Other Women: the problem with Mona Eltehawi’s “Handmaid Tale” comment

First wave feminists told married women that sex was rape and that bras and girdles were oppression. The problem was the vast majority of married women did not feel they were being raped. Many had no strong feelings about bras beyond the trouble of finding a comfortable one that fit for various dress cuts. And so feminists was beleaguered by a lack of credibility from the start, even as it sought to capture the attention of women to get them to consider the more subtle, harder-to-describe ways they were being indeed pushed down, not by husbands in the bedroom but by systems designed by men like their husbands in the wider world and societal norms designed to capture and appease men like their husbands.

This is the problem with needing to get attention to get an issue talked about and the deeper problems considered. It’s the problem the facing Mona Eltahawi’s claim that women in Saudi Arabia are already living the Handmaids Tale. Telling Gulf women that the abayya is oppression often lands with the same confused expression – I know, I’ve done the former – as telling an average woman that her bra and heels are oppression. Trebly hard as a judgment on Gulf national women, since they wear all three. They can tell, just like married women in the 60s, that there is something on one hand disingenuous in the statement, something that treats them – ironically, since the speaker claims to fight for their autonomy – like dumb animals, not able to know their feelings or voice them, simply being herded by society.
They can only be speaking under the duress of some sort, the speaker will claim, and cannot be trusted to even see the reality in which the subjects live. Unless they agree with your assesment of them. These women know on one hand that their lives are being misrepresented to fulfill the speaker’s agenda, as much as the western women in Gadaffi’s audience knew that this was not the “liberator of women” he claimed to be when he claimed that the demands of working were a form of oppression that women in his country were well free off.

On the other hand, the women will know that something even deeper, wider, more subtle and much scarier is wrong and that the speaker of these overblown statements is trying, for whatever purpose to shine a light on it. Even as the speaker uses every tool in the otherisation toolbox to do it. Even as the speaker is blind of her own oppressions by the standards of feminists yet to come, or even by some standards of those in years behind (makeup, bra, heels, maybe even getting married)

For this reason, I don’t support Mona’s statement, but I can’t denounce it either, it simply follows a precedent set long ago in the form of discourse within activism.

The difference for me is the question of harm. Because when white women speak about white women, it is understood that each person is speaking as an individual whether they agree or disagree, have experiences that match or clash. When brown women speak about brown women, we are treated as representatives of “our people” and used to further the agendas of different political fractions whatever our views. Our clashing experiences are used as proof of brainwashing or mass jihadist thinking on one hand, or that feminists are crazy liars on the other hand. Our agreeing experiences are used, frustratingly, only to further bash us: showing us as complacent for lack of resistance – by the way, how well is that working out in Syria? Algeria? Libya? Egypt? – or being dangerous radicals for resisting, to place more personal interviews before granting a visa, more searches before boarding, more detainment in airports after landing for further questions, more barriers against immigration, work visas, sharper looks in the subway stations, being ranted at in trader joes, and landlords who can say no to us because they don’t want a “curry smell” in their rental flats around dinner time.

And we have to be honest. No one in power will cut ties with Saudi because of that article or any like it. No the UK, not the US. So far, the cause of women in Saudi is only championed by Sweden. Meanwhile, the people doing things like the landlord-curry clause are using articles like this as a moral cover for uglier motives.

I appreciate Mona’s spunkiness. her doggedness. Her refusal to back down, ever. Her speaking for those afraid to publish their name. I will always support her right to be noisy, opinioned, often dogmatic, sometimes wrong.  Her existence is proof against some of her most extreme claims. She didn’t rise up from seafoam on a shell to save us. She didn’t escape from the matrix. She was born in Egypt, not even in Cairo. Nothing, but nothing about her is special if you know more than a handful of Arabic women or any educated Egyptian women. She must continue as she has done. And because Saudi must never be normalised.

But- Saudi Arabia is best understood as the fullest manifestation of rape culture arguments I hear in ‘western’ countries all the time. Many Saudis feel arguments for advancement of women are just arguing for their daughters to be “put in the position” to be raped and it’s hard to argue that point when people in our own cultures –even judges– belive that where a woman is, what she is wearing, and how much she drank made her a target.

Saudis have acted like the AI robots in Dr Who’s “Smile” episode, implementing solutions to the wrong problems. They’ve solved what she wore by creating a standard outfit, who she was with by ensuring a ‘guardian’ at her side at all times, banned alcohol, and decided dating was way too much of a grey zone so ban that too. It’s hard to argue to change the symptoms in Saudi when the illness is still so prevalent in so many cultures. In world leaders, even.

Finally, to everyone involved in activism or social justice of any kind: consider where your words can further be used to harm, otherise and place more barriers on the people you are trying to help.

When men in tech talk about helping women enter tec, or food bloggers talk about how time-pressed women don’t feel like cooking at the end of the day, there’s almost a feeling that they’re describing helpless orcas stranded on the beach that need manipulating for their own safety, and not people who can participate and maybe shift the viewpoint of the speaker to help in more meaningful ways beyond their pet passion.

When women speak about the rights of “other women” in “other countries”, whether they are holding up placards claiming not to need feminism or placards that emphasise that they do, whether they stood with her or wanted to make America great again, from where I sit, the language used to talk about us is all but indistingushable.

And when a boat of people is allowed to sink while the lifeguard ignores their multiple calls, it’s because of ideas, transmitted via malicious or thoughtless word choices, that Muslim refugees are too fundamentally, culturally incompatible with Europeans to be allowed in.

 

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