It is no longer surprising to see articles about Egyptian women in the mainstream western press that rely on a myriad of false assumptions and inaccuracies.
Egyptian women are portrayed as submissive, as victims, as oppressed, as helpless, as backwards. Even in situations where this is clearly not the case, such as during the 2011 Egyptian revolution in which women were active participants, the press acknowledges this reluctantly and then immediately asks, with much condescension, why Egyptian women didn’t “stand up for their rights” earlier.
There seems to be no way out of this binary thinking. Egyptian women are either stuck in their usual role as victims needing to be saved by western men and women, or they are (more rarely) portrayed as bravely resisting their oppressive cultures, men, religions, and families.
Once in a while, an article comes along that takes the usual orientalizing of Egyptian women to a whole other level. Sex with Egyptian women (according to “Mike”) is one of those articles. Written by Karin Badt (a Professor at NYU) and published in the Huffington Post, the article is a clear example of everything that is wrong with mainstream western coverage of women’s issues in Egypt.
The article opens with the following line: “Would you like me to tell you the difference between making love to an Egyptian woman and a European woman?”
This opening salvo creates a binary between two—seemingly—homogenous groups: Egyptian and European women. It also makes the article’s focus on sex clear, placing it within the long tradition of western writing analyzing the “Orient” through the sexual lives of its men, and more often, women.
Badt goes on to describe a conversation she had with a cab driver while visiting the city of Luxor, a tactic reminiscent of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s cab-driver journalism. Badt first refers to the cabbie as “Mike.” She later clarifies that “Mike” is not his actual name—it’s Mohamed—but that he began calling himself Mike to deal with racism while he was living in England. Of course Badt doesn’t linger on this detail, and proceeds with her sexual analysis of Egypt.
The character “Mike” is consistently portrayed as naïve and innocent. His role in the article is mainly to act as a native informant (although to be fair, he does not appear to be actively performing this role): he tells Badt what she wants to hear, and she uses it to construct her narrative about Egyptian women.
“Mike” goes from excitedly talking about sex with European women to appearing “downcast” when the topic of sex with Egyptian women comes up:
Mohammed/Mike suddenly looked downcast. “They’re all circumcised here, so when you sleep with a woman, it’s like sleeping with a piece of wood. They’re cold.”
“They’re ALL circumsized here?”
“All? These millions of women? I thought it was now illegal!”
“Two years ago, it became illegal. But all the women–trust me–l00 percent of them are circumcised. Rich, poor, every woman.
Badt cleverly positions herself as the innocent receiver of information from the “expert”—the Egyptian native informer. Badt appears to try and convince “Mike” that it is impossible that all Egyptian women are circumcised. But alas, he insists that they are and that this makes them difficult to sleep with—it is like sleeping with a “piece of wood,” Mike says.
“Mike” goes on to claim that he should never have gone to England, because it opened his eyes to sexual pleasure. He also explains that his marriage (arranged, of course) failed because his wife, too, was like a wooden board. He could not have sex with her after experiencing European women, because she could not feel anything.
In one of the more dramatic scenes in the article with a mournful look in his eyes, “Mike” says, “We have killed our women.” Badt asks whether all his sisters are circumcised, and he affirms that they are. He claims that Egyptian women all fake orgasms, and do not actually enjoy sex.
The article ends with “Mike” dropping Badt off at her hotel, after telling her about an Australian woman he was going to spend the night with.
While there are many factual inaccuracies in the article, just as problematic is the analytical frame used by Badt. Badt does not appear remotely interested in Egyptian women and the lives they lead. Instead she uses them as objects, or props, to construct her argument about the sexual passiveness of Egyptian women, and the barbarity of what has caused it, namely, Egyptian culture.
Badt also appears uninterested in the issue of circumcision beyond its role as a signifier of Egyptian inferiority. A clear indicator of this is the sensationalist manner in which she speaks about the issue.
If she were interested in starting a constructive debate about the practice, why discuss it in such a shallow manner, and neglect to tackle its historical and contemporary causes, as well as the many campaigns against it? Why use an Egyptian man, who has never experienced female circumcision, as the only source of information or “expertise”? Could Badt not find a single woman in Egypt to speak to about female circumcision?
This is not to say that the category of Egyptian women is homogenous: it is not. There are over 40 million Egyptian women, each with their own experiences and realities. It is also not the case that female circumcision is not a problem in Egypt: it is. While the statistic Badt presents of 97% is inaccurate, it is nevertheless true that the percentage is quite high, certainly above 50%.
The aim here is not to imply that Egyptian women are not affected by patriarchy. Rather, it is to point out how articles like Badt’s erase nuance and portray cultures and peoples as static and homogenous. When an author’s aim is to reify civilizational binaries and bask in the supposed superiority of European culture by using the bodies, lives and struggles of “Other” women, it is necessary to not only reject but also highlight this.
Not all Egyptian women are circumcised, and not all European women are sexually “free” (indeed we should ask what this even means). Until we move past these meaningless binaries, which are constructed through objectifying women’s lives, we cannot engage in meaningful struggles that will target problems like female circumcision.
Unfortunately, these tendencies are not confined to mainstream media articles, but also permeate development organizations and, thus, have real concrete effects on Egyptian women. That alone is enough reason to present alternative narratives.
It seems clear that Badt had no intent of acting as an ally to Egyptian women with this article. Instead it appears that her sole aim was to starkly contrast European and Egyptian society.
For Badt, one is modern, the other is backwards. Like so many before her, she creates this contrast by using the bodies of women as cultural signifiers. It is through women’s sexual lives that Badt is able to construct Europe as sexually free and Egypt as sexually repressive. All this while not giving a single Egyptian woman the chance to speak. While she implies that Egyptian culture silences its women, Badt’s article not only does the same – it also misrepresents them.
*Sara Salem is a staff writer at Muftah. Follow her on twitter @saramsalem.