The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Policy experts decry Middle East sexism. What about sexism in our own profession?

My gender has never hindered my ability to conduct in-depth research all over the world. So why don’t more of my male colleagues recognize women’s contributions in our field?

Nancy Okail on Feb. 23, 2011, before standing trial in Egypt along with 42 other defendants, as part of a crackdown on foreign NGOs in Egypt. (Leila Fadel/The Washington Post)

A few weeks ago, I started to think that I’d mistakenly walked into the men’s locker room. Wrong: As it turns out, I had merely arrived at the national security conference at which I was scheduled to speak, and my fellow panelists — all men — were gearing up to talk about the threat the Islamic State poses to the progressive Western world.

Too bad the irony of a male-dominated conference, criticizing the repressive male-dominated culture of the Islamic State, was lost on all. Though there’s certainly a considerable qualitative difference between the positioning of women in Western society and that of the Middle East, many in the West, including those who consider themselves experts, can still be woefully blind to the double standard. The “locker-room” colloquy with fellow conference-goers — all well-meaning — is a case in point, though by no means an isolated occasion.

It was an international conference with a slate of 21 speakers, all male except for me and one other woman. When I vented, to a male peer, about the glaring gender imbalance, he replied that it was “only normal,” after all, because I work on extremism and terrorism, not a very “feminine” field, like peace building or development. He really said that.

My gender has never impeded my ability to conduct in-depth research in places around the world that many men would not even consider approaching. Most recently, I spent an extended period of time on the borders of Aleppo, Syria, interviewing refugees, rebels, ex-Islamic State members and leaders of violent extremist groups. It wasn’t easy, especially interacting with members of groups that have demonstrated contempt for women. I had to travel through perilous places to access my interviewees, including areas that the Islamic State shells on a daily basis.

Weeks later, back in Washington, I gave a briefing on the findings of the research trip to a group of analysts and policymakers in a well-lit, air-conditioned office. The first question, offered by a male colleague, was, “How did you deal with these extremist groups? You must have been the only woman.” My response: “Yes, just like in our meeting today.” What I left unsaid was that in both cases, I struggled with the challenge of getting the men to take me seriously.

And it’s frustrating, because I resisted the temptation to point out that despite the challenges and perils, unlike many “experts” in the room, I’ve actually met the individuals who are the subject of my research face to face.

These are by no means unique experiences in our field. I head the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington, working on issues related to security, freedom and democracy. More often than not, I find myself the only woman in meetings I attend or panels I am on — during which we routinely discuss and dissect the patriarchal Middle East society — and, to be sure, it is patriarchal — and endlessly criticize the exclusion of women in the Arab world, all along operating in a field that systematically marginalizes women. I’m not the only one who notices the frequency of these “manels.” And there are many women far more expert than I in our field who do not receive the same recognition and acknowledgment as our male counterparts.

One colleague responded to my criticism by saying, “It is maybe because women are not aggressive enough at self-promotion” — so, presumably, blame for the inequity is on us. Some commentators claim that men dominate my field because women prioritize family over work commitments — to which I note that after I met my professional obligation at the conference, I flew back to Washington for my twins and family grieving my mom’s passing. It’s a shame that this choice can still be construed as a career impediment, when it should be seen as an honor.

There’s also the backward notion that women are too emotional to handle the atrocities we witness in our field. But it’s one thing to be emotional and another to have our emotions prevent us from meeting our career demands. In 2011, I was heading Freedom House’s Cairo office, when I was prosecuted, interrogated, indicted and sentenced to prison in absentia for defending freedom and democracy as part of Egypt’s infamous NGO case. I certainly wasn’t afforded more delicate treatment by Egyptian authorities because of my womanhood. They still persecuted me, forcing me to pay a high cost for what I decided to stand up for, including being exiled for the past four years. Last month my mother passed away a day before my conference. And I couldn’t go home to Egypt for the funeral due to my sentence. But while I would have been able to excuse myself from the conference at what is a naturally emotional time for anyone, I still kept my professional commitment. I made my presentation at the all-male conference on the Islamic State with no tears and no expectation of special treatment.

In more than one way, women face a more difficult path. In professional settings, we’re paid less and have fewer opportunities for exposure, and in repressive circumstances, women often wind up as targets. During my own trial, my gender was used against me as I was subject both to threats and sexual harassment. Arguably, it’s harder as a woman to do research in my field, but rather than get credit for that, we are still not accorded the same level of recognition as men.

Here we are, in 2016, when a woman is running for president of the United States, the Middle East is topic A in the campaign and the current president writes an op-ed in a popular women’s magazine, describing himself as a feminist. Yet I still expect to hear sexist comments after my talks — everything from men in my field subtly discounting the work of female colleagues, or overtly telling me I am “more than just a pretty face,” as if that’s some sort of compliment. If part of the so-called clash of civilizations between the West and Middle East is based on the latter’s presumably regressive worldview — and the conceit of Westerners seeking to change that — what is the excuse when sexism is so commonly found on this side of the globe?