“People in the West are discovering, with anxiety and fear, that sex in the Muslim world is sick, and that the disease is spreading to their own lands.” (Daoud, The Sexual Misery of the Arab World)
In an era of fear and loathing, cultural difference stealthily, yet all too easily, mutates into anathema. Complexity and nuance are replaced with reductive and simplistic slogans.
Highly politicized indictments on the politics of sex, gender and violence in Muslim societies as recently approached by secular Western writers of Muslim backgrounds like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Asra Nomani have become the darling of some within Western intelligentsia and academic circles, particularly those who have a bone to pick against Islam and Muslims. Here, in his recent New York Times op-ed, The Sexual Misery of the Arab World, Kamel Daoud, an Algerian writer and Western-endorsed public intellectual, regurgitates more of the same.
“The reminder has led people in the West to realize that one of the great miseries plaguing much of the so-called Arab world, and the Muslim world more generally, is its sick relationship with women.”
It goes without saying that any current reading of a World Health Organization or UN Women report on the status of women the world over is cause for alarming concern. Nations, including those in North America, Europe, and the Middle East, are each navigating their way through circuitous fields where gender meets existing social and political norms relating to sex and then loops back to intersect with the complex dynamics of race, class, power, and privilege.
In spite of this, Daoud goes out of his way in his op-ed to reject any notion that the politics of sex is an issue that impacts all modern day societies. He argues that diverse Arab, and perhaps more importantly, Muslim societies are instead uniquely miserable in this regard. While it is undeniable that the treatment of women in Arab and Muslim societies is often dismal, for him, the status of sex in the Western world must be the stuff of cultural utopianism. He pulls the same card trick that Hirsi Ali and Nomani do: his deeply subjective and methodologically faulty inferences are masked as objective and rigorous truths.
“Desire has no outlet, no outcome; the couple is no longer a space of intimacy,”
Daoud’s is a sentiment that has been echoed before—reductively facile; glib to the point of being trolling. Rather than embrace an intersectional approach to sexuality as many Arab and Muslim feminists do, he jumps into a counter-intuitive and self-ingested orientalism that arm-wrestles feminism to its most shallow, and inappropriately humanist notes.
How does one even respond to someone who publicly speaks as an intellectual on gender, sexuality, and sex all while avoiding the awkward complexities contained in the evolution of any and all social movements? What do you say to someone who writes about a regressive form of sex found in the Arab and Muslim worlds—and then willfully ignores feminism’s many waves, Europe’s Dark Ages still manifesting in virginity pledges and the politicization of adolescent sex by the religious right in modern-day America, and the concurrent and far more worrisome war on women, particularly women of color and women living in poverty, throughout the Western world?
“In some of Allah’s lands, the war on women and on couples has the air of an inquisition.”
Women’s bodies, and in particular, Muslim women’s bodies, have all too often been the world’s battleground: the contested borders on which political ideologies are played out and sold with little actual benefit to the lives of the women being exploited. Here is no exception. Daoud elaborates on a critique that simply ignores another truth: women the world over, in the Western world and in the Arab world, have been subjected to alarming rates of gender-based violence, veiled or unveiled. While the particular mechanisms in which women have been subjugated and the sexual mores that promote these behaviors may differ, these cultural differences have led societies on different pathways to more of the same–the disparate and violent treatment of far too many women and girls.
Institutionalized and elite rejection of cultural difference often lead us to handle difference by either ignoring it, or by looking down on it, or, through the kind of hegemonic cultural demolition that is on display here. In today’s era of increased polarization, we have few patterns for relating across our individual and cultural differences as equals. As a result, these differences get misnamed or misused in the service of other political and ideological ends. Here, Daoud—and similarly, Hirsi Ali and Nomani—are not rooted in a deep concern for Arab or Muslim women. Rather, their narratives stem out of a desire to privilege their individual survival stories by rejecting and upending the very cultures these women are rooted in.
“Revolution doesn’t mean modernity.”
In an increasingly polarized cultural climate, ‘otherized’ people are expected to educate the ‘non-other’ as to their humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Black people are expected to educate the white world. Poor people are expected to educate the rich. Where limited resources, intellectual endeavors, and risk-tolerant strategies might be better utilized to design realistic scenarios for reimagining realities and building the future, talking heads like Daoud and Hirsi Ali remain on a constant and relentless reel to educate others about the Muslim societies they have survived. Energy expended here leads to little more than hemming and hawing (“How beastly!”) at best and further demonization with real political and social implications for entire populations of people at worst.
A legitimate intellectual history of sexuality and the sexual politics of the Muslim world—be it Arab, African, South Asian, or Western—is one that acknowledges the many complicated ways Muslim women’s intellectual production and sexuality at large has been and continues to be exploited, rendered invisible, or devalued. It then centers intellectual production as created by women (and other marginalized individuals) living in these societies and privileges them to be producers and creators. It affords them the right to determine their encounters with societal institutions, including religion, in addition to their interactions with the rest of the world.
If Daoud was truly concerned about the objectionable and real manipulation of sex, gender, and sexuality in modern Muslim societies, he would ask how Muslim women and other disenfranchised groups in these societies engage objectification or even violence. He would inquire as to the diverse and varied intellectual, cultural, and yes, even religious traditions behind Muslim women’s activism today. He would specifically reference the current intellectual productions of Muslim women—Arab, South Asian, African, and Western. (As this website alone can attest, I assure you it is out there, alive and well.) Instead, his ideas—although certainly popular in some Western intellectual circles—are anything but rigorous, unsteeped in cultural complexities as experienced by those most impacted.
“One result is that people fantasize about the trappings of another world: either the West, with its display of immodesty and lust, or the Muslim paradise and its virgins.”
Power, change, and collective healing will be found in people from the global Muslim diaspora being provided the space to tell their own stories: giving context to their histories and voicing their own lived experiences and cultural survival without resorting to Orientalist tropes. These objectionable approaches have needlessly and too often framed how stories that delve into Muslim-influenced sexuality have been told, and who gets to tell them, particularly the stories of poor and middle-class women of color.
Muslim and Arab women deserve to share their own miseries through their cultural remembrances and untarnished social contexts. Collectively, these stories tell the real narrative about the politics of sex not through a subjective Orientalist lens, but one that is rooted in the stories of people, places, and experiences of those societies. Muslim women deserve an audience that understands the complex ways in which sex impacts their lives, not a reductive and simplistic analysis that flattens women’s lives, gendered histories, and choices.
Politicizing Arab and Muslim women’s sexual tragedies and the cultural mores that lead to violence and inequity as props for popular consumption is not advocacy. It’s not even an act of vulnerability. What is an act of vulnerability is an understanding that that patriarchal oppression here and social mores as they relate to sex are inextricably linked to other exploitative practices found in authoritarianism, colonialism, liberalism, religion, or yes, even secularism.
The sexual misery of the Arab and Muslim worlds will not be solved by the op-eds of writers whose individual survival stories depend on a wholesale rejection of the cultures that permeate these societies. Quite frankly, Daoud is not starting a conversation here that even matters to anyone who lives it. If he really cares about the misery of others, he must instead join and amplify the conversation that already exists.
Samar Kaukab is an altM columnist and Advisory Board member.
Photo Credit: Huffington Post