Cairo, Egypt - When I began to read Mona Eltahawy's recent article in Foreign Policy magazine, it drew me back to my senior year at Princeton. As I walked into the lobby of the Woodrow Wilson School, I was taken aback by an art exhibit consisting of large collages of Arab children with guns, mosques in the shape of rockets, and covered women. The images were not only offensive, but also diminished the Arab and Muslim worlds and their people to inherently violent and oppressive entities. When I explained the danger of the stereotypes - that by depicting an entire religion and culture as hateful, it justifies aggression against it and carries with it life or death consequences for the people of the Middle East - I was told by members of the school's administration that the artist meant no offence and is in fact "sympathetic to the women of your region".
The artist's explanation was just as problematic as the paintings. It perpetuated the same stereotype that Eltahawy did when she argued, in essence, that the women of the Arab world are oppressed by their societies due to the barbaric nature of Arab culture and the Islamic religion. Eltahawy's piece, addressed to a western audience by virtue of its language, does nothing to benefit the women which it discusses. Rather, with its lack of nuance, it invites the Western world to "save" voiceless Arab women from their hateful societies and, by doing so, contributes to a part of the same story woven by US media and academia to justify costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Out of touch
Eltahawy's argument that a misogynistic culture and religion are at the root of hardships experienced by Arab women is out of touch. It ignores a reality in which many, if not most, women of the region not only take pride in, but derive strength from their varying traditions and beliefs. While Eltahawy does present important statistics on Arab women, they only tell part of the story.
Several aspects of women's lives must be improved; the same, however, is true for the lives of men of the region. Through centuries of colonisation, the peoples of the region - regardless of gender - have suffered at the hands of their rulers. The authoritarian governments that arose in the post-colonial era, which, until the Arab Spring, seemed undefeatable, and the policies they executed are at the real root of current suffering. The millions of men and women who took to the streets - from Tunisia to Yemen - recognised that.
Eltahawy points out that a man, Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, ignited the revolution. She neglected to mention, however, that he was finally driven to suicide by a policewoman who physically abused him. The gender of the security officer was not relevant; rather, her role as a representative of the inhumanity and corruption of the state points to the real core of regional injustices.
A closer look into two areas in which Egyptian women are disadvantaged - one on a legislative level, and the other on a social level - reveals flaws rooted in governance, rather than culture or religion.
Legislation relating to women remains highly problematic in many parts of the region. The governments and people of the Arab world, however, are far from monolithic. In the case of Tunisia, where the revolutions began, the family code, a body of law quite relevant to women's rights, parallels that of many western countries.
A history of family law in Egypt
In Egypt, family law is rooted in Islamic law, and specifically in Hanafi jurisprudence. The Hanafi doctrine is one of four widely accepted schools of Islamic thought derived in the ninth century by the scholar Abu Hanifa, who used sacred sources in addition to his own logic and exertion to derive a set of legal codes. During the first century of Islam, many scholars produced codes of law based on the same methods. Ruling elites cemented a select four as acceptable sources of legislation. In the case of Egypt, the earlier Islamic period allowed citizens some freedoms in their choice from the varying legislative sources. Later dynasties chose one set of legislation, which shifted between the four depending on the preferences of the ruler. The Hanafi doctrine was the official source of legislation under the Ottoman Empire. In the case of family law, Hanafi jurisprudence continued to dominate in Egypt under British occupation and the early decades of independence.
In terms of personal status laws relating to women, the Hanafi system was radical for its time and, like other schools of thought, was largely based on gender reciprocity. In the case of divorce, Hanafi law only allows women to initiate the process under specific circumstances and with rigorous requirements for witnesses. Given the realities of modern Egypt, this emerged as problematic.
In the 1970s, many influential figures worked to bring attention to the issue and the injustices it created for women. I Need a Solution, a 1974 film written by Hosn Shah, recounted the true story of a woman seeking to escape an abusive marriage. The main character spent years arguing her case in courts to escape a husband who refused to grant her a divorce out of selfish pride.
The woman's arguments were based on one of the other schools of Islamic thought, the Maliki doctrine, which grants women the right to initiate a no-fault divorce. She furthered her argument by citing a prophetic saying, or hadith, that allowed an unsatisfied woman to divorce her husband against his will with no concrete reasons. The film sparked outrage at the legal injustices, and helped pave the way for a set of reforms to personal status laws, lobbied famously for by first lady Jehan al-Sadat and issued by presidential decree in 1979.
In 1985, the Mubarak regime revoked the "Jehan Law" in what was likely an attempt to undermine the influence of the previous government. It was not until 2000 that a law granting women the right to a no-fault divorce was passed. Hosn Shah, who had continued to campaign for the cause, said at the declaration of the new law: "These rules were in the Islamic law 1,400 years ago." The case of divorce law in Egypt reveals how an oppressive government can choose to enforce unjust laws, despite the existence of religious support for the contrary.
Deconstructing the argument
On a social level, instead of attributing harassment to male hatred, as Eltahawy does, it would be useful to look deeper. Misattributing the causes as cultural or religious simply dehumanises a people and is unproductive to finding a solution. In Egypt, where harassment is endemic in urban centres, it is likely a symptom of greater social ills and not the root of the problem. While social awareness may help, harassment will not be eradicated without tackling real problems, which both men and women face, in areas including education, employment, and poverty. While it would take a great deal of research, it might be useful to look across the border at the Islamist-ruled Gaza Strip, where in recent years harassment has been scarce. While residents of the occupied Palestinian territories may face a host of hardships, they are among the most educated of the region, boasting a ninety nine per cent literacy rate (among both men and women). There could be a number of factors which contribute to the difference in harassment levels, such as greater population density or poverty in Cairo, but it would be far more useful to investigate those than to simply blame harassment on cultural or religious factors.
On the current political situation in Egypt, Eltahawy attempts to enforce her own point of view and forgets that freedom ultimately means allowing people to live as they choose. If a woman who aligns herself with Salafis, ultraconservative Muslims, is empowered to run for office but chooses to replace an image of her face with a symbol, then that is her choice. Photos of female candidates were plastered across the country and far outnumbered these Salafi symbols. Firsthand experience reveals that many who wear the face veil do so by choice, and claim that it draws respect for their words and actions rather than physical appearance. Whether one agrees with this perspective or not, it is important to remember that these viewpoints did not exist under the authoritarian crackdowns of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Rather, they arose out of looser restrictions for Islamists under Presidents Sadat and Mubarak. To try to silence these perspectives would be contrary to the very essence of freedom.
Many Arab countries, like those all over the world, have a long way to go in enhancing rights for women, and for men. In a region with rich cultural and religious traditions, it is likely that heritage will play an important role as several countries reshape their political systems and social ideals. It would be of great benefit to these nations to look towards the revolutionary spirit of Islam and the great historical achievements of their culture as they chart the future. By dismissing the traditions that form the identity of the region as hateful, Eltahawy has failed in contributing to the empowerment of Arab women. Rather, Eltahawy's article draws attention to the dehumanisation of Arabs in western media that enables self-interested governments to continue with the real wars on the Arab people, partly in the name of emancipating those who boasted the world's most powerful female leaders before western civilisations or countries even existed.
Sarah Mousa graduated from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 2010, and is a 2010-2011 Fulbright Scholar in Egypt.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.