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MSNBC: Mona Eltahawy vs. Leila Ahmed

FP Sex Issue

Mona Eltahawy is no doubt an engaging and well-spoken woman, and although her recent article in Foreign Policy Magazine was inflammatory and lacking in nuance, she’s raised some important issues about women’s rights in Egyptian society and the broader Arab world. Danios challenged Eltahawy’s sweeping generalizations in a feature article, Why Do They Hate Us? They Don’t.

Dr. Leila Ahmed, Harvard Divinity School’s first women’s studies professor, also challenged Eltahawy during an interview with MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry.  Eltahawy said during the interview that Dr. Ahmed is one of her personal heroes.

However, the two women don’t see eye-to-eye on some key issues. For example, Eltahawy supports a ban on the burqa, but in the summer of 2011, Dr. Ahmed wrote her own article for Foreign Policy Magazine, Veil of Ignorance, advancing the notion modern feminists had gotten it wrong when it comes to the veil:

These are just the first stirrings of a new era in the story of Islam in the West. Historically, religions undergo enormous transformations as one strain of belief and practice gains ascendancy over another. Living religions are by definition dynamic: Witness the changes that have occurred in the last decades as women have become pastors and rabbis. A similar process is now under way within Islam, as the veil, once an emblem of patriarchy, today carries multiple meanings for its American and European wearers. Often enough, it also serves as a banner and call for justice — and yes, even for women’s rights.

Some of Eltahawy’s fiercest criticism has come from Arab and Muslim women, and it’s refreshing to see the mainstream media showing opposing views. The video starts out with a thoughtful discussion between Perry and Eltahawy, and the part featuring Dr. Ahmed begins about halfway through.

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  • That was a very well done interview.

  • Sir David Illuminati membership number 16.69

    Writers dont pick the front cover , thats the editors job . They pick it to attract people to buy the mag . No other reason .
    For instance The Daily Express ( a UK crap right wing paper ) used to expect to sell 10000+ extra copies if it had a picture of Princess Di on the cover what ever the story about her was .
    I agree it is fair to challenge those who are against religious freedom by banning the Burkha .

  • [Sorry this comment was delayed. I had to fish it from the spam folder.]

    I know you didn’t defend her. I apologize for not making my point clear enough, and I understand the balanced criticism you want to articulate. It’s just that I don’t find her “engaging.” And I felt personally offended by her article. She sounds engaging to Muslim haters everywhere, that’s true. But I know you said she’s engaging for a different reason, and obviously, you are not a Muslim hater anyway.

    Ilisha: for me it all boils down to one thing. Do those western readers who find her engaging do so because of how reasonable she is or because they hate everything Arab?

    Whenever there’s criticism about Islam or Israel (too incongruous to appear in one sentence, I know), I always refer in my mind to something Norman Finkelstein once said about genuine criticism of Israel: “If you support me because you hate Jews, I do not need your support”. This is what distinguishes antisemitism, from self-hatred, and from valid criticism of Israel. Isn’t this person worthy of one’s respect? I wouldn’t be a fan of anyone who hates Jews!

    The same applies to Islam. Eltahawy is a self-hating Arab, and those who applauded her are Arab haters. So is Noni Darwish and Wafa sultan, who believes Muslims have to be crushed.

    That’s also the difference between Sahar Khalifah and Fadia Faqeer: the one engages in genuine reformative criticism, and the other in west-ass-kissing criticism of her own culture.

    P.s. Ilisha, I rarely miss any article posted by you and I appreciate your reasoning and style.

    Good luck.

  • Géji

    Zakariya Ali Sher: “Back to the body paint burqa lady, I think its a bit unfair to criticize Eltahawy on that. I don’t think she was the one who picked out what photos went with the article”

    Although I’m not sure whether or not she picked out the photo herself, I’m incline to believe she did. Nonetheless, I’m afraid Ms Mona Eltahawy is known for her anti-Niqab stand. She supports imposing a ban even on those that choose to wear it. Brief, Ms Mona is well-known for her “war on Niqabis”. And for that, I think it’s fair to criticize her.

  • Sir David Illuminati membership number 16.69

    She is saying “its bloody cold in here”
    Lighten up old thing.

    Sir David

  • Géji

    Oh for God sake!. To all the posters pointing out ‘the paint’ on her ‘nude’ body.

    Please don’t take this the wrong way, but we have eyes as you do you know, we’re reading your comments aren’t we?. In case you guys are the one that need to “look close[ly]”, the sticking black stuff painted covering her nude natural skin entirely as second skin, except her eyelids? is the Niqab- Paint. Probably “painted” onto her by a husband, or father, or brother, or whatever man around her. She can’t do it herself.

    And if you look even more “closer”? you may see-(read) the sticking black stuff-(niqab) blackening her skin, penetrating right through the skin into her soul and mind, probably also changing to blacken the natural colors of the 2 latter. Thus as far, she’s bending the head to cover her mouth, her eyes speaking “I can’t talk” – until the Eltahawys of this world and their crony imperialist chums goes and save her from the hellhole “state” she’s been put. — She’s communicating, though with the only ‘unpainted’ part, with Eltahawy and chums, what she’s saying?

  • Zakariya Ali Sher

    @khushboo: Women who wear the burqa might not put on make-up, but I’ve seen plenty of hijabis with TOO much make-up in a way that only Arab ladies can pull off. 😀

    Anyway, like I’ve said before, Mona Eltahawy strikes me as yet another one of those ‘native experts,’ who channels her accent, ethnic sounding name and dark skin to appeal to naive westerners. Regardless of what she is saying – and she does bring up some valid points – the fact that she is willing to defame the entirety of Arab culture to do so makes me dislike her intensely. It IS perhaps telling to me that she chooses to live in the West rather than in Egypt. Just a thought.

    As for the whole ‘non-practicing Muslim’ thing, that strikes me as a little silly. Just like being a Jew, you don’t really stop being a Muslim just because you don’t go to regular prayers or drink some beer. You might not be a GOOD Muslim, but you are still considered a Muslim. It’s not a club where you get kicked out for not following the norms. The only way you stop being Muslim in my book is if you ACTIVELY choose to change to another religion (or no religion). There are plenty of people, even in the Middle East, who are Muslim but not especially observant. Its not like we have a hive mind and know when someone’s eating during Ramazan.

    Back to the body paint burqa lady, I think its a bit unfair to criticize Eltahawy on that. I don’t think she was the one who picked out what photos went with the article. Its meant to be provocative, perhaps, but its hardly something unusual. You see as much in FHM and other ‘guy magazines.’ Its only the context that makes it different.

  • khushboo

    Ah, I see!

  • Sir David ( Illuminati membership number 16.69

    She is only wearing paint , look close. Its all makeup , fake , a joke on being covered up . The picture itself is a comment on the Burkha.
    How can we make the burkha look sexy?
    Answer by appearing to wear one but in reality its just a con, she really is naked .

    The reality is that what matters is not what we wear its how we behave .

  • khushboo

    “Who is the girl in the picture wearing the burka? She looks sexy!”

    LOL well she does seem to have that “come hither” look. I really don’t like the overdone eye makeup. I don’t think she really wears burkha but just modeling in this case. Most women wearking burkha hardly wear makeup. The purpose is to not attract. Wearing heavy eye makeup would defeat the purpose.

  • khushboo

    I’m curious as to why she’s telling the Western Press about this instead of going to her country that she loves, Egypt and make changes. Does she really think the Western Press will do anything to help or just report how misogynist Muslim men are and how passive Muslim women are while feeling superior? Stirring up controversy is certainly helping Mona sell her mags.

    Love Dr. Ahmed’s “you’re looking it as half-empty and I’m looking it as half-full” comment and how men being oppressed is being disregarded in this case. She mentioned a Police WOMAN slapping an oppressed Tunisian man. It’s about abusing power, not men having power over women.

    Mona needs to get back on the right track!

  • Just Stopping By

    @Ilisha: “I don’t know what Eltahawy means when she describes herself as a ‘liberal, secular Muslim,’ which makes no sense to me, but if I had the chance, I would ask her.”

    It probably means about the same thing as when someone describes themself as a liberal, secular Jew. My guess is that it means that she identifies with Islam, engages in prayer and goes to a mosque on occasion but not (shall we say) religiously. Most likely, she does not follow various standard Muslim practices because she accepts interpretations of religious law (whether given by a recognized religious leader or just her own interpretation) that claim that the main point of religion is to be moral and not to worry about particular rituals. But, I would imagine that rather than just describe herself as “spiritual,” she finds herself at home in Islam as she sees it.

  • Reynardine

    You’re right, it’s body paint. This is evidence of how a good actor or actress can convey an impression with minimal cues of expression or gesture: it’s the posture and sidelong glance that conveys a come-hither glance given through minimum exposure. As Spock would say: Fascinating!

  • Reynardine

    What the Hell do some of you people think feminism is? I understand it only to be equality before the law, equality of opportunity, and a presumption of human dignity regardless od a person’s sex, as it should be regardless of a person’s race or place of birth.

    As for the gross episodes of famine and drought that exist south of the Sahara, they’re real. Just because de jure colonialism has ended doesn’t mean economic imperialism has ceased to exist. That has grown worse, along with environmental degradation and globally-induced climate change. Racism is not in admitting these things and working, as a planetary community, to eliminate them. Racism is in saying it doesn’t matter because “those people” aren’t quite human, and “eggs must be broken to make omelets” (for the “right people”).

  • Link182

    I am an Arab and a Muslim. I don’t hate women and I found her article to be remarkably offensive. There is certainly a disturbing amount of misogyny in the middle east and it must be combated. But claiming ‘arab men’ hate women is like asking ‘Why are Jews are racists’ because of zionist extremist. Such a comment would be regarded as anti Semitic and rightly so-Jews who fight for the rights of the Palestinians should not have to suffer the stigma of being regarded as racists. This kind of rhetoric is stupid, offensive and unhelpful.

  • Arab Atheist – ملحد عربي

    I disagree with you Ilisha.

    This woman is not engaging. She’s utterly stupid. She confuses misogyny with patriarchal hegemony, and engages herself in misandry. She talks like an uncontrolled radical feminist. Her argumentation is full of wishful thinking: “Women will finish the revolution.” She’s too sentimental and untimely in her thoughts! She contradicts herself many times. She already said women had their arms broken in the revolution. Women co-organized and were hand in hand with men in those revolutions. So why would men hold hands with those women if they hated them? When she says Arabs, does that include Copts and Arab Jews? Does that include liberal Arabs? Moderately Muslim Arabs? Almost non-Muslim Arabs? Extremist Arabs who don’t hate women?

    She also says the solution is to get rid of the Mubarak from our minds. So is the problem Mubarak or the culture? Can you please be specific? All she does is romanticize the Argument to make it appealing to some impressionable viewers in the West.

    To be fair though,,,
    The circumcision: a problem, I understand. This is valid criticism, except I think she makes a sweeping generalization by at least not mentioning that this habit is unheard of in other most other Arab countries. People in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan learned (and were shocked) about circumcision in Egypt from the news. Neither my mother, sisters, or any woman that I know personally has been circumcized.

    The virginity test: that’s utter ignorance. This test was done by officials loyal to ousted regime in order to humiliate and defame women protesters, and therefore does not represent the people. The ridiculous, disengaging Eltahawy must have lived under a rock during the revolution.

    Listening to her was a waste of time. If anyone cares to read for a real Egyptian feminists, Nawal al-Sa’dawi, for the few interviews I saw with her, has very sound argumetns that are worthy of one’s respect. She does not resort to blind generalizations this ass-kisser.

  • yourKinFolk

    look closely at the picture… she is not wearing a niqalb. it is black paint on her skin. the girl is nude from the waste up.

    but to the subject, even though i disagree with the idea of feminism and chauvinism completely, i am glad that the ideologies are there so it can spark thought. if everyone had the same views, there would be no progress so i am glad its there.

    i once read a book my c.s. lewis, it was a memoir of his depression after his wife died of cancer. its from his book, “a grief observed”

    “For we did learn and achieve something. There is, hidden or flaunted, a sword between the sexes till an entire marriage reconciles them. It is arrogance in us to call frankness, fairness, and chivalry ‘masculine’ when we see them in a woman; it is arrogance in them, to describe a man’s sensitiveness or tact or tenderness as ‘feminine.’ But also what poor, warped fragments of humanity most mere men and mere women must be to make the implications of that arrogance plausible. Marriage heals this. Jointly the two become fully human. ‘In the image of God created He them.’ Thus, by a paradox, this carnival of sexuality leads us out beyond our sexes.”

    what a beautiful quote. this has been my view on the matter of feminism and chauvinism which are two ideologies, which i feel, are born from inferiority and superiority complexes.

  • Géji

    The picture cover seem pulled right out the ass of good old Orientalism typical depiction of the poor helpless Muslim woman, especially of Arab descendant, whom the back Niqab is the perfect symbolize as sign to point out the subservience to men, rendering her in desperate need for any help from her awful husband, father, brother, son. I don’t see any difference between such depiction of Arab society, and the depiction of starving African children to represent African societies. They’re both implying inheritance hopelessness in those societies, in constant need of the rescue and charity of well off far land white men, that their own men can’t never provide. The typical tactic of the colonialist western mind to dehuminaze first those they sees “inferior” to their grandeur, which give ammunition to go and “save”, occupying the land exploring the resources he’ll then take home as earned “reward” for his good gesture. And war on women? is she implying that the only place on earth violating women’s right is the Middle East? How’s that different than bigot Hirsi Ali’s “war on Christians”, pointing the same direction?. They both seem enjoying pointing out the mischiefs of Middle-Easterners, calling them “wars”. But how about them for once pointing out the REAL wars of aggression waged by their very own imperialistic country that are actually spilling of human blood ?

  • Reynardine

    I daresay, Yossi, you are trying to stir outrage, but the truth is that American women in the thirties and forties often wore hats and veils that gave the same sort of provocative glance. During WWII, black and dark clothing was also the style for evening wear-for men, too- so that the glint of a Palm Beach jacket or a seersucker sundress wouldn’t spoil a blackout. Upsweeps and rolled pompadours became fashionable for women because they went easily from “safe” factory styles to glamorous evening styles with no more than remedial combing, and rolled-up hair didn’t have to be washed as often in those soap-rationed days. Women’s suits were man-tailored…because they were often recut out of larger men’s suits that had developed wear spots; I still have some of my mother’s old patterns that tell how to do it. The hats, veils, gloves, and heels were what lent femininity, along with the knee-length, straight skirts that showed bare, but made-up legs (to save nylon for parachutes). Exigent times develop their own special styles, and sometimes, these are pleasing.

  • Yossi

    Who is the girl in the picture wearing the burka? She looks sexy 🙂

  • Reynardine

    As long as we’re at it, Saffiyah, let us add that impugning a woman’s arguments with, “She’s not married”, “she has no children”, “she’s promiscuous”, “she’s a Lesbian”, “she’s not a real woman”, “she wants to be a man”, and “where are the nice, normal girls?” should also be off limits where the woman has not placed it in issue herself. That is the sort of thought-terminating cliché that died hard in the ’70’s; let us not revive it.

  • Abdullah

    And she doesn’t attract me the slightest

  • Abdullah

    I’ll take Eltahawy seriously when she gives up the males versus females ideology, and demonstrates credibility with mainstream Muslim interpretations of Islam. Feminism shouldn’t have to be the version Eltahawy wants. Why is her platform used against the masses of knowledgeable Muslim women and men who don’t want her version of feminism. The tastelessness of the body-painted photos speaks volumes about her extremism and willingness to use what appears to be her uncontrollable “outrage” to achieve an ends, despite whatever offensive means. Her work is quite an insult to moderates in the Muslim community who engage communities at a grass-roots level, and not spewing dirty laundry, anti-Arab/anti-Muslim fodder for the media.

  • Safiyyah

    Thank you “Just Stopping By!” I’m so sick of every woman being judged on her looks. It’s insignificant. Attractiveness has nothing to do with a woman’s qualifications OR her virtues. I’m sick of this. I’m sick of women who are nominated for supreme court justice or elected to congress being deemed unworthy by others because they are not sexually attractive enough.

  • Just Stopping By

    @Ilisha: Your piece starts, “Mona Eltahawy is no doubt an attractive and well-spoken woman,…”

    Just curious, would you ever start a piece with “Fareed Zakaria is no doubt a handsome and well-spoken man,…”?

    In any event, do feel free to begin your reply with “Just Stopping By is no doubt a handsome and well-spoken man…” 😀

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