Tag Archive for Colonial Feminism

Western media hearts House Muslims

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry wrote in The Canadian Charger:

For the last 10 years women in Islam and their status in Muslim countries were two popular topics in Western media. Muslim women, like Irshad Manji and Ayaan Ali, have become media darlings because they wrote books smearing their religion, and called for the “liberation” of Muslim women. But when revolutionary Muslim women like Asmaa Mahfouz and Tawakkol Karman, an Egyptian and a Yemeni, recently made history by leading their countries towards dignity, democracy, liberty and social justice, both were ignored by the Western media.


Guest Post: A Yemeniya’s Response to Mona Eltahawy. By Dr.Lamya Almas

[IKHRAS NOTE] As Mona Eltahawy’s scope of representation and expertise continues to expand with each new uprising across much of Asia and Africa, her views continue to be rejected.  The New York-based “revolutionary feminist’s” detractors are not her imaginary group of bearded, misogynistic, religious fanatics she likes to rail against, but rather the same women, feminists, and revolutionaries the American Media darling assigned herself to represent.  In this excellent piece Dr. Lamya Almas rejects Mona’s views and her claim she represents the revolutionary Arab and Muslim women of Yemen.

Yemeni Revolutionaries

By Dr. Lamya Almas  http://yemeniyascorner.wordpress.com/

*For the record, although not a niqabi myself I am tremendously proud of the amazing women of Yemen—all of them, niqabi’s included. I am thus compelled to respond.

As the international media is captivated by images of thousands of veiled women protesters in the cities of Yemen, their ‘visibility’ and ‘participation’ is increasingly obvious. Indeed, they were too visible that politically bankrupt Saleh was compelled to resort to religious sensitivities by criticizing the mingling of sexes at Change Square. In defiance media coverage intensified as thousands of Yemeni women poured out of their homes, most clad in black Islamic dress and full face veils declaring their roles in the protests as religiously sound. They added their voices to raise the volume to a ‘roar’ demanding the ouster of Saleh. Saleh’s fatwa was followed by the kidnapping of four female physicians whose valor in the face of their kidnappers, and insistence on continuing the quest to ouster the regime made headlines. Meanwhile, Egyptian-born writer and lecturer on Arab Muslim issues Mona Eltahawy and the Muslim feminists she speaks for, claims they are “absolutely horrified by the Niqab.” In an appearance on Newsnight to discuss the Niqab ban in France Eltahawy says,

If you speak to all the Muslim feminists I know, they will say that they are absolutely horrified by the Niqab. The Niqab is not empowering. The Niqab is dehumanizing. . . In 1923 in Egypt, the Egyptian feminist Huda Sha’rawi removed the face veil and said this is a thing of the past. [Newsnight]

Who is Huda Sha’rawi? And seriously, when 1923? Mona Eltahawy is referring to an event in May of 1923, when Huda Sha’rawi and her protégée Saiza Nabarawi who were delegates from the Egyptian Feminist Union [EFU] to the International Women’s Alliance in Rome, removed their veils as they stepped off the train in Cairo. It was a symbolic act of ‘emancipation’ that was influenced by Sha’rawi’s readings of her friend and mentor, the Frenchwomen Eugenie Le Brun. Le Brun conveyed to her the belief that “the veil stood in the way of their [i.e. Egyptian women’s] advancement.”[1] Henceforth, Sha’rawi acted as the liaison between Western feminists and “Arab” feminists of the upper and upper-middle class. She imported western feminist ideas valorizing the western, in this case the European, as more advanced and “civilized” over the native who had to abandon its religion, customs, and dress; and if unwilling then at least reform its religion and habits according to the recommended imported guidelines. This was justified by a genuine concern to civilize Arab societies, and save women from a horrendous culture and religion they had been born into. Huda Sha’rawi’s version of Arab feminism isolated indigenous women who believed they possessed both the mental faculties and background that endowed them with a sense of their right to autonomy, and the right to follow their own sense of what was morally correct.

Eltahawy, I would argue, is a cross between Huda Sha’rawi and Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk and Reza Shah. Ataturk denounced the veil because it made Turkish men appear uncivilized as he explicitly says in one of his speeches,

In some places I have seen women who put a piece of cloth of towel or something like that over their heads to hide their faces, and who turn their backs or huddle themselves on the ground when a man passes by. What are the meaning and sense of this behavior? Gentleman, can the mothers and daughters of a civilized nation adopt this strange manner, this barbarous posture? It is a spectacle that makes the nation an object of ridicule. It must be remedied at once. [2]

Reza Shah issued a proclamation in the 1920’s banning the veil in attempts to adopt western reform by ridding the country of the “symbol of backwardness” [3].  Likewise, Eltahawy claims she wants to extend the Niqab ban across the world. Her goal takes me back to an attempt in 2002 by the French School in Sana’a to prohibit Yemeni girls from wearing the headscarf to school. Yemenis were enraged. Yemeni officials pointed out that the application of French law violated the terms of the French school’s license as obtained from the Ministry of Education of Yemen that required that the school operate within Yemeni territory and its laws and not outside thereof. Yemen’s National Organization accused the school administration and the French Cultural Attaché in Yemen of erroneous application of the Education Act, which ruled that the French and the French heads of educational institutions reconcile the demands of pluralism, which takes into account the nature of the societies in which there are freedom of religious belief. So, in my mind it is not strange that some of her critics accuse her of having a neo-colonial agenda for post-revolution Arab and Muslim feminism.

Furthermore, if one were to conduct a simple survey among young Muslim veiled women today, whether in Yemen or around the world, and ask them about Huda Sha’rawi and her legacy the most likely answer will be, “Who? Ask my mother, or grandmother.” If anything, Eltahwy’s response shows just how distant and removed she is from the reality of the Muslim women whom she claims she represents and speaks for. Certainly her theory of the prevalence of the niqab among the new generation of Muslims may exist, but definitely not the only and prevalent one she makes it out to be. Take Yemen for instance, where women wear it for a variety of reasons the most popular being: religious conviction, cultural habit, family pressure, and personal choice. Actually, Yemeni women have been veiled before Yemen was synonymous with Al Qaeda, or before it became as Mona El Tahawy says in her article in the Toronto Star “Revolutionary Woman vs. Burqa Woman” “the poorest country in the Arab world where Al Qaeda does have a presence.” With over a billion Muslims in the world from Europe, North and South America, Indonesia through South Asia to the Arab World, it would be naïve and unscholarly for any generalization about the current status of Muslim women to be applied to such diverse cultural situations. Hence, Newsnight host Kirsty Wark politely points to the inadequacy of Eltahawy summoning up the ghosts of Sha’rawi’s feminism in an attempt to bring the debate back to reality:

But the question, surely, is not whether there are feminist reasons for wearing the veil or not. It is ‘why is wearing the veil becoming more prevalent rather than less prevalent’? [Newsnight ]

In response, Eltahawy spins her conspiracy theory

I think it has become more prevalent because the space has been left completely uncontested to the Muslim right wing which does not respect anyone’s rights whatsoever except for this one right to cover a woman’s face. [Newsnight]

I noticed these early symptoms of Eltahawy’s tug-o-war with the Muslim right wing, and nostalgic obsession with women unveiling in public in her article “Revolutionary Woman vs. Burqa Woman”. She proceeds to tell us to,

Look no further than Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world where Al Qaeda does have a presence. The truly “Majestic Woman” is Tawakul Karaman. Dubbed one of Time magazine’s “16 of History’s Most Rebellious Women,” she was the first Yemeni female journalist to remove her face veil on the job. As chair of Women Journalists without Chains, she defends human rights and freedom of expression and has been protesting outside of Sanaa University every Tuesday since 2007. [“Revolutionary Woman vs. Burqa Woman”]

Mona Eltahawy

Tawakul Karaman was not the “first Yemeni female journalist to remove her face veil on the job”? Yes, we Yemenis are tremendously proud and overjoyed about Tawakul’s international recognition, but facts ought to be sorted out from fiction. This is another instance in which we lament the fact that Eltahawy has self-instated herself as the unquestionable face and voice for every Arab and Middle East issue. Unfortunately the western media has bought into it. She appears too often nowadays on all topics: the Israeli-Palestine conflict; the ongoing uprising against existing regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria; Muslims in the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, and USA; and Arab and Islamic feminism. Her expertise and credibility on topics goes unquestioned. As you can see here, she is confusing Tawakul Karaman with Amatalrauf al-Sharki, popularly known in Yemen and abroad as Raufa Hassan. Her name is one that is closely bound to Yemen media—radio, TV or journalism. Raufa Hassan in her “An Unveiled Voice” (1988) speaks about taking the veil off on the job:

But, there was a secret in this. I was working and I was veiled. At the radio I took off the veil to record because a voice through the veil would be muffled. [4]

Furthermore, the only other woman Eltahawy celebrates in the same article is an anonymous veiled Egyptian revolutionary woman worth mentioning because she is, “. . . hugging a Coptic priest in Cairo during the Egyptian revolution that ended Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.” The rest are to her “Al Qaeda’s out-of-sight ‘Majestic Woman.’”

It’s unfortunate that Eltahawy the self-instated face and voice of the ongoing revolutions does not get the point of the revolutions in the first place. The uprisings are due to the people’s deprivation of their freedoms for decades under oppressive regimes backed by the west, so naturally this is an attempt to regain their freedoms and identities. In the process they are overcoming personal differences that may divide or marginalize any citizen and instead focus on universal and national issues that unite them. Even Newsweek in their article The Feminists in the Middle of Tahrir Square gets it:

In the euphoric, even utopian, atmosphere of Tahrir, everyone talked of the Egyptians’ psychological breakthrough. Walls of fear, class, and even gender were broken. There was no feminism or ideology. Women were simply demanding the same pragmatic constitutional changes that every Egyptian wants. Everything is up for debate, including the Islamic laws that remain within the Constitution. [Newsweek]

Even feminist Nawal El Saadawi acknowledges feeling a sense of solidarity with all Egyptians as they did with her. She says,

The young men hugged and kissed me,” she said. “They tell me, ‘You were our inspiration to do this revolution.’ Even young men in the Muslim Brothers said, ‘Thank you for your books—we respect you.’ I was crying.” [Newsweek]

We are witnessing today worlds linked by affection and respect in the Arab world and, may I add, for the first time I can remember. In 2011, the world is amazed at the fact that there are so many young veiled women in Yemen. They watch closely as these women transition with such ease into political activism in defiance of a world telling them they are invisible and of the past. Yemeni women—in veils, scarves, and neither– have taken to the streets side by side with one objective: the end of a regime that has drowned their country in poverty, illiteracy, government corruption, backwards misogynistic mentalities that they recognize as un-Islamic.

We, the women of Yemen will define the needs of Yemeni women and address them within the context of a Saleh-free Yemen, with full realization that there may be universal issues pertaining to all women. In the process, we will not forget the native Yemeni woman who forms the majority and will represent and address her needs. We will learn to criticize our critics such as Eltahawy and others with respect, and not expect them to fit our standards but would simultaneously appreciate such consideration in return.


[1]Huda Sha’rawi and Margot Badran, Harem Years pages 7, 80.

[2] Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, page 165.

[3] Guity Nashat “Women in Pre-revolutionary Iran: A Historical Overview” in Women and Revolution in Iran, ed. Nashat (Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 1982), 27.

[4] Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke, “An Unveiled Voice” page 376.

Manji Gives Out Racist Tips to Brave Egyptian Women

Orientalist Art: Harem Fountain by Frederick A. Bridgman

While housies* who had supported the Mubarak regime, like ADC and James Zogby, are flocking to jump on the revolutionary bandwagon, Irshad Manji doesn’t appear impressed with the Egyptian people’s toppling of 30 years of US and Israeli-backed dictatorship.

For the past two weeks, we’ve been hearing that the “wall of fear” in Egypt has collapsed. Not to rain on anyone’s revolutionary parade, but I beg to differ.

Why the indifference towards the Egyptian people’s amazing feat? In what almost sounds like a sentence lifted from Raphael Patai’s The Arab Mind, Manji, who doesn’t know Arabic or hold a degree in Arab cultural studies, confidently opines:

the politics of the family. That’s where fear begins in much of Arab society.

Manji narrates the stories of two anonymous Egyptian women who fear their parents and then offers gratuitous advice:

I have no idea whether Mona or the woman I met at the café in Cairo participated [in the protests to oust Mubarak]. If they did, they’ll now need to apply their gutsiness to relationships at home.

Of course, just like Patai cited an Arab friend in the introduction to his book to give a facade of legitimacy, Manji found a Syrian sociologist, Halim Barakat, whose research she used to back up her claim. Her application of Barakat is problematic on two levels.

First, Manji misinterpreted and misapplied Barakat (carelessly or deliberately). She quoted one sentence from Halim Barakat’s book:

Political leaders “are cast in the image of the father, while citizens are cast in the image of children.” (Remember the speech in which Mr. Mubarak defiantly affirmed that he wouldn’t step down? He painted himself as the father figure who deserved absolute compliance from his 80 million toddlers, whom he’d previously ordered to go home.)

Manji doesn’t give us a citation for that, likely because she conveniently lifted it from a blog post by Brian Whitaker, whom she quotes in the same post. Since Whitaker doesn’t mention the book, Manji doesn’t bother to look it up herself. The quote came from The Arab World: Society, Culture and State. Had Manji actually read the book (it’s online; she didn’t  even need to make a trip to the library), she would’ve noticed that the author in the very next paragraph preemptively rebuts any simplistic generalizations and negative stereotypes that orientalists like Manji may spout:

To consider the complexity of society and the variations introduced by social class, lifestyle (bedouin, rural, or urban), political order, and encounters with other societies, we must reexamine some previously accepted generalizations. One such generalization is that the Arab family socializes its children into dependency. The dependency present in Arab society is only partly a product of family; much of it is owing to political and economic repression

Barakat goes on to give an example of a Palestinian refugee camp that had transformed its social dynamics over the course of one year thanks to political organization. The excerpt is so exciting and similar to self-empowerment we’re seeing in Egypt, it’s worth reprinting in full. It’s not surprising that Manji would’ve excluded this had she looked up the book, considering her support for Israel:

After a three-week study of a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan immediately after the June 1967 war, I concluded that a few well-armed and well-organized persons might be able to invade and control this camp of more than three thousand people because the camp lacked organization. Every family lived on its own, totally preoccupied with immediate and personal problems and interests. Less than a year later, in the spring of 1968, I visited the same camp and found it totally transformed. In the interim, Palestinian resistance organizations had mobilized the people, trained them, engaged them in political dialogue, and involved them in preparation for surprise attacks. People were talking about principles, arguing about ideological issues, learning about themselves and their enemies, and proudly narrating the stories of heroes and martyrs of the liberation struggle. The explanation for this sudden transformation from a condition of dependency to a condition of autonomy is located not in the realm of the constant (that is, early childhood upbringing) but in the realm of social variant.

Thus, Barakat would say the Egyptian revolt transformed Egyptians’ (reluctant) dependency on Mubarak was brought about by the social variant change they chose. In other words, a more thorough examination of Barakat, as opposed to Manji’s intellectually lazy approach, suggests that the social change she yearns for – “Maybe it can work the other way around, too. Maybe democracy in parliament will convulse autocracy in the house” – has already has already been set in motion.

Second, like Patai, Manji selects a social dynamic and orientalizes it. She presents it as uniquely and distinctively Arabic. It’s like Patai’s saying Arabs cringe at sexual degradation; as if other peoples enjoy it. Even if we were to assume for the sake of argument that her simplistic father figure theory of power dynamics is correct, she is unaware that this is a predominant image in western society also as postulated by Freud (Group Psychology and Analysis of the Ego).

How about Manji demonstrate some gutsiness herself and apologize for supporting Israel, the primary culprit behind Egyptians’ oppression. Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel was the main reason Mubarak was armed and supported in the billions of dollars annually in US foreign aid. Enthusiastically endorsed by Daniel Pipes and Alan Dershowitz and a supporter of the collaborating PA’s Salam Fayyad, Manji is no friend to Arabs and is in no position to offer advice, much less racist advice.

Irshad Manji, ikhrasi khales!

* Housies: Short for “House Arabs and House Muslims,” terms inspired by Malcolm X’s term “House Negro”.

Mona Eltahawy slightly improving

We’d criticized Mona Eltahawy’s racist, sexist support for the French niqab ban. Ikhras notices improvement in Eltahawy’s discourse during her debate with Tariq Ramadan about the same topic.

This time, unlike in her Washington Post article, she didn’t say there was no similarity between women’s faces and minaret stone indicating she probably understands the analogy by now. And she didn’t blame European liberals for failing to interpret Islam for women. Keep it up, Mona. Hopefully you’ll retract your support for the niqab ban soon. Is it too much to hope you might stop bragging about normalizing with “Israel” on your website too?

Colonial Feminism Among House Muslims

Columnist Mona Eltahawy presents troubling arguments in her recent Washington Post article, From liberals and feminists, unsettling silence on rending the Muslim veil (July 17, 2010).

Mona Eltahawy

First, she argues “Some have tried to present the ban as a matter of Islam vs. the West. It is not. First, Islam is not monolithic. It, like other major religions, has strains and sects.” One wonders what Islam’s diversity has anything to do with the anti-Islamic motivation behind the French ban on veils. Had France passed a law against wearing yermulkes, it would have been anti-Jewish regardless of strains and sects within Judaism. Had France passed a law against wearing crucifixes, it would’ve been anti-Christian regardless of strains and sects within Christianity. Granted, there are different interpretations within Islam that range from requiring the woman to cover her body completely (as in Saudi Arabia, for example), to requiring covering only the hair, to not requiring any hijab whatsoever per more liberal interpretations. But the variety of opinions within Islam doesn’t make a ban on an expression of some Muslim women’s faith any less of an anti-Islamic law. In fact, the first paragraph of the Washington Post article she links to indicates that Islam was specifically mentioned in the legislation in issue. “The French Parliament’s lower house passed sweeping but constitutionally vulnerable legislation Tuesday that would bar women from wearing full-face Islamic veils in public.” Eltahawy writes “Minarets are used to issue a call to prayer; they are a symbol of Islam. The niqab, the full-length veil that has openings only for the eyes, is a symbol only for the Muslim right.” Eltahawy distinguishes between the minaret ban and niqab ban only because she herself is for the niqab ban. This distinction makes little to no difference in the Islamophobic mindset. Both the minaret ban and the niqab ban are equally alarming as both stem from xenophobia, specifically Islamophobia. It is highly unlikely that the French legislature intended the niqab ban as a means to present Muslim women with a more progressive, egalitarian interpretation of their religion; the legislation was more likely fueled by intolerance and racism.

Next, Eltahawy writes “Some have likened this issue to Switzerland’s move last year to ban the construction of minarets. On the one hand, it is preposterous to compare women’s faces – their identity – to a stone pillar.” Eltahawy preposterously missed the point of the analogy. Analogies are used to point out a similarity of a particular aspect among entities. To analogize a man to a lion, for example, is to indicate courage. It would be absurd to suggest the analogy concerns consumption of raw meat. Hence, when anti-racist activists and writers liken the French veil ban to the Swiss minaret ban, the point is to track and condemn the growing trend of Islamophobia in Europe. No reasonable reader of that analogy would have drawn similarity between women’s face and stone.

Eltahawy goes on to criticize liberals who oppose their government’s repressive measure. She goes as far as blaming them for allowing “the political right and the Muslim right to seize the situation.” She wonders “[w]here were those howls when niqabs began appearing in European countries, where for years women fought for rights?” Stopping short of calling them hypocrites, Eltahawy writes “A bizarre political correctness tied the tongues of those who would normally rally to defend women’s rights.” What is bizarre is Eltahawy’s implication that it is European liberals’ job to interpret Islam for Muslim women. White man’s burden, anyone? Anti-racist Europeans’ primary task is to hold accountable for unconstitutional infringements their own government to which they pay taxes. While they’re entitled to their opinion regarding the veil, it is not their place to inform Muslim women how to practice their religion. In this regard, Eltahawy presents a racist argument; she sees it fit for non-Muslim Europeans to condemn the veil but we don’t hear her encouraging French Muslims to protest the Catholic Church’s denial of abortion and birth control for Catholic French women, for example.

While Eltahawy feigns concern with “the concept of a woman’s right to choose,” she cites Saudi blogger Eman Al Nafjan’s casual observation (that is, anecdotal observation not based on a scientific survey) that some Saudi women support the French ban. Eltahawy selectively cites excerpts from Al Nafjan’s post about how Saudi women are brainwashed and conveniently leaves out this less palatable part “I don’t live in France and I don’t even to plan to visit anytime soon and yet it made me happy that women there don’t have a choice. Yes this is one area where I’m anti-choice.” In addition, because the veil is required in Saudi Arabia, it’s not too surprising that some of Al Nafjan’s friends support the French veil ban. If a government were to force its citizens to eat burgers for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it wouldn’t be surprising if those citizens were to support burger bans elsewhere.

Eltahawy momentarily expresses unease with the “racist political right wing” but then concludes with making her position clear that “The French were right to ban the veil in public.” With this unequivocal statement, Eltahawy entrusts Islam’s interpretation and Muslim women’s right to choose to a state in top-down fashion instead of bringing about change on the grassroots level. Not any government, but one that has had a long racist, colonial history. This is not shocking coming from someone who brandishes her normalization with “Israel” on her website: “Ms Eltahawy was the first Egyptian journalist to live and to work for a western news agency in Israel.” Ms. Eltahawy, if you cannot support the fight against sexism and Islamophobia, then please Ikhrasi!

Contributed by Qasim


1) Emphasis within quotes added.

2) The term “Islamophobia” was employed in this article due its common usage. However, “anti-Islamic racism” or “anti-Islamic prejudice” are more accurate because they imply active, deliberate agency while “phobia” conveys helplessness and lack of deliberate intention (since phobia is a syndrome that occurs involuntarily).