Los Angeles Times

Shadia: Islam for enlightenment, liberation

There's been a storm of controversy in the Arab and Muslim community over a recent Foreign Policy magazine article.

The essay, "Why Do They Hate Us?", outlines the atrocities many Arab women suffer at the hands of men. In short, the writer posits that Arab men hate women.

That writer isn't me, though we share the same first name (Mona) and native and adopted (Egypt, the U.S.) countries. Her name is Mona Eltahawy.

As if we needed it, this article divided the Arab and Muslim-American community into two groups: those who hailed Eltahawy for her courage, and those who admonished her for being yet another writer appealing to Western sensibilities with a subjective, narrow, emotionally gripping list of atrocities directed toward women by Arab, Muslim men.

And then there's me, hanging out somewhere in the middle, playing devil's advocate.

On the one hand, I know what it's like to be in Eltahawy's position.

My mom was married off by my grandmother to a man 22 years her senior, a man she couldn't stand and never loved. He beat her, even as she carried me in the womb, and generally humiliated and embarrassed her until she divorced him in the Egyptian courts — not an easy thing to do in that era. I remain proud of her for breaking free.

Growing up, my uncles helped raise me. One, who regular readers know as "Uncle Beautiful," hit and emotionally abused me. He once punched me in the face, dislocating the bone above my left eyebrow. He also once beat me so hard that it was difficult for me to move afterward. And he sometimes allowed the neighbors' kids to watch as he hit me.

After moving to America, I spent a decade not speaking with him.

Like Eltahawy, I too can recite a list of tragedies and injustices toward Arab women, but I also have good memories of my uncle teaching, encouraging, believing in, empowering and defending me. As cruel as his hand could be, he took pride in my achievements, and, to this day, cheers me on in my career and in life.

He made it his responsibility to protect me. He enriched my life with books and stories. He served as a role model with his honest way of life and work ethics.

Does he hate me?

I don't think so.

Is he a product of a collective, cultural ignorance that allowed him to both beat and praise me, to be compassionate and decent, to be emotionally and physically cruel?

I am leaning that way.

Yes, the Arab culture is misogynistic, but the picture isn't as grim as Eltahawy makes it sound. There are bad men, but great ones as well. And there are many great women who have been working for decades to advance women's rights and have made a lot of progress, though it has come slowly.

Her article does nothing other than, once again, put the burden, albeit indirectly, on the West, suggesting that Occidental values are all that can save these ignorant, undemocratic cultures.

I think solutions can and should be found within the Middle East.

The fact is, women have been mistreated by men of all religions and cultures for thousands of years. Remember: America needed its own women's movement — and it wasn't that long ago.

Manhood in many Arab countries is often measured by how insensitive you are and your ability to control the fairer sex.

The problem is not Islam, as some so easily and conveniently believe. It is the result of many factors, including colonialism and subsequent dictatorships and authoritarian regimes that have created an extreme culture in every aspect of life, not just when it comes to women.

When all you're concerned about is where and how you're going to feed yourself and family each day, and how to stay off corrupt leaders' and dictators' radar, being good to women, children, animals or men, for that matter, is not a priority.

And certainly, looking up your religion's teachings and history is nowhere on the list. It's not as black and white as Eltahawy makes it sound.

Not every Arab or Muslim man hates his wife. And they don't hate their mothers, sisters, daughters, granddaughters or nieces.

Instead of feeding the appetites of two opposing sides, why not find a way to educate men and women and make a real difference? Like Martin Luther King, who used religion to bring God-given rights to blacks, why not use religion — Islam, in this case — to empower the women of the Middle East and create a culture where women and men are working together for a better world?

We all know that the Torah and the Bible can and have been used to commit great injustices, and we also know that they can be used to bring people freedom, wisdom, compassion and enlightenment as well. It's the same story with the Koran and Islam.

The problem is a lot of Muslims are ignorant of the true teachings of their faith, which frowns upon the mistreatment of women.

None of Islam's greatest figures and stories existed without a woman. From Abraham to Muhammad, strong, empowered women were always at the heart of their existence.

More than 1,400 years ago, a 40-year-old businesswoman proposed marriage to her employee, a man 15 years her junior. He accepted. And she became his first wife — and boss.

That man was the Prophet Muhammad. They lived together for 25 years until she died.

Women, during the prophet's companions' time, voted, served in the military, gave to the mosques, worked and supported their husbands.

A feisty young woman wouldn't take no for an answer from the prophet. His second wife, Aisha, would question and challenge him to give her logical and reasonable answers. He would feed her with his own hands, help her with household chores and speak publicly of his love for her.

He died in her arms.

She delivered and shared with the Muslim community many of the prophet's traditions on marriage, family, children, women's rights and men's duties for women, and even held classes to teach the prophet's companions. This has made her, a woman, one of the most important figures of Islam.

These facts and many more should serve as a foundation to educate and empower every Muslim woman.

The revolutions happening across the Middle East are a good opportunity for women to liberate themselves if they use Islam for enlightenment and as a liberating tool, as it was intended to be.

Atrocities, such as the ones Eltahawy has listed, are less likely to happen in a society full of empowered women and educated men.

It's likely to take many years.

It took a decade for my relationship with Uncle Beautiful to change. We still sometimes disagree, but our disagreements are never contentious. They're respectful, and Islam is at the heart of our growth.

For Uncle Beautiful, evolving came as a result of his devotion to his faith and his desire to let it enlighten him. But not everyone is like Uncle Beautiful. And if change comes to gender roles in the Arab world, that's how it may have to happen — one enlightened man, and woman, at a time.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

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