Foreign Policy magazine’s “Sex Issue” has been under the spotlight for the past few days, and not for the reason you might expect. Magazines titled “The Sex Issue” usually celebrate having sex and active sexualities – but not this one. This sex issue aims to consider “how and why sex –in all the various meanings of the word – matters in shaping the world's politics.”
Fair enough. But this seemingly noble attempt to discuss women and their role in international politics is immediately overshadowed by the magazine’s cover image (above). Depicting a highly sexualized (ostensibly, Muslim and Middle-Eastern) woman with a black niqab painted on staring alluringly out, it invites the reader to come rescue her. The White Savior Complex chimes in from the get-go.
I’ll just say right now that I’m not Muslim, or of Middle Eastern descent. I don’t personally know or understand the complex, inner workings of Islam or the experiences of the Arab women in the Middle East. But upon reading Mona Eltahawy’s cover story, “Why Do They Hate Us?” I’ll say that I was pretty pissed off.
The title itself is insanely problematic. Eltahawy, an Egyptian-American, immediately sets herself up as the voice of all Arab women with her use of “Us”, and the readers are made to assume that what she has to say is fact. And then there’s the “They.” Who are “they?” According to Eltahawy, “they” are Arab men – and all of them hate Arab women.
She paints a portrait of Arab women as oppressed victims, without a voice and in need of saving. She strips them of their agency, and blames it on the “hate” of the men. But this is a gross oversimplification of a complicated issue. While Eltahawy presents a list of crimes committed against women in Arab nations, she ignores the deeper roots of gender inequality that are evident when looked at in a colonialist/post-colonialist framework. Eltahawy relies on “hate” to make her argument, disregarding the socioeconomics and political causes of the gender inequality in Arab nations.
Moroccan-American writer Samia Errazzouki wrote a fantastic critical response to Foreign Policy piece, stating, “The monolithic representation of women in the region, illustrated by an over-sexualized image of splattered black paint over a nude body, however, does nothing to rectify the position of women in any society.”
The sub-heading of the article is also insulting: “The real war on women is in the Middle East.” Playing into the rhetoric currently used in the United States regarding the horrific women’s health legislation, Eltahawy aims to divert the (ostensibly, American) reader to look at the Middle East. She identifies Arab nations and Islam with misogyny, and furthers the Western idea that oppression only exists “elsewhere,” and not here. Forget that we need to contextualize and historicize misogyny cross-culturally, and conveniently ignore that Saudi Arabia (a key offending nation in Eltahawy’s article) has a more than amiable relationship with the United States.
As Nesrine Malik astutely pointed out, we need to challenge and fight the patriarchy, not men. To chalk up undeniable injustices towards women to Islam and the men themselves is a dangerous oversimplification, and takes the issue nowhere.
(Images via twitter, Foreign Policy)