We- and by “we” I am referring to relatively privileged and educated Muslims who utilize social media- love to criticize Mona Eltahawy just as much as we love to praise her Head to Head host, Mehdi Hassan. The latter received critical acclaim for his refutation of Ann Marie Waters, et al at the Oxford forum debate.
The video was shared, his words were applauded, and he was generally embraced by educated Muslims who self assuredly smirked as Mehdi Hassan eloquently argued that Islam isn’t, as his nuance challenged opponents ignorantly posited, an inherently violent and evil religion.
Mona, on the other hand, makes us uncomfortable. Educated Muslims who embrace the need for gender equality, and don’t pause for a second before agreeing that advancing more egalitarian gender norms is essential, still find her hard to digest. The reason is likely rooted in her inability to follow a standard set of best practices that have been established by her contemporaries. The only dichotomy or generalization that is appropriate is the dichotomy of “Western paradigm” versus the Arab (insert the generalization of *underdeveloped*) world. Mona Eltahawy and her supporters advance a radical notion: let’s take a hard, long look at our own societies before we feel betrayed by an Arab author’s “elitist” publication choice.
The suggestion is downright offensive to some.
I remember the first time someone attempted to explain how that feminism wasn’t an Islamic notion. They defended their assertion by quoting a feminist scholars who advocated behavior that I, as a practicing Muslim woman, would not necessary adhere to in my own journey toward empowerment. The question of reconciliation was posed to me, and it was in that moment that I realized the utter ridiculousness of the labels we choose to embrace. I realized that, as a woman, I sat under this magnificent umbrella of scholarship and activism and I chose where and how I seated myself under its protection, in part because of my privilege, but mostly because of the perspective afforded to me by my unique identity. I realized the simplicity of embracing the notion that any of us live in vacuums, or that I had the right to deconstruct a feminist because her journey didn’t reflect my own.
Mona, however, needs to justify herself. Constantly. She needs to justify the fact that she isn’t politically correct, that she doesn’t adhere to the established norms of gender inequality (talk about American foreign policy before you talk about patriarchy, homegirl) and that she doesn’t appease her audience by decrying double standards and hypocrisy on a global scale.
An excellent example of this is when Mehdi Hassan asked her, with a straight face that dispels any hopes of sarcasm, when he can be expecting her article on domestic violence in Northern America. Apparently it isn’t sufficient that Mona has dedicated much of her life to activism and scholarship that focuses on her national origin or her ethnic identity. In order to be legitimized by a subset of our academic population she must decry the “West” in the same breath. Had her critique been leveled at the inherent hypocrisies of the American government (which it is at times) then the voice that laments “well they are naughty too!” would be silenced and she would be hailed as a progressive Muslim feminist worthy of all her Twitter followers. Or an Islamic feminist. Whatever she had decided to be called that particular week. Whatever we felt comfortable addressing her as whilst we deconstruct her identity.
I do not agree with many of the arguments or practical policy solutions that Mona Eltahawy espouses. Her opposition to niqab is an example. While my ideological beliefs about the niqab align themselves with that of Eltahawy to some degree, I find it difficult to reconcile the celebration of her journey through Islam with the stifling legislation she supports. I am not saying this because I feel obligated, as so many do, to disagree with her on something before lending my tentative support. I am saying this to counter the notion that Mona Eltahawy has a cultish following that is full of “#colonialfeminists” who despise Muslim men and think Hillary Clinton is the shining example of feminism.
There are many topics on which we disagree, and there have been times when I inwardly cringe at statements, but I genuinely appreciate the need for her voice. I remember when Middle Eastern experts were falling over each other with praise for Al Jazeera. Calling out
CNN Western media for its failure to present an accurate representation of the uprisings in the Middle East and applauding Al Jazeera on its ability to do so with rigor and unprecedented access accuracy. In that climate, Mona cites Al Jazeera’s inability to present images of inconvenient revolutions such as that of Bahrain. I also recall her reflections on the inability of the network to use the word shaheed or “martyr” to describe Iraqi Shias who were killed by way of unconventional political violence and terrorism sponsored by different elements of the Arab world. She noted that the network doesn’t mind using the word when describing victims of political violence that adhere to the journalistic narrative of suffering. What a Western imperialist tool.
And so within the dichotomies and paradigms we celebrate in academia and scholarship, there is very little ontological stability. It makes us uncomfortable when a man, or a woman, provokes from a place that is unfamiliar or presents a perspective that challenges the narratives that have built the careers of so many of our academics and activists. Provocation which challenges the rhetoric that makes us feel so progressive and good about ourselves.
That is why Mona Eltahawy will always be seen as a provocateur, and why I will hesitate to embrace the narratives that, as a general policy, inhibit Muslims reflecting from a vantage point of discomfort.
The author is Iraqi American and has a MA & BS in Political Science. She regularly writes about gender, politics, and spirituality. This piece was originally published on her blog vivalakhabatha.wordpress.com.