MSNBC Host, Guest Worry About Propriety of Discussing Sexism in Islamic Cultures

If you’ve ever wondered why you don’t hear much reporting on some of the dreadful traditions and lack of rights that women in the Islamic world often face, MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry provided a perfect illustration in a recent discussion with Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy.

Eltahawy’s essay, which appeared in the magazine Foreign Policy, is a straightforward attempt to disabuse people of the notion that there is any sort of equivalence between the treatment of women in the Islamic and Western worlds. In her words, non-Arabs need to “resist cultural relativism and know that even in countries undergoing revolutions and uprisings, women will remain the cheapest bargaining chips.”

Unfortunately, while the piece has gotten a fair amount of news coverage outside of America, it hasn’t gotten much in this country. Harris-Perry was one exception to it—she actually bothered to interview Eltahawy on-air about it—but her reluctant attitude toward Eltahawy provided a good example how a misbegotten fear of being perceived as racist has led to very little coverage of violence and discrimination against Islamic women.

The interview took place last month on the April 28th edition of Harris-Perry’s eponymously titled show but is salient enough to discuss at this date. My thanks to Jihad Watch for drawing it to my attention. In the following essay, I quote liberally from the transcript of this discussion. To follow more easily, please watch the video of it below:

After quoting a bit from Eltahawy’s essay in her introduction, the liberal Tulane professor wondered if it was even appropriate for her to be discussing the plight of women under Islam:

I start with a little bit of trepidation in this conversation in part because I know that the critiques of this is the very idea that the Western press, that those who are not from these nations, who are not Muslim ourselves, who are not part of these traditions, can look at your article and say, ah, look at how horrible those men or those societies or that religion is.

Harris-Perry continued, likening the her own reluctance to that of black Americans who supposedly are afraid of reporting crime because they fear racist police officers:

It’s something -- you know, that’s part of why, for example, we have an underreporting of rape and domestic violence in African-American communities, because we know that the violence enacted on black men by police. So we often don’t call, right?

Harris-Perry didn’t offer any evidence in support of either assertion but that didn’t deter the agreeable Eltahawy from continuing.

“So, this idea of making us look bad, I understand, because yes, there is Islamophobia,” she said. “Yes, there is anti-Arab discrimination. That’s not the point of the essay, though. The point of my essay is that can we for once focus of my part of the world and talk about what’s really happening?”

Eltahawy continued:

I say, you the outside world, when you come and discuss and talk with our governments, they will tell you this, our culture, mind your own business. And I tell you, this culture was not made by women. Don’t fall victim to the cultural relativism.

This was an important point which Eltahawy deserves credit for making. Unfortunately she engaged in that very cultural relativism a few seconds later by equating former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum to a radical Islamic group called the Salafis. Needless to say, Santorum is not in favor of banning women from driving, sexual segregation, or numerous other repressive, anti-women laws beloved by the Salafis.

In fairness, Eltahawy made her remark in the context of opposing “patriarchy” generally and it seems evident that while she labeled Santorum an “American Salafi,” she is well aware that his policy ideas are far removed from the actual Salafis.

islam-misogyny-eltahawy.jpgOnce cannot say for certain but perhaps Eltahawy was simply trying to put her liberal Democrat host at ease. Harris-Perry’s discomfort with the subject of Islamic female repression surfaced again seconds later when she brought on Leila Ahmed, a Harvard divinities professor to question the legitimacy of Eltahawy’s essay.

“I have some broad problems with her generalizations,” Ahmed stated, before launching into a tirade against Eltahawy for criticizing disparate Islamic cultures in her article, as if doing so somehow meant she was implying they all practiced the exact same forms of discrimination against women:

So, let me just give you a sense of the broad generalizations. For example, she talks about the Arab world from Saudi Arabia to Morocco as if there are not vast differences of them. And just two examples, Saudi Arabia, women’s ban on driving and she is horrified by that and rage is exhibited and so do we all. And in fact, it’s completely irrelevant in the rest of the Arab world. Women have been driving everywhere else as far as I know since the arrival of the car.

So that’s one kind of broadness, that’s kind of muddies the waters, broadens the generalization.

And the other one is cliterectomy as an Arab custom. Cliterectomy is actually an African custom, not an Arab custom. The country in which it’s most commonly practiced is Egypt, which, of course, African and is practiced by Muslims and Christians.

Reading Eltahawy’s article, one gets the distinct impression that while she uses anecdotes from multiple countries to illustrate her points, she is driving at a larger one: systemic sexism in Islamic culture, regardless if such traditions originate from religious or cultural history.

If anyone is attempting to “muddy the waters,” it is cultural relativists like Ahmed. In the piece, Eltahawy shows that while the specific circumstances women have to deal with varies from country to country, the overall problem is the same:

What all this means is that when it comes to the status of women in the Middle East, it's not better than you think. It's much, much worse. Even after these "revolutions," all is more or less considered well with the world as long as women are covered up, anchored to the home, denied the simple mobility of getting into their own cars, forced to get permission from men to travel, and unable to marry without a male guardian's blessing -- or divorce either.

Not a single Arab country ranks in the top 100 in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report, putting the region as a whole solidly at the planet's rock bottom. Poor or rich, we all hate our women. Neighbors Saudi Arabia and Yemen, for instance, might be eons apart when it comes to GDP, but only four places separate them on the index, with the kingdom at 131 and Yemen coming in at 135 out of 135 countries. Morocco, often touted for its "progressive" family law (a 2005 report by Western "experts" called it "an example for Muslim countries aiming to integrate into modern society"), ranks 129; according to Morocco's Ministry of Justice, 41,098 girls under age 18 were married there in 2010.

In the discussion, Eltahawy echoed these sentiments speaking of “misogyny which plays out in different ways, but ultimately, it’s a mix of religion, culture and law in these various countries.”

That was insufficient for Ahmed who continued to chastise Eltahawy:

Mona, I appreciate what you do. I would love it if you would -- I understand that you want to get the message across and it’s an important message to get across. But if possible, nuance is not to give fuel and fodder to people who simply hate Arabs and Muslims in the climate of our day.

Of course while there are certain people who may indeed despise Muslims or Arabs, that fact ought not preclude a fair-minded discussion of whether or not Islamic-dominated countries pervasively mistreat or disregard the rights of women. To think otherwise would be exactly the same as thinking that simply because certain people actually hate the United States, we ought not to discuss whatever flaws we see in our current political or cultural climate. Both notions are completely absurd.

While it was good that Harris-Perry brought Eltahawy on her show to talk about systemic misogyny in Islamic culture—a subject most of the left-dominated Western press is afraid to broach—one hopes that she gets over her distaste for discussing it. Unless such unfairness is widely criticized, there is no way that it will ever be discontinued. That was how racial apartheid was stopped in South Africa and how mistreatment of women can be stopped now.

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013