Tuesday, June 1, 2010

western critics of the middle east

i'm nearly done with Ayaan Hirsi Ali's book, Nomad and so far she's raised many of the same arguments she's raised in Infidel and The Caged Virgin, but now, i look at them differently.

like in my first post about this book, one of the main issues she takes with the Muslim women's liberation is not the response of Muslim men or Muslims period, but of social critics from western nations. she had this to say about the American Muslims that heckled her when she went to prominent American universities to lecture:

"There are activist groups of every stripe on campus, yet nothing for girls fleeing Islam, no group fighting for the rights of Muslim women. when violence is committed in the name of Islam these student activists are silent. even when muslims blow up other Muslims who differ in their interpretation of this supposedly peaceful religion; even when children are used as suicide bombers; even when a devout Muslim woman is raped, goes to the authorities, and is sentenced to be stoned on the grounds that she has had sex outside of marriage-even then, these students are silent.
there is a problem with Islam, i would tell the students who hectored me. by ignoring it, you, student or adult, do a disservice to your community. "

not too long after i read Infidel, i became obsessed with Islam and Saudi Arabia, in particular. i was reading books about the Prophet Muhammad, autobiographies from current and former Muslims, and Saudi culture. i feel as though i know a lot about the culture and the religion, but i have never submitted to Islam, nor have i ever lived in or visited a Muslim populated country, so how legit is my opinion?

and therein lies the problem. this is why many western feminists, social critics, etc. may turn a blind eye to cultures of the middle east because, while they may know a good deal about Islam and middle eastern cultures, it is still a foreign society and we/they are still outsiders.

looking into history, we can see the damaging effects that judgement of cultures from outsiders can take. colonialism is the best example that has had the most damaging effects.
whites went to Africa, saw naked women with facial features they'd never seen, bodies shaped completely different from theirs, living in simple communes in tuned with nature and assumed that they must be sex-crazed animals, since the women are all naked or topless. they assumed wet were less intelligent, considering we weren't stripping the land of its resources and capitalizing off it. African societies were so different from theirs, they assumed that one had to be superior, while the other inferior. and this is the type of thinking that founded slavery, the taking of Native American land, and the centuries long genocide that has taken place against people of color in America.
this, i think, is why so many westerners take caution, or simply say nothing when it comes to matters of foreign societies. even now, many of the individuals that do criticize middle eastern cultures or Muslim populated societies are right-wingers whose views are usually nothing more than racism and xenophobia and nowhere near constructive criticism.

also, i think criticizing another society, in a way, implies that the society you/i dwell in is not in need of criticism. it's like giving someone relationship advice when you've had three divorces. how can any American criticize any society when ours has an endless array of issues.
take the burqa, for instance. after you've read a little about it (if you're a westerner), it seems to be oppressive and a tool to keep women subservient to men; it aids in making women feel as though their bodies and their sexuality are abominable; it helps to sustain the status quo. this, more and likely, is the typical western stance on this type of fashion (whether they voice it or not).
however if you're a female, and have lived in a well populated city, you know that women get heckled, taunted, whistled at, barked at, cat-called, blown-kisses at, been stalked for blocks, and even been groped while simply walking down the street, many a times in just jeans and a t-shirt.
and i know this from experience. "hey ma. like that dress", "i like that ass...", "you lookin good shawty..." are just some of the phrases that have come my way while on the subway or walking down the street. and this happens whether i'm in jeans and a tee, a dress, a short skirt, in my work clothes, or covered in a cable-knit sweater. right now, it's hot as hell in Brooklyn. so, do i wear something that keeps me cool, which in turn usually shows a lot of skin, or do i don something heavy and shapeless that will ward off comments like these-something like a....... burqa? at times, it has seemed like these women may have it right. wearing this would not only ward off comments, but it would force men to evaluate women by alternative means than our physical appearance. what could women who focus on their physical appearance more than anything else achieve if they are forced to value themselves on deeper levels?

if you research reasons women claim they wear burqas, hijabs, and the like, it is usually, they say, because men cannot control themselves when they see the female body, thus, as opposed to making men take control of themselves, they take the matter into their own hands and cover their bodies, head to toe, in something that only shows ankles and hands. and, walking down the street here and seeing how i'm talked to, and see how many other females are talked to, it's almost understandable. maybe they do have it right. wearing a dark, heavy, shapeless cloak guarantees that your body will not be disrespected in this way, and that you will be looked at as a woman, and not just an object of sex.
or...at least thats how it should work in theory. the fact of the matter is, however, that women are still defiled, groped, raped, molested, and disrespected in various ways by men in Saudi culture and cultures with the majority of women wearing burqas and hijabs just as women are in the American culture. based on the vast difference in how western women dress from burqas and hijabs, one would expect a difference in the way the women are treated, but thats not the case at all. so what's the point?

how hypocritical is it to criticize one culture's misogyny while the one i live in is eerily similar? but then again, at what point does one criticize no matter the cost? where is the line drawn? at misogyny? modern-day slavery? child sex slavery? genocide?

comment. think. CRITICIZE. criticize criticizers. read Nomad.
the photos at the top are by an artist named Ananias Leki Dago who i learned about via Afro Sapien. it's a piece entitled Identity.


  1. thanks for this well written post. i'm not a fan of Ayaan Hirsi Ali mostly due to seeing her on TV as i haven't read any of her books. i think it's okay to criticize other cultures as long as you also criticize yours. it's annoying sometimes when people just sit back and watch injustice being committed before them while saying things like 'i can't comment because it's not my culture'. at the same time it's just as infuriating when people spend their energy talking about how other cultures are so sexist or racist or 'backward' without looking at their own environment. i also believe that before talking about and/or forming opinions of a culture that is different from yours, you should make the effort to actually learn about the culture and also converse with people who are actually living within those cultures.

    i like that you made the effort to look at both your culture and 'Muslim' culture. i'm not a fan of the burqa myself but i respect that some women make the informed choice to wear the burqa.

  2. thanks. your comment is much appreciated.
    yes, on television Ayaan can sometimes come off as a republican pawn, but i still lover her.
    also, love your blog.

  3. you're welcome. lol @ 'republican pawn' i'm yet to read any of her books but they are on my 'to read' list.

    thanks for visiting my blog.

  4. Nell, again you prove yourself to be an idiot. Muslims were invading Africa and taking resources and putting people in bondage long before Europeans. Seconds, Africans were not living in peace. Africa has always been a worn torn continent were they steal from each other. Africans sold their people to each other.

    Let me know when you, as a black woman, are ready to apologize and pay reparations to the Khoisan for your ancestors having nearly exterminated them. If you take a long, objective look at history, you’ll realize that history is all about superior groups conquering (and sometimes, exterminating) inferior ones. This tendency is common to all of humanity (and indeed, to all living things) and is not exclusive to the white race. If you’re still alive today, you can be sure it’s because your ancestors at some point mercilessly crushed a competing group (either that, or they got lucky).

    Whites think you’re stupid because you’ve never given us any reason to think otherwise.

  5. @Josh
    in mentioning and acknowledging the ills of the west (in the present and the past), that does not mean i am saying other cultures have not committed the same ills and the same issues in history. in this post i even mentioned towards the conclusion that women in middle eastern cultures are raped, molested, and disrespected even in a culture in which the women are mostly covered, making the cloak-like wardrobes pointless. if at any point in this post, i have insinuated that i somehow respect Middle Eastern cultures or Islam more than any other cultures of religions, then that is a misunderstanding. i still have much to learn about the Middle Eastern Culture, so the jury is out on that (and may always be out). however, Islam is a religion. and i think i've made it clear how i feel about religion, especially Abrahamic religions in this and other posts.
    not once have i said that African cultures are in some way infallible or perfect. i am, however, trying to remove this idea that all goodness and progression has come from the west; from European nations; from whites.

    when i mentioned that Ayaan's type of thinking founded centuries of enslavement, i was referring to the slavery in the Americas. prior to that, slavery in Africa, particularly, was more so a temporary mishap of circumstances that led someone to being a enslaved; it was individualistic. whereas, in the Americas, it was something you were born into; it was an inevitability of a entire group of people.

    and no, Africans were not living in peace prior to colonialism. in the sense that no group of people can ever truly live in peace. however, colonialism added centuries of discriminatory and oppressive legal systems in African countries as well as in western countries against countries of people of color. many problems that exist in American, African, South American, and even Australian cultures can be traced back to colonialism. to deny that is to deny reality.

    and if you know what tribe in Africa i personally descended from and what they did to what group of people, please inform me.

    there is no such thing as taking an objective look at history. everything we know is shaped by someone or some group of people as well as our personal experiences. we can TRY to look at something objectively, but that, in its entirety, is impossible. trying to look at, for example, the colonialism of various countries in Africa, while removing the years (centuries, really) of euro-centric education i've received is something that will always color my perspective.

    and i would disagree that history is about "superior groups conquering inferior ones". i think history is about groups that have the means (economically, militarily, etc.) and the unreasonable and sometimes reasonable justification conquering groups that may not have the economic and military power, or resources to conquer others. if that means one group is "superior" and another "inferior", then i think we have a different interpretations of those words.

    again, thanks for the comment.