Sandra Hiari ساندرا الحياري Urbanist & Writer Based in the Middle East i Amman, Jordan

What “Us” Is Really About

Ten years ago, the hijab found its way to cover my head. One article I read a few days ago did what the hijab couldn't: assault my brain.

By now, Foreign Policy magazine's Sex Issue for May/June 2012 has created substantial noise. The cover showing a nude painted in black lines created such a commotion given that it resembles one form of women's clothing in conservative locales of the Middle East. The controversial title "Why Do They Hate Us" is for an article by Arab-American public speaker and writer, Mona Eltahawy. By "Us", Mona is referring to women. By "They", she is referring to [Middle Eastern] men.

A Binary

Mona labeled two camps that are historically coexistent: men and women. Nothing ground breaking with that. But the binary labeling itself is problematic given her liberal undertones. The binary labeling assumes a biological determinism and classification of humans based on chromosome combinations (XY, XX). That in itself frames Mona's argument as a heterosexual one. By that, she fires back on modern liberalism that opposes biological binaries since they lead to such problematic social fault lines as homophobia.

When women's issues are presented as those stemming from lack of gender equality, the chances of creating an equilibrium between the sexes is limited to empowering one sex to raise to the level of another. In other words, women are automatically viewed as weak and in need of empowerment ironically defeating the main call for dispelling the differences between sexes.

Burdening The Body

The images that accompanied the article showing the nude, black-clad woman are creative on many levels; for starters, they depict how "cladding" a woman's body can be done in as thin a layer as paint. Moreover, they speak of the powerful sex-appeal that comes along a woman's body.

However, as a Muslim woman, I can't relate to black since that's not the kind of hijab I wear.

As creative as the pictures are, they fail to express a tenant the hijab stands on: de-sexualizing the woman's body (although, the hijab is like Eltahawy's argument, a binary-based approach to representing the woman's body).

Yes, the hijab can be problematic. But, ...

Weighing a new set of problems on the woman's body can further complicate its strife for such western causes as "empowerment"  and such universal values as equality. The body gets problematized when it has to react to such things as hatred generated by Mona's masculine agents. The boiling down of complex men-women relationships to a stereotypical image of hatred builds on what naive masses expect: simple comfort-zone concepts that explain complex realities. The simplification of concepts isn't that bad, readers usually understand the points authors want to make by utilizing such a method. When simplification turns into oversimplification, and when mainstream notions of women victimization are painted alongside images recalling hijab, that is when the feminism in the Middle East is derailed.

That is when an author swipes feminist discourse in the Middle East in one article.

Blaming women's problems on sexual polarization can get distanced readers somewhere. In reality it gets women like me in the Middle East nowhere. In fact, it can strip our cause from its core: its seeks to let us externalize our problems and make any solution tied to the magic wand of Arabia, the Middle Eastern penis. Instead of hunting for our own internal power and building our broken relationships between ourselves, our identities and our culture, hatred suggests that we are weakly cornered to a masculine cul-de-sac.

The question thus is, how far can we go ahead with such a lame argument?