Dear Mona Eltahawy
My name is Dima Khatib. I am an Arab, Muslim woman, proud of my identity and culture. I lived half my life in the Arab world and the other half between four continents: Europe, Asia, North America and South America. I got to know cultures much freer than ours, when it comes to women, politics and society. I learned and watched and noted…and wished that many things which do not exist in our societies and exist in other societies would come true for Arab women, although I also noted aspects of suffering and negativity in the life of non-Arab women.
I have not met you personally yet, but we have exchanged conversations and our relationship has always been amiable - in fact, quite warm. I have always felt that we share the same dreams. I was among the first to write about your arrest. And today I don’t wish to join the army of your adversaries or of your staunch attackers. I hope you take my letter as constructive criticism, in the spirit of plurality of opinions and exchanging viewpoints and dialogue, the exact spirit that we seek to build stone by stone on a perilous Arab land, and you know this better than most.
I don’t think I am less emancipated than you, Mona, and no less someone who strives for and loves freedom. I dream of freedom for me and for you and for every Arab woman and Arab man, for every child and adult, the religious and non-religious, those who wear hijab, those who don’t wear hijab, and those who wear niqab, the women who work and the housewives, the rich and the poor, the educated and the illiterate. However I don’t belong to any feminist movements, I haven’t studied the theories of feminist movements, and I don’t write to you as a defender of women’s rights or in the name of all Arab women, I write to you as a female Arab citizen who feels that you have spoken in her name, in absentia.
I confess that the title of your article in Foreign Policy Magazine “Why do they hate us? – The real war on women is in the Middle East” made my blood boil. This was added to when I saw the picture of the woman, naked but for the black paint, so you see nothing but her eyes lined with kohl (with Arab kohl?). I could not keep myself from asking: Is this woman on the cover me, the Arab woman? I felt insulted, Mona. Did you not feel the same insult when you saw the article’s images? I felt an urge to tear the pictures apart.
I was attracted to the opening of your article. Your style is interesting and you do poke the issues, and our issues are one, Mona. There’s no doubt that the facts in your article are accurate, that the problems highlighted are real, and that the suffering you write of is experienced by Arab women, even if they are not always aware of it. My anger faded as I read, slowly…until I reached the section where you explain “The Arab men’s hatred toward women”. Hatred?
Let's see. In our Arab society, does the son hate his mother? The brother his sister? The father his daughter? And the husband hates his wife, and the lover his beloved? And the male colleague hates his female colleague, and the male friend his female friend, and the male neighbor his female neighbor? I don’t think our culture teaches us to hate women. In fact, mothers are sacred, grandmothers are sacred, aunts are treasured, and so are female cousins.
It is true that women’s issues are among our most thorny problems, and I believe that the liberation and progress of our societies will only take place through solving these problems, but I also believe that the other problems must be solved too. And the other problems are suffered by both men and women, social degradation, oppression, subordination, illiteracy, poverty, unemployment, exploitation, ignorance and many of the injustices, among other things you know well.
We, Arab women, are not weak, Mona, and the Arab revolutions have proved to us that we are stronger than we even thought, and the heroines of the Arab revolutions don’t need to be pointed out. I don’t think we need saviors from the hatred and grudges of our men, especially since the revolutions have proven that we are more than able to stand shoulder to shoulder with men to achieve progress for our societies.
Your article paints a picture of the Arab society that matches the images of the article: black, bleak, depressing, a painted black body. You have reduced the problem of the Arab woman to the feelings of men; while the image of the Arab woman was reduced to the image that the West has of her. What you have tackled is true, and we have a long road ahead, and the revolutions have not achieved anything for women or for any one else when it comes to societal demands, and we have not yet been granted our basic rights, as women or as men. Like you, I felt a huge shock when the new Egyptian parliament was elected in front of my eyes while I was in Egypt, with women representing less than 2% of it. But the picture in your article is incomplete and gives the impression that we are all miserable, helpless female beings. Arab society is not as barbaric as you present it in the article. You actually enhance the typical stereotype in the non-Arab reader's mind, and it is a stereotype full of overwhelming generalisations, and contributes to the widening cultural rift between our society and other societies, and the increase of racism towards us.
I felt that your article in the magazine you chose was a plea for others to go save an oppressed Arab woman, poor, veiled in black, as though anyone would come to "save" her anyway… As they did when the United States liberated Afghan women, for example?
We have a heap of accumulated and intertwined problems in the relationship between men and women, in how men view women, and how women view men. If only we could learn how to love again, so that men learn to love women without controlling them, and women learn to love men instead of loving to please men. How about we start from love, Mona, instead of hatred?
Note: I wrote the response originally in Arabic because I felt it was an issue Arabs should read about and discuss. This English version was kindly translated by: Tasnim Qutait (Thank you @TasnimQ)