Afshan Jafar, writing from New London, Connecticut in the US.
Perhaps the most astounding characteristic of Eltahawy’s piece is that it ignores one of the very first lessons that students of Orientalism are or should be familiar with. There’s a simple exercise I use in one of my segments on women and religion in my courses. When we get to a discussion of Islam and “Muslim women”, I ask my students to fill in the blank for me: “Muslim women are _____________________”. The students come up with many, many responses, which I won’t get into here. The point is that they have no trouble at all coming up with immediate responses. Now I ask them to imagine if I had asked them to finish this sentence: “Christian women are ______________.” They look utterly confused. What country am I talking about? What race? What kind of Christian? Am I referring to Evangelical Christians? In short, they realize that the category Christian woman is really meaningless unless I provide them with further specific details.
You see my point? Whereas we accord complexity, diversity, and yes, nuance to our understanding of other religions, when it comes to Islam it all seems to be painted with one big brush stroke and usually in the color black (see the pictures which accompany Eltahawy’s article). That Eltahawy talks about “women in the Middle East” as one large, undifferentiated group, and in the same paragraph talks about women being “covered up, anchored to the home, denied the simple mobility of getting into their own cars, forced to get permission from men to travel, and unable to marry without a male guardian’s blessing — or divorce either”, gives the impression that the above rules apply to every woman, in every country in the Middle East. That is, of course, not true. And Eltahawy knows that. This is the kind of sloppy and sensationalistic journalism that has made the work of academics who study and teach about the region much more difficult. And then, when we have to spend time setting the record straight or bringing in “complexity” to the issue, we are accused of being “defensive” and not wanting wash our dirty linens in public.
As an academic and a teacher, I am also tired of the stifling opposition between cultural relativism and universalism. Each position, if adhered to staunchly, is problematic. And we all know that, so we use these labels to quickly undermine someone’s position without engaging in the particularities of their argument. If you believe in universal rights you’re ethnocentric or imperialistic; if you believe in cultural relativism you are willing to excuse all kinds of abuses and oppression. We leave no possibility for complexity: that it is possible to criticize without being a ethnocentric and it is possible to ask for contextualization without being an apologist.
The idea that “political correctness”, as Eltahawy says, prevents people from critiquing Muslim countries is, well, ignorant and downright dangerous since it encourages an all out, unapologetic attack on Muslims. Islamophobia is alive and well and you don’t have to go very far before you run into it. I recently had a boy in my daughter’s first grade class (on my first day volunteering in my daughter’s class) tell me outright that “people from Pakistan kill other people” and that they “drop bombs”. When a six year old has absorbed these messages about Muslims, a call for an unleashing of sorts is the last thing we need to be doing. And journalism, like Eltahawy’s recent piece, make academic considerations of the issue more urgent and more necessary than ever.
But it leaves me resentful still that I have to do so much repetitive work, constantly “responding” to sensationalistic and over-simplified analysis. I know I am not alone in this. Any academic, who belongs to a stigmatized minority has to deal with the issues of balancing criticism while not further reinforcing damaging stereotypes in the larger culture about “Us”. We realize that there are different layers of oppression and we can’t focus on one kind alone (gender, for instance) while ignoring, or worse, reinforcing, another kind (racial, for instance).
It’s not easy but at least we try. Eltahawy on the other hand, has given up that pursuit all together.
This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed