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The War on Women

Sex, Politics and the New Middle East

At a press conference last March, Salwa el-Husseini, an Egyptian activist who protested on the streets during the country’s uprising, revealed she had been beaten, electrocuted and subjected to a virginity test by Egyptian soldiers. The Egyptian government denied charges of sexual assault.

“People just shut her down,” recalled Egyptian-American columnist and activist Mona Eltahawy, who, herself, was beaten and sexually assaulted by Egyptian police during the protests. She was speaking at New America Foundation and Foreign Policy magazine’s Monday afternoon event, The War on Women. “[Egyptians] said ‘you’re lying, you’re trying to make our good, noble military look bad. People should have been outraged.“

Indignation came later, but for a different reason. In November, 20-year-old Egyptian blogger Aliaa Mahdy posted a nude photo of herself on her personal blog. All hell broke loose, said Eltahawy. “She [was] accused of tainting the revolution. And I’m sitting here thinking, what is going on? What is happening to my beautiful Egyptian revolution? We have to ask ourselves…if these are revolutions about freedom and dignity, whose freedom and dignity are we talking about?”  

Monday’s discussion, which also included Karim Sadjadpour, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Susan Glasser, editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine, highlighted the magazine’s latest Sex issue – and the articles written by Eltahawy and Sadjadpour. Eltahawy’s piece argued that men’s hatred of women in the Middle East is the reason for the region’s pervasive gender inequality, and implored Arab women to instigate a “revolution of the mind” to overcome the legal, social and moral indignities they face. Sadjadpour documented the culture of sexual obsession among Iran’s religious and political leaders, and the regime’s use of sex as “a tool of suppression, inducement, and incitement. “

Though the political situations in Iran and Egypt are clearly distinct, Sadjadpour emphasized lessons post-revolutionary Egyptian women could learn from the women of the contemporary Islamic Republic, many of whom have now lived through revolutions in both 1979 and 2009. Eltahawy entreated Egyptian women to seize this post-revolutionary moment to exert their rights – before the misogynistic politics of the Muslim Brotherhood become further entrenched in society.

“Women were out there on the frontlines fighting alongside men,” said Eltahawy. “Let’s focus on women, because if we miss this, we miss a historic opportunity.”

But Eltahawy’s Arab-centric message ruffled a few feathers in the blogosphere. Many of the online responses to Eltahawy’s essay expressed concern that she was unfairly singling out the Arab world. “I know women haven’t overcome misogyny and patriarchy everywhere,” Eltahawy acknowledged. “But I do not need to write an essay in Foreign Policy that says, ‘women have it hard everywhere.’ What I wanted to do for a change was to focus on my community…When the conversation is always about America, we are second in the conversation.”

There was, however, at least one demographic faction whose reaction to Eltahawy’s piece was “overwhelmingly positive,” according to Sadjadpour: Iranian women. Islamic rulers have governed Iran for the past three decades. Consequently, Iranians have come to understand how mixing extreme Islam and politics can strangle women’s rights. “No one romanticizes joining religion and government anymore,” like some do in Egypt, Sadjadpour suggested. He also referenced an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that warned Arab women to vigilantly guard their rights against the new Egyptian regime, and to protect themselves from the cultural relativism that Iranian women submitted to 30 years ago.

Eltahawy has also preached the evils of cultural relativism -- the idea that an individual’s activities and beliefs must be analyzed within the context of their background or society.  “You – the outside world – will be told that it’s our “culture” and “religion” to do X, Y or Z to women,” she wrote in Foreign Policy. “Understand that whoever deemed it as such was never a woman. That’s an especially important lesson for future U.S. diplomats who travel to the region.”

“The U.S. cannot sit down at the table and listen to the new Egyptian leader saying, this is just our culture” as an excuse for human rights violations, Eltahawy said.

Egyptians can’t accept that excuse, either. “The liberal intelligentsia failed the country in Iran [after the 1979 revolution],” Sadjadpour said. And Egyptians can learn from that misguided surrender to Khomeini’s hardline policies: “Had people fought for these values which they ostensibly championed -- women’s rights, free speech, etc.,” the country could be in a better place today, Sadjadpour said.

A little bit of historical context: Before Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew Iran’s progressive ruler, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, in 1979, he claimed that “women [would be] free in the Islamic Republic in the selection of their activities and their future and their clothing” under his leadership.

His liberal proclamations gained him broad support among Iran’s liberal intelligentsia, wrote Sadjadpour in Foreign Policy. Like in Egypt today, the Iranian populace was hopeful about the positive social and economic impact new leadership could have on the country.    

Of course, things didn’t play out as planned. After he assumed power, Khomeini promptly worked to quash women’s rights. And he did little to strengthen the state. “Like Islamists in today's Egypt -- and some among America's Christian right -- Iran's revolutionaries found fertile ground on which to play the politics of pious populism, rather than concretely address the enormous challenges of building a diversified economy,” Sadjadpour wrote. “ …The brutal reality is that Iranians had entrusted their national destiny to a man, Khomeini, who had spent far more time thinking about the religious penalties for fornicating with animals than how to run a modern economy.”

As a result, the Iranian GDP has stagnated compared to countries like Turkey.

Eltahawy is optimistic that once Egyptians realize the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood is ill-equipped to create jobs or boost the economy, they’ll become disillusioned with the religious party. “So far, [the Muslim Brotherhood] is obsessed with [rolling back the] marriage age, banning English and pornography...Egyptians want jobs, they want tourism to come back, and they want you to stop obsessing over my vagina,” Eltahawy said. “[Governance] is about more than sex, family values and head scarves. It’s about getting the country to work again.”


Featured Speakers
Mona Eltahawy
Egyptian-American freelance journalist and columnist

Karim Sadjadpour
Senior Associate, Middle East Program
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Susan Glasser
Editor in Chief, Foreign Policy 

Event Time and Location

Monday, April 30, 2012 - 4:00pm - 5:30pm
New America Foundation
1899 L Street NW Suite 400
Washington, DC 20036

Event Photos

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A range of photos from this event are available on Flickr. Click on the icon at left to view or download the photos.