I am not a Muslim woman. I worry about writing pieces like this, as an atheist with dangly bits; I do the same as a new resident of one of Melbourne’s most statistically whitewashed suburbs, commenting on goings-on in the country of my birth.
Perhaps Mona Eltahawy has similar concerns. The Egyptian-born writer has spent much time abroad; her piece in Foreign Policy magazine, Why Do They Hate Us?, has spent much of the past week going viral. The article discusses the oppression of women in the Middle East, its catalogue of horrors including the violence and sexual assault suffered by Eltahawy herself.
What Eltahawy has written is a polemic. It’s not journalism, it’s an essay, and it is brave because the internet’s cloak of invisibility is a handy vector for vitriol. While there are people for whom it has rung heartbreakingly true, there are others who bristle – stop by her Twitter account, @monaeltahawy, for a sample. But why the outrage?
Some of the answer lies in her byline: “Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-American columnist.” To many, that hyphen is a division of geography and philosophy – it is to punctuation what the Berlin Wall was to masonry.
The first half, in the Washington, DC offices of Foreign Policy, might be seen as the presence of an insider adding credibility to the piece. The latter, unfortunately, roils the blood of those who have had enough of prescriptive, often ridiculous, coverage of Muslim issues after September 11; Islam as the inscrutable Other, lurking behind beards and under burqas.
Some of her critics say that Eltahawy has betrayed her country and her faith. Some are insistent that she does not speak on their behalf. Some say her points are as reductive, as monolithic, as any that have come before. Still others claim that her critique confuses culture and religion – but no one questions the veracity of the injustices Eltahawy lists, just the height of her soapbox and the angle of her attack.
Also copping flak are the images accompanying the article, a nude woman wearing black body paint in an approximation of a niqab. It is satire that sits uneasily next to the earnestness of Eltahawy’s words, but for this there is an ironclad defence: Foreign Policy has said that she did not see the images before publication, as is customary.
So the most facile way to look at this is to say that each side has their points, and is entitled to their opinion. This leads nicely to an acknowledgement that there is a debate taking place, and that it would never have happened without the original piece. Which is all true, but it’s a stance that has been repeated so often that it has all the impact of a teacher absorbed in a book ruffling the hair of two squabbling children and telling them to play nice.
But if Eltahawy is an inappropriate commentator, who has the right to speak? Who has the privilege of the podium? Does straddling two countries and cultures provide greater insight into both, or dilute the claim to understand either? Must one have suffered sexual assault to discuss rape, or be born into a religion before it can be examined? What is the correct weight and colour of a yoke before it can be cast off?
I do not have these answers. Maybe those who feel that Eltahawy does not speak for them will accrue some tiny warmth from the knowledge that someone is speaking at all; that even if they do not consider her their voice, she may yet be a megaphone. But that is easy for me to say, because I am not a Muslim woman.