I wonder how many women were slow to engage with the Weinstein story and the #MeToo campaign that followed. I was. I’ve been writing about sexual violence for years, but I ignored the Weinstein story for several days. I didn’t even bookmark it to read later. I didn’t want to be sucked into performing shock at the exposure of another powerful man as a sexual criminal, another story that’s been buried for years, a half-open secret finally in print.
When my Facebook feed flooded with #MeToo in English and in Arabic, I noticed that the posts by my Egyptian friends were longer, angrier, but also more questioning than the rest. Friends in Europe and America posted lots of statements: “Sadly, unsurprisingly, #metoo.” Right away, Egyptians wanted to talk about what this hashtag could do; who its audience was; the value of seeking male allies in the fight; the complicated dynamics of a movement pressuring women to “tell” when they might not want to, might not be able to. I appreciate that this snapshot analysis of my algorithmically curated Facebook feed is not scientific ground for a cross-national analysis of discourse. Perhaps my Egyptian friends are just more expressive on Facebook; perhaps I simply know more feminists from Cairo than anywhere else.
But I think there’s something important about the place from which we speak. In Egypt we do not have the pretense of a society that is equal or one in which women’s rights are protected. While the Trump presidency may have stripped America of this veneer, it’s still widely understood that things are “better” in America for women than they are in Egypt. In fact, news outlets recently reported on a study that found Cairo to be the “most dangerous” megacity for women. The study was based on the subjective input of unnamed “experts” from the 19 megacities on the list. Like so many sensationalist headlines about women in Arab societies, it was thrown into the world as evidence of some long-suspected sickness.
Stories about sexual violence in Arab countries almost always quarantine these problems as specific to Islam or Arab culture. This is how they are often reported on, and how analysts who make a living speaking on the topic often pitch it. Patriarchy is global, until it comes to the Arab world. Men everywhere hurt women because of interconnected systems of power that privilege them—but when we talk about Arabs or Muslims, we cut all of that away and make it simply about religion.
The first and most obvious problem with this is that it is patronizing, essentialist, and simplistic. It’s not helpful to women—suggesting that we must shed our entire culture and religion in order to save ourselves—and this attitude is easily weaponized against whole societies, and Arab men in particular. Arguments about the fundamental misogyny of Islam were used to justify the 2001 US-led war on Afghanistan, and, more recently, to demonize migrants following mob sexual assaults in Germany.