Monday,28 May, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1345, (18 - 24 May 2017)
Monday,28 May, 2018
Issue 1345, (18 - 24 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The sorry state of the world

A biased Western study of Arab masculinity needs to be properly contextualised and challenged, writes Nawal Al-Saadawi

The sorry state of the world


A biased Western study of Arab masculinity needs to be properly contextualised and challenged, writes Nawal Al-Saadawi


I recently read an article in the UK magazine The Economist for 6 May entitled “The Sorry State of Arab Men” based on research on male-female relations in four countries in the Arab world, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon and Morocco. Such research, done mainly by academics living in the US and Europe and funded by American and European donors, tends to be politically oriented and one-sided and is isolated from the real life of the countries being researched.

We already know that “the personal is political,” that economic power dominates the world, and that militarism and masculinism have been working hand-in-hand since the evolution of the classist and racist patriarchal and religious system. Can we separate the personal lives of masculinist leaders like US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from their political lives?

Can we separate state terrorism from the terror of the religious fundamentalists? If we want to study domestic-sexual violence in Palestine, for example, can we separate it from local-global military and economic violence? The global and the local are inseparable, and the word “glocal” is now used to describe this idea. However, many academics and researchers in the North and South are still comfortable with the old habits of traditional education based on specialisation and the separation between the sciences and the arts, the body and the spirit, the private and the public, politics and sex, honour killings and foreign invasions, philosophy and medicine, and so on.

I spent 20 of my 86 years teaching a Creativity and Dissidence course to students in US and European universities. Most of my life I lived and worked in Egypt, however, as a medical doctor, researcher and writer working in towns and villages mainly among students and young men and women. I understood the problems I had been experiencing in Egypt more when I lived outside Egypt, as I started to compare life in Egypt with life in the US, for example.

Scientific knowledge should be based on comparative studies. We cannot truly “know” Islam without comparing it with other religions. Most American and European Islamic scholars have only studied Islam, and therefore most of them do not know that the veiling of women, for example, started in Judaism. We cannot understand the Quran without comparing it with the biblical Old and New Testaments. We need to study anthropology and the history of the universe. We need to understand that it was created in billions of years and not in just six days.

Post-modern religious fundamentalist movements are political movements that use God to justify glocal injustices: The Islamic State (IS) group, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, the Taliban and others work hand-in-hand with the capitalist nuclear super-powers. Creative thinking must be based on connecting together areas that have been disconnected by traditional academic systems. Some academic research still wants to try to prove that Muslims, Arabs or Africans are the only patriarchal men in the world.

I will not deny that many Arab men are male-chauvinist, not because they are Arabs or Muslims or black-or brown-skinned, but because they are dominated by the same system that dominates the world – the patriarchal, capitalist, colonialist, military and racist system. Many of my most creative American and European women friends live alone; some have never married; some have divorced, or are legally, socially, physically or emotionally separated; some are single mothers, and some are lesbians.

Many of my American and European men friends have been masculinist, whether or not they have chosen to wear a moustache, since they have been ready to fight against assertive feminist or non-feminist women colleagues. Some male professors in the US have been ready to sexually harass young female students 

CRISIS OF MASCULINITY: The research results published in the Economist magazine need to be discussed and challenged.

One of the results says that many Arab men are “depressed” because of a lack of work or income, and that the result is a “crisis of masculinity,” especially in Egypt and Palestine. The study suggests that the struggle of young men to achieve the status of financial provider may be producing a backlash against assertive women and that 90 per cent of men in Egypt believe they should have the final say on household decisions and 70 per cent of them approve of female genital mutilation (FGM).

If the same research was done in Italy or Spain or Israel or the US or India or other countries, would no crisis of masculinity be found because of increasing unemployment and no backlash against assertive women? Increasing poverty, inequality and unemployment is becoming acute in the developed countries, and the crisis of capitalism in rich countries like the US is leading to revolts against big business and greedy capitalists. We have seen millions of women and men, blacks and whites, demonstrating in New York City and other US cities and carrying banners saying that the one per cent own everything in the US today and the 99 per cent own nothing.

If we cannot learn from history, since our ancestral grandmother, Eve, was produced from Adam’s rib, we will continue to live in the dark. Historicist socialist feminism links class and gender oppression to history, but many scholars and researchers, belonging to the upper and middle classes of their societies, are insufficiently aware of class oppression. The basic idea of feminism is to link the personal to the political and to the social, economic and sexual. The fiercely capitalist masculinity of Trump mobilised millions of women and the poor across the world to demonstrate against his policies.

The study in the Economist magazine suggests that the struggle of young Arab men to achieve the status of financial provider may be producing a backlash against assertive women. But this is a universal problem and one that is not limited to Arab men. Domestic violence, virginity problems, honour killings, child abuse, wife-beating, etc., should not be linked to a certain nationality or religion or so-called identity.

Identity politics, unrestrained capitalism and colonialism, religious fanaticism and masculinist inflationism all work together. We should not be deceived by post-modern universalist vocabulary, especially the most beautiful, words like “authentic identity,” “cultural relativism,” “specificity” and “spirituality”. We should not separate male genital mutilation (MGM) and female genital mutilation (FGM). The UN has condemned FGM but not MGM, though modern studies show that cutting healthy children is harmful to both females and males. Yet, the world is silent about male circumcision. Why?

It is mainly a political problem: The fear of being accused of anti-Semitism. We can see how power also dominates world health issues. It is not enough to have a female prime minister in Canada, France, Germany, the US or Egypt. Under former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, women’s rights actually diminished in the UK. Instead, we need to fight together “glocally” to end militarism, colonialism, patriarchy, capitalism and state and religious terrorism.  

The writer is an internationally famous feminist author, activist and physician.

add comment

  • follow us on