Why Does the Middle East Hate Women?

"Why Do They Hate Us?", Egyptian-born, U.S.-based journalist Mona Eltahawy's cover story for Foreign Policy's first-ever "Sex Issue", is an uncomfortable and obligatory read. Eltahawy argues that the Arab Spring movement is just as misogynistic as the regimes it replaced, and that true revolution is impossible until sexism is stamped out along with other forms of totalitarianism:

There is no sugarcoating it. They don't hate us because of our freedoms, as the tired, post-9/11 American cliché had it. We have no freedoms because they hate us, as this Arab woman so powerfully says.

Yes: They hate us. It must be said.

An entire political and economic system — one that treats half of humanity like animals — must be destroyed along with the other more obvious tyrannies choking off the region from its future. 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.

Throughout the piece, Eltahawy explains that there's no real difference as to how wealthy and impoverished Middle Eastern countries subjugate women, as evidenced by how not a single Arab country ranks in the top 100 in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report. "Poor or rich, we all hate our women," she notes. "Neighbors Saudi Arabia and Yemen, for instance, might be eons apart when it comes to GDP, but only four places separate them on the index, with the kingdom at 131 and Yemen coming in at 135 out of 135 countries."

It's obvious why Yemen is the lowest-ranked country — 55 percent of its women are illiterate, less than one-fourth participate in the labor force, and there's only one woman in the entire 301-person parliament — but Eltahawy is almost more critical of Saudi Arabia, where she lived as a young women, describing it as "unabashed in its worship of a misogynistic God and never suffers any consequences for it, thanks to its double-whammy advantage of having oil and being home to Islam's two holiest places, Mecca and Medina." The country's women are still unable to vote or run in elections, yet King Abdullah is hailed as a "reformer" — Newsweek named him one of the top 11 most respected world leaders in 2010 — for his "tiny paternalistic pats on their backs," like promising that women can vote for "almost completely symbolic local elections in — wait for it — 2015."

Things aren't looking good for women under the new Egyptian parliament, dominated as it is "by men stuck in the seventh century." Female radicals were treated differently (read: terribly) during the revolution itself, but the activists who withstood sexual assaults and "virginity tests" did so in hopes of change. But the Muslim Brotherhood, which holds almost half the total seats in the country's revolutionary parliament, does not believe women can be president. Another quarter of seats are held by Salafis, who ran a flower in place of each woman's face when fielding female candidates last fall. " Women are not to be seen or heard," Eltahawy writes, "even their voices are a temptation — so there they are in the Egyptian parliament, covered from head to toe in black and never uttering a word."

It's easy (albeit horrifically depressing and disturbing) to count the ways the Middle East hates women, but it's harder to answer the question the essay's title proposes: WHY do they hate women? Eltahawy says the reason is fueled "by a toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend."

Just as regime-appointed clerics lull the poor across the region with promises of justice — and nubile virgins — in the next world rather than a reckoning with the corruption and nepotism of the dictator in this life, so women are silenced by a deadly combination of men who hate them while also claiming to have God firmly on their side.

And religion, of course, is connected to the suspicion that "a woman is just a few degrees short of sexual insatiability," which leads to attempts to control, even though it's clearly the men on the streets who can't control themselves, hence the widespread sexual harassment so prevalent across the region that "Cairo has a women-only subway car to protect us from wandering hands and worse; countless Saudi malls are for families only, barring single men from entry unless they produce a requisite female to accompany them."

Women are urged to cover up to hide from these men, but they are also blamed for provoking them in the first place:

We often hear how the Middle East's failing economies have left many men unable to marry, and some even use that to explain rising levels of sexual harassment on the streets. In a 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, more than 80 percent of Egyptian women said they'd experienced sexual harassment and more than 60 percent of men admitted to harassing women. Yet we never hear how a later marriage age affects women. Do women have sex drives or not? Apparently, the Arab jury is still out on the basics of human biology.

If we're able to identify how the Middle East hates women, and we understand why the Middle East Hates women, what's the solution? "First we stop pretending," Eltahawy says:

Call out the hate for what it is. Resist cultural relativism and know that even in countries undergoing revolutions and uprisings, women will remain the cheapest bargaining chips. You — the outside world — will be told that it's our "culture" and "religion" to do X, Y, or Z to women. Understand that whoever deemed it as such was never a woman. The Arab uprisings may have been sparked by an Arab man — Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in desperation — but they will be finished by Arab women.

Reading her essay in full is a good way to start.