Australia

#MosqueMeToo founder takes aim at Australia’s 'retrograde' misogyny, racism

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Egyptian-American writer Mona Eltahawy believes Australians need to be more vocal in standing up to Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

The founder of the #MosqueMeToo movement, which saw thousands of Muslim women share their stories of sexual assault at holy sites, says Australia’s attitudes to misogyny and racism are similar to those in the United States more than 50 years ago.

Egyptian-American writer and feminist Mona Eltahawy, who hit headlines this week after a controversial appearance on the ABC’s Q&A, also said there was something “uniquely Australian” about the misogyny she experiences in this country.

“I find that Australia, when it comes to misogyny and racism, is in this bubble that the US used to be in, in the 1960s and 70s,” she told SBS News in Sydney, ahead of her appearance at UNSW's Unthinkable talk series and Melbourne’s Broadside Festival this weekend.

Mona Eltahawy in Sydney.
Mona Eltahawy in Sydney.
Maani Truu/SBS News

“When I talk about Prime Minister Scott Morrison being a white supremacist Evangelical like the white supremacist Evangelicals that elected [Donald] Trump … people are shocked and horrified that I make those connections.”

She also warned Australians should be concerned about Mr Morrison’s threat to ban boycotts and introduce laws targeting political protest, drawing parallels with her birth country of Egypt, where she was arrested and had her arms broken while participating in a political protest in 2011.

“Just because you are a democracy, does not mean that you are forever going to remain a democracy. History is not linear,” she said.

“Why aren’t the streets flooded here in Australia by people angry at what your prime minister is doing, and what his predecessor did, and what successive governments do?”

During Q&A on Monday, which featured a rare entirely non-male panel, the 52-year-old discussed what would happen if women began using violence against men who assault them - a sentiment described as "fighting words" by host Fran Kelly and sparking outrage on social media. 

“Wherever I go and I talk about this imaginary violence by women against men or against the violence of men, everyone is suddenly horrified,” she said.

“And for me, the irony is, why aren’t you this horrified against the actual, daily, factual violence that happens towards women, girls, non-binary, queer people, everyone who is basically not in that protected safe space of the patriarchy.”

#MosqueMeToo almost two years on

Her recent visit to Australia is far from the first time Eltahawy, who has recently published a second book about the fight against sexism, has found herself in the international spotlight.

Last year, the writer kicked off a global movement encouraging Muslim women to share their experiences of sexual assault during the annual Hajj pilgrimage, which sees millions of Muslims travel to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

Eltahawy with both arms in casts after being released by Egyptian security forces in Cairo in 2011.
Eltahawy with both arms in casts after being released by Egyptian security forces in Cairo in 2011.
Mona Eltahawy

Detailing her own assaults in 1982, when she performed the pilgrimage as a 15-year-old, she used the hashtag #MosqueMeToo to start a conversation about sexual harassment during Hajj.

“I wanted to carve a space for women of Muslim descent within the Me Too movement,” she said, adding that she had been inspired after seeing a viral Facebook post by Pakistani woman Sabica Khan detailing her experience of being assaulted during Hajj. 

The hashtag quickly went viral, with thousands of women telling their stories of being groped and harassed at Islam’s sacred sites in Mecca and Medina.

“I want concrete action to be taken, I don’t want this to just be a hashtag where we share our experiences,” Eltahawy said.

“I want the Saudi authorities to take seriously what Muslim women are telling them, because until this is something that more of us speak about, it remains this very shameful silent thing and one of the reasons I started the hashtag was to break that silence and break the taboo.”

Eltahawy acknowledges that speaking about sexual assault as a Muslim woman has its own set of challenges, specifically, that her experience is often used as fuel by “racist Islamaphobes” to denounce Islam.

“Muslim women are caught between a rock and a hard place,” she said.

“The rock is Islamaphobic racists who want to use anything Muslim women say to demonise all Muslim men … then the hard place is the so-called Muslim community, or communities, especially the misogynists in those communities, who want to silence Muslim women from speaking out.”

“Neither the rock or the hard place care about Muslim women.”

The only anecdote to this predicament, Eltahawy said, is for the movement to be led by Muslim women, for Muslim women.

“No one is voiceless … everyone has a voice, and if we don’t hear their voice, we have to ask why,” she said.

This year, a growing number of Muslims vowed to boycott Hajj in protest of the Saudi regime and its attacks on Yemen, a move Eltahawy would like to see happen in response to the kingdom’s treatment of women.

“I would love for Muslims around the world to say until Saudi Arabia abolishes what I consider gender apartheid we will boycott Saudi Arabia,” she said, listing the country’s guardianship system of women and girls and the imprisonment of women’s rights advocates.

But while Eltahawy is critical of Saudi Arabia, where she lived for a period as a teenager, she is also quick to ensure Australians are also speaking up about the gender-based issues in their own country.

“I’m not here to make you feel good about how great it is here, and you point to where I come from in the Middle East and North Africa and say ‘oh it’s terrible over there and I am so glad I live here’ because your domestic violence rates here are horrendous,” she said.

“Don’t wallow in this comfort of ‘oh it’s so bad over there, but we are never going to be like that’. There is no guarantee that you are never going to be like that.”

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.

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