In 2009, Lubna Hussein was arrested for public indecency in Khartoum and sentenced to 40 lashes. Her crime was wearing trousers, a breach of public order laws. The case probably could have gone away with some negotiation behind the scenes, but Hussein was a journalist with an attitude, and she launched a global media campaign. To this day, Sudan remains infamous in the west for two incidents: Lubna Hussein’s trousers trial and the imprisonment of an English teacher, Gillian Gibbons, for allowing her students to name a teddy bear Mohammed.
The local response to Hussein was curious. While it was obvious and undisputed that the security officer who charged her had made a bad and possibly malicious decision, a slow character assassination nonetheless began in the private salons of Khartoum, damaging Hussein’s reputation by a thousand personal slights. She was a divorcée; she had married an old man for money; she was being paid by the Americans to shame the Sudanese; she had manipulated her initially legitimate cause to curry favour with the west; she had been granted asylum in France. On and on it went: everything was discussed except the particulars of her case. By the time her final trial came around and her sentence was commuted, Hussein had become a fully fledged western media darling – and a figure of deep suspicion at home. An important chance had been lost, to examine the government’s cynical use of religion as an excuse to victimise women. Even liberals aligned with Hussein’s cause looked for ways to blame her: she was too brash or insensitive, she gave too many interviews. Hussein did indeed leave the country for France, and in Sudan the news pages still regularly report the arrest or lashing of a woman wearing the wrong thing at the wrong time.
Modern Arab history is littered with women who object to being bullied and are then attacked for it. One of the most prominent is the Egyptian author and activist Nawal el Saadawi, a trailblazing beacon of Arab feminism. Thrice married and twice divorced, she is a figure for whom some Egyptians reserve the most bitter vitriol – and it is all ad hominem. Wajeha al-Huwaider, a Saudi activist and constant thorn in the side of the authorities, is much maligned as a “self-publicist”. She is also a divorced single mother, as is Manal al-Sharif, the now infamous founder of Women2Drive, who breathed life into the campaign against the ban on Saudi women driving. Mona Eltahawy, a middle-aged Egyptian-American activist and writer (also divorced), is endlessly scorned as a self-promoting stuntwoman. All four come under fire for their characters, not their causes. They are frequently dismissed as disgraced dropouts looking to make whatever capital they can out of their remaining assets by ingratiating themselves with a western audience. And in a sense it must be true that it is easier to challenge the status quo when you have lost part of your own stake in it. A friend once told me that only after her divorce did she find out who she was, because in our society a woman cannot become equal to a man until, in social terms, she has almost nothing to lose. There is something of a Catch-22 about this, as if to criticise a society you must stand outside it, and yet to do so will inevitably discredit you.
It has become a predictable pattern for women in the Arab world, the Middle East and South Asia who become activists, whether by design or by accident: a woman is mistreated; she speaks out; the west adopts her; she becomes a villain – a sell-out – at home. There may be no better example than Malala Yousafzai, whose vilification in Pakistan seems an extreme case of victim-blaming. As one commentator points out: “If people cannot agree on the fact that shooting a 14-year-old girl in the head is wrong, then this is something that can only be understood through the discipline of psychological analysis.” In “Hating Malala” in the newspaper Dawn, Cyril Almedia is equally perplexed: “At least with the TTP it isn’t hard to figure out: Malala has publicly and powerfully defied them. But why do so many ordinary, seemingly normal folk hate her?” Of course, some form of this syndrome can be diagnosed everywhere: how many times have western feminists and other female activists been branded careerist, opportunistic, or – why stop there? – ugly, fat, barren.
Yet the problem for non-western women is particularly acute. Their treatment by certain western media outlets plays a huge part in this. The soft-focus, soundbite-friendly packaging of Malala Yousafzai in late 2012 was cleverly designed to resonate with privilege-checking middle-class white women, but it had so little to do with her cultural origins, her own people’s reference points, that it inevitably created cognitive dissonance in Pakistan. It is understandable that activists driven from their home countries may seek the help of PR firms, consultants and publishers who can help them negotiate unfamiliar terrain, but the branding that results can be counter-productive. After the death of Nelson Mandela, Yousafzai’s PR firm Edelman issued a statement that was then disseminated along with all the others from world leaders and statesmen, implicitly establishing her as part of a global elite.
It must also be said that the media, alongside a well-meaning sororal sympathy for suffering Muslim women, has a creepy soft spot for grim tales of the female other. There are the “human interest” stories in Grazia, the honour killing or the image of an acid-burned face sandwiched between ten must-have accessories for fall and sex tips to drive him mad. Occasionally there will be a link to a petition or a website to raise awareness, a reassuring hint at a universal solidarity between women – but one in which a slacktivist click is all that’s required.
The smug, gloating western eye is a source of injury as well as insult, damaging the perception of these women in the places they come from. It is, after all, a fairly basic impulse to defend your position at all costs, recoiling from those who presume to judge you from above. And it is not hard to see that as a nation with reason enough already to resent the US, for instance, you would not look kindly on it as the overbearing foster-parent of your abandoned women and their causes.
What’s more, there is a growing sense in many countries that international value systems have been forged, and human rights language written, by the victors in the 20th-century’s military, cold and cultural wars, western Europe and the US. With the game thus rigged, it can be hard to distinguish between universal values and local ones, to separate human rights discourse and the work of NGOs from the dynamics of global power. SOAS professor Stephen Hopgood, in an angry book entitled The Endtimes of Human Rights, argues that these countries “are right (or at least not wrong) to dump this human rights lark, an imperialism in the guise of moralism that was once good, then quaint and is now just an industry”. The idea that any value system imposed from the outside, regardless of its merits, is an affront to sovereignty, is frequently exploited by politicians and readily received by ordinary citizens. Concerns over human rights abuses in China or the persecution of gay people in Russia are summarily dismissed as part of western hegemony. The ICC indictment of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir for war crimes was seen as such a flagrant example of western double standards that it actually bolstered his popularity at home.
In this context, it is little wonder that the adoption of a woman’s cause abroad is detrimental to her domestic credibility – a Nobel Peace Prize nomination such as the one Malala Yousafzai received is a veritable kiss of death. And the suspicion of western motives in these cases is by no means far-fetched. There was something undeniably sinister, for instance, in the use of Afghani women as promotional tools for the invasion of their country in 2001. The west’s two first ladies, Cherie Blair and Laura Bush, launched the campaign; Bush became the first US president’s wife to deliver the weekly presidential radio address, dedicating it to the plight of women in Afghanistan and their inability to wear nail varnish or high heels. Cherie Blair also waded in, saying: “Nothing more symbolises the oppression of women than the burqa.” Victimised women became to Afghanistan what weapons of mass destruction would be to Iraq, a feelgood ethical cloak for a war of aggression. Of course, in 2009, when Hamid Karzai approved a bill that effectively legalised marital rape, there was silence from the Afghani government’s western sponsors – Afghani women had already served their purpose.
The use of Muslim women’s rights and the violation thereof as yet another stick to beat Islam with is another major problem, and one not helped by the tendency of some prominent female activists to abandon nuance and fuel Islamophobia as an easy way to gain support. Mona Eltahawy’s essay “Why Do They Hate Us”, a litany of women’s rights abuses in the Arab world, created such a backlash that it has come to represent a seminal moment in popular discourse about Arab women – many had had enough of the reductionist views of their struggles constantly being presented to outsiders.
Of course, Malala Yousafzai has shown enormous courage in adversity, but she and the rest of her cohort have not been able to avoid becoming battlegrounds on which others play out their conflicts. We celebrate or attack them to reinforce our own values as the right ones, to define ourselves as superior to the other. As Max Fisher of the Washington Post observes: “The young woman’s power as a symbol is undeniable. In the past months, though, the western fawning over Malala has become less about her efforts to improve conditions for girls in Pakistan, or certainly about the struggles of millions of girls in Pakistan, and more about our own desire to make ourselves feel warm and fuzzy with a celebrity and an easy message.”
In a panel session at the Mumbai Literary Festival in December, Aman Sethi, a foreign correspondent for The Hindu, said that Yousafzai was a prime example of how foreign reporting can distort messages by sugarcoating them for a different audience. By aggrandising her abroad, we have diminished her in the very places – the hills and valleys of Swat – where the challenges of women’s education are most pressing. She left the country on a medical helicopter a heroine: she is now a hashtag.
The west, then, often appropriates problems for its own ends, and likes to have its stereotypes reinforced, but that does not alter the fact that there are serious grievances crying out to be addressed. Things will not change soon, and the most alarming aspect of the problem is that these women’s activism, so frequently co-opted by both sides, risks coming to naught. Surely there must be a way to show support without turning it into spectacle, to respect local, grassroots movements, to stop raising these individuals above their peers as figureheads for our own purposes, only to be torn down where their efforts are most needed. §