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

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28 January, 2016

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.

SK: During the panel discussion, you stated that the manner in which the US views Arab nations is hypocritical. You also said that there is an undercurrent in that relationship that is mirrored in India and Pakistan.

ME: People in the Middle East and North Africa, specifically Muslims, are often looked at as these religious crazies, as if all we want to do is be devout all day or go and join the ISIS and Daesh. So, I reminded people of the religious conservatives in the US. I call them the Christian Brotherhood of the US. I mentioned watching the Republican debates, because you see all these men basically competing in who is a better Christian. They get questions such as, “whose tax plan would god support?” This is in the United States in 2016. The Muslim Brotherhood never talked about god supporting their tax plan. They point fingers at us in the Middle East, saying that everything here is determined by religion, that all their life is determined by religion. Well, how about these men who are fighting to become the president of the most powerful nation on earth, discussing whose tax plan god would support, discussing their right to control a woman’s body, and my right to choose to do with my body what I want to do with it, reproductive rights specifically? That for me is much more dangerous than the Muslim Brotherhood and the other fundamentalist groups.

I connected India and Pakistan with the Middle East and North Africa because I’ve often said that Middle East regimes use Israel as the opium of the people. [The German philosopher and economist Karl] Marx said religion is the opium of the people, and I say that Israel is the opium of the Middle East and North Africa because our regimes would use it to distract us from their crimes inside our country. A young man in the audience told me that that’s quite like Pakistan. Countries such as India and Pakistan that have a problem with a neighbouring country will magnify it and make it much bigger to distract people inside that country with this foreign enemy, with this foreign threat. This makes it easier to make people obey and stay quiet and not ask for accountability about what you’re doing to those people. India also has this issue of religion and politics. You have the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party]. They use religion and politics. I want to move away from this idea that we use religion and politics only in the Middle East and North Africa.

SK: You’ve often criticised the tenets of Islam that are used by some to oppress women. How do you reconcile with the fact that similar criticism of Islam is also often used to demonise Muslims across the world?

ME: To the Islamophobes and the xenophobes, I say fuck off. I want nothing to do with you. I remind them that they too are misogynists. They’re not feminists by any stretch of the imagination. The right wing is never feminist. But they’re happy to use my words to demonise the men of my community. I will never ally myself with them. At the same time, if we stay quiet about this misogyny that I’m fighting against, that’s another crime. That’s a crime that takes the side of these ultra-conservative men in my community against me. And neither that right wing, nor the left wing that wants to be cultural relativists, cares about women. They’re just the other men, and they’re fighting other men. I want to centre women. Women are the priority for me.

I follow the teachings of the black feminists bell hooks [born Gloria Jean Winters, the feminist writer chooses to be identified as bell hooks] and Audre Lorde. All these other amazing black feminists have always said that there are two fights here: I fight racism, and I fight sexism, together, and I would never privilege one over the other.

SK: How do you look at the political relationship that the US shares with nations such as Egypt and Iran vis-à-vis the social justice movements that take place in the West? Do you think there is an inherent contradiction?

ME: There absolutely is. If you look at a country such as Saudi Arabia, it beheads more people, and more systematically as a government policy, than the ISIS. And the ISIS is the enemy. They’re definitely my enemy. But Saudi Arabia is also my enemy, because Saudi Arabia uses religion in a very sinister way, to promote dictatorship.

The US did this in Latin America as well. In Chile for example, in the 1970s, they helped a coup that overthrew the democratically elected Salvador Allende and installed a fascist dictator, General Augusto Pinochet. So the US has a long history of doing this, and it is doing this for self-interest. But we have to ask ourselves, where is our self-interest?

These double standards that the US practises will never help anyone, specifically itself. For five years, administrations propped up [Hosni] Mubarak [the former president of Egypt]—to what end? At our expense. At the end of the day, what has the US gained but hatred in the region, which is deserved because they keep propping up our dictators? The US speaks with two sides of its mouth. The state department issues a human rights report every year, and it recognises what these crimes are, and it says, “Stop it, don’t violate rights.” Then it gives one and a half billion dollars to the regime that violates these rights. So whose side are you on?

SK: What are your thoughts on the strains of sectarian violence in West Asia, Iran and Saudi Arabia being pitted against each other for control of the region?

ME: You’re seeing a lot of old rivalries, specifically Saudi Arabia and Iran. By old, I don’t mean centuries-old rivalries, but regional rivalries that pitted countries such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Iran against each other. These were seen as the regional powerhouses.

There is a belief that took its roots through what is happening in Iran. This belief is that the way things are not the way they have been for a long time anymore. This is manifesting itself in a specially panicked proxy war. We’ve seen proxy wars happen in the past—Lebanon has, for a really long time, been a theatre for a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. We’re now seeing it happen in Yemen, in Syria and in Iraq, because of all these upheavals in the region. Yemen, too, underwent a revolution, don’t forget—the uprising against Ali Abdullah Saleh [the former president of Yemen].

Saudi Arabia and Iran are trying to reassert the hegemony that, for a very long time, they enjoyed specifically among their allies that were of their sectarian background. It is important to recognise that this is something that will drag more and more people into a war that will not benefit the people. In the same way that I condemn the United States for siding with the regimes against the people, I condemn Saudi Arabia and Iran for dragging their people into a war that nobody wants except their regional powers that are flexing muscles at the expense of the people.

SK: You’re an active Twitter user. What do you think about it as a platform?

ME: I don’t work full-time at the New York Times, I don’t work full-time anywhere, I work for myself, so Twitter has been instrumental in getting my message out. Twitter has also saved my life. When I was assaulted in November 2011, it’s that tweet that I sent out that got people to get a campaign going, and [the publications] Al-Jazeera and TheGuardian to report on it. The state department paid attention, and helped get me out. Twitter helped me when I was arrested in New York for spray painting over an advertisement that was racist. All these people on Twitter asked an attorney to come and represent me, and he represented me for free.

SK: You also often face sexism and misogyny on Twitter. How do you handle it?

ME: I tell the misogynists to fuck off and I block them. I think it’s important for women to say fuck off.

This interview has been edited and condensed.