An Angry Woman is a Free Woman

IMG_4913In 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.

IMG_4898The 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.

Democracy should never be taken for granted

Picture vote

Much focus is placed on the importance of holding elections in societies dealing with the aftermath of conflict because it is seen as a positive step in the development of democracy, which is held as the political way to move on from conflict to peace. As a person who supports the development of peace and democracy in post/conflict societies I thought it was about time I engaged in my own local politics and observe just how elections happen in a society that is considered stable and at peace!

An edited version of this feature entitled “Tea, Laughs and Politics” was first published in the Donegal Democrat Paper on Thursday 5th June 2014.

For a number of years I’ve gained a growing interested in politics yet I’d failed to use my democratic right to vote, in 2014 however I learnt to no longer take my right for granted.

My awaking came from over 3500 miles away through enthusiastic friends in Afghanistan who were getting ready to vote in the April 5th presidential elections, the first time in 12 years that Afghan’s had the opportunity to elect a new head of state. For months friends had expressed excitement at having the opportunity to be voting as for many it would be the first time they would be voting. And when Election Day arrived my facebook newsfeed was filled with friend’s pictures showing queues of Afghan’s outside polling stations and ink dyed finger indicating that they had voted.

voting AFG pic

Afghan’s proud to show they voted

I was inspired by such scenes and compelled to think about my own civic duty, realizing I was taking my own democratic right for granted and leaving others to decide who would represent me in local government. I therefore decided no longer could I be an absent voter when many of my friends in other parts of the world were putting their lives at risk just for expressing a democratic right.

Having worked on the NCCWN-Donegal Women’s Network Election Special I knew I wanted to vote for candidates that understood equality and the issues faced in Donegal. Five of the sixteen Donegal electorate area candidates had responded to the networks equality questions which first made me pose the question do candidates who already hold some level of power and influence care or even hold other people’s equality in high regard? It was sad to see equality didn’t seem to be high on the agenda of many candidates, but it did make me realise who I wouldn’t be voting for on Friday 23rd May.

On Sunday 25th May 2014 I was then given the opportunity to observe the Donegal vote count at the St. John Bosco Community Centre, a new and insightful experience. There were 37 council seats to be filled six of which were to come from the Donegal electorate area.

I wasn’t sure what to except arriving at 3.30pm I thought I‘d missed everything but the count was yet to start. The first count was read at around 4.20pm with a vote quota of 1984 however no candidate had reached the quota. Because local elections in Ireland work by Proportional Representation the candidate with the lowest votes was eliminated and their votes carried over to the second preference candidate, a process carried out until the six candidate’s seats were filled.

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Counting Votes

NK blog

Leading Lady, Niamh Kennedy

The first elected candidate came at count 8 with Niamh Kennedy, for me her election was a positive boost to local politics, not simple because she is a woman only 1 of 3 elected in Donegal but also because she was a first time candidate elected receiving the highest votes over candidates who were sitting councillors. Her election serves as a positive example to any budding politician thinking about running for future elections. The same could be said of Candidate Tom Conaghan who had ran in the last local election and only lost by a few votes, yet he came back and received the second highest vote preferences.

What have I learnt?

Elections are challenging, exciting and every vote counts. While we also have to take the bad with the good, the fact is people won’t always 100% agree on who’s elected but the point is we must ensure that the way people are elected is fair and democratic which therefore requires the public to vote.

In Donegal the voting turnout was 58.21% representing 73,096 out of an eligible electorate of 125,830 (Irishtimes, 2014). This means 41.79% of the electorate did not vote, I ask myself what is the reason for this absence? And how can people complain about governance and the need for change if they don’t vote?

It’s common to hear complains about the lack of good governance and the need for change in our political systems yet in order to achieve this change we as the general public need to make that change happen through the ballot box. And OK while some may say “but my vote won’t make a difference” yet if people continue to act to this belief then certainly nothing will ever change and the people who do vote will dictate who governance your society.

People therefore need to get involved in politics, it may not be everyone’s cup of tea! Yet politics is part of our everyday lives whether we like it or not, be it our ability to access public services, health care, even down to getting those pot holes in your road filled, the list is endless. This is your community so make sure you have people in government that are those who will work for the positive development of your community.


John Campbell re-elected

On a final note I’d like to thank John Campbell for giving me the opportunity to come along to the count and to his mother and sister for entertaining me with a few laughs in between the very long count waits!