“I became a feminist before I found the word for it”: An Interview with Mona Eltahawy

28 January 2016
Daniel Zuchnik/WireImage/ Getty Images
Daniel Zuchnik/WireImage/ Getty Images

Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-born feminist writer and journalist who has written for Reuters, The Guardian, the New York Times and the Washington Post. She has also worked with Arabic-language publications such as Women's eNews and Asharq Al-Awsat. Eltahawy is a vocal women's rights activist and feminist writer. Her work deals primarily with the status of women in the Arab world. In 2011, she was arrested while covering protests in Egypt's Tahrir square. Eltahawy's detention was brought to public attention after she posted a tweet stating that she had been physically and sexually assaulted while she was held captive. She was also arrested in New York in 2012 for spray painting over an offensive signboard. That year, Eltahawy wrote an article titled, ‘Why do they hate us: The real war on women is in the Middle East.’ In the article, she argued that no progress was possible in West Asia without a social and sexual revolution that would uplift the status of women in Arab society. The essay was later expanded into a book, Hymens and Headscarves: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, which was published in 2015.

Last week, Surabhi Kanga, an assistant editor with The Caravan, spoke to Eltahawy at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival. Eltahawy discussed her beginnings in feminism, how the relationship with the United States of America is affecting the Arab world, and why the Islamic faith must be questioned for its treatment of women.

Surabhi Kanga: In your book, you talk about being “traumatised into feminism.”

Mona Eltahawy: I use that phrase to describe my coming into feminism in Saudi Arabia. I was born in Egypt, and when I was seven, my family moved to the UK. My parents were doing a PhD in medicine; they got a government scholarship, so we all moved there. I grew up in a very feminist home. I was raised in a home where my parents taught my siblings and me that education and knowledge are the most important things in the world. Then we moved to Saudi Arabia where I saw the most vicious form of misogyny being practiced towards women and being justified by Islam. That was not the Islam I was raised with, and I’m from a Muslim family. My parents never taught us that Islam means, to treat women, as I say, as the walking embodiment of sin, because that’s what I saw in Saudi Arabia. Very soon after I arrived, I couldn’t believe what was happening and I fell into a deep, deep depression. Essentially, I became a feminist before I found the word for it.

I found the word at the university that I attended for two years. Now obviously, Saudi Arabia doesn’t have women and gender studies programs. Some subversive university professor or librarian put feminist books and journals on the bookshelf that I found, and they saved my mind. I found that word for what I was experiencing—a rebellion, a dissent and a rising up, against the treatment of women like the walking embodiment of sin.

Surabhi Kanga is the web editor at The Caravan.

Keywords: twitter Middle-east Arab Spring Mona Eltahawy Islam feminist writer