Do Arabs Really ‘Hate’ Women? The Problem With Native Informants

Huff Post

Why Do They Hate Us?” asks the latest cover ofForeign Policy magazine. Beneath the title stands a cowering woman wearing nothing but black body paint resembling the niqab, or full Islamic face veil.

Egyptian feminist Mona Eltahawy authored the article. Her central contention — that Arab Muslim culture “hates” women — resurrects a raft of powerful stereotypes regarding Islam and misogyny. It also situates Ms. Eltahawy’s work within a growing trend of “native informants” whose personal testimonies of oppression under Islam have generated significant support for military aggression against Muslim-majority countries in recent years.

Books by these “native voices” — including Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s “Infidel,” Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita” in Tehran, and Irshad Mandji’s “Faith Without Fear” — have flown off the shelves in post-9/11 America despite being roundly rebuffed by leading feminist academics such as Columbia University’s Lila Abu-Lughod and Yale’s Leila Ahmed. Saba Mahmood, another respected scholar, noted that native informants helped “manufacture consent” for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by serving up fear-inducing portrayals of Islam in “an authentic Muslim woman’s voice.”

Although such depictions have proven largely inaccurate and guilty of extreme generalizations, they have become immensely popular. Why? Because these native “testimonials” tell us what we in the West already know — that there’s something inherently misogynistic about Muslims and Arabs.

By stirring up our sympathies and reinforcing our prejudices, individuals like Ms. Hirsi Ali and Ms. Eltahawy have climbed to the top of the media ladder. Their voices are drowning out the messages of more nuanced, well-respected scholars.

High-profile conservatives like Rick Santorum, Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robertson — men who have impeded the feminist movement at virtually every turn within the United States — have enthusiastically argued that Islam oppresses women. Indeed, the only women George W. Bush seemed to care about “liberating” lived in Afghanistan and Iraq. As Guardian correspondent Polly Toynbee noted, the burka became “shorthand moral justification” for the war in Afghanistan.

Though neoconservative pundits have yet to fully embrace Ms. Eltahawy, they will doubtless applaud her efforts to reveal “the pulsating heart of misogyny in the Middle East” as well as her assertion that “the Islamist hatred of women burns brightly across the region — now more than ever.”

Ms. Eltahawy, like most critics arguing that the Arab Spring is bad for women, grounds her argument in examples from Egypt. She is justifiably incensed at the military’s sickening abuses of female protesters, something she experienced first-hand. Ms. Eltahawy is similarly correct to lambast female genital mutilation, a practice that is disturbingly widespread in both Egyptian Muslim and Coptic Christian communities.


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