at the opposite end of the spectrum, the very real inequality is obvious, and ugly, and embarrassing. 

The gap in social expectation between men and women is what needs to be addressed. Arabs have a hard time really vocalizing and accepting that women should be free to wear what they want -- in all capacities -- from niqabs to bikinis. Even women are uncomfortable with this because modesty for women is deeply engrained, as is the need for femininity. But men have no qualms about wearing swimming trunks and no shirt on the beaches of the Middle East. Men are not questioned when they come home late at night. Men are not considered a burden on their families if they never marry. Men are not frowned upon for being loud in public.

To this point, I agree from my own experience, with Eltahawy's assessment that "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."

Of course, not every Arab family subscribes to these notions. Not every Arab woman is oppressed.

The point is not to make a sweeping diagnosis of the whole region, but to encourage the revolutionaries to not stop short at deposing dictators, and to encourage women to speak up at a time when the popular voice has become so important.

And let's not make a very legitimate discussion into a religious issue.


James Jackson said...

Excellent post, Samira. Let me raise this point: would you agree or disagree with the statement that religion and culture are virtually interchangeable and inexorably intertwined? That is to say, the *culture* of chauvinism and misogyny is a consequence of religious belief?

The counter to this is that for centuries, Christianity was equally oppressive to women, yet most "Christian" nations have made tremendous progress in women's rights. Likewise, most (really all) of my Muslim friends are hardly oppressive toward women, yet I do not question the sincerity of their beliefs.

At any rate, is it even possible in most Arab countries to separate religion and culture, at least in the minds of those who live there?

S said...

Thanks James. I think separating cultural practices from religious beliefs is particularly difficult with Muslims in the Middle East (though I would include a few other countries as well). So much of what people practice is "handed down" that the distinction becomes lost in the mix.

But I wholeheartedly believe that the two ARE and SHOULD be separated. France has French culture and norms that French people across all religions accept and take part in. So does America.

I think the treatment of women is a learned practice in the Middle East rather than a religiously-mandated one. Muslims in Bosnia, Turkey and Indonesia - the largest Muslim country in the world - have completely different practices and attitudes toward women.