„This is our fight“
Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-American feminist and prominent journalist. In spring 2015, her book „Headscarves and Hymens“ about what she calls a trifecta of misogyny in the Arab world sparked discussion around the globe. Currently, she is writing her next book about the sexual revolution in the MENA region. I had the opportunity to meet this outstanding woman in Berlin in September 2015.
You moved back to Cairo from New York two years ago. Has anything changed for you in Egypt since you published the book?
Not yet, because the book hasn’t been published in Arabic yet. I am not sure if publishers in the Middle East would want to publish it without censoring it.
But there was a lot of criticism when it came out. So some people in the Muslim world must have read it.
Yes, it has been read in different countries in the available languages, and although it is not allowed in Saudi Arabia, a lot of criticism came actually from there. I like that people react to it strongly and that it makes them think about things they just for granted.
Can you just give me a short summary of the book for the people who don’t know it.
The premise of the book is that we began a revolution in the Middle East and North Africa, in which men and women fought side by side against dictatorship. But we need a social and a sexual revolution in order for this political revolution to succeed. I believe that when we rose up against our dictators, it was in recognition that the state oppresses everybody. But when women looked at the men whom they marched with and whom they live with at home, they realized that while the state oppresses everybody, the street and the home oppress women. So my book draws a triangle, what I call a trifecta, of misogyny. The state, the street, and the home.
I once read that during the uprisings of the Algerians against the French, people accused women that demanded women’s rights of being egoistic. They said the struggle against the oppression of the people as a whole was more important.
Yes. That was very typical. Women played a huge role in the Algerian liberation struggle against French occupation. And then, when they succeeded, women were told to go home and let the others fix things like poverty and education. I think that’s incredibly unwise, very short sighted, and very selfish. Because women are 50 percent of the society. You will not solve poverty and lack of education or human rights violations or any of that if you ignore half of the society. Women are constantly told to wait. When you look historically, of all the times when women were told to wait, it basically means that it’s never going to happen.
If this is so urgent, I guess some men may think well, why should I support that? What’s the benefit for me?
Feminism benefits everybody. Feminism deconstructs the idea of the ideal woman. And the same thing applies to masculinity. A real man must provide for his family, a real man must never show emotion, that’s harmful. Not all men can do that, not all men are straight, so all of this ideas that society has told us how to be, feminism fights. It’s good for everybody to be free. It’s a high price to pay to be someone’s jailer.
At the same time, it doesn’t matter to me that men think it harms them. For a very long time, men have benefitted from this system of patriarchy and misogyny. I am not waiting for men to give me liberation. I’m taking it.
Why are you using the term misogyny instead of sexism?
I prefer the word misogyny because it does shake people. When I wrote that essay „Why do they hate us“, a lot of people would get more upset about the title than about the content of the essay. Women would write letters to me saying, „my dad doesn’t hate me, neither does my boyfriend or my brother“. But it’s not about the personal relationships. I am talking about a system that is misogyny, that is institutionalized, in which things from state power to dynamics in the street to the home build a structure that not only benefits men, but allows them to hate women and get away with it. I want men to realize that the manifestation of sexism is hate. For example in my country where FGM is practiced: how is that not hatred? It is a form of hatred of girls and women as it is an attempt to control the sexuality of girls and women.
How do you cope with the fact that your book will be applauded by islamophobes and racists for criticizing Muslim men and for similar reasons be rejected by many Muslims?
It’s very difficult. It’s like walking through a minefield. First of all, I am Egyptian and I am Muslim. And being these two has made me the woman that I am. So I feel I am best suited for talking about these things because I am an insider. But I also make it very clear that no country on earth has erased misogyny. It exists everywhere, but in different degrees.
I want to create a third ground. I turn to the islamophobes and the racists and say fuck you. You can’t use my words against me, because I know you just want any excuse to call Muslim and Arab men savages and barbarians. But its also the fuck you to the misogynists in my own country. I consider them both as right wings. There is actually also an interesting other party that I fight, and that’s a part of the political correct left wing who in order to be supposedly on my side and fight the racist right wing, sometimes are too cosy with the misogynists from where I come from.
The predecessor of the book „Headscarves and Hymens“ was this essay „Why do they hate us“, which as you said was the first text you wrote with ten fingers after Egyptian police broke your left arm and right hand and sexually assaulted you in 2011. It’s a very angry text. Do you think you would have written it and the book if that hadn’t happened to you?
Definitely I was angry because of what happened to me personally, but it wasn’t about me. There were other things. In march of 2011, less than a month after Mubarak was forced to step down, the junta that was in charge of Egypt went into Tahrir square and cleared the square, took men and women and tortured many of them, but for at lest 17 women they subjected them to a form of sexual assault, rape basically, called virginity tests. When that happened, the reaction of many people was not to believe the women. Second, they were angry with the women because they wanted to believe that the military were on our side. So they did everything to silence and discredit these women. These women are heroes, they should have statues build in their name, but the reaction was zero. It enraged me! This is where the trifecta comes in again. We are fighting the state that oppresses us all, but we don’t care if this state raped women. This is what made me write the essay. The fact that it happened to me personally just connects me to it in a personal way.
How can the sexual revolution you demand be put into practice?
It’s already happening. It is really important to pay attention to the rebels and renegades that have already begun this revolution and that I write about in my next book. For example in Morocco in Agadir, two or three months ago there were to women being arrested because they were told that their skirts were too short and too tight. They were put on trial for public indecency. But something interesting happened: 500 lawyers came to defend the women. Hundreds of Moroccan women went out on the streets to support the two, and at least 27.000 people signed a petition in support of them. Because of all this, the judge eventually dismissed the charges. That for me is the beginning of a sexual revolution.
In Lebanon there is this queer organization called Meem that has been operating even before the revolution.
In Turkey, after a woman was raped and murdered, women went to the funeral. And they broke with Islamic tradition, because usually the funerals are just attended by men. But not only did they attend the funeral, they also insisted on burying the woman themselves. They told the imam that they would not be deterred, and said „no other man will touch her again“. The same thing happened in Afghanistan, when a young woman called Farkhunda was lynched. And there are much more examples. People will say well, these are just a minority. But revolutions never start with majorities.
Is there something we as westerners can do to help you?
No. Because this is our fight. You can only help us indirectly by supporting feminism here. People in western countries often have this sense of complacency. They think feminism is finished now, like everything has been achieved. It hasn’t! Have you pay equality in Germany? Have you ended domestic violence? Have you ended rape and sexual assault?
If you acknowledge this and continue to fight for feminism here, you are helping the global feminist course. The second reason why you shouldn’t help us is that in my part of the world we have a long history of colonizers coming to us supposedly in the name of helping women. So when a white person moves into a context of other cultures and other religions, it makes everyone on the ground very defensive and it can often end up being more harmful than helpful.
Thank you very much.