The response by Hammami and Rieker to my article ‘Feminism or the Eternal Masculine in the Arab World’ cannot be seen as a straightforward critique of my analysis. Its approach is so contrary to my own, and rejects with such fervour my conception of feminism, social development and what constitutes the personal and the political that we end up opposed in those very values we would wish to be universal. An adequate reply must therefore address both conceptual and factual questions. It is not clear where I should begin, given that I do not accept those categories which identify themselves intellectually as either ‘Occidentalist’ or ‘Orientalist’, and given that I see no need, in grasping a specificity, to adopt a method of thought derived from that specificity. The facts may differ, but does method have a nationality? Is logic the daughter of any particular ideology or culture?

Rather than embark on an abstract, theoretical discussion of our opposing approaches, I would like here to attempt a reformulation or clarification of certain propositions put forward in my original article. I will try to avoid the indignation of polemic and shall not linger over the kind of facile accusation that claims that ‘although blatant racism and elitism are no longer respectable, more subtle forms of racism embedded in conceptual categories and the constitution of history and the subject continue to dominate Middle Eastern studies’.

The issues I wish to raise are at the heart of the problematic which is today shaking the Arab world. For there is not one intellectual, one journalist, one scientist, one architect who does not have to confront a veritable crisis of values and orientation in the modern Arab world, or who is not daily accused of ‘Western progressivism’ or sterile traditionalism, and who does not search passionately to reconcile or vehemently oppose either Marxism and tradition, or modernism and fundamentalism.

Although Hammami and Rieker’s move towards ‘a Middle Eastern feminism’ wishes to be anti-imperialist, it runs no less a risk of joining up with a paralysing third-worldism. Let us take the example with which they close their article: that of contraception and Egyptian peasant women. At the risk of appearing simplistic, I would suggest that Hammami and Rieker, in their aversion to the politics of the state, resort instead to Grandmother’s secrets. Can natural methods of abortion and contraception be preferable to the (‘capitalist’) methods of modern medicine? And why must the choice be posed in such narrow terms? If science is practised badly or for evil ends, must the true feminist—or anti-Orientalist—response be to boycott science itself? If imperialism, for the purposes of exploitation, has made use of knowledge belonging to the society which preceded it, must even this now be jettisoned? Is this a form of struggle—the return to customs which have existed since time immemorial?

This form of third-worldism or would-be-radical feminism attempts to bypass difficulties and contradictions by extolling the return to a previous order (al-Asil, we say—the Origin, the Authentic). The past is first embellished and mystified, and the end-result is an acceptance of underdevelopment. This argument has taken many guises in Arab society in recent years. One form is a Marxism which sees modernism simply as a blight on authenticity; but far more serious is the looming form of a Sahwat Islamiyat (Islamic Revival). The prominent theoreticians of this revivalism are mainly converted Marxists who, disappointed by the ‘defeats’ of nationalist and Communist currents, are calling for the creation of an Islamic State where Western or ‘Orientalist’ values can have no purchase. Adel Hussein, one of the more eloquent representatives of this position, has recently published a work which begins by exposing the lacunae of materialist dialectics.footnote1 He develops theses very similar to those of the nouveaux philosophes when, in dealing with a proletarian solution to capitalist society, he concludes that a capitalist as much as a socialist system (both offspring of Western society) is irrelevant to Arab/Muslim specificity. For Hussein and an increasing number of intellectuals, only an Islamic vision can produce a Muslim rebirth and only Authenticity can lead to a balanced society.

In every polemic it is easy to get carried away and exaggerate the force of one’s own arguments, caricaturing those of the other side. I do not identify Hammami and Rieker with the Sahwat Islamiyat movement. I wish simply to point out the danger of the fear of Orientalism which has begun to engulf all debate on the Middle East. It would also be nice if Hammami and Rieker could distinguish between the important role I allot to Islam as far as feminism is concerned, and an attitude which homogenizes the Arab world into an entity shining only through the blazonry of Islam. Islam exists as culture, history, a language both shared and sacred—it survives and carries weight in the minds and identities of its adherents. This is not at all contradicted by the Sufic or even atheistic currents which have existed during the history of the Muslim countries. These ‘unorthodox’ tendencies, which have more or less been tolerated, are in no way an argument against a homogeneous relation of religion to the public and private spheres.

When Hammami and Rieker draw an analogy between my view of Islam’s influence on the status of Arab women and the attitude of nineteenth-century travellers, are they actually denying the political and cultural impact of Islam in the Arab world? Or are they refusing to acknowledge the importance of culture in the perception of nations? Whether Islam is cause or consequence was not the main concern of my article. If, from the Mashreq to the Maghreb, women are the losers whenever they demand equality before the law and confront the untouchable sacred texts, is it possible to ignore that law and its power?