One man’s terrorist is another woman’s lover

 
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By Khaled Diab

The surreal “lovejacking” of an EgyptAir flight adds a new dimension to the western image of the Arab man: the hopeless romantic and dedicated lover.

"Lovejacker" Seif Eldin Mustafa poses for a surreal snap with one of the passengers.

“Lovejacker” Seif Eldin Mustafa poses for a surreal snap with one of the passengers.

Wednesday 30 March 2016

A domestic EgyptAir flight from Alexandria was hijacked and diverted to Cyprus. So far, so ordinary, in the grisly annals of global terrorism.

The first sign that something was different was when the hijacker released most of those aboard. This prompted some commentators to express initial relief that we had returned to a bygone era of airborne terrorism when flights were hijacked, not just summarily blown up, and demands made.

The fact that only the crew and a handful of foreign passengers remained on the plane led me to conclude that the hijacker(s) could not be takfiri jihadists, who tend to kill Muslims and non-Muslims with equal vigour.

Soon after, it emerged that the Egyptian hijacker, wwho has now been arrested by Cypriot authorities, was not motivated by politics or ideology. “It’s all to do with a woman,” Cypriot President Nikos Anastasiades told miffed reporters.

Egyptian media publish what they say is first photo of hijacker

Egyptian media publish what they say is first photo of hijacker

A blurry image has even emerged of the hijackers hand passing a love letter addressed to his ex-wife to a female airport official who has her hands to her cheeks in a gesture of disbelief.

This “lovejacking”, as some have dubbed it, had Egyptian social media doing what it does best: firing off barrages of biting satire. Some took it as a commentary on the poor quality of Egypt’s internet and postal services, others expressed gratitude on behalf of the passengers for diverting the flight to Larnaca instead of Cairo.

There were the inevitable references to classics of Egyptian comedy, such as the 1990’s satire “al-Irhab weh wl’Kabab” (Terrorism and Kebab). Personally, I reworked a popular love song to produce the lovejacker’s version.

He’s not a terrorist, he’s an idiot,” an irate Egyptian foreign ministry official was quoted as saying.

Given all the fear and heartache the hijacker has caused passengers, the potential economic fallout for his fellow Egyptians (though maybe Egypt might be able to carve out a new niche in tourism) and the undoubted legal consequences that will follow, the official’s sentiments are understandable.

Next time, send flowers, was my first thought. But those more romantically inclined than I were touched by the gesture, either for real or in jest. This just goes to prove that one man’s terrorist is another woman’s lover-boy.

One female acquaintance admitted that she would be “impressed” if someone had performed a similar gesture for her – though I suspected that if she had been the target, she would have thought “weirdo stalker”, not “hopeless romantic”.

“After [the] LoveJacking of [the] EgyptAir flight, [the] bar is now set extremely high for men to show their love,” tweeted Iranian-American commentator Holly Dagres.

And the reports that the hijacker, demanded the release of all female political prisoners in Egypt is bound to fuel speculation that he is a hopeless romantic.

Although I doubt very much that my wife would be flattered if I took a planeload of people as hostages to romance, this surreal overlap of love and terrorism does shed light on something about Arab men that gets little exposure in the West.

A popular contemporary Western stereotype of Arab men is that they are mirthless religious fanatics who hate women, although once upon a time Europeans were strongly influenced by Arab romance. Rarely are Arab men seen as lovers of women, though Hollywood does often portray them as lustful and sex-crazed.

But if we were to judge Arab men by the culture they produce, then we would be left with the impression that they are helpless, hopeless, tormented romantics. Love, especially of the tragic, painful variety of grand gestures, is a centuries-old staple of Arabic poetry and literature.

Love burns like a fire, inebriates like wine, tortures, makes you lose your senses, and much more, and the lover would do anything for his beloved. And every part of a beloved’s body is like a weapon of mass desire, from eyelashes that cut like knives to swaying hips that hypnotise.

Classical Arabic literature has a pantheon of Romeo and Juliet-like characters, the most famous of which is probably Qays and Laila. Qays’s obsession with Layla, whose father marries her off to a nobleman, earns him the nickname “Majnun” (Madman), and he lives up to it by wandering the wilderness for years longing for his beloved. After her death, his lifeless body is found near her grave, upon which he has carved verses of passionate poetry.

Perhaps the hijacker of the EgyptAir plane does not see himself as an “idiot” but as a 21st-century Majnun on a flight of fantasy to Cyprus in search of his own “Laila”.

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Sexual harassment, Islam and the politicisation of women’s bodies

 
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By Khaled Diab

Sexual harassment in Cologne and elsewhere is not about Islam. It is about the patriarchy and the politicisation of women’s bodies.

This offensive cartoon has appeared at Pegida rallies and on T-shirts.

This offensive cartoon has appeared at Pegida rallies and on T-shirts.

Tuesday 26 January 2016

Charlie Hebdo ran a cartoon in its latest issue featuring the drowned Syrian child Aylan Kurdi, in which it suggests that, had he lived, the boy would have morphed into a man-ape and become an “ass groper”. This was a crude reference to the shocking spate of robberies and mass sexual assaults of women in Cologne on new year’s eve, which has further fuelled anti-migrant and anti-refugee sentiment across Europe.

Defenders of the cartoon claim it is a parody that “mirrors racist public discourse” and a “damning indictment of our anti-refugee sentiment.”

As someone who is no stranger to satire and who was outraged by the slaying of Charlie Hebdo staff by Islamist terrorists, I feel these defences give the satirical French magazine too much credit. Even if we were to give it the benefit of the doubt, racists and bigots are likely to take the cartoon – which echoes traditional depictions of blacks as oversexed monkeys – at face value, and use it to confirm their prejudices.

Rather than challenging the growing anti-refugee sentiment, I feel Charlie Hebdo is pandering to it. Social media in Germany and across Europe has been awash with a tidal wave of hate speech against migrants since the Cologne mob attacks, as epitomised by the grotesquely racist “rapeugees” hashtag and the call on Facebook for a “manhunt of foreigners”, which has already claimed casualties.

That is not to say that I do not feel outraged by what happened in Cologne on new year’s eve. So far, nearly 350 women have reported being sexually assaulted by roaming mobs of drunken men, many of whom were described as looking Arab or North African.

The scale and mob nature of these attacks reminds me of Tahrir square, where groups of men would erect a “circle of hell” around female protesters and sexually assault them.

Although a large number of these savage attacks were likely opportunistic, exploiting the confusion of big crowds and the vulnerability of women inside them, others were politically motivated.

Victims accounts and circumstantial evidence suggest that many were likely carried out by the regime’s paid thugs or undercover police to intimidate female protesters, by the Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamists, who have a track record of inciting against female protesters, incensed by women acting as equals and demanding equality.

The reactions to these crimes have more often than not also been politicised, with Egyptian society’s most reactionary forces, from the military to the Muslim Brotherhood, trying to capitalise on these tragedies by blaming their political opponents for them.

A similar dynamic has been at play in Germany. The apparently orchestrated nature of the sexual assaults in Cologne suggests that they may have been politically motivated, though for what end or by whom is a mystery.

As if the sexual abuse of the women in Cologne was not enough, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant groups and politicians have been falling over themselves to politicize their plight.

This political profiteering was on blatant display during a rally organised by the anti-Islam Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident).

“This is Deutschland, not Afghanistan,” opined Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the extremist English Defence League and founder of the European Defence League. “Islam is the cancer and Pegida is the cure.”

What exactly sexual assault and sexual harassment have to do with Islam – or at least any more so than other religions – is unclear. Syrian refugees, for one, do not seem to have read the memo. A group of them produced a flyer addressed to the German public, in which they declaimed: “Our cultural values were trampled by these crimes. Those values include respect for women and men [and] respect for bodily integrity.”

On new year’s eve, one American woman in Cologne was rescued from a mob attempting to assault her by a group of Syrian refugees who set up a protective cordon around her and helped her locate her boyfriend. “The good people, nobody speaks about them,” one of the young woman’s rescuers lamented.

If Islam really were to blame for the Cologne assaults, then you’d expect there to be a clear pattern of sexual harassment across the Arab and Muslim world. But anecdotal evidence suggests that no such pattern exists.

An unscientific survey I conducted of female friends and acquaintances confirmed Egypt and Pakistan as among the worst in the Muslim world, and India topped the non-Muslim league. Meanwhile, the Levant, including Syria before the civil war, was seen as pretty mellow. “I feel a lot more comfortable around 11pm in Manger Square… than I do walking in Cairo during broad daylight,” one friend confessed.

In Egypt, the sexual harassment epidemic is partly a backlash against the gender revolution taking place, in which women are becoming more assertive and unapologetic in their demands for equality, as well as years of denial and the breakdown in law and order.

Interestingly, women living in some Gulf states, such as the UAE and Bahrain, report that the harassment there is minimal. Given their conservative reputation, this would appear to be an anomaly.

However, this conservatism may be part of the reason why their streets are relatively free of sexual harassment. There, the traditional concept of a woman’s “honour” being intertwined with that of her family is still robust. So, rather than gender equality, it is the idea that a woman is some man’s sister, daughter or even mother that holds other men back.

Although less common, this attitude is not unfamiliar in the West. This was demonstrated at the Pegida rally. Not only were the majority of the protesters there men, Tommy Robinson reminded his audience that: “It is the duty of every man to protect their women.”

“When exactly those people who otherwise spend the year telling women that they should button up their blouses suddenly start promoting women’s rights, then it is instrumentalized racism,” wrote Sascha Lobo in Der Spiegel.

Much as we would like to believe that we, in the West, live in some kind of post-patriarchal society of equals, misogyny remains, persistently and infuriatingly, alive and well. And despite all the gender legislation and education, sexual harassment in public is a reality that millions of women on both sides of the Atlantic must live with.

“The place where I have been most harassed is France by non-Arab men,” one well-travelled friend admitted. Another said that harassment was less frequent in Europe than in the Middle East but when it occurred it was “more aggressive or very rude… Harassers have pretty often seemed drunk or high.”

What limited research has been conducted reveals that street harassment is a challenge of global proportions. One study in the United States found that a whopping 87% of American women had been sexually harassed, with half reporting “extreme” harassment. A Europe-wide survey found that one in three women had experienced physical or sexual abuse, with one in 20 reporting they had been raped.

The assaults in Cologne were an extreme and discomfiting public display of this reality, and singling out migrants will not resolve the problem. In addition to better policing, Europeans need to tackle the misogyny and sexism, both amongst minorities and the majority, that give men a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, breed a blame-the-victim culture and provide victims with insufficient emotional and legal support.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 20 January 2016.

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Sexual harassment and the medina

 
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By Mette Høyer Eriksen

In Egypt, sexual harassment is a largely urban phenomenon fuelled by a sense of male powerlessness, insecurity and unrealistic gender ideals.

Original image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/elhamalawy/293034937/in/photolist-rTT5v-rTXPY-rTTH3-rTUnw-rTWZS-rTU1w-rTVaV-rTSMB-rTVTc-rTWfw-9h3ZJT-dSKi5p-rU2xx-rU2fd-rU6Tw-rU6aF-rU5Qt-rU4w1-rU2TK-rU1WY-rU3dB-rU4bB-rU1AD-rU4Ph-rU6xB-rU5wT-rU3y5-rU3TJ-dSKeVz-soCuu-soCJV-soCoA-soCXt-soCjX-soCM9-soCzM-soCTF-soCwr-soCy6-soCVY-soCmM-soD1R-soCYL-soCPn-soD7W-soCDp-rUaj8-rU7Aw-nHR3jp-c9nYt7

Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy

Wednesday 5 November 2014

In Cairo, the problem of sexual harassment is so widespread that anti-harassment NGOs are now classifying the situation as an out-and-out epidemic. So serious is the issue that in June the Egyptian government stepped in and introduced a law criminalising sexual harassment – a law that to date has only had limited effect. Critics claim the new legislation does little more than treat the symptoms of a social problem – a problem which is unlikely to be solved through condemnation or by criminalisation alone.

“There’s an acute need for state intervention that tackles the challenges head on and that addresses the cultural and social dimensions of the issue. If the Egyptian state is serious about combatting harassment, it needs to acknowledge the full scale of the problem. Legislation by itself is not enough,” wrote Yasmin El-Rifae from the organisation Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment on the Middle East Institute portal.

An urban phenomenon

Whereas research has shown that women who are exposed to harassment feel less secure about walking about on their own and, to some extent actually choose to avoid public spaces, there have been few studies into the factors that motivate men to harass women.

“We know very little about the perpetrators. After all, no-one is going to put his hand up and admit that he’s done such things, let alone tell us why he did it,” explains Marwa Shalaby, a the director of the Women and Human Rights in the Middle East programme at Rice University’s Baker  Institute for Public Policy.

She adds that when it comes to determining why men commit acts of harassment neither age nor religion nor profession seem to be factors. However, evidence does show that harassment is more prevalent in the towns and cites than in rural areas.

But just what is it that drives men to accost and harass women? One person who has been trying to find an answer to this question is Shereen El Feki, who researched and wrote the book Sex and the Citadel – a factual novel about sex in the Arab world today.

An expression of impotence

Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy

Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy

When the so-called Arab Spring reached Egypt at the beginning of 2011, the fact that women and men could stand side by side demonstrating for the same rights was one thing that was highlighted as exceptional. During the protests, many women became the victims of violent assaults. However, during the first days of the uprising, Egypt witnessed a rare and unique coming together of the women and men who jointly took over Tahrir Square. Together, they were fighting for the same thing. In her book, El Feki argues that this sense of struggling for something meant that the men taking part in the protests felt less need to elevate themselves above the women. On the basis of her own experiences, she writes: “These events have clearly shown that when men have a sense of motivation and purpose they change the way they behave towards women.”

Shereen El Feki’s argument is backed up by Samira Aghacy, equality researcher at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. One of her areas of study has been masculinity, and she argues that the patriarchical social order prevalent in many places across the region also serves to oppress men – and this oppression is then reflected in the men’s behaviour towards women.

“Many men feel impotent, marginalised and incapable of doing something positive or contributing to the reconstruction of their country or the way it’s being run. It leaves them feeling very frustrated, and they often take their frustrations out on women,” explains Aghacy.

Patriarchy, performance and power

One of Samira Aghacy’s major studies in this area examined how Arabic literature has been portraying men since 1967. Here, she points out, it is clear that masculinity and manliness are associated with having power. Yet only a few Arab men have actually held power over the past decades, so men have also been victims of the patriarchical society. Men are oppressed in a similar way to women, but they have a different conflict because they have been brought up to be in control. They feel castrated and inadequate because they are unable to perform in the way they feel men are expected to perform.

“It all comes down to the way that we’re brought up. That’s the way power relations play out across large parts of the region. Men are brought up to hold the power, so if they don’t have any power, don’t earn enough, and don’t feel that they have anything to say, then they have to demonstrate power in another way,” explains Aghacy.

In other words, there is incongruence between what is expected of men and what men actually can live up to. According to Egyptian journalist and blogger Khaled Diab, the problem of sexual harassment is also linked to the polarisation that has been taking place in many Arab societies over the past years – particularly in Egypt.

“The Egyptian revolution has meant that the underlying polarisation between progressives and conservatives has transformed from cold war to active conflict. On top of this, huge differences in income, wealth and education have also played a role,” Diab observes. “When anger and resentment begin to flourish within a society, it’s often the most vulnerable who end up paying the highest price –whether they be women, children or minorities.”

Torn between tradition and modernity

When a woman student at Cairo University’s Faculty of Law was sexually harassed by a group of men in March, the university’s rector suggested afterwards that it was her own fault because she was dressed in such ‘unusual’ clothing: tight jeans and a pink hooded top. Khaled Diab reacted by posting a photo on Twitter taken around the 1950s or 1960s at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University. In the picture, a group of young women who are not wearing headscarves are being taught by an Islamic scholar. “Women used to study at Al-Azhar without covering their heads, and now Cairo University is blaming this woman’s clothing for her attack,” wrote Diab on Twitter.

“Since the end of the 1970s, conservative forces have been steadily gaining ground. But over the past year, women and progressive men have begun refusing to be intimidated, and they’ve become more self-aware and more radical. This has provoked a violent backlash from alarmed and displeased elements within the conservative camp,” explains Diab.

“Right now, Egypt finds itself in a state of limbo, torn between tradition and modernity. This means that women have lost the protection of their bodies that a patriarchical honour system affords, but they have yet to win the protection that modern equality offers,” he adds.

For Mette Toft Nielsen, MA in culture, communication and globalisation, the reason men act the way that they do is the million-dollar question. In connection with a research project for Aalborg University, Denmark, she is currently spending two years living in Cairo studying the conditions of women in Egypt. As part of her studies, she has also been looking into the issue of sexual harassment.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that providing a clear answer as to what caused sexual harassment it’s simply too ambitious. There are thousands of hypotheses and assumptions out there, but most of them are just too difficult to prove or disprove,” she explains.

Conservative gender roles

According to Mette Toft Nielsen, sexual harassment should not be seen as an expression of how men regard women. “It’s interesting because that’s how we typically look at it – that the way men regard women is grotesque. That men are misogynistic pigs and women have a real tough time of things. But I personally don’t believe that that’s actually what’s going on,” she explains.

She continues that while it is clearly women who suffer most from male dominance, the responsibility for changing things does not necessarily lie with men alone. According to Nielsen, men’s attitudes towards women stem from the fact that the men are products of a culture that is governed by very strong gender-role expectations. There are traditions and expectations – and the women are also complicit in upholding these.

“In the West, we often have a subject/object approach to things: the subject – the person who acts and takes action – is the man; the object – the person who is affected by the action and who is seen – is the woman. In this way of thinking, the man can also be seen as the one who can change the situation he finds himself in. And this is something I disagree with strongly. I believe that there are a lot of men out there who really do want to change these things,” notes Nielsen.

One widely touted explanation for sexual harassment is that the heckling and accosting are a result of the men’s sexual frustrations from living in a culture where sex is only permitted within marriage, and is therefore something many young people cannot indulge in.  But Mette Toft Nielsen does not buy this theory.

“Fist of all, many of the men in Cairo who sexually harass women certainly don’t lack sexual experience. Secondly, I’m not at all convinced that sexual harassment has anything to do with sex in the first place,” she asserts.

“I see this harassment first and foremost as an issue of power. Not power as in control – but power as in preserving something that there once was,” she explains, and points out that this is purely based on her own experience and observations and not something based on scientifically proven facts.

“Perhaps this explains why sexual harassment is much more prevalent in the towns and cities than in rural areas. In urban areas, people are witnessing change – particularly economic change. Men are witnessing many women entering the labour market, taking on well-paid jobs and being professionally accomplished,” Nielsen describes. “Many students at the universities are women, and from a career perspective they pose a real threat to the men. So I could imagine that it’s a question of changing positions and changing power relations. After all, if the man loses his role of looking after the woman what is there left for him to do?”

____

This article first appeared in WomenDialogue on 21 October 2014. Republished here with the author and publisher’s consent.

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Ugly discrimination in the face of beauty

 
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By Khaled Diab

The curious case of Arab men reportedly deported for being “too handsome” demonstrates that the beautiful can also be the victims of discrimination.

Friday 10 May 2013

Imagine a land where beautiful people are so stigmatised that they are banished simply for their looks. Does it sound like a sci-fi fantasy dystopia?

Well, this is exactly what reportedly happened to three Emirati men on a business trip in Saudi Arabia who were apparently deported for being “too handsome”.

The men were detected and ejected by Saudi’s notorious “morality police”, the mutaween, also known by their formal Orwellian-sounding title, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vices, who “feared female visitors would fall for them”.

When I first read about this, I wondered how the mutaween had decided these men were too hot to handle. Did they do it scientifically, say with some high-tech gadget that monitors seismic activity caused by collective gasps of approval or a sort of Geiger counter that measures the fallout from radioactive beauty, counted in Cutie units? Or did they have a panel of judges, like some sort of warped beauty contest, who held up scorecards, with the winner receiving a one-way ticket home?

Since the hunks’ return to the neighbouring Emirates, no reports have emerged of any fallout from the radioactive presence of these killer men – though I should be careful using that description of Arabs in these suspicious times.

Nevertheless, if the mutaween had hoped to keep a lid on the affair and spare women the undoubted agony and suffering prolonged exposure would almost certainly cause, they failed desperately. Not only has the story gone super-viral around the world, a crowd-sourced manhunt has already uncovered the probable identity of one of the Arabian thoroughbreds.

In a world where Arab men are seen mainly in the negative – not so much as fun but rather as fundamentalist, never fans but always fanatics – I, who never read gossip or glossies, was mildly pleased that the much-maligned male from my part of the world was getting, so to speak, a media facelift.

Of course, some of the attention in the West was somewhat condescending, of the “look-what-those-weird-Arabs-are-doing-now” variety, rather like the mirthful reactions to news reports of camel beauty pageants.

But is it really so hard to believe that some people’s beauty can cause them trouble or even that attractive people can be discriminated against? These men may have been sent home, but boy did the experience raise their street cred and made of them minor celebrities, even if the identities of two of them are still shrouded in mystery.

Others have not been so fortunate. Take Melissa Nelson, a dental assistant who lost her livelihood for no other reason than her boss found her too attractive.

Naturally, this goes against the overwhelming stereotype of beauty, and how it serves its owner. And as endless studies have regularly shown, good looks can help people get ahead in life, from getting laid to getting a job or promotion – and even, rather dubiously, make them happier than their more mortal peers.

In fact, for some careers, such as the glamorous mainstream of acting and the media, good looks are more often than not an essential, if unofficial, qualification. There is even, I have learned, a term to describe this sort of positive discrimination in favour of the beautiful people: “lookism”.

In contrast, bad looks are a well-known source of discrimination, a social handicap for their bearers. Not only are people endowed with fewer physical assets often disadvantaged in life and love, the very semantics of language subliminally slaps them in the face – and the title of this article is no exception. When we disapprove of something or wish to say it was really horrendous or terrible, we regularly employ this alienated and lonely adjective: an ugly situation, the ugly face of warfare, the ugly underbelly of poverty, etc.

Although I won’t for a moment suggest that there is equivalence, beautiful people don’t always have it their way and can be the victims of discrimination. This can be seen in the age-old bias that beauty and brains can rarely be united in the same body. This leads to stereotypes that attractive people, particularly women, are likely to be shallow – consider all those dumb blonde jokes or the idea that hunky men who take care of their appearance are hollow airheads.

This can be a real problem for good-looking people. For instance, though looks serve them in “feminine jobs”, attractive women trying to get ahead in professions that require intelligence or authority or toughness do face discrimination.

For example, I have met young female professionals, including scientists, who complain that male colleagues, especially older ones, don’t always take them seriously. One attractive but tough-as-nails woman I know who works in the construction industry says, perhaps counter-intuitively, that she has no trouble with her subordinates, but her peers exhibit hostility and disrespect towards her.

In addition, there is the issue of harassment. Though unwanted amorous or sexual attention is not the exclusive domain of attractive people, it is more likely to occur if the target happens to be beautiful – and, again, a woman. In public, what is taken as aloofness, can sometimes simply be a defensive mechanism against unsolicited interest. Even flattering gestures such as holding doors open for attractive women or providing them with more favourable treatment or greater attention can cause distress to those of them who wish to be treated as equals and ordinary.

Moreover, extreme beauty can be alienating. Incredibly attractive – gorgeous, I believe, is the technical term – people may well draw many advantages from their physical assets, but their looks can also act like a chasm separating them from their peers, making natural, casual interactions difficult, with many members of their own gender viewing them with suspicion and those of the opposite sex typically acting flustered or nervous in their company.

This hostile reaction to beauty can be seen in the traditional view that being too beautiful was somehow immoral. It can also be discerned in music and song, in which the gorgeous are often attributed with negative characteristics like cruelty and vanity. Take Alice Cooper telling us that his lover’s blood is “like ice” and her lips are like “venomous poison”.

Though we may try to curb it, we will never end discrimination based on looks. And it would seem that nature and evolution have disposed us with a natural bias towards beauty, however subjective and frivolous that concept can be. Nevertheless, while the beautiful set may seem to have the world at their feet, we must remember that not all that glitters is gold and beauty has its unattractive underbelly too.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 2 May 2013.

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The battle for the soul of the Arab man

 
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By Khaled Diab

The polarised debate over Arab women overlooks the fact that men can be victims of the patriarchy too and their identity is a cultural battlefield.

Friday 18 May 2012

‘Why do they hate us?’ was the controversial question posed by the Egyptian-American columnist Mona Eltahaway in the hotly debated May/June issue of Foreign Policy magazine. “Until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors on our streets and in our homes, our revolution has not even begun,” writes Eltahaway. “Name me an Arab country, and I’ll recite a litany of abuses fuelled by a toxic mix of culture and religion.”

Although Eltahawy’s essay is, sadly for Arab women, factually accurate and I agree with almost everything she says, I find myself differing with her about what she omits to say.

To borrow her own words, Eltahaway’s essay, despite the substantial space available to her, does not move beyond reciting a long “litany of abuses” without making any attempt to depict the complexity of the situation and highlight the grey areas. Largely missing from her analysis are the diverse shades of opinion and attitudes across the Arab world, and the very real gains made by Arab women in many countries, especially in the professional and educational spheres.

As a long-time admirer of Eltahawy’s journalism and activism, I find it hard to fathom why liberal, empowered Arab women who have challenged discrimination in every walk of life hardly feature in her article, though she does mention some who have resisted the abuse of “virginity tests” and forced marriage, or defied the Saudi ban on female driving.

Her loaded ‘why do they hate us’ question also turns a blind eye to a highly inconvenient reality for advocates of gender equality like myself: many Arab men and women do not regard traditional gender attitudes to be a sign of hatred, but rather of love and respect. In an interesting turning of the tables, conservative Arabs are reciprocating the Western interest in the subordinate position of Arab and Muslim women by setting up think tanks to examine the “oppressed” status of the Western woman.

Weird, you say? Yes, until you consider that many conservatives in the West hold similar views of their societies, as reflected by the recent so-called “war on sex” launched by many of the candidates in the Republican primaries. And I’m sure many Haredim women in Israel do not regard a “dignified” dress code or the erasure of women’s faces from billboards or de facto gender segregation on some buses, with women forced to sit in the back, as signs of their inferiority.

In fact, you could say that one major factor behind the patriarchal orders durability and longevity, which survives to some degree even in the more egalitarian West, is its ability to co-opt and condition certain women into accepting and even embracing the status quo and linking the status of some women to the oppression of others.

This brings me to another breed of Arab men completely absent from Eltahawy’s essay: those who believe in women’s rights and have stood shoulder to shoulder with women in their quest for (greater) equality. In fact, perhaps the first advocate for greater rights for women in Egypt was Qasim Amin who echoed Eltahawy more than a century ago in his The Liberation of Women (1899). “Throughout the generations our women have continued to be subordinate to the rule of the strong and are overcome by the powerful tyranny of men,” he wrote. “The inferior position of Muslim women is the greatest obstacle that prevents us from advancing toward what is beneficial for us.”

It would also seem that just as women have become a political football in the culture war between a hegemonic West and a defensive Arab world, it is my view that men have too. Western discourse, especially in conservative circles, tends to focus on the Arab man as a woman-hater or terrorist, ignoring the liberal breed of Arab men I mentioned above. Meanwhile, in a supposed bid to defend their culture against the onslaught of modernity, as well as to protect the patriarchal privileges they enjoy, conservative Arab elites talk up traditional gender roles and mock and demonise men who deviate from them either as weaklings or Western stooges.

Moreover, one factor behind the enduring presence of patriarchy in the Arab world is how the Ottomans, British and French bought the submission of men by offering them absolute power over women. Arab dictators like Mubarak have played similar tricks. As one Egyptian feminist put it to me: “If you can’t control your income, the fate of your family or the politics of your country, then you will try to control what you can, that is the private sphere.”

In addition, though women are the traditional patriarchy’s greatest victims, many men suffer too. After all, the patriarchal order is in place primarily to serve the interests of the top dogs, the alpha males, with the beta and gamma males often oppressed severely, as the beatings and rapes of young male protesters in Egypt clearly illustrate.

Traditional concepts of manhood can also hurt those men unwilling or unable to live by them. The gap between the regular Arab man, the “average Mo”, and the Arab myth of manhood is bound to breed feelings of inadequacy, because, in societies – where many women have become men’s equal and even surpassed them in schools, universities and the workplace – the chasm between fantasy and reality is a yawning one.

Moreover, it can leave impressionable men who hold no grudge against women and have no objections to living in equality with them unwilling to do so publicly to avoid mockery from their peers and superiors. As long as conservative circles continue successfully to equate female emancipation with male emaciation, capitulation to foreign powers and the loss of cultural authenticity, the quest for gender equality will stall.

What we need are mainstream, “average Mo” role models who demonstrate that believing in gender equality squares with being a man, and that empowering women also empowers men and society as a whole. And this is one lesson that the revolutionary youth in Egypt and Tunisia who have inspired the Arab world can teach over time.

This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 15 May 2012.

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