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I never thought I’d write about the cover of a news magazine, even one I have subscribed to for about a decade now, but the debates sparked off by the front of the May-June 2012 issue of Foreign Policy (FP) magazine has been thoroughly amusing. Dubbed, “The Sex Issue,” it was the FP editorial staff’s attempt to bring to the fore a very important item that affects about half of the population world over, but especially so in the Middle East – women.

The “offending” Foreign Policy Magazine issue. What’s all the fuss about?

Politicians and academics talk about women’s rights when its convenient – during an election, or to put diplomatic pressure on a foreign power – but not enough gets done, and most people remain in ignorance of the abominable social and legal strictures women live under. This is not so only in the Middle East and Islam, where the situation is unquestionably grim, but also in India and China, where female foeticide or infanticide rates have dangerously skewed the gender ratio. The lack of awareness has meant that US (and perhaps Western) policies have at time aided in shoring up the regimes of the abusers who “perpetuate the marginalization of half of humanity.” In their own words,

Women’s bodies are the world’s battleground, the contested terrain on which politics is played out. We can keep ignoring it. For this one issue, we decided not to.

I find it hard to discern whether the outrage was due to the cover or the articles themselves; no commentator was able to resist the lure of a naked woman in body paint. In any case, the general categories the critiques fell into were 1. What?! A naked woman?!, 2. We in academia (or, we who are safe in the West) have perspective and know better than the women who live under the oppression, and 3. How could you possibly be so insensitive as to think that only Muslim women are oppressed? I confess that I am caricaturising the arguments, but honestly, that is all they are worth, and more generous than the critics of FP have been. Let us go through each of these one by one.

1. What?! A naked woman?!

Naheed Mustafa, a freelance writer based out of Toronto, readily admits that Mona Eltahawy‘s article had some merit, but confesses that she seemed to have the word “boobs” on loop in her head as she went through the article. Maybe that was her prediction of how the male mind would react, or maybe she responded to the cover similarly, but she is absolutely right – the “Nekkid Burqa Woman” is certainly attractive. However, as adults, and certainly as scholars, we learn to wrest control from our id and give it to our super-ego. Mustafa’s reaction to the cover is a sad reminder that every image of a naked woman is, in today’s society, necessarily sexual, be it Sarah Shahi or Botticelli’s La Nascita di Venere; somewhere in our utilitarian, consumerist society, we have lost the notion of nudity as metaphor (for purity).

To be fair, FP’s cover had nothing to do with purity and everything to do with sexuality – but that is the point. The idea of female sexuality – of nudity – is in itself threatening to puritans, in this case, of Islamic stock. The Arab World Institute in Paris has presently an ongoing exhibition of art work on eroticism, the sensuality of dance, violence, the exploitation of women and homosexuality by 70 artists from the Middle East. The theme, meant to be provocative, seeks to upend exactly this idea of state or clerical control over sexuality. Not surprisingly, all the artists reside in the United States or Europe, where they have the freedom to create such work. Said Philippe cardinal, the co-curator, “When there are social taboos, the role of artists is to unravel them at the seams: they are the first to rebel against censorship.”

Early this year, the talented Iranian actress and pianist, Golshifteh Farahani, posed nude for the French magazine, Madame Le Figaro. Farahani, who now calls Paris home after Iran exiled her, made it clear that her act was as a protest against restrictive Islamic dress codes enforced in Iran. Farahani is by no means the only one who felt that nudity was a powerful tool with which to make her point – in November 2011, Egyptian blogger Aliaa Mahdy posted nude pictures of herself on her blog. She wrote,

Put on trial the artists’ models who posed nude for art schools until the early 70s, hide the art books and destroy the nude statues of antiquity, then undress and stand before a mirror and burn your bodies that you despise to forever rid yourselves of your sexual hangups before you direct your humiliation and chauvinism and dare to try to deny me my freedom of expression.

Mahdy’s blog came at around the same time the Egyptian Army was lining up female activists, making them strip, and conducting “virginity tests,” in which a soldier inserted two fingers into the vaginal opening. It is against this backdrop that I think that those who see FP’s cover as a distraction are wrong; in fact, if there can be any other image more poignant than that of a naked woman in a body-painted burqa, I’d like to know what it is.

2. We in academia (or, we who are safe in the West) have perspective and know better than the women who live under the oppression:

As a product of the graduate school system myself, I am fully aware of the hubris my colleagues and I had as we puffed away at a ghalyoon and, as a Konkani expression goes, “replaced one king with another.” My friends and I had many of the answers, to corruption, to the Arab-Israeli issue, to religious fanaticism, to rehabilitating Russia in the new world order; all you had to do was ask! As I entered the research phase of my degree, I had to interview many government bureaucrats, scientists, and a few activists and analysts. I was flabbergasted at how much more there is to any story – to avoid the pitfalls of nosebleed in the ivory tower, I had made sure to emphasise an area studies approach to my dissertation, trying to get into the shoes of the ‘native.’ Yet the reality on the ground was sometimes quite unexpected. For example, voter turnout in certain areas of New Delhi (which still don’t have running water) was low, not because of citizen apathy but because the water tankers supplying those areas were to show up on the day of the elections and people had to be home.

I narrate that example because every time I read an article by scholars who claim to have native knowledge, especially more or better than the natives themselves, I am deeply sceptical. How can anyone accumulate such vast experience, anecdotes, and data in two or three years that locals who have lived their whole lives in an area could not? How can anyone account for the day-to-day curve balls life throws at you and theories usually fail to encapsulate? Keeping that aside, the arguments made in this category largely try to nullify the claims made from the minefield, so to speak. Thus, Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Jean Sasson’s Princess and Daughters of Arabia, Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, Irshad Mandji’s Faith Without Fear, or even the more light-hearted Lipstick Jihad by Azadeh Moaveni become irrelevant to the debate as they only inflame stereotypes and prejudices already present in the Other. Instead, we are asked to substitute a different kind of authority, that of academic dispassion, for local experience. Our reading list would then include books with long subtitles, like Lila Abu-Lughod’s Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East, Leila Ahmed’s A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America, or Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. I do not mean to take anything away from these scholars – after all, not everyone can teach at Columbia, Harvard, or Berkeley, and the books I mentioned above are indeed interesting and insightful. But these books commit the same error their authors (or their readers) lambast in others – that of selection bias. Scholars are absolutely right that the Middle East cannot be painted in a binary stroke, that there is nuance and autonomy in the actions of Muslim women; but that does not nullify the horror stories that come out of the same region.

For example, in 2002, Saudi policemen stopped 15 girls from leaving a burning school building because their hijabs were not worn properly. In April 2008 it came to light that some months prior, a Saudi woman was killed by her father for chatting on Facebook to a man. In the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, it is believed that 3-4 women per month are killed in honour killings. Over the course of five years, from 1999 to 2004, over 4,000 women have fallen victim to this practice in Pakistan. More recently (in 2005), the average annual number of honor killings for the whole nation ran up to more than 10,000 per year. In Iran, despite its rich history with ample examples of intellectual openness, it is safer for women to wear the chador lest the basij accost them. The Palestinian Authority, using a clause in the Jordanian penal code still in effect in the West Bank, exempts men from punishment for killing a female relative if she has brought dishonor to the family.

The objection to Eltahawy’s piece is based, I think, largely on the sweeping brush she used to paint the whole region as backward. This is a methodological difference between academics who like to nitpick and align all their ducks and activists who are not willing to “sacrifice the good enough for the perfect.” For all the issues one may take with the author’s rhetoric, it must be admitted that Eltahawy backs up her claims with empirical data (the highest-ranked Arab country in the World Economic Forum’s – WEF – Global Gender Gap Report is the UAE at 103 out of 135). Undoubtedly, there are figures like Tawakul Karman, Zainab and Maryam al-Khawaja who have done wonderful work (especially considering their environment), but there are also women like Amina Filali, the Qatif girl, and Fakhra Younus. In sheer numbers, there are more people who fit Eltahawy’s model of the Middle East than the more pleasant ones being posited by the critics – ask the United Nations if you don’t believe me. As one critic pointed out, Eltahawy does great disservice by lumping all issues of women’s rights under the banner of ‘hate.’ Instead, Samia Errazzouki (the critic) offers socioeconomic conditions, the after-effects of imperialism-colonialism, and authoritarianism as reasons. While not untrue, these reasons are still less proximate causes – there are ample countries that have similar situations (South Korea, Vietnam, Philippines) whose track records are better (again, not perfect) than in the Middle East.

3. How could you possibly be so insensitive as to think that only Muslim women are oppressed?:

I don’t know if many people have made this argument, but I saw it at The Duck of Minerva blog, which is usually quite good, and so I thought I’d cover this point too. The offense in this case was the subtitle of Eltahawy’s article: The real war on women is in the Middle East. Like in the previous two categories, there is some validity to this complaint, but somehow, it just doesn’t quite gel. The case is made that such a subtitle, with the word ‘real,’ was a “needless slap in the face to women fighting in the US for pay equity, reproductive health and to safety in our homes, streets and workplaces.” While these are all serious issues, I cannot help but guffaw at the asininity of the comparison. On the one hand, there is a group of women who are can wear what they want, speak with members of the opposite sex, enter into physical relationships of whatever duration, be gainfully employed, travel, change faiths, own property, and expect to have certain rights upon divorce – this would be the ‘terrible’ West. On the other hand, in the ‘misunderstood’ and ‘stereotyped’ Middle East, there is another group of women who can be beaten by their husbands (by law), killed for dishonouring the family, cannot maintain even a platonic relationship with a member of the opposite sex, have no right to travel without male company, fear violence under any pretext, have little room for redress under divorce proceedings (which can be as simple as an SMS’ed talaq, talaq, talaq), and are usually punished for being victims of sexual crimes. Somehow, the juxtaposition of these extremely differing social circumstances feels like I am comparing the Trayvon Martin case to institutionalised slavery. There is no help for those who cannot see the enormous gulf in degree between the two. As Sir Humphrey Appleby put it flippantly (and he could afford to in the UK), “Women over there [the Middle East] are stoned when they commit adultery, whereas here, they commit adultery when they are stoned.” I do not mean to mock women’s issues elsewhere, but only the most self-absorbed and obtuse could possibly think that the problems in the US are anywhere near as severe in the Middle East.

Some issue was taken with the wording of the FP editorial staff’s introduction as well: For this one issue, we decided not to. Of course, this refers to the dedication of the May-June 2012 edition to women, or ‘sex,’ in the Middle East. But this seems a trivial and petty point, raised more out of annoyance with other things than intellectual dissonance. Women’s rights are a very important issue, as are so many others. The dedication only means that one issue will be exclusively focussing on sexuality, while the next one may carry an article on women’s rights but will also cover other issues. Do the critics really believe that foreign policy is about only one issue, or that FP Magazine is a one-issue advocacy publication? So yes, FP Magazine will move on to other issues in July, but until then, make hay with what publicity it has generated in this issue. I don’t see non-proliferation or other experts upset that journals do not dedicate all issues to their pet interests.

Putting the FP issue in context

The problem of severe violence against women, let alone curtailed women’s rights, do not exist solely in Muslim societies – religions have culturally, if not scripturally, institutionalised misogyny, and we do not have to work hard to uncover horror stories among the Chinese or in India. Yet there are far fewer apologists of dowry deaths or inter-caste violence against women than there are of the shameful (to put it very mildly) practices in the Islamic world. Even in the May-June 2012 issue of FP, Eltahawy’s article has generated far more discussion than Christina Larson’s on China or Joshua Keating’s on Iran, India, and “seven countries in between.”

This is partly because of, as Ibn Warraq explains, the Western fear of being labelled as racist. After the era of imperialism and the travesties committed against human rights – civilisation itself – by European nations, there remains a latent sense of guilt among Westerners/White people. These modern purveyors of multicultural diversity need to believe that all cultures are equal; traditions of tolerance, gender equality, human rights, and political freedom must surely exist in all cultures because they are universal. While a nice wish, this is simply not true. Just as there are good and bad ideas, pleasant and hateful world views, there are cultures that do not, at least presently, have the same commitment to “rationalism, self-criticism, the disinterested search for truth, the separation of church and state, the rule of law, equality before the law, freedom of conscience and expression, [and] human rights.” But returning to the “Nekkid Burqa Woman,” the outrage expressed represents a failure to look past our own cherished models at others’ points of view about the Middle East and violence against women. Sitting in London, or at Georgetown, we may have the luxury of sifting for nuance and shifting focus from the main argument to a triviality like the magazine cover behind which it is presented, but for the girl child in Dammam or Peshawar, every tick of the clock can bring mortal danger.

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Addendum:

Mona Eltahawy and Leila Ahmed both appeared on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show (MSNBC) the day FP’s sex issue hit the stands. What followed was a far more balanced, intelligent, and civilised discussion of Eltahawy’s article, and they even managed to look past the cover! Worth a dekko.

Corrigendum:

This post was edited to correct an embarrassing oversight that misstated Naheed Mustafa’s gender, as was pointed out in the comment by ‘ZZ.’ Apologies.