Sitting in my house in Jordan, under a total lockdown that started more than a month ago, I spend a lot of my free time reading about the different forms of madness unfolding in response to the Covid-19 situation. In the Arab region, some of this madness has manifested as misogyny.
On 9 April, UN Secretary General António Guterres issued a policy brief detailing the way in which the new disease is deepening pre-existing inequalities which are, in turn, amplifying its impacts on women and girls. In a video message accompanying the report, Guterres recommends that women and girls be placed at the centre of international Covid-19 relief efforts.
This recommendation may seem odd, given that the Covid-19 mortality rate is higher among men than women, yet it makes sense in light of the increase in domestic and gender-based violence across the globe, especially in the Arab region.
At the start of the lockdown in Jordan, a joke making the rounds on social media told men that “there is no better time to beat the women in their lives and get away with it, than the mandatory curfew we are put under now” since “the curfew sirens will aid in hiding the screams of the beaten women.” Tasteless, right? But what’s more worrying is that this got many laughs.
In real life, Jordan witnessed a surge in domestic and gender-based violence during the curfew. On 31 March, the Jordan Times reported a “slight increase” in reported domestic violence cases during curfew. Asma Khader, Executive Director of the Solidarity Is Global Institute (SIGI) has commented: “There are more women calling us. Some of them report domestic violence cases and have no place to go, while others call us for consultation on how to get financial support since their husbands are stuck at home and they fear future tension within the family.” She added that, in the past, abused women had more options to escape violence, such as leaving the house to seek help or shelter at an organisation or with a friend. The online joke has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It is not only the curfew that puts women at risk of gender-based violence: Ramadan has started, a time of year that has almost always seen a surge in reported cases of violence against women in Arab nations. The recent increase in gender-based violence in Jordan has not come out of thin air: demeaning discourse about and ill-treatment of women are deeply rooted in our religion-based culture.
Western left-wing pundits will dismiss this statement as racist, in the name of identity politics, while right-wing pundits will use it to justify their xenophobia, oblivious to the fact that their own opposition to women’s reproductive rights, for example, is pretty much in line with the Arab misogyny they wish to call out.
Most residents of the Arab League are Muslims; the main language spoken is Arabic; most of the member countries’ constitutions mention Islam as the official religion. The primary source of jurisprudence in Islam is the Quran, deemed the immutable word of god, followed by the Hadith (the traditions of the Prophet Mohammed). Most of our cultural practices are derived from Islam.
Many of the verses of the Quran portray women in a sexist way. As Ali Rizvi has pointed out:
from advocating beating women (4:34), to advocating sex with female prisoners of war even if they’re married (4:24), to instructions on how to divorce a wife who hasn’t yet had her first period (65:4), to declaring menstruation an illness (2:222), to making two female witnesses equivalent to one male because “if one errs, the other can remind her” (2:282), to saying straight out that men are superior and have authority over women (2:228, 4:34). And that’s just a sampling. The hadith … go even further.
This keeps women at a disadvantage, especially when such teachings are internalized by women themselves.
Moreover, the belief that the Quran is the immutable and divine word of God, leaves very little—if any—space for critical thinking, opposition or reform. Such opposition may be considered blasphemy or heresy and the person concerned may be at risk of the death penalty in some Arab countries, or of being the victim of retaliation by religious fanatics.
Rizvi’s piece was written in response to Max Fischer’s argument “that some of the most important architects of institutionalized Arab misogyny weren’t actually Arab. They were Turkish—or, as they called themselves at the time, Ottoman—British, and French.” This kind of argument is not only false and reductive, but dangerous and detrimental to the work of Arab feminists like me, who are being oppressed in the name of scripture.
Imperialism played a role in the past, but it was not the only factor then or now. We have to acknowledge the cultural and religious factors that have made misogyny a norm among Arab communities or regressiveness and misogyny will continue to fester. Both right- and left-wing western commentators can obstruct progress on Arab women’s rights.
Right-wingers’ claims about the misogyny of the Arab world (as instanced by female genital mutilation, for example), are not devoid of facts, but their motives are questionable. They make it extremely difficult for women like me to voice legitimate criticism of our own culture, because we do not want to pander to those who want to impose xenophobic immigration policies (the vetting process for immigration should be values-based, not race-based).
When enlightened people in the Arab world are afraid to voice their opinions for fear of how the right might exploit them, it hinders progress within our communities and obstructs the self-reflection that is very much needed if we are to achieve progress towards liberal values.
If the right is concerned about women’s rights in the Arab world, to avoid hypocrisy they should also fight for women’s rights in the west.
The left uses the trope of tolerance to dismiss legitimate questioning of Arab culture as racist. This impacts our ability to present our case to our own communities, when we try to oppose misogynistic cultural practices.
Any attempt to criticize the treatment of women in our communities can meet with the response the liberals in the west accept and tolerate our culture, why can’t you? This halts progress and sets us back.
Moreover, the implicit claim that we should tolerate the misogyny in our culture demonstrates a kind of racism: we are not held to the same standards as westerners. This attitude enables patriarchy and misogyny in Arab communities both in the west and in the Arab region.
The left must also reflect on their motives and methods, they must fight to achieve equality for all, on the basis of individual rights rather than group identities.
It’s high time both ends of the political spectrum came to the table—perhaps including enlightened Arabs—accepted the facts and dissected their own motives, but the left should take responsibility for opening the dialogue, since it is the left that prides itself on being tolerant and open minded. Everyone should be held to the same values-based standards and we should ditch the intersectional identity perspective in favour of Enlightenment individualism.