The Egyptian commentator Mona Eltahawy has written an essay that details the abuse of women in the Middle East. The scale of it is, indeed, staggering. Ninety percent of Egypt’s women, for example, have had their genitals mutilated. The literacy rate among their Yemeni equivalents is about half that of men. Generally, women are subordinated to their fathers and then – all too soon in millions of cases – their husbands: their lives devoted only to the production of new ones.
In many circles Eltahawy’s piece has been met like a fart in a perfume shop. Even among the more serious criticisms there are tiresomely facile arguments. Nesrine Malik, for example, complains that she particularises the abuse of women despite other people facing hideous treatment. They do. Yet that doesn’t mean there aren’t specific features that distinguish such phenomena and sexist abuse is clearly individuated by, if nothing else, its scale and pervasiveness: in Egypt alone most women endure the torment of mutilation; a full third of them are said to have endured spousal abuse and hundreds are killed in honour crimes. Elsewhere, Max Fisher tries to absolve religion of responsibility by noting that rituals such as FGM predate Islam and remain common among local non-Muslims. Indeed, and if the argument at hand was that it was uniquely to blame that would be wrong. Yet the fact that something isn’t the originator of a trend needn’t mean that it doesn’t exacerbate it, and you’d be hard pressed to deny that the many scholars who justify such abuses with heavy reference to religious texts isn’t an enormously significant factor.
The critics have a point, however, in charging Eltahawy with being simplistic: not because the situation is any less appalling than she says but because she attributes it to mere “hatred”. The deeds are certainly hateful but the motives behind them have to be more complicated: not every father – or mother – who’s complicit in female genital mutilation, say, actually hates their daughter. This does not mean hatred isn’t at the root of the ideas that drive them to behave so terribly but it’s a shallow explanation. The word “hate” is chucked about a lot these days – to describe the motives of just about everyone whose beliefs disadvantage any person or people. I think that it’s assumed that one achieves greater moral clarity by defining their supposed evil in simple terms. Yet while the ideas are often characterised by scorn, loathing and revulsion – and that’s rarely truer than here – those aren’t feeling that have sprung into being: to understand them one must look for the impulses, theories and circumstances that incited the formation of such hostile attitudes. Only then will its form be comprehensible.