Alifa Rifaat, whose writing frames Mona Eltahawy's essay, was a wonderful and deeply subtle writer -- one of Egypt's finest writers of the last century. Her stories are typically brief, powerful meditations on themes of human desires and failures, and people's anguished loneliness in the midst, supposedly, of intimacy -- between husband and wife, mother and daughter, even mistress and maid. Publishing her work mainly in the 1970s and 1980s, Rifaat was probably the first Egyptian woman author to write fairly directly about women's sexuality. She penned, among other things, a story in which a woman whose husband figures only marginally in the story experiences ecstatic sexual fulfillment with a jinn who comes to her in the form of a woman.
Rifaat was herself forbidden to write by her husband, a policeman, for a good many years. She was thus intimately familiar with male chauvinism, as her stories, written mostly from the perspective of a female character, make clear. But she was also capable of writing very empathetically of men's travails, loneliness, and failed hopes.
Disconcertingly, Eltahawy strangely misreads (in my view) the Rifaat story with which she begins her essay. After enduring "unmoved," as Eltahawy correctly says, her husband's sexual exertions, the story's central character then eagerly rises to wash herself and perform ritual prayers. Eltahawy reads these actions as indicating Rifaat's "brilliant" portrayal of "sublimation through religion."
Rifaat, when I met her in Cairo in the early 1990s, wore the hijab, the Muslim head scarf. And she explicitly spoke to me --in the course of a long, rambling conversation in which she also talked of the tremendous importance to her of sexuality -- of how much joy she found in prayer, and of how she (like the character in her story) almost lived for those moments of prayer.
Given this memory, and in light too of the sheer imaginative depth of Rifaat's fictional explorations of human consciousness, I find it entirely unimaginable that Rifaat in fact shared, as Eltahawy assumes she does, Eltahawy's own sweepingly dismissive views of prayer and religion.
These were just some of the concerns I had as I read just Eltahawy's opening lines. And I found almost every paragraph of Eltahawy's essay similarly troubling as, again and again, broad brushstrokes and sweeping generalizations erased subtle nuances and garbled and swept aside important differences.
It is certainly Eltahawy's right and indeed even her obligation, as a feminist and a noted journalist with rare and impressive access to American media, to grapple with understanding and narrating the story of women in the Middle East and what she perceives to be the "war" on women in the ways that make most sense to her. And certainly I have no quarrel whatsoever with the will and desire she gives voice to -- of wanting to improve the condition of women in the Middle East and bring to an end the wars and other injustices to which they are subjected.
There are, of course, many ways of pursuing feminist goals. Just the other day, I heard a talk given at the Radcliffe Institute by Nadje al-Ali, a professor at the University of London, on the devastating costs for women and children -- in terms of the sheer numbers of lives lost, and the destruction, mutilation, dismemberment, and displacements suffered -- of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For Eltahawy, who makes no mention in her essay of those wars (or of the deadly struggles in Bahrain, Libya, Syria, or Yemen), the "real" war on women in the Middle East, as she declares in her title, and the one that she most urgently wishes to bring to our attention, is the war being conducted by Islamic patriarchy and misogyny. Ali, on the other hand, who, like Eltahawy, is a staunchly secular feminist, is passionately concerned above all about placing the social costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at the very forefront of our consciousness here in the United States.
Feminists of whatever religion or religious background have always fiercely debated the key sources of women's oppression. Is it patriarchy, religion, racism, imperialism, or class oppression, or some very lethal and toxic mix of all of these? Feminists have also thus differed on the solutions, as well as exactly whom we must fight first to liberate women. Eltahawy is evidently fiercely committed to the belief that it is religion above all -- and actually specifically and apparently exclusively Islam -- that constitutes the dangerously deadly heart of women's oppression in the Middle East. And it is of course absolutely her right to believe this.
But again, feminism can take many and even quite unexpected forms. As the early days of the Arab uprisings unfolded on our television screens, many of us saw for ourselves the tens of thousands of women who were out in the streets in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, taking a stand alongside men for human rights and human dignity. A fair proportion of these women wore hijab -- a sign, usually, of a religious commitment to Islam. Presumably, these women would not share Eltahawy's fiercely contemptuous understanding of Islam as the source of all their troubles and problems. Some of these women in hijab proved to be important actors in the Arab uprisings. The young Egyptian activist Asma Mahfouz, for example, posted a video of herself on Facebook delivering an eloquent, impassioned speech calling on people to join her in Tahrir Square to take their stand alongside her for human rights and dignity. Her video went viral and is credited with having played a key role in initiating the movement to occupy Tahrir Square. Similarly Tawakkol Karman, the Yemeni woman who won the Nobel Prize for her committed activism in the uprising, is a tremendously courageous, articulate, and outspoken woman. It would be wonderful to hear what such women think of what is happening in their countries and what they think and hope for in relation to women's rights.
And so let me close by, first of all, thanking Foreign Policy for inviting me to participate in this roundtable response to Eltahawy, and secondly by urging them to also reach out to women such as Mahfouz and Karman to invite them to share their views with us.
Leila Ahmed is Victor S. Thomas Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. She is the author of A Quiet Revolution: the Veil's Resurgence, from the Middle East to America, an adapted excerpt of which ran in Foreign Policy.