Posted by: sean | June 24, 2010

The Palestinian cause and women’s rights

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.



  1. For centuries women’s bodies were the battle ground over civilizational superiority between East and West. If it’s the West that measure’s the Islamic societies by their status of women’s rights. Or Islam measuring the degradation of Western morals by the amount of flesh western women reveal.

    Conceptually,many Arab feminist writers (Izmael, Shaban, Al-Ali) make the connection between war, occupation, and women’s rights. One argument holds that the disempowerment that men experience in relation to colonialism, occupation and war results in the suppression of women, as a form of male empowerment. Al Ali for example makes the, very confincing, argument that the American invasion of Iraq was the one most detrimental episode towards women’s rights in Iraq in the past 150 years.

    On the other hand the same argument is being made about the state itself. Where modern patriarchy can be defined as a system of male privilige in the social order that functions as a recompense of male disempowerment vis-à-vis the state. Male sacrifce towards the state and female sacrafice towards the family.

    Either way, any kind of exasperation of extremism is likely to affect social and civil ‘rights’, point.

  2. I gave up commenting on Mondoweiss for exactly this reason. The world-view of a lot of the commenters there seems to be a mirror image of Zionist paranoia: while Arabs are “the bad guys” for the Zionist nutters, they’re “the good guys” for the Mondoweiss nutters, and anyone who mentions any social problems in the Arab world must be one of “the bad guys”. This kind of thinking makes me despair of humanity.

  3. Some mondoweiss commenters are as Benjamin Geer describes them, but not all. It’s just that if you post something that is critical of the Arab side in any way you are going to attract the kneejerk ones. It’s a self-selection effect. I sometimes get that response when I criticize the handful of nuts who favor terrorism against Israeli civilians.

    OTOH, Sean’s harshest critic over there is an Arab woman who is very much a feminist and I think her pov is worth reading. Briefly summarizing her view as I understand it, Arab women are perfectly capable of fighting their own feminist battles and the last thing they need is help from Western men.

  4. The few times that Phil has posted anything of mine over there, the reaction has been immediate and depressing. Once I had the gall to criticize the hero’s welcome given to Samir Kuntar, and I was immediately accused of being an undercover agent of hasbara. I think Ben is right on the money when he describes it as the “mirror image of Zionist paranoia.”

    As for your larger point, either movements are looking for solidarity, or they aren’t. The main problem I have with people like her is that she is fine with non-Arab voices so long as they are completely uncritical, but as soon as one voices some nuance, which generally involves criticism, then those voices are unwelcome, oh and racist to boot.

    Ironically, I’m the one living with my family here in the Middle East, while she discounts the problems faced by women like my wife and in-laws from the comfort of the United States. On a day-to-day basis, these issues affect me and my family in a very real way.

  5. I’m involved in religious liberty and civil rights advocacy in the US. The organization I work with has concluded that there’ll always be Islamophobia, and tension between Jews and Muslims, as long as there’s no settlement in Israel/Palestine. One of the tactics used by uncritical supporters of the current regime in Israel is to keep bringing up the problems of women in the Arabic-speaking and Muslim-majority countries.

    For this reason, interfaith groups that I work with generally give leadership to Muslim women who are feminists, who can agree with the need for gender equality but still keep the discussion on Israel/Palestine.

    I don’t agree with focusing on any particular religion where patriarchy is concerned. All religions have work to do in that area. But if you live in Lebanon, for example, it is natural that you’d concentrate on fighting patriarchy there. But it’s also a fact that in the US there are highly cynical people are constantly bringing up womens’ rights who don’t give a damn about women, but who just want to buy time for Netanyahu to build more settlements.

    When Christian evangelicals or Zionists bring up the oppression of women I usually advise them to consider founding or funding an interfaith intervention team in their community to stop spousal abuse. Violence against women must stop, and how better to stop it than to set up a hot-line or intervention team made up of people of different faiths–or no faith at all–in one’s own community?

    The organized Muslim community has set up such an initiative in the San Francisco East Bay, and in other communities there are real opportunities for interfaith solidarity around stopping violence against women. But the evangelicals and Zionists really aren’t interested in doing that. They just want to stop discussion about Israel/Palestine.

    In the meantime, I’m partnered with (in my case, married to) a woman who is a semi-retired pastor in a Christian denomination that won’t even allow women to be ministers! She did all the work men do, but didn’t get the same health plan or salary! Racism also plays into it, because she was a pastor in Filipino churches in her denomination. In such a situation, I feel more like opposing patriarchy and racism in Christianity than in any of the other Abrahamic religions.

    I follow Mondoweiss because it deals with the interior emotional realities of Jews who are changing their minds about Israel, and in the process are trying to re-invent a universal Judaism. That’s important, because that’s what’s got to happen if we want to avoid all-out ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. But Phil was a little short with the writer. To his credit, he carried the points made by the writer on his website. We’re all learning, but at times the material we’re dealing with is so fraught with trauma that the learning curve makes us stupid.

  6. My lesser point is actually the one I feel more strongly about, since I see this kind of tension at Mondoweiss fairly often. You and Ben are right about the particular type of person you’re describing. My only point is that there are plenty of other commenters at Mondoweiss who are very critical of Israel and Zionism, but who aren’t nutty. It’s understandable you focus on the nuts since they obviously show up in force when you say anything critical of the Arab side, but not everyone there is like that. Though the number who do act that way is depressing–I sympathize with Ben’s despairing of humanity.

  7. In that thread, Seham is not dismissive of “problems faced by women,” she is dismissive of you. Those aren’t quite the same thing.

    If I were your editor, I would have changed “my struggle to fight for” to “my support for Palestinian feminists” . A supportive and humble tone might have garned a less bristling response.

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