In October 2015 during the ‘Peace, Power and Patriarchy’ conference hosted by the Foyle Women’s Information Network in Derry/Londonderry in Northern Ireland, I had the opportunity to interview its guest speaker Mona Eltahawy an international reporter, feminist and vocal women’s rights activist. In 2011 during the Arab Spring in Egypt Mona was arrested, detained and sexually assault by the Egyptian police, when she arrived to report on the disturbing stories that state police were carrying out virginity tests on female protectors.
During my interview she candidly spoke about her introduction to the world of feminism, the challenges for women of colour, women’s political representation and the state of women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa and the ways in which women locally and globally can support one another.
Indeed Mona is a passionate and inspiring woman and I thank her for taking the time to sit down with me.
My full interview with Mona from 20th October 2015
Q) How did you find your Gender lens?
“It took moving to Saudi Arabia, I was traumatized into feminism when my family moved there.
I was born in Egypt and at the age of 7 my parents who were both doctors received a scholarship from Egyptian government to do a PHD in medicine in London. In my family we were raised as Muslim and to be equal, we were told in life that the goal in live is knowledge and education.
Then we moved to Saudi Arabia when I was 15 and everything turned upside down. I saw a very different Islam, and a way different of treating women, and this was not what I was used to either in Egypt, my home or in the UK.
I realised and I became a feminist very quickly, but I didn’t have the language for it to call it feminism. Until I found these books in my university in Saudi Arabia who some subversive rebel woman had put there put there.
They don’t teach gender studies but they had these books there, written by women like me who were Muslim, from similar backgrounds and they were talking about the very issues I was thinking and struggling about. I feel that I become a feminist very soon after we moved to Saudi Arabia but I got the word feminism to describe how I was feeling at the age of 19 when I discovered these feminist writings.”
Q) What message to you want to deliver to people?
My book is called ‘Headscarves and Hymens: Why the middle east needs a Sexual Revolution’ and the reason I called it Headscarves and Hymens was because one of the messages I want to get across is that Muslims and non-Muslims have reduced Muslim women to what’s on our heads and between our legs. And I feel that we need to show that women are more than these two things.
The contention of my book and essay “why do they hate us” is that when the Tunisians rose up and inspired the rest of us to have our revolutions, it was women and men and together rising up against the state and the recognition that the state oppresses everyone women and men.
But for us as women we recognise that the state, street and the home, what I call the trifecta of misogyny, oppresses women specifically. And at the heart of this trifecta of misogyny is a toxic mix of religion, culture and politics. And this is a message I believe that women here especially here in Ireland will understand well, north and south.
Because one of the examples I give, I like to connect what I’m fighting against to what women in each country I go to are fighting against.
I tell people read my book, it’s going to make you very angry but what I want you to do with that anger is to look around you and see how that trifecta is in operation around you. Don’t come and rescue me we don’t need rescuing we are fighting put your anger here.
Your anger here is in recognising for example that when Ireland the south allowed marriage equality which I support because I’m a big ally of LGBT rights, this is a county that doesn’t allow women to have abortions. So we are allowing same sex couples to marry which is wonderfully progressive but women are still now allowed to have abortions either in the south or in the north.
So that legacy of fighting that toxic of religion, culture and politics is very much alive in Ireland, which is why I love coming here because I know when I talk about these things women especially feminists will understand what I’m talking about. And that’s how I connect our global struggle for feminism.
Q) You have highlighted the issue where women fight only men benefit, what you call the double burden of women; what can we do to ensure that women aren’t written out of the history books and ensure women are there and their voices heard?
This has happened over and over again any war of independence and revolution women where there with men on the front lines but for some reason we’re not included we’re written out of the narrative all the time and usually it’s because the men who write the narratives.
You know that saying that whoever wins the war ends up writing the history, so we need to start writing our own narratives which is one on the reasons I wrote my book because I was seeing that most people around the world and in the region where just paying attention to the men, the men who were killed in the revolution, the men who were still activists, the men who were imprisoned.
That’s why I mention several activists’ women activists in Egypt who are in jail now for their political defiance because it’s important to remember the women and the price we pay as women, we are there on every frontline, yet we are erased when we look back.
So I think the best way to remind the world that we have always been there on the front line is to start writing our own stories and one of the lines that I say over and over is that the most subversive a woman can do is to talk about her life as if it matters because it does.
Often women’s lives are dismissed as ‘oh that’s just your personal experience no one cares about it’ and theory and rational thinking and the world of men and academia is always held above everything else, because everything has to have a theory and women’s life experiences and lived reality are always dismissed as too emotional, personal and anecdotal. I think we have to fight that and insist on including our narratives because our lives do matter.
Q) What does being fearless mean to you? How do you find the strength to talk about what happened to you after 2011.
I don’t consider myself fearless, courageous or brave or any of those words, I don’t stop and think now I’m going to be courageous, but I think what drives me and what pushes me to do what I do is anger.
I’m really angry and I say I love angry women because angry women are free. Women are often discouraged from being angry, we are socialised and taught growing up to be nice and polite and I say F nice and polite, nice and polite don’t achieve anything, anger is the way
I think that’s one of the reasons I choice to speak out and I continue to do so about what happened to me when Egyptian riot police broke my arm, detained and sexually assaulted me. Because I found out when I was released and got medical treatment that one of the ways I was able to hold the regime accountable and shame and expose what they did to me was to be very open and go on all the media. The thing that I own is my voice and my platform and luckily I have a platform and I consider that platform a great privilege I’m very lucky.
Despite what happened to me people listen to me they know who I am and I have a platform that’s one of the reasons I’m free and sitting in front of you today. Because when I was detained people paid attention. So I use my voice and I speak as loudly as I can, because I believe people who have privilege are obliged to fight ten times harder than those who don’t.
So its anger, its recognising that I have privilege and it obligates me to fight harder and it’s also a way of showing younger women especially who are still trying to navigate how to fight back against sexual violence that it takes a lot of us you know and years for us to figure out how we fight.
I remember when I was younger and someone would grope me on the street and I would feel a tremendous sense of violation and be burning with this violation and then I developed a courage to shout back.
Now I’ve developed the courage to hit now I smack and spit, kick and all of this. I made a man run away from me a few months ago, I’m very proud that a man ran away from me. So you know I wasn’t always able to do that and it’s something you develop as you get stronger and you feel your own sense of power.
So I try to be as open and loud as possible about this to show younger women that you can come into your own and own that power. I try to remember my 19 year old self who was discovering this word feminism and try to see other 19 year olds who are also discovering this and showing them an older woman who’s gone along this very similar journey.
Q) On social media you’ve spoken about being a women of colour and the challenges within feminism. How do you think these can be overcome?
I think it’s a really good time that we are finally talking about women of colour feminism or Transfeminism and comparing it to white feminism. I always stress when I’m talking about white feminism and criticise it I’m not criticising white women.
I’m criticising a kind of feminism that just focuses on misogyny and doesn’t recognise that I’m not privileged enough to just fight misogyny. I think being white is privileged even being a white woman is privileged even though you’re fighting misogyny.
Because as a woman of colour I’m not just fighting misogyny, I’m fighting racism, xenophobia and as a Muslim woman I’m fighting islamophobia. So I remind white feminism that we have to be intersectional in our struggles we have to recognise that women’s struggles are not identical, that while of course misogyny and the fight against this patriarchy connects us all there are women who are fighting many other fights, beside just misogyny.
So the best way to be allies to women of colour you need to be an intersectional feminist and to recognise that there are some conversations that must be lead and had by women of colour specifically the conversation on the veil for example. I’ve recently taken to openly saying if your white and non-Muslim you need to shut up and listen to Muslim women about the veil,
This makes people really uncomfortable and I like making people uncomfortable because I always tell them nothing comes from comfort and complacency the revolution is about making people uncomfortable, provoking and poking at the places that hurt. Because that is when we look around and realise that not everyone has the privilege I have.
Q) How can women’s representation in politics be advanced in MENA?
There are some countries that have quotas for women and they have helped. I’m actually a big fan of quotas I know it’s a big debate within feminism. They normalise the role of women in politics that’s what allowed Scandinavia to make so much progress.
There are some counties in the Middle East where there are quotas for example in Jordan, in Egypt though when they removed the quotas and we had parliament elections in 2011 we had the worst result in history in women’s representation.
Yesterday we had parliament elections and we are waiting for the result so I don’t know how well or badly we will do. But you know we are really struggling to get women involved in politics.
Then in Saudi Arabia women can’t even vote they’ve been promised the vote and they’ve now been registering for the municipal councils even though in the Saudi there is no freedom of politics, expression or assembly and the council that they will be voting for is really just an advisory and toothless council with no real power.
So we have a spectrum of involvement or lack of representation but it’s a long road ahead. But I think one of the best ways to help women is quotas. This is why I think global feminism is important because we need to listen to each other’s experiences and learn from our best practises.