Sunday, September 23, 2007


There is a pop-cultural book about pop culture in the predominantly Islamic world: Muhajababes by Allegra Stratton.1 The book explores the intersection of secular and religious trends and fashions. A number of Muslims, especially bourgeois and petit-bourgeois, have amalgamated Islam with consumerism.

That is a tendency of which Nawal El Saadawi,2 for example, has been a long-standing critic. In a way, the kind of secular, class-conscious, anti-imperialist feminism (which came before the third-wave era of "power feminism," "sex-positive feminism," and "lipstick lesbianism") that Saadawi and others of her generation represent is far more ascetic than the worldview of those who combine consumerism with religion (even religious fundamentalism), and at present this old-fashioned brand of secular feminism has no chance of catching on, either in the Middle East or outside it.

Secular leftists in general, due to their ideological marginality and confinement to relatively privileged classes and strata (about which Saadawi is also very critical), are no match for consumerist Islam that is ironically backed by Saudi capital. If any ideology challenges consumerist Muslims at all, it is not a secular left-wing ideology but the populist, anti-imperialist Islam of Hamas, Hizballah, and other forces like them.

1 Here is a useful review of Muhajababes:
The video-clip girls are indeed a serious cultural force - Nancy Ajram was recently voted 'one of the region's most influential Arabs' by the Arabic version of Newsweek -- but their eminence grise is the Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, the eighth-richest man in the world and the owner of the Rotana satellite stations and record label that 80 per cent of Arab pop stars are signed to. Despite the acres of flesh on display at Rotana, the singers' most fervent fans are the eponymous 'muhajababes': veiled girls (muhajaba is Arabic for 'one who veils') who nevertheless wear skin-tight jeans, stiletto heels and plenty of make-up. To describe them, Stratton learns a great new Arabic word, 'rewish', which means somewhere between 'hip' and 'distracted' - these are the Dazed & Confused-sters of the Middle East. Nominally strict Muslims, some sneak cigarettes, date boys and engage in other behaviour that is technically haram (forbidden).

Ranged against (or sometimes, confusingly, alongside) them are the conservative anti-clip brigade. But increasingly they, too, Stratton discovers, worship the TV screen. Their idol is a swoonsome young accountant-turned-preacher called Amr Khaled, who appears on religious shows with 'young men and women, praying, crying and giving hearty, healthy belly laughs, as if they were in a vitamin-supplement advert'. Stratton is particularly scathing about Khaled, a well-fed BMW driver who announces, televangelist-style, that: 'I want to have money and the best clothes to make people love God's religion.' But it's only when she ditches her dream of finding the Arab Bob Dylan and focuses on Khaled's 'Life Makers' initiative that Muhajababes gains in pace and authority.

Capable of mobilising hundreds of thousands of young Muslims worldwide for causes ranging from the benign (collecting clothes for charity) to the sinister (berating smokers and drinkers in public), Khaled is the well-groomed face of a new, media-friendly conservative Islam that reviles the 'degrading display of women's bodies'.

Between the muhajababes and the Life Makers, there is little room for the handful of arty oddballs (including the gay Kuwaiti who provides the book's best line, 'There's no such thing as straight in Kuwait') to whom Stratton, as a liberal Westerner, is instinctively drawn. But this is the point. Social change in the Middle East won't be led, as Stratton -- and many Western policy-makers -- had hoped, by the secular trendies, but by those she dismissively describes as the 'Life Making, green-fingered, litter-collecting, I'd-like-to-teach-the-world-to-sing Arabs'. Muhajababes discovers a world in which religion is packaged and sold as slickly as a video clip. And the people behind the scenes are the same, too: Prince Al-Waleed has already diversified into an immensely popular new Islamic channel, Al-Risala ('The Message'). And it is not a conveniently distant world either: having been banned from preaching by the nervous Egyptian regime in 2002, Khaled now finds refuge in the UK and is soon, Stratton surmises, advising the British government on engaging with the Muslim world.

It is hard, as Muhajababes demonstrates, for secular observers to appreciate the genuine force of belief, however clumsily or confusedly it may be expressed. In the summer of 2004 when I was living in Cairo, I was surprised to meet engineering graduates who believed in djinn with green claws and veiled girls who swapped oral-sex tips. But with bombs falling in the Beirut streets that Stratton scoured fruitlessly for a trendier revolution, the region's latest crisis is a reminder that it's essential to try. (Rachel Aspden, "Islam and the Porno Devils," The Guardian, 23 July 2006)
2 This interview serves as a good introduction to Saadawi's worldview:
Women's eNews: How are today's feminists different from your generation of feminists?

Nawal El Saadawi: We don't have feminists any more. Feminism to me is to fight against patriarchy and class and to fight against male domination and class domination. We don't separate between class oppression and patriarchal oppression. Many so-called feminists don't. We can't be liberated under American occupation, for example. The new women are not aware of that.

These days, there is also a phenomenon I call "false awareness." Many women who call themselves feminists today wear makeup, high heels, tight jeans and they still wear the hijab. It is very contradictory. They are victims of both religious fundamentalism and American consumerism. They have no political awareness. They are unaware of the connection between the liberation of women on the one hand and of the economy and country on the other. Many consider only patriarchy as their enemy and ignore corporate capitalism.

Women's eNews: Why have Egyptian feminists and liberal intellectuals failed in capturing the imagination of grassroots Egyptian society and why aren't we seeing an active independent grassroots movement today?

Nawal El Saadawi: The elite secular Marxist and socialist groups were always separated from the peasants and poor people. They were busy looking up to the rulers and gave their backs to the people. They were speaking all the time on behalf of the masses only to achieve political aims.

Sadat put me in prison along with some other men. Under Mubarak, I've been "gray-listed." Although there is no official order banning me, I can't appear in the national media--it's an unwritten rule. There is no chance for people like me to be heard by the people.

Even the nongovernmental organizations are controlled by the government. When I was at Mumbai recently at the World Social Forum, they were calling them "Go-En-Ghee-Ohs," or government NGOs. Most of the NGO's in Egypt are co-opted by the government. There is no real opposition party that represents the people's interests either. Even the Tagammu', the so-called leftist political party, was created by Sadat along with all the other official parties. All the party leaders cooperate with the government. (Ahmed Nassef, "Egypt's Leading Feminist Unveils Her Thoughts," Women's eNews, 25 February 2004)

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