Arab Women at the Margin?
Here we are again! It is 1991, but Arab women researchers and writers continue to be placed at the margin of the theoretical enterprise, to borrow a metaphor used by African-American writer Bell Hooks to describe how women of color are ghettoized by white feminists, who remain firmly in control at the center. It is ironic that MER 173, “Gender and Politics,” ignores its own editorial policy to assign white feminists the critical task of theorizing about women of color. Aside from the excerpted piece of Deniz Kandiyoti, all the other theoretical pieces in this issue are by white feminists. Nadia Farah’s short article provides information about the Egyptian Women’s Health Book Collective.
In fact, many Arab women, who were contacted at the last minute, including me, were asked to provide short, informational pieces. Understandably, all of us resented being dealt with as an afterthought. We refused individually to legitimate this objectionable division of labor.
As a reader and a supporter of your journal, I urge you to show greater sensitivity to the politics of writing about Arab women. In addition to white feminists on your editorial committee, it is also important to include Arab and Arab-American feminists as an integral part of the perspectives and views your journal is committed to and interested in exploring.
Kudos to the Egyptian Women’s Health Book Collective for their brave efforts in helping Arab women gain control over their bodies and lives (MER 173). However, I have two caveats.
No doubt many mainstream (and radical) Western feminists have been extremely reductionist, patronizing and even hostile in their superficial and sometimes grossly ignorant treatment of Middle Eastern women.
However, I am distressed that Arab feminist scholars and activists still at times adopt a very defensive posture when presented with this bias, even adopting positions and policies that impede the liberation of women in their society. For example, the aversion of the women of the collective to discuss circumcision [clitoridectomy] because of Western feminist obsession with the issue. While I understand their dismay, it should not interfere with tackling the issue of female mutilation. Promoting partial and hygienic circumcision practices does indeed save women’s lives, and is a necessary reform. However, circumcision is just the most potent symbol of the cultural, intellectual, social, political and economic circumcision of women throughout the world.
The second point is about the collective’s attitude toward lesbianism. What lesbian on earth is going to “come out” to these or any other researchers in Egypt? Raising the issue at all may have resulted in the censure of the entire book, but Arab feminists, like feminists around the world, have to recognize that homosexuality is not a marginal issue. There is a relationship between sexism and homophobia and we as women cannot fight our battles in isolation from the persecution of other groups in our societies.
Kathy Spillman AbuKhalil
Colorado Springs, CO
The Real Saddam
Anne Norton’s essay, “Gender, Sexuality and the Iraq of Our Imagination” (MER 173) is an insult to the Iraqi people. It can’t be anything else, for it is essentially a defense of Saddam Hussein.
Writing in a dull and highly pretentious style, Norton charges that the American media have constructed for Saddam, as for other Arab rulers, a menacing image of a violent man bent on making wars and suppressing dissent. Locked in a narrow ideology conspicuous for its lack of critical analysis, she writes: “Political and journalistic discourse set up an imaginary Iraq — a state of unhindered and perverse domestic violence.”
This is the language of insincerity. Its purpose is to deceive: Naively it makes a monster like Saddam part of the overall Western conception of the other. There is nothing “imaginary” in describing Saddam as a ruthless and violent dictator. Addressing Baath Party officials in 1986, Saddam emphasized that the families of those executed be told: “Don’t blame us for cutting off the heads of your sons and daughters — you should not have allowed your children to become opponents of the regime.” This is the real Saddam. The West did not construct a false identity for him. You are trapped in an ideology that really believes a demon can be demonized.
Although I do not want to enter into the substance of the debate, I found Edward Said’s tone and manner of argument, both in his original article and in his response to Afsaneh Najmabadi (MER 174), to be one that often abandoned debate on substance to engage in ad hominem and ad feminem attacks. He neither demonstrates nor convinces regarding what he calls her “wacky and rather obtuse political views.” Nor do I, even though I disagree with some of what she says, think he demonstrates that “the rest of her political argument is puerile.” Said adds Najmabadi to Samir al-Khalil and Fouad Ajami and says all three “are not critical intellectuals at all. They are careerists.” Although he does not demonstrate the point about any of the three, I will speak only of Najmabadi. She is one of the most intelligent, critical and important contributors to the understanding of Iranian history and society, now chiefly engaged in pioneering work on women. I know of nothing that would merit calling her a careerist; she does not seek out public platforms, fame or media appearances but devotes herself to (inadequately recompensed) scholarly work and teaching, and sees their relationship to politics and society. One wonders how many of her works Said has read.
To be meaningful and lead to changes in viewpoints or advances in knowledge, debate should concentrate on content and a careful assessment of one’s opponent’s arguments. Otherwise we risk descending into emotional divisions of everyone into friends and enemies — divisions whose results are all too tragically clear in the world around us.
Los Angeles, CA
Afsaneh Najmabadi’s letter (MER 173) contradicts reality and objective reasoning. Her letter is an attempt to obscure historical facts and to distract from the main issues in the Middle East: a humane and civilized solution to Palestinian and Arab problems. In the process of her disagreement with Professor Said, she has done injustice to intellectual dialogue. She is deliberately advocating four myths: the neutrality of the US and Israel regarding the misery and tragedy that Arab people face; the idea that the US was invited to intervene by a number of Arab governments in the area; the objectivity of some Arab “intellectual” activities; and the lack of racism directed against Arabs in the US.
A. A. Ali
I am sure I am not alone in feeling sad at the spectacle of the degeneration of debate in your pages to sordid personal attacks, especially when they come from the pen of Edward Said, one from which many of us have come to expect sharp analyses and forthright advocacy. Samir al-Khalil’s work needs no defense; it presents the only analysis we have of the processes of government by terror in Iraq. Readers can ascertain for themselves its value and importance. Some may have reservations about the analyses or the conclusions, for such is the nature of intellectual endeavor. To recount the career of its author, however, does not get us very far in evaluating the work or in drawing political conclusions from it. The terms “scholar” and “scholarship” lose any clear sense when used as honorific adjectives.
I wish to add one simple point to the debate. Many Iraqis, the main victims of Saddam and allied bombing, when able to express unconstrained opinion, berate the Americans for not having gone all the way and unseated Saddam and his regime. Many would still want the US and allies to intervene and deliver them from the hell they endure. Al-Khalil speaks for those Iraqis. Said, and many Arab intellectuals and nationalists, find this demand outrageous, for the US and its allies are the enemy, the supporters of Israel, the devastators of the region, the former allies of Saddam and so on. They have good reason for this attitude. However, where do we go from here? It is, by now, very clear that popular rebellion in Iraq, however numerous its supporters, does not have the means of overthrowing a regime which is still in possession of its brutal apparatus of repression, and one which will defend itself at any cost in human life. Who will then come to the rescue? Arab states? Arab nationalists?
The PLO has reached the obvious conclusion that the US is the only power on the world scene able to deliver solutions. These may be too little, too late, but there is nothing else on offer. Why do Said and other Arab intellectuals want to deny the Iraqis what they accept for the Palestinians? True, the US administration does not seem to be interested in justice for Iraqis, but that is no reason why we should not campaign and exert pressure through political channels, publicity and the media, as we would in demanding justice for the Palestinians. Whatever reservation we may have about politics and the media in the West, they do have the advantage of being relatively open and diverse, as Said knows.
Why Not Afghanistan?
As a long-time and loyal subscriber, I would like to express my appreciation for your timely, informed and incisive coverage of the Middle East. I enjoy reading it regularly; use it in my teaching; had our library subscribe; and encouraged others to read this fine magazine. Your coverage is unique and refreshing in a foggy and dismal world of “information.” However, I want to point out one glaring omission — Afghanistan. Please include more coverage of the 13-year fratricide and tragedy in that ravaged country. Talk about the UN peace efforts; the US-CIS agreement on arms embargo; the position of Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia; reconciliation efforts by Kabul and the opposition; and prospects for the future. If there can be peace in Kampuchea, Angola and El Salvador, why not in Afghanistan?