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Misogyny in the Middle East: The Real Elephant in the Room

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A swarm of criticism has been leveled against Mona Eltahawy's recent Foreign Policy cover story on the state of women in the Arab world.

Some of it has been ridiculous, like Samia Errazzouki's allegation that the cover photo and story was "degrading" to women who wear the niqab (which would be a little like eating a sandwich that's already in your stomach). Some has been reasonable, like from Nesrine Malik in the Guardian, who asserts that no man is born hating women, and the fight should not be aimed at men, but at the patriarchal system that both men and women subscribe to.

But when I came across Max Fisher's piece in The Atlantic on the "real" roots of sexism in the Middle East (it's not Islam, race, or hate, he says), I felt as if the conversation had gone from merely ignoring the elephant in the room to outrightly denying that it even takes up any space.

Having spent the first 24 years of my life growing up in Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan as part of a Muslim family, I can't be so simplistic to allege that all of the misogyny in the Arab and/or Muslim world is a consequence of just one or two factors. But I also can't be naive enough to dismiss or even downplay one of the major, central forces driving it.

Saying that sexism and misogyny in the Middle East has "nothing to do" with Islam (or any Abrahamic religion for that matter) is symptomatic of either denial or fear.

The Quran is written in Arabic. And the people of Egypt, the largest Arabic-speaking Muslim country in the world, largely believe it to be the immutable, divine word of God -- not unlike most people in other Arab and Muslim countries. The majority of Muslims won't even touch or recite the holy book unless they have done wudhu (cleansing) and/or ghusl (bathing). Women are not allowed to recite it while they're menstruating. That is how much it's revered.

In that context, cherry-picking favorable passages becomes problematic for true believers. And at various points, the Quran, like the other Abrahamic scriptures, contains passages that are plainly sexist: from advocating beating women (4:34), to advocating sex with female prisoners of war even if they're married (4:24), to instructions on how to divorce a wife who hasn't yet had her first period (65:4), to declaring menstruation an illness (2:222), to making two female witnesses equivalent to one male because "if one errs, the other can remind her" (2:282), to saying straight out that men are superior and have authority over women (2:228, 4:34). And that's just a sampling. The hadith, or traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, go even further.

The classic response to these kinds of citations is that the passages have been "misinterpreted" and/or taken "out of context" -- which, of course, is a loaded phrase. But metaphorical interpretation is largely a luxury for the well-to-do armchair moderate. Even if this argument had any merit, it simply doesn't work in a practical sense.

The Egyptian people have just elected a government where 67% of the vote went to Islamists -- 38% to the Muslim Brotherhood and 29% to the ultra-conservative hardline Al-Nour party. These leaders are not known to interpret Scripture in a metaphorical way -- yet they have the support of a majority of the country. Similar election results have been seen in Tunisia.

Now, if entire nations of people have been raised to believe that these passages from the Quran are not only immutable and divine, but also that challenging them can be punishable by death -- how unreasonable is it to think that it would have a deep, lasting impact on their attitudes toward women? Would it not be near delusional to think otherwise?

Clearly, these issues are not unique to Islam. As incidents like the recent walkout of students during Dan Savage's speech criticizing the Bible for its homophobia have demonstrated, we're getting to a point where the fight for basic civil rights and societal progress will necessarily require open, often aggressive criticism of religion. The Torah and Bible are equally rife with misogynistic passages, and the effects are still seen in the U.S. today with the religious right's burgeoning campaign against contraception and abortion rights, alongside other campaigns opposing marriage equality, stem cell research, and teaching proper science in schools.

However, while criticizing the Bible may score you a scathing headline or two on the Fox News website, rarely will it literally put your life in danger.

This is why it isn't difficult to understand why Eltahawy went some of the distance (acknowledging a "toxic mix of culture and religion" as an etiology in passing), but stopped short of a potential fatwa risk. It's also easy to understand why Fisher decided to dismiss religion as a contributing factor to misogyny in the Middle East, bizarrely laying blame on the historical colonial rulers of Muslim lands like the Turks, British, and French instead. It is for the same reason that Yale decided to publish a book about the Danish Muhammad cartoons -- without the cartoons; or Comedy Central repeatedly decided to censor images of the Prophet Muhammad on South Park, while letting other religious figures run loose onscreen.

Clearly, fear is an effective deterrent. And this is exactly how terrorism works: this is how perfectly intelligent, well-read writers, commentators, and broadcasters can rationalize themselves into becoming unaware victims of it.

This is no replacement for the truth. An argument that takes the effect of a certain dynamic and presents it as a cause sounds circular. Saying "they hate us because they hate us" does not leave a whole lot of room for solutions.

This fight is going to be harder than that. Mona Eltahawy has done a fantastic, brave thing by starting up the conversation in the way that she did, particularly after the horror of what she went through in Egypt last year. But unless all of the contributing causes are acknowledged and fought -- as dangerous as this may be to do -- these things will continue. If you want to fight patriarchy, but stop short of criticizing religion -- you're not fighting patriarchy. Period.