by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The "Sex Issue" recently published by Foreign Policy magazine has received a fair amount of publicity this past week. And, from the responses I’ve read, it’s Mona Eltahawy’s article "Why Do They Hate Us? The War on Women in the Middle East" that’s been greeted with fanfare by some Western media outlets, as in this response by Newsweek:
"Some powerful photo illustrations come with Foreign Policy’s stunning cover feature on the real war unfolding on women in the middle east, written by the awesome and oh-so-brave Egyptian revolutionary Mona Eltahawy. Read it.”
I’m unsure of why Newsweek refers to these images as “photo illustrations” but I think they miss out on the complexities of the issues at hand when they frame it in this way. To be sure, I can understand why many people like these photos. They are stunning images; the article’s title is gripping. But, most of us in the U.S. lack an understanding of the history and the cultural context of using such provocative imagery. For many Arab and Muslim women, these images are offensive. The pictures represent a problem that dates back centuries: the hypersexualization of the veil and the women who wear them. Perhaps we should tread more lightly upon this sensitive ground.
For Samia Errazzouki, these are images of “a nude woman covered in a black body-painted niqab.” In her Al-Monitor rebuttal, ”Dear Mona Eltahawy, You Do Not Represent Us,” she writes:
"All of the women close to me who wear the niqab do so for different reasons. One friend only wears the niqab when she attends protests because she feels comfortable in it. Another friend has chosen to wear the niqab, against the will of her family since she was 14. The representation of the niqab as splattered body paint on a naked woman degrades the decision of women who wear the niqab as a choice. …
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.”
Leila Ahmed, a revered and oft-cited scholar of women and gender issues in Islam and the Arab world, takes issue not so much with the choice of photos used but with Ms. Eltahawy’s “sweepingly dismissive views of prayer and religion” finding “almost every paragraph of Eltahawy’s essay similarly troubling as, again and again, broad brushstrokes and sweeping generalizations erased subtle nuances and garbled and swept aside important differences.”
If you’re interested in reading more responses, I recommend Muslimah Media Watch’s excellent survey of other female voices appearing in various posts and articles. The opinions vary widely. And, I’d definitely read their round-table discussion with five women who reflect on the larger issue at and and the Foreign Policy issue itself. You’ll gain a better sense of the range of opinions on the issue and the really smart women who wrestle with these issues every day.Comments
by Krista Tippett, host
I recently attended a remarkable gathering in Washington, D.C., the U.S.-Islamic World Forum, cohosted by the Brookings Institution and the government of Qatar. For the past eight years this event has been held in Doha, Qatar.
This year, of course, the “Muslim world” is in the midst of seismic change. It was a remarkable experience to be — at this moment — with state and diplomatic leaders, civic and humanitarian activists, and senior religious authorities from Muslim majority countries around the world, as well as their counterparts from the United States and other nations.
So I found myself next to the Iraqi ambassador to the United States in one session and next to a young Bahraini human rights activist at another. She was juggling a laptop, an iPhone and an iPod simultaneously (and with notable ease). I made a lighthearted remark about how she was redefining the meaning of multitasking for me. She responded graciously, with a lovely smile, and then told me she was following new pictures just released on the Internet showing that Bahraini political prisoners are being tortured. Her father and two brothers, she told me, are in those prisons. She was fierce with dignity.
Representatives of Turkey, meanwhile, suddenly found themselves the "democratic model" of the Arab world that others want to study and emulate.
Key players from the emerging Egyptian leadership were also in attendance, as were ministers from the new government in Tunisia. And the Egyptians and Tunisians were, to a one, quite transformative simply to be around. They seemed to glow. They manifest a sense of having lived through a miracle, even as they face the tasks ahead with gravity.
"We have discovered ourselves," one longtime Egyptian activist proclaimed. And there is clearly no turning back on this collective self-discovery, painful and uncertain as the road ahead may be.
In a sense, this moment challenges Americans to a new era of self-discovery, too. As we watched ordinary men and women, young and old, become citizens for the first time on Tahrir Square, we saw a version of our own national narrative unfolding. The economic and foreign policy challenges ahead of us are profound — and will become even harder as countries like Saudi Arabia inevitably experience their version of the “Arab Spring.”
These events force us to ask hard questions of the policies we condoned for years, of decades-long dictatorships that we helped hold in power. More presently and importantly, they ask us to bring the best of our virtues, and the complexity of what we have learned in our own 200 years of democratic experiment, to the changed world we inhabit now.Comments
by Krista Tippett, host
As we pulled together this week’s show with Scott Atran, I was reminded of my conversation a few years ago with Douglas Johnston on “Diplomacy and Religion in the 21st Century.” He is a quintessential diplomatic and military strategist who, at 27, was also the youngest officer in the navy to quality for command of a nuclear submarine. And he is, in my mind, one of the wisest and most pragmatic thinkers (and actors) on the role of religion in the modern world.
In our conversation, he offered whole new ways to think about the possible democratizing role of Islam in places like Pakistan, Iran, and Sudan. He told us amazing stories of work he is doing in these places, even in madrasas in Pakistan and with leading religious figures in Iran, that fall under the diplomatic and journalistic radar. And he has a new book out, Religion, Terror, and Error: U.S Foreign Policy and the Challenge of Spiritual Engagement. This is that rare thing — a readable nonfiction book that both challenges experts in its field and simultaneously translates these challenges into a real resource for non-experts. I recommend it highly.Comments