I wrote an off-the-cuff (as if my blog posts are carefully planned and drafted!) email to Phil Weiss in response this post in which he immediately rejected a discussion of women’s rights in Arab and Muslim societies (as part of a larger discussion on gender roles) as pro-Israel hasbara. I gave him permission to post my response:
Sometimes I wonder if you’re not falling into the romanticizing trope of the “noble savage” with posts like this, “Casual Prejudice Against Muslims” (by Weiss).
The fact of the matter is that in most, if not all, Arab and Muslim countries, women are discriminated against as a matter of course, from citizenship laws to inheritance to paternalistic familial structures and domestic abuse. This is clearly not a purely Muslim or Arab affair, since, with perhaps the exception of Scandinavia, it exists in various degrees throughout the world. But the fact of the matter is that even if it’s often used as a pro-Israel or neocon club to bludgeon Arabs on other, unrelated issues like the Israel/Palestine conflict, that doesn’t make the charge less true.
I look at it as being similar to Soviet charges against US treatment of black citizens. Did pointing out the Jim Crow laws make Siberian gulags or Eastern European oppression any more acceptable? Of course not, although it may have scored Moscow some points in the world arena by pointing out American hypocrisy. At the end of the day, though, the answer to Stalinist accusations of racism should have been the civil rights movement, not a denial of segregation. Likewise, to my mind, the oppression of women and minorities and homosexuals in the Mideast is not directly related to the Arab/Israeli conflict, but it is very important to me, and I don’t see that there’s any contradiction in my struggle to fight for my wife’s right to marry who she pleases, legally own land and work at any job she wants to in Lebanon and her right to return to and live in Haifa.
The internet is bad here, so I didn’t listen to the clip, but I don’t think that the knee-jerk reaction that many people, especially those who don’t live in the region, have to dismiss any and all criticism of Arab or Muslim states and/or societies as hasbara for Israel is helpful at all. In fact, it plays into the rhetoric of Arab states that justifies the emergency laws in Syria and Egypt and censorship laws here in Lebanon, not to mention the shameful treatment of Palestinians throughout the Arab world. For my part, an equitable solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict should be about justice, not about supporting “my side” right or wrong.
As regular readers of this blog are well aware, both the Palestinian cause and women’s rights are close to my heart, and I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive or that one should be sacrificed for the other.
The comments to the post at Mondoweiss, however, are typical, and typically depressing. In one, I’m likened to a US soldier in Southeast Asia who’s taken a native trophy wife as part of American chauvinism. In another, I’m being “rightwing propagandist,” and in yet another I’m being unfair or disingenuous, because the sorry state of women’s rights can all be squarely chalked up to the US, Britain and Israel. Finally, the prevailing attitude is that women’s rights are a distraction from the Palestinian cause.
Ironically, these sentiments are the strongest from partisans in the west, who generally don’t have to deal with the quotidian effects of inequality in areas like inheritance and citizenship. (For more on the citizenship struggle, see here, here and here.)
This whole debate reminds me a bit of the comments Chomsky made here in Beirut last month, where to the consternation of much of the audience, he spoke out against maximalist feel-good positions that don’t don’t actually accomplish much mouthed in the place of actual actions that could actually have an impact on the situation. The example he gave was the overwhelming silence about the lack of civil rights for Palestinians in Lebanon.
In that vein, I’d like to remind everyone about the march to Parliament on Sunday morning for Palestinian rights. Bring as many people as you can to remind the government how important this issue is to fundamental justice and equality.