The “Sexual Misery of the Arab World” article recently published in the New York Times has recently sparked a lot of discontent in the social media, article shared with a sense of discomfort with the way the article was written. In this piece I try to slightly highlight my own sense of discomfort and disagreement with the article. I also try to highlight some of the problematic issues this article renders and the ways in which they are tackled. But most importantly in this article I ask questions that encompass a deeper gaze at our historical moment.
Here I must note that in the age of heightened surveillance, whether police surveillance or writers policing of each other, I must state that my opinion about the piece written is not out of policing but out of my deep belief in debate and disagreement as a feminist duty. We have been using disagreement for a long time as a point of arrival, disagreement is usually where conversations end. This time i would like to use it as a point of departure.
The “Sexual Misery of the Arab World” article is not an exception, it did not come as a surprise, similar articles are being written and published to the extent that reading an article about our temporal history has become predominantly some sort of parrot mimicking. Reading the same article over and over, with different authors, written in different words. Of course, there are few articles as exceptions, article that take into consideration political geographies and the profound layers of migration and mobility in addition to issues of sexual violence. What is disturbing about it is that those articles are exceptions.
The problem is not that we are talking about sexual violence in the Arab world, on the contrary, talking and objecting to violence should never stop. The problem is how we are talking about it, how are we asking our questions, and most importantly how are we complicating our questions. In Germany, Cologne have witnessed a sample of the Tahrir Square violence with the Cologne sexual violence incident, the nightmare we experienced in the “Arab World” has sneaked out of our geographical borders and paid the “west” a visit, and now suddenly the whole world is in panic. The world showed solidarity against the mass sexual assault in Tahrir Square, but the world did not panic until it got a hint of what was happening. And suddenly brown bodies – the refugees became more vulnerable, more disposable, nations outrage boiled down to blaming the assault on all the refugees. Anyone want to sit with me and talk to me for hours to convince me that in Germany and Europe there are no men who rape? Actually I was verbally harassed once in downtown Cairo by a white European man who called me “Ya Mozza” with a ridiculous broken accent, but I don’t see Egyptians calling all white people harassers, are they? We are in a very critical moment of history where the Nato is about to interfere in order to block refugees from getting into Europe, can our present get more violent?!
So what do we have here now, there is sexual violence in the “Arab World” – and there are Arabs refugees trying to get out of war zones and oppressive regimes. We have a refugee crisis all over the world and we have sexual violence incidents that are taking place in Europe that are foreign to the type of sexual violence Europe is familiar with. Really what do we do now, how do we discuss this? Do we silence the woman who were harassed and sexually assaulted in Tahrir to maintain our “Arab World” image? Do we silence the women and the discussion about what happened in Cologne to protect the refugees? Do we swipe under our carpets the patriarchal nature of how the world, and the “Arab world” deal with woman bodies? Do we flatten the multi layered politics in all of this? What do we do? Shall we keep hiding our every day realities and compromise the safety and health of our bodies just because the west looks at us as a less “modern” states? Do we let the west expel that refugees because they are not culturally “appropriate” for the “modern” western culture? But do we as well look at every refugee or every Arab man as a sexual predator?
Of course not, of course we do not silence the women neither in Tahrir, or cologne or any part of the world. And of course we do not swipe our own problems of patriarchy under the carpet, let us start by stopping the silencing. Let us also start by stopping this constant violent concealment of the “Arab world” issues regarding sexual violence because we are too scared to air our dirty laundry infront of the west. We keep talking about how the western debate about the “Arab World” is Eurocentric, but we might be reproducing this eurocentrism by avoiding talking about sexual assault and violence in our countries just out of fear of breaching our “Arab World” image. And as for the west, it needs to debate with us, but sometimes it also needs to shut up and listen to what we have to say about our lives, instead of trying to generalize who we are and how we behave in the west.
Writing is very critical, epistemology have the power to discursively render anything as good or bad, to include and expel, so how many similar articles about the sexual misery of the “Arab World” can we afford!?
And let’s talk about the linguistics of the “Arab World”. This phrase has been in quotations for a reason. Is there really a one singular “Arab World”, is it a "world" anyway. It is just a set of countries like Europe, but we barely share the same spoken languages, currencies or cultures. This hegemony of the Arab world needs to stop, we need to start naming countries by their names, not out of a border fetish, but out of a realization that our countries are different, the level of patriarchy and capitalism and most importantly resistance in them differs. So this hegemonization of the “Arab World” really needs to stop. Our resilience and resistance are not flat or hegemonic, and out of respect to that, the world needs to start recognizing them and dealing with them as profound and multiple!
Now regarding the Arab world sexual misery article, I need to make a few points: there is a huge difference between sex and sexual assault, the whole shade of gray is called consent and if consent is absent, sex turns into rape. So how did this get mixed up in the article? Also, sex can happen out of desire, love is not a prerequisite for sex. Most importantly what was highly disturbing about reading that article was the pathologization of sexual violence.
The "Arab world" does not have a sick relationship to women, it has a patriarchal relationship to women and that's a totally different story. The pathologization of the history of patriarchy under capitalism and describing the structural violence women undergo as "sick" justifies violence against women by making it sound like an illness and not a behavior based on social norms and structures. The patriarchal system that structurally violates women bodies on daily bodies and produce them as disposable and dehumanized, is a system of oppression that targets all genders, but especially women bodies and sexuality. Patriarchy is not only a mode of thinking, it has its own economy as well. Also, attributing sexual violence and patriarchy to sickness is an insult to those who suffer from mental health issues. And this is what is meant when people talk about language as discursive!
Also, in the article in the famous New York times (what a surprise) there's a general feeling of attributing and relating sexual violence to male sexual frustration. Sex is a taboo, yes, it is, but sex is not tucked under the table in the "Arab World" it is spoken of every minute. Videos of Sheikh's talking about sex are published online every day, sex is all over the media, so talking about sex is always there, the problem is not that sex is unspoken of, the problem is how it is being addressed. I am very sick and tired of people denying the hyper sexualization of everything is the media and in Arab countries and disregarding those essential facts just because sex is not being talked about in a positive manner. If something does not fit your description of how it should be addressed that does not mean it not being addressed, even if the method of addressing it is oppressive.
That said, among many other things, I pause my question again, we know that it is important to talk, to ask questions, but how do we do that without flattening societal violence and societal issues? Does sexual violence coming from what the west identified as "foreigners" towards women entitle the west to make rapists and predators out of all refugees? And how can we deal with all of this? How can it stop? Those are questions I struggle with everyday, and I hope you do too. because this is when we can actually start talking productively about the patriarchal system in this world.