Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-born feminist and writer. She grew up in Saudi Arabia, Britain and later went on to become a journalist for Reuters in Egypt and Jerusalem. She was arrested after protesting in the 2011 Arab Spring, and live-tweeted her sexual assault at the hands of Egyptian security forces.
Her new book The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls exhorts readers to embrace seven sins: to be angry, ambitious, profane, violent, attention-seeking, lustful, and powerful. Eltahawy talks to SBS Voices deputy editor Sarah Malik on anger, protest and why she loves the 'f' word.
What was the inspiration behind the The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls?
I wanted to carve out a space for Muslim women in the iteration of the #MeToo movement, in February 2018. Just three or four months earlier at the end of 2017, white actresses spoke out against Harvey Weinstein. That was courageous. But #MeToo then become this very white, privileged, elite space and that was never its intention, because black feminist activist Tarana Burke started it in the US in 2006 for black women and girls.
Five days of hearing all these heartbreaking stories from women after starting the viral hashtag #mosquemetoo, I went to the club. And this man groped me! I tugged at his shirt and he fell and I sat on top of him and I punched and punched and I beat the f*** out of him. Then I launched a hashtag #Ibeatmyassaulter which also went viral. That became another inspiration for the book.
Women are so savaged for embracing the sins you mention – ambition, lust, profanity. There’s a huge punishment for not knowing your place and not conforming to the good girl stereotype. How did you go from your upbringing in a conservative culture in Egypt, and living in Saudi Arabia and Britain to getting into punch ups in clubs? What was that journey like for you?
I get asked that a lot, especially by young women of colour. When I launched the book in New York a lot of the women were either Egyptian or of Muslim descent. My interlocutor who I was in conversation with also asked me.
My response was: It took me a long time to get to this. Many things brought me to this. Moving to Saudi Arabia and being traumatised into feminism in Saudi Arabia. Discovering feminist books while at university in Saudi Arabia. Then I became a journalist. I wanted to be a journalist since I was 16. Journalism for me represented freedom (it was ironic then that a male editor once advised me not to say f*ck on social media!) It was becoming a journalist and tapping into the injustices and forms of misogyny I specifically sought out to report on. I wanted to channel this rage at misogyny and the patriarchy somewhere. It was all the different countries I lived in and I recognised it in all the countries. Patriarchy is paramount. It is not specific to a particular place or faith background. Patriarchy is an octopus. The head of the octopus is patriarchy and the tentacles represents various forms of oppression patriarchy uses to keep us in place – white supremacy, capitalism, homophobia, ableism.
Is it like realising you are drowning and knowing there is no option but to reach for air?
Yes, it’s really realising the multiple waves in which patriarchy comes at you and thinking I am done with this f***ery and I am fighting back in any way I can. I tell young women now the best way to work on your muscles to fight back against this octopus of patriarchy is to develop feminism in three D’s: Defying, Disobeying and Disrupting. I encourage them to find ways to practise feminism in three D’s every day. Find a way you can defy. Find a way you can disobey and find a way you can disrupt. They can be tiny ways. It’s like lifting weights where you go from tiny weights to heavier weights.
There’s that fear from a lot women in resisting patriarchy that there will be fear, loss, rejection and pain going down this path. But I think you show that anger can be channelled in a productive and powerful way, it can be even joyful. How joyful has this feminist path been for you, in living in your fullness?
There will be pain and there will be sadness, whether you fight back or not because that’s the consequences of patriarchy.
When you don’t express your anger, it gets internalised into sadness. As Audre Lorde says (Audre was black lesbian poet who lived in the US in the 1980’s): “Your silence will not protect you”. There will be pain anyway. Fight.
I’m so glad you brought up joy because, when I talk about anger, I don’t end and begin with anger. Anger is the first of the seven sins. But anger has to be channeled and anger has to be accompanied by the other six sins.
What we fight for must be better than what we have.
Joy for me is really important. I am an anarchist and one of my anarchist heroes is Emma Goldman. Emma said “If we don’t fight for a world with more joy then what is the point of fighting for a better world?”
What we fight for must be better than what we have. As angry as I am, I also go to the club, because I want to dance. My self-care is through dance. Through feminism. Through saying f*** whenever the f*** I want.
The older I get, the more obvious and more blatant I become in the person I am. The more you live the truth of who are and the more you show the world who you are – the freer you are. That freedom is truly beautiful. It takes a really hard fight. It does not happen overnight. But it’s worth every minute of the fight. You’re telling the world to accept you as you are. You are saying f*** anyone who denies me that full humanity. That in itself is the most joyful form of resistance ever.
You’ve talked a lot about your journey, discovering feminist books at 19. Taking off your hijab at 26, becoming a Reuters journalist, and now you are 50. You use Twitter in a very powerful and combative way but I also see other women who are younger who become very broken by this experience. Has being able to process your early experiences privately and being older helped you avoid that?
There is a lot of power to be gained from sharing our stories of pain. As I say in both my books, the most radical thing is for a woman to talk about her life like it really matters. Our stories are really important. Those of us who can amplify voices, let’s do that. I do recognise what can be gained by sharing pain on the spot. I also want to move beyond just the pain.
I share a lot of the pain I’ve endured. But I also share a lot of the things that make me happy. I share music and films I like. I share pictures with my family where my mum and sister are there and in hijab and we obviously look very different. But I want to show other women, whether they are Muslim or not, to show here we are, it’s taken years, but we’ve come together as family who disagree on many things, but we also love each other, and I’m so grateful we have this closeness and I’m sharing some of the joy my family has.
The more you live the truth of who are and the more you show the world who you are – the freer you are.
I also talk very openly about sex, and the joy I get from sex and the joy I get from being non-monogamous, and the joy I get from owning my body and my sexuality.
I do fight with with online trolls and men who are sh*t to me. I do that not just because I can but because I know a lot of young women who right now feel bullied on social media and into silence and I want them to see a strong woman who is telling a man to f*** off!
I really like how your feminism is de-colonial. You’re proudly Muslim, sexually fluid, open about fighting so many different fronts – racism and patriarchy. For a lot people it's confusing, that you can embody all of these identities in the West. How do you walk that razor edge to speak to power in different contexts?
First of all it’s f***ing exhausting! You’re surrounded by these explosive things. I feel like I’m dancing or playing hopscotch on a minefield. It’s something I’ve been working on for a decade. When I first became known I was focusing a lot on the Middle East and North Africa and specifically Muslim issues. My first book was about the Middle East and North Africa. I was a (Reuters) journalist in the Middle East and North Africa for 10 years, then Cairo and then Jerusalem, before I moved to the US, so that was naturally my focus.
I would write about misogyny and patriarchy in my part of the world and where I came from. I was born in Egypt and I spent at least half my life living between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. I think some people wanted to assume that I was saying, “This is where patriarchy begins and ends” and I was not saying that. I was saying this is my part of the world and I want to address patriarchy in my part of the world because I refuse to let other people helicopter into our part of the world and start lecturing us about feminism. I was shaped and formed by the various cultures and the various manifestations of Islam in this part of the world – it’s on me to do that dissection.
The more global I was becoming, the more obvious it was becoming that a woman like me – a woman of colour, but also of Muslim descent is caught between a rock and a hard place. The rock is the racist Islamophobe who wants to use what I say to demonise Muslim men and the hard place is the so-called community who wants to silence Muslim women and defend Muslim men. Neither the rock or hard place give a flying f*** about me or women. They just speak to each other, over our heads literally – over our veils and our hymens. That’s why I called my first book Headscarves and Hymens.
I want them to see a woman fight back against a man.
My goal was to complicate the narrative around Muslim women. I had to create a really complicated message, which I hope I have done and I’m glad that you receive it that way. I did not want it to be that that oversimplified message that is just for the rock or just for the hard place.
I want it to be a message that was global, transnational and determined to destroy patriarchy wherever it lives. I will call out the patriarchy of the white women supporters of Trump at the same time I’m calling out the patriarchy of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.
You end up with no friends!
It’s f***king exhausting.
Moving on to news coverage, you were one of the first feminist who talked about how gender infuses politics. You talked about how “it’s no use fighting the Mubarak in the street, if we don’t fight Mubarak in the bedroom.”
I wanted to know what happens when the revolution goes home and after women have risked their lives in fighting with men. I’ve been told “This isn’t the time! We’re fighting against torture!”. I was told by a bunch of men, “I am fighting for my freedom from the state, so shut up about feminism and let me fight for my piece of the pie of power." They would say, “None of us are free, so why do you want to talk about the freedom of women?”.
I would say, yes it’s true, none of us are free because the state oppresses everyone. But Mr Man, who keeps telling me shut up and wait, if the state oppresses everyone, men and women, then the state, street and home together oppress women. I call that the trifecta of misogyny.
Unless we dismantle that trifecta of misogyny we are just fighting the state. That just means one group of men fighting another group of men for power for men and no one gives a f*** about women. That is not my revolution.
Why is control over women so essential to authoritarian regimes and why often do white women choose the privileges of their race over gender?
White women have often accepted crumbs from the white supremacist patriarchy in return for power they gain from proximity. I always tell those women, nothing is going to save you from the patriarchy. Stop eating crumbs. I call white women like that foot solders of the patriarchy. When it comes authoritarian regimes the reason they want to control women is that patriarchy is in power in all of those regimes. The overarching thing patriarchy is obsessed with cis-gendered women’s vaginas.
My message to all of them: Stay out of my vagina, unless I want you in there.
For them it is the complete and utter control of women’s genitals, reproduction and women’s bodies across the world. It’s the child policy in China, abortion laws in the US, and countries where sex outside outside heteronormative marriage is criminalised and punished.
Germaine Greer once said, “The revolution is with the women who have nothing to lose” – is that the Greta Thunberg's and Malala’s - the young women and the women of colour at the bottom?
I say at the beginning of my book, this is the time for the not-rich, not-white and not-famous. I insist that feminism is led by queer feminists of colour, because when we look at the intersections of oppressions, the way the patriarchy has hurt the not-white, not rich and not famous - that’s where true intersectionality lives. It’s us who have been working our muscles to fight the tentacles of the patriarchy. We have been ignored for so long but we are the ones who know how to fight these multiple oppressions because we know that accepting crumbs is not the way. I’m done with the f***king crumbs of the patriarchy. I want the entire cake. Or better yet, I’ll make my own cake. I don’t even want the cake of patriarchy. I want my own anarchist, queer feminist cake.
Her book, The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls, is published by Hardie Grant Books. She is also the author of Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution and a contributor to the New York Times opinion pages.