The face of Islam, according to Foreign Policy

The issue focused on women in the Middle East, Russia and China – but completely ignored gender problems in the West.

Veil Protests
Foreign Policy magazine ignored Western threats to women's rights, such as discrimination in France [GALLO/GETTY]

Santa Barbara, CA –
The most recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine (May/June 2012), titled “The Sex Issue” created a huge controversy, especially among Muslim women who live in the West. They divided into two camps – criticising or celebrating the featured article written by Mona Eltahawy, the Egyptian-American journalist who became known globally during the Tahrir Square demonstrations after she was badly beaten by Egyptian police.

Thanks to her article, highly sophisticated arguments have been created among Muslim feminists as to how to deal with the highly politicised and contested subject of women and Islam. Among them, Noura Erakat’s article in Jadaliyya, and Sarah Mousa’s Al Jazeera piece are excellent works that give readers a feeling for the larger picture.

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To say the least, there was nothing new in Eltahaway’s article. Many of the issues she raised were already well known, thanks to Western media that has been issuing frequent alarmist warnings to the public about the menace of Islam. Especially, if such articles come from a Muslim woman, such as Ayan Hirsi Ali or Irshad Manji, their audience is automatically larger, and possesses a certain credibility due to the fact that they were born as Muslims. Anthropologists use the term “native informants” to identify the witness of insiders. Giving a platform to Muslim women writers critical of Islam has also become a very popular tactic in Europe. These commentators claim to speak from bitter experience about how Islam is bad for women. This makes the European public feel comfortable when they adopt public policies against Islamic practices.

It is of course understandable, and entirely natural, that Eltahawy should feel very hostile toward the Egyptian police. Their behaviour was inexcusable, no matter what happened in Tahrir Square on that very day. Many people, men and women lost their lives. It is still unknown which direction the struggle will take. It is also important to follow the struggle of young women and men respectably, so that they can freely practice their right of self-determination.

Provacative sexual dimension

While Muslim feminists struggle with how to deal with FP’s provocative focus on Muslim women, the military trial against the 9/11 plotters became world news. A defendant lawyer, Cheryl Bormann, appeared in the court room with a headscarf and Islamic-style dress, claiming to show respect for her client’s religious faith, even though she is not Muslim. Furthermore, she requested the court to order other women to follow her example, at least in dressing modestly, so that the defendants do not have to avert their eyes “for fear of committing a sin under their faith”.

Additionally, FP included a poster version in the form of a centre foldout as a free gift, perhaps unwittingly reminiscent of the notorious ‘playmate of the month’ foldouts from Playboy magazine.

She particularly blamed one of the female prosecutors whom she contended was dressing inappropriately, as she was wearing a skirt. The US Military Commissions at Guantanamo are under strict scrutiny by liberal lawyers due to various genuine problems, but no-one expected such a demand. This little scuffle about female dress codes also shows us how far we can be led astray by extremist positions. Why, in a military court – or any court – should respect for the religious beliefs of defendants require prosecutors to dress with excessive modesty? Such a demand diverts attention, by focusing on the wrong issue, and thereby creates a negative image associated with Islam’s supposed preoccupation with women body, and in this regard, it is as inflammatory as FP’s cover page.
FP deliberately designed its treatment of the sexual dimension of foreign policy to be provocative, both visually and substantively; the result was one huge soundbite. To some extent, this is an understandable expression of media ambition. Obviously, newspapers and magazines are receptive to what their readers would like to read and see. In this instance, this issue of FP gained worldwide prominence even before the print version became available. On the cover is a striking picture of a woman, at once threatening and seductive: her face covered, exposing only her eyes, her black hair, with her entire body painted black. There was a similar depiction of Muslim women wearing a burqa at a Paris fashion show when Sarkozy was using the “threat” posed by Muslim women to spark his ultimately unsuccessful presidential campaign.

Obviously by some, this FP cover was considered to be art. Additionally, FP included a poster version in the form of a centre foldout as a free gift, perhaps unwittingly reminiscent of the notorious “playmate of the month” foldouts from Playboy magazine. In what appears to be a Freudian slip, the picture is supposed to portray the prototypic Muslim woman, accented by her painted black skin. There is no other colour but black, meant to convey the sense of absolute “otherness” in the United States.

West conveniently left out

It has long been a popular theme among critical US race scholars in the post-9/11 era to explain how Muslims are being racialised in the United States. This picture is a good example of this pattern of “implicit” racialisation of Muslims. It also recalls Orientalist Mind, how the West became fascinated by Eastern private life and women, an alien and exotic domain that the coloniser could not fully grasp or penetrate. Edward Said’s writings provided a seminal understanding of the origins and evolution of Orientalism, and how its legacy lives on in the form of cultural and political discrimination.

“Perhaps to soften any impression of an Islamophobic intention, FP included articles on gender issues associated with China and Russia… in this respect it could be alleged that FP intends to address human rights relevance of sex in cilisational and geopolitical settings that pose threats to US global supremacy.

You might wonder about what happened recently to persuade the editors of FP to have this feature devoted to sex and foreign policy (rather than to the more neutral phrasing of “gender and foreign policy”). Also, it is fair to ask why was not the theme focused on women globally (including in the United States), rather than to present this unbalanced and harshly critical depiction of sexuality in the Muslim world. Perhaps, to soften any impression of an Islamophobic intention, FP included articles on gender issues associated with China and Russia, countries about which the US public harbours serious suspicions and are thought of as geopolitical adversaries.

In this respect, it could be alleged that FP intends to address the issue of the human rights relevance of sex in civilisational and geopolitical settings that pose threats to US global supremacy.
Sex is resonant with various aspects of US electoral politics. Recently, there has been a “War on Women” being waged by the Republicans. Obama is very popular among women voters for obvious reasons; his social policies are more progressive and gender friendly compared with those of the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney. The Romney campaign organisers seem in a panic mode, desperately trying to find ways to compete with Obama for the hearts and minds of female voters. As the US political lexicon is comfortable using the word “war” in non-military contexts – as in “war on poverty”, “war on drugs” and “war on terror”; it was not hard to see why “war on women” has become the latest battle cry.

In light of this, you might have expected that there would be some articles about US political controversies relating to sex. However, when American people hear about war these days, they think first and last of the Islamic world. The FP editors reflect this mood, accordingly twisted their approach, and rather than dealing with domestic US politics on such key questions as abortion, contraception rights, women’s reproductive life, how to stop insurance companies from proscribing birth control pills to women who work for religious organisations – or, more importantly, how to interpret the gay marriage controversy. Instead, they simply reaffirmed how bad Islam as a religion and culture is for women.

‘Why they hate us’

They invoke George W Bush’s tag line about “why they hate us” to reinforce their indictment of Islam. At first glance, it is not so clear who hates who, and for what reason. When I first saw the FP cover I assumed that the focus would be on why Westerners hate Muslim women, because some wear a burqa. But its message was different, namely, that Muslim men hate Muslim women, something that the US public clearly needs to realise and do something to correct.

“When I first saw the FP cover I assumed that the focus would be on why Westerners hate Muslim women, because some wear a burqa.

The featured section of the magazine contains several articles addressing a range of issues: “The Bedroom States”, by Joshua E Keating, describes – from Iran to India – a variety of public policies hostile to women in one way or another. It is informative and interesting, yet it avoids mention of any Western countries’ public policies. Don’t you think that some European countries refusing to grant a visa to immigrants who marry a person from their native country is a bad policy? Or what about the French law banning girls from wearing a headscarf in high schools, or a burqa in public spaces? Are not such public policies hostile towards the women affected?

If a French immigration officer shows a picture of men kissing men or of a man beating his wife and asks whether this is acceptable, is this not insulting and discriminatory behaviour, because in French practice these pictures and exams are only given to Muslims? Or take Karim Sadjapour’s article on “the Ayatollah under the bed (sheets)”, which certainly warrants an equivalent piece talking about sex scandals in Catholic churches worldwide. Or why do equally problematic rules about sexual discrimination against women among Orthodox Jews not receive any notice? For instance, how many of us know that an Orthodox Jewish man can refuse to take a driver’s license exam administered by female officers – in Canada? But, we all know that women are not permitted to drive a car in Saudi Arabia, and cannot even be in the same car alone with a man with whom they are not related or married.  
Thanks to Western media we all have an extensive knowledge about many unacceptable behaviours of Islamic religion and culture, but we know little about comparable practices in other religions and cultures. Even small news, for example, in Saudi Arabia the government prohibits men from working in women’s clothing stores in order to create more job opportunities for women – this became front page news, without even pausing to consider that this restriction might actually be helpful for Saudi women.

We hear when Chechnya mandated women to wear a headscarf, but we are not often informed that such a decree was a matter of government discretion, and not a mandatory precept of Islam – nor considered respectful of human rights in many Muslim countries. When a Muslim government makes a law that bans women from wearing a headscarf in universities, this does not make news in the West. Instead, it is treated as a step forward for women – because it is discouraging religious traditionalism that is supposedly blocking the embrace of Western secularism and modernity.  

A global issue

Violence against women does not respect religious, cultural or state borders. Statistics are very clear on that. Women in politics in high level positions have to pay a big price no matter which country we consider, although some do better than others.

FP only pointed to the United States as a good example, how Secretary of State Hillary Clinton works on women’s issues while shaping US foreign policy. I am sure she has many things to say about the United States, if FP would ask, about the relevance of her gender to her unsuccessful presidential campaign. But, this is not what readers seem to care about. It would have been much more impressive and acceptable if such critical issues were presented not only for selected adversary countries and cultures, and if there was not exhibited such bias and partisanship.

I think we are in a period when women’s rights can and should be dealt with in an equal and just manner that befits 21st century globalisation, distinguishing between what is acceptable what is not through an optic of cultural respect and universal standards.    

Hilal Elver is a research professor at the UC Santa Barbara, and the author of the Headscarf Controversy: Secularism and Freedom of Religion published by Oxford University Press, in 2012.