Us and Them: On Helpless Women and Orientalist Imagery

The web is abuzz with talk of Mona Eltahawy’s latest entry, which made its way onto the front cover of Foreign Policy, ‘Why Do They Hate Us‘, the “war on the women in the Middle East”; reactions vary from unwavering support to venom-laced condemnation, and a multitude of other postures in between. 

In the latest Foreign Policy feature, a part of their “sex edition”, Eltahawy laments that “they hate us”, an unashamed amalgamation directed towards men.

She writes:

“Yet it’s the men who can’t control themselves on the streets, where from Morocco to Yemen, sexual harassment is endemic and it’s for the men’s sake that so many women are encouraged to cover up.”

“…women are silenced by a deadly combination of men who hate them while also claiming to have God firmly on their side.”

“I’ll never forget hearing that if a baby boy urinated on you, you could go ahead and pray in the same clothes, yet if a baby girl peed on you, you had to change. What on Earth in the girl’s urine made you impure? I wondered.

Hatred of women.”

And as per usual, Eltahawy ends with what has become her catchphrase:
“We are more than our headscarves and our hymens.” 

The laundry list of crimes committed against women, including “virginity tests” and genital mutilation, are serious charges which should not be ignored nor should they be denied. Eltahawy, in her attempt to highlight indefensible crimes against women, reaffirms the banal archetype of the poor, helpless woman of the Middle East-North Africa.

Eltahawy pens a lugubrious tale, where women of the Middle East-North Africa seem to have been forever chained to the floors, as captives. History is conveniently left out of this verbose condensation. There is no talk the Arab women of her native Egypt who defiantly took part in the forceful, countrywide revolution against the British occupation of both Egypt and Sudan in 1919, which led to Britain’s recognition of Egyptian independence in 1922; women, men, merchants, workers, religious leaders, students et al. held unified strikes against the British occupation on a daily basis, not in separate stalls but in the company of one another. 

It can be argued that Mona Eltahawy’s piece superficially condenses a complex subject into an easy-to-swallow ‘them vs. us’ dichotomy, where the role of totalitarian leaders and authoritarian politics are both grotesquely marginalized in order to mournfully examine the cruelty of men, purposefully grouped into one easy to attack assemblage. They hate us, she laments, in a most puerile manner. Men hate women. A dichotomy which not only appoints Mona Eltahawy as the representative for all women of the Middle East-North Africa, but has caused many of her backers to argue that women disagreeing with her premise are suffering from a sort of internalized oppression, brought about due to a stigmatized, negative identity they have come to accept due the reoccurring torment women face at the hands of men. The argument that women are hapless casualties of either mans domineering, possessive “hatred” or of our own inability to see ourselves as such. It is an irony of sorts.

There are also unanswered questions:

1. Why not publish the article in Arabic, therein engaging with the intended audience more directly?
2. Why choose Foreign Policy as the platform and not a media outlet which would direct her piece at those she addresses?
3. Why is there so much orientalist imagery present? If she was not aware that these photographs would be used, did she take it up with Foreign Policy after realizing this?

The imagery used in Eltahawy’s piece are transcribed with words from her article; displayed are a number of nude women painted over in black, their eyes the most prominent feature. This ‘artistic’ representation is arguably an oversexualization of what Mona Eltahawy has long despised, the niqab. 

When I first saw the images, including the cover of Foreign Policy featuring her article with the same type of visual representation, it reminded me of at least two others; the January 2010 TIME cover featuring a young Afghan girl with her nose removed and a recent photograph taken of Sweden’s culture minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth , who took part in a bizarre event wherein people cut into a cake made in the shape of a naked upper body of an African woman, filled with a blood-red sponge.

The late Edward Saïd would be rolling in his grave – the above images are an orientalists dream; what is foreign and alien through the eyes of the West, as seen here in all of its sensual and sensationalist glory.

In “Orientalism” Saïd notes that ‘the Orient’ “almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.” In essence, it is a grandiose sweeping generalization.

In this case women are written of and portrayed as conquerable, inferior creatures who are either waiting on saviors or in denial as to how subjugated they truly are, while men are domineering barbarians whose primitive behavior is construed as being due to their almost inherent “hatred” of women. The female is exotic and forsaken and the male is sadistic and beastly.

These are the roles that have been written in our names, on our behalf, and marketed as being for our own good; often in our sweat, tears and blood. 

The photograph on the cover of Foreign Policy, the nude woman painted over so she may appear to be a niqabi, is not “us”, nor is Mona Eltahawy “us”, nor do her contentions define “us” – the women of the Middle East and North Africa.

It has been assessed by many who are now lining up in droves in Eltahawy’s defense that she did not make herself out to be a spokeswoman for the varied and unique women of the Middle East but any person, man or woman, who has read the piece even once can see that she does. They and Us. The tired and tried adage, the old and unfortunate sensationalist clash. Who is the “us” Mona speaks of so passionately if it is not all women of the Middle East? Does the word “us” lose its collective meaning, does it lose its sweeping incorporation?

Eltahawy’s article is mangled with oversimplification; it is not what she ‘meant’, another empty contention being thrown about in her defense, but what she has written that is up for debate. This abstract principle, to brush an entire group, in this case men, with the brush that they are inherently hateful towards women reeks of absurdity. Not only has Eltahawy demonized the men of the Middle East and confined them into one role, that of eternal tormentors, as her Western audience claps and cheers, she has not provided a way forward for these men. Are they eternally damned? Is this their own manifest destiny, one which has been predetermined at the point of conception? Do they have no way out of the sweeping accusation which brands them as natural haters of women? What of male feminists, are they forever struggling against their innate urge to hate women?

Mona Eltahawy has penned both men and women into a non-negotiable situation, charging men with hatred and women with helplessness; and as a woman of colour, of Middle Eastern origin, I will not allow my voice to be co-opted. Mona Eltahawy may be one of us, but she is not “us” nor does she define us.


62 thoughts on “Us and Them: On Helpless Women and Orientalist Imagery

  1. While I think Mona went too far in her use of the word ‘hate’, and I agree with your point that setting up such an unassailable dichotomy is of questionable value, I think her main premises hold true. I don’t see much refutation of them in the vitriol directed towards her either. Some basic facts are surely incontrovertible: the level of sexual harassment in the streets of heavily populated areas such as Cairo has reached unacceptable levels even by local standards; most men don’t see this as an issue; unless it is confronted it will get worse, not better. I’m sure she’s annoying to many people – her incessant cries of ‘Yalla’ during the recent military coup were enough to irritate me – but she isn’t the problem. And I really wouldn’t worry about what the ‘West’ (an Occidentalist term of course) thinks of the situation. Most Westerners couldn’t care less, and only come across the issue when their mother/sister/wife/girlfriend gets groped on Talaat Harb Street. That’s happening less and less these days, thanks to some high profile sexual assaults in Tahrir.

  2. Pingback: Mona: Why Do You Hate Us? « Tahrir & Beyond

  3. Mona El-Tahawy’s article, “Why Do They Hate Us?” completely misses the roots of the problem of women’s oppression. Mona’s article is to be commended for addressing the symptoms but clearly her diagnosis/analysis is severely lacking. Simply using this sensationalist “Men Hate Women” diatribe is analogous to when Bush and his cronies said that Al-Qaeda hates the U.S. for its freedoms. As if!! It totally misses the historical/social/economic undercurrents.

    Women all over the world, regardless of their faiths and geographical location, are subjected to violence, from the Middle East, to Europe, and the Asian and American continents. If one wants to analyze this further, one can make the undeniable argument that there is a socio-economic dimension to this violence. It is so very much complex than just simply putting the blame on men and their supposedly inherent, pathological issues. There are layers and layers of history, colonialism, poverty, etc that needs to be accounted for in any analysis on women’s oppression.

    Furthermore, I take issue with Mona’s article because it panders to a Western audience that will use her article as proof of their already-entrenched racist beliefs, the same audience that reads Ayaan Hirsi Ali as gospel for why the Christian world is more advanced, more progressive, etc. All nonsense of course but this audience will love this article and will praise it and Mona will become their darling Arab woman. (Do you really want to become this kind of spokesperson Mona?)

    Lastly, Mona’s article does not contribute in any singular way toward the improvement of women’s circumstances in the Middle East. Not one iota! The reason for this is that Mona simply does not address the real causes of oppression. If she were to write an article that addresses the real causes of oppression I can assure you that it would not be featured on the front page of any widely-circulated media outlet. The real, underlying causes simply are not as “sexy, provocative, and sensationalist” as stating “Why Do They Hate Us?”.

    All that was gained by this is that Mona will receive more coverage from Western media outlets, and she will be more in demand as an “Arab spokesperson”. And this is simply shameful.
    And we who try to provide in-depth analysis will have to battle one more simplistic, self-publicizing voice that provides easy, propagandistic, junk food fodder to the pro-Western mindset.

    • “All nonsense of course but this audience will love this article and will praise it and Mona will become their darling Arab woman. (Do you really want to become this kind of spokesperson Mona?) ”

      The answer is simply, yes. She is what many call a “House Arab”.

      • I disagree. Mona is coming from a position of justice and absolutely not kissing Colonial or Western butt at all contrary to all these claims. She is simply asking people to stay away from Women’s bodies and personhood. How is that unreasonable? Mona says it as it is not only in the Arab world but also in South Asia. Mona is calling a spade a spade and its got all Abayas in a knot.

      • Again, you are oversimplifying the obvious complexity and instead of commenting on the discourse you, like many, are attempt to defend her character; Mona Eltahawy accuses all men of “hating women”, this is a blatant sweeping generalization. Also, your opinion, that she is “coming from a position of justice” etc. is subjective; as an Arab woman of colour, who is capable of speaking on my own behalf, I vehemently disagree.
        In this piece she is not “simply asking” anything, she is accusatory, there are no questions directed at men but instead she has attached to their chests the scarlet letter of M (for misogyny).
        Also your “got all the Abaya’s in a knot” comment is extremely condescending to not only those who do not wear the Abaya, hijab et al. (myself included) but those who do of their own free will. Whether you meant to or not you are seemingly attempting to associate a disagreement with Eltahawy’s contentions with religious conservatism, which is not the case for many of those rebutting her article, myself (again) included.

      • Roqayah I want you to stick to the article and refute what Mona Eltahawy has written. Where is she wrong exactly? Have those things not happened and do they not continue to happen? Is female genital mutilation, rape and beatings of women not still pandemic? Are women still not confined to their houses, unable to drive. Are women not still harassed in the streets of the Middle East and South Asia. Can women be free in these countries? Are the laws not slanted to suit males? Are men not getting away with beating and murdering and raping women? Are women free in these countries to be who they want to be? The answer is a resounding NO! Case and point!

      • Much like the other rebuttals to critiques of Eltahawy’s piece you are ignoring the discourse and instead focusing on what none of our entries deny, that these crimes occur.
        I suggest you drop the condescending tone and instead focus on the discourse.
        Eltahawy brands all men of the Middle East-North African region as natural haters of women; her premise is that the crimes are to be attributed to their misogyny. My questions stand re: where is the way forward? What of men, even Egyptian men, who have called for the empowerment of women including Hossam el-Hamalawy and Tarek Shalaby?
        You seem to ignore what suits you by highlight, as stated above, what we have neer denied; that crimes against women exist and are not to be condoned. You instead make it seem as though anyone, men included, have denied these claims.
        Her article focused on the inherent hatred Arab/ME men hold as a reason for these acts; that they simply hate us all and this tret is as such. Is this not a juvenile oversimplication? Of course.

      • The juvenile oversimplification is that Mona’s article has a blind hate on for Arab men. THAT is an oversimplification an that is not the case at all. I think she is coming from a place of compassion and love for the Middle East- men included. Nowhere does she say its ‘inherent’ for men to hate women. She is pointing out that it is time that it all stops. And instead of attacking people that speak in favor of women rights, I think people would be better advised to fight the system of oppression and the oppressors that are causing so much suffering in the world. Otherwise they come off as an apologist for men’s crimes against women and they contribute to the pain instead of help resolve it. Mona is completely right to call a spade a spade!

      • You’ve yet to point out where Eltahawy provides a solution, a way forward for men; also, you’re condescending tone re: “…instead of attacking people that speak in favor of women rights, I think people would be better advised to fight the system…” is ironic to say the least.
        This is a debate sir, and I am not the only Arab woman to produce such a piece in response to Eltahawy’s, many of them are students, Egyptian activists and media figures; Dima Khatib, Gigi Ibrahim et al.

        “We have no freedoms because they hate us, as this Arab woman so powerfully says.

        Yes: They hate us. It must be said.”

        Yes they (men) hate us (women) is what Eltahawy contends, so no sir I am not simplify her premise, it is an oversimplification in and of itself. I dissected what she wrote, not where you may “think” she is coming from, what she may have intended etc, but what was printed, period.

        You are free to call Eltahawy “completely right” as I am to vehemently disagree with you.

    • Brilliant article indeed.It’s just very disappointing to see a smart lady such as Mona being so limited (purposely or not) in her analysis.
      p;s: thank you Adele for your comment 🙂

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  11. Edward Said would not call Mona’s article Orientalist. He would probably roll in his grave over the misappropriation of the world Orientalism which is the exotification of the East and its values and cultures and people. Mona is not doing any of that. She is calling out for justice.

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  13. One small critique. many western men and women do not clap and cheer when we hear of atrocities anywhere; We cry and commiserate. No society is perfect, or one dimensional.

    I agree that oversimplification and essentialisation is dangerous, but can someone please explain to me the female circumcision statistics?
    I have checked them out, and even the most conservative assessment via the Egyptian government shows a 51% rate among unmarried women, the least affected group. I do not understand the modern day support for this tradition, can someone please explain it to me?

    • Please be careful when comparing Mona to Ayyab Hirsi Ali. Ayyan Hirsi Ali is a mad woman that hates social justice and progressive thinking and loves war and imperialism. Mona is fighting for justice for the people that she loves and cares about. Big difference.

    • I am a muslim woman living in the United States and I agree with every point made by Mona. People who didn’t like her article – 1. Please don’t talk about how US/other countries treat their women. The article is not about US, it’s about the middle east 2. Her article is about how women are being treated in this day and age – not how they were treated centuries ago 3. If you can, provide data to refute the instances of women abuses she mentions.

  14. Thank you for writing this powerful and important critique. Those who are claiming that Mona’s work doesn’t play into Orientalist stereotypes and the west’s racist construction of the “Arab world” (a reductionist term) should reflect on how Mona strongly supports banning the niqab and even called Israel “a democracy” despite the state’s brutal colonial violence against the Palestinians. How do you think this looks in the west’s imperial gaze?

    Look at the way Mona’s work plays into larger narratives and discourses that have a real impact in the world, particularly in the way the US oppresses racialized people in Muslim-majority countries. Her position on the niqab ban, for instance, is not merely about having “different interpretations” of Islam when the debate is showcased on CNN or other western mainstream media outlets. Question the way the images are juxtaposed when you see Mona debate with Heba Ahmed, a Muslim woman wearing niqab – the former is seen as the “good,” “progressive” and “integrated western” Muslim, whereas the latter is the “bad,” “regressive” and “radical foreign” Muslim. This fits so easily into the west’s dangerous good Muslim/bad Muslim dichotomy. Such dichotomous thinking is used in war propaganda, which has devastating consequences as well. And I agree with this critique that the oversexualized images of naked women painted in black have much to do with Mona’s anti-niqab stance (I’m not sure how anyone familiar with Said’s work could not see those images as Orientalist?).

    Look at what’s happening in Afghanistan. How has the construction of the “helpless Afghan woman” advanced US war and invasion – a war that continues to kill, bomb, torture, and rape Afghan women? This is why the native informant is dangerous: their role is to speak *to* western audiences and confirm simplistic and racist narratives of Muslim-majority countries that help shape perceptions, stereotypes, and policies. None of these critiques are denying that sexism and misogyny exists in Muslim-majority countries or that misogynistic men shouldn’t be held accountable for their crimes. It is the role Mona plays as a native informant and spokesperson for “all Arab and Muslim women” that dismisses, as other critiques have also pointed out, the work countless Arab and Muslim women have been doing on the ground to resist patriarchy and misogyny.

    • I would suggest you read Eltahawey’s article and stick to the content of the article and what it is saying and build your argument from there. What she has or may have said in the past or future or present, is of no consequence. What is important is that the words of her current article ring true. Mona is addressing the huge problem of violence against women in our nations that call themselves Muslim. Instead of attacking her, attack the problem. And I completely disagree that an article like her’s would be reason to invade or would dehumanize Muslims in any way. This sort of article is essential in order to shame people into starting dialog and addressing the issue. Your tangential argument is helping obfuscate the issue and denying the woman her voice. And that is the problem with the Muslim world. So insecure and self-righteous. Always silencing their own instead of realizing ‘hey, she may have a point’.
      And your accusations that she is an ‘informant’ or an agent of the west are completely preposterous and out of line. She IS the Arab woman doing the ground work against patriarchy and misogyny.

      • Arshad,

        I suggest you check your racism and sexism when you say things like Mona’s article “got all abayas in a knot” (um, seriously?).

        You are actually silencing very important critiques that Arab and Muslim women are writing when you distort their words and accuse them of making “personal attacks” against Mona. You’re missing how her problematic and simplistic framework plays into the racist construction that “helpless women of color” need to be saved from “dangerous men of color” (“imperilled Muslim women, dangerous Muslim men, and civilized Europeans,” in the words of Sherene Razack).

        You speak as if Mona is the only Arab Muslim woman doing work on the ground and that’s precisely the problem with the way she presents her article. As the author of the blog “Tahrir and Beyond” writes in her post “Mona: Why Do You Hate Us?”:

        “What is very troubling is her belief that she is the ‘voice’ for so many unheard women, who are oppressed and beaten by their husbands or shunned by the patriarchal Arab societies. She is the beacon of hope for Arab Muslim women living the male-dominated Middle East forced to wear the niqab and do slave work at home. Not only does she believe that she is speaking for these women, but she believes that she is one of the few (if not the only) who is brave, eloquent, and educated enough to vocalize these suppressed voices to the Western media like FP, BBC, CNN, who are of course incapable to reach these suppressed creatures, Middle Eastern women.”

        What about Arab women like Tawakkul Karman, Asmaa Mahfouz, Gigi Ibrahim, Nawara Negm, Samira Ibrahim? What about Arab women like Zainab and Maryam al-Khawaja? Do you know who they are, Arshad?

        And thanks for Orientalizing me when you project your stereotypes about the “Muslim world” (again, a reductionist term) upon me and say I’m “insecure.” I don’t deny patriarchy and misogyny in Muslim-majority countries or communities. I do, however, think it is dangerous when simplistic and Orientalist narratives are reproduced by someone who speaks on behalf of an entire group of people and confirms racist, dichotomous stereotypes about the so-called “Muslim world” for white western audiences.

        You also fail to see how her position on the niqab is connected to the how she has framed this article. As many anti-racist women of color feminists have articulated so well, anti-violence movements need to fight against oppression within our communities WITHOUT relying or depending upon the state that wants to destroy communities of color. Mona advocates for western GOVERNMENTS to ban the niqab and police the way women dress – the very same governments that want to bomb, invade, and occupy Muslim-majority countries. What does this tell you about her politics? What does it tell you about how problematic her “us” versus “them” paradigm is, and how lacking and irresponsible her analysis is?

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    • It’s truly hilarious to see the responses here from other so-called Arab Muslim woman.
      Please – Stick to the points she has outlined in her article – can you deny any of the statistics mentioned there??

      Muslims are so so insecure about their religion. And before I get flamed to death, let me point out that I am a muslim myself. But I keep an open mind, and feel that we need to change things when it comes to women’s rights and education.

      Don’t frame this as a Muslims vs western discussion. It is not.

      @Jehanzeb – I find nothing troubling at all in Mona talking as if she is the voice of many. The reality is that it feels that way because her article has received the support of many.
      Also, when you name twenty other Arab women and ask Arshad who they are.. that is just silly. Why is that relevant? Have they voiced their opinions on this subject? If not, then bring them into the discussion at all.

      For heaven’s sakes, fellow Muslims, wake up, wake up, Wake up!

      • “…so-called Arab Muslim woman…”; it seems as though Eltahawy’s fan-girls and boys cannot handle debate so instead they seek to mockingly throw about slanderous accusations or attempt to belittle those who have written pieces refuting her asinine condensation of a complex plight facing women.

        Eltahawy does not examine the laundry-list of crimes but instead emotionally lays them out, with nothing to offer the reader in respect to a way forward for either men or women.

        Instead of parading about with the Eltahawy adoration I suggest you re-read her piece without the juvenile fan-girl goggles on, especially as tightly as you seem to have them on.

        What is “hilarious” is watching her unquestioning followers lambaste other women for daring to speak their mind and question her assumed authority; it seems as though while Eltahawy has the right to speak on Arab, Muslim women’s behalf we, the women she is so keen on freeing, do not have this right – as most of the comments coming from her fan-base seem to be asking us to either shut up or agree with her, undoubtedly.

        Unfortunately this will not be happening, because we happen to speak for ourselves.

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  20. Well said Roqayah Chamseddine # , this Mona is just a clown seeking attention and this is her way of publicizing garbage articles that only a half-brained dolt would believe. I think she should change her titles to “why do they hate ME?”.
    Because I can’t stand attention seeking scam artists that’s why.

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  24. When I read the initial article, I was very moved and frustrated with the misogynist culture the author was describing. I had been to Egypt in the past and was really uncomfortable after being groped, looked at in disgusting ways, and cat-called everywhere I went – I dealt with that in India too by the way! So her article really resonated with me (unlike Hirsi and Manji books/articles which are blatantly self-serving Islamophobic pandering).

    However, a friend sent me a couple of these responses to Mona’s article and I think it’s great that we’re having an intelligent discourse and dialogue about these issues. There are definitely points raised here that I had not thought about (clearly I hadn’t read her article thoughtfully enough!).

    You’re right, her article is reductive, problematic, and even reminiscent of the Bush ‘us vs. them’ ‘good v. evil’ framework which makes no sense in a complex world. But I’m also really glad that she rose up and talked about these issues because they’re important to have a dialogue on.

    The more voices that speak openly and think about these issues, the better for us all, even with divergent opinions. Ultimately all of us have one motivation and that is supporting women in difficult situations – so let’s all work together towards that common goal and keep constructive dialogue going.


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  39. Great article, this really hits the nail on the head as to what was wrong with that article, which I read with an immediate sense of distaste, not knowing exactly why, but sensing instinctively that it was not actually true feminism but an example of bigotry and demonization of the other. I know beyond a doubt that mona’s article will be eagerly used by those who hate muslims, who wish to kill them, it is part of the propaganda war that will grease the wheels of the killing machine and allow it to operate smoothly, to recruit new haters to journey to the middle east to kill the savages. Maybe that is not what she intended, but that is exactly what she has done. You cannot further the cause of women’s rights in the middle east by slandering and demonizing muslims for a western audience, in a language most arab men can not speak. And as you point out, there is no call to better behavior, no advocacy of a better path, a new way to relate to women, there is only the bitter accusation that all middle eastern men hate women. It seems to me to be an example of dehumanization and dehumanization does not lead to social progress, it leads to genocide.

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