meEvery morning Mona Eltahawy carefully lines her eyes with thick kohl. “It is a ritual that I give myself every morning,” explains the 53-year-old Egyptian writer, journalist and feminist activist. “Holding that brush is like being a calligrapher, and I consider lining my eyes as a way to write myself a love letter. It’s a form of adornment, but it also connects me to my Egyptian heritage, because in ancient Egypt, men and women from all walks of life wore eyeliner. It has become a kind of self-care for me since the pandemic started. “
We spoke through Zoom, with Eltahawy in Montreal, where she lives with her partner. Behind her is a framed portrait of the Canadian artist’s Egyptian blogger and women’s rights activist Aliaa Mahdy. Nadine faraj. Eltahawy talks fast, beaded earrings dangling from her ears, often pausing to run her hand through her shaved hair; he shaved his long red hair in May. “Red was my power before,” he says, “but to signal power now, I wanted to cut it all off, say, ‘This is the emerging pandemic.’ Eltahawy is not someone for the unexamined life. She is nice, serious and sincere.
We spoke before the launch of her second book, The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls. The book explores the personal qualities that are normally considered inappropriate for women (ambition, power, attention seeking) and reconstructs them as positive. Blasphemy can crush through oppressive civility; Outward directed anger is a healthier force than the internalized self-hatred that fuels eating disorders and self-harm in young women. “The patriarchy knows that when we feed anger in girls,” observes Eltahawy in Seven Necessary Sins, “they will hold the patriarchy to account and that these girls will grow up to be women who demand a reckoning.”
The book can be uneasy at times, moving from Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of the American gymnastics team to female genital mutilation in Egypt in paragraph space. Eltahawy’s intention is clear: he wants to show how patriarchy transcends national boundaries, religion, and class, but the overall effect can seem chaotic. If the chapter on anger is the most successful in the book, it may be because Eltahawy is furious. Read Seven Necessary Sins It’s similar to getting a chemical peel – it stings, but you know it’s good for you. What is your initial anger level right now? “Oh, like through the roof!” she says. “People often ask me, what inspires you to write or where do you get your ideas from? I say, ‘Whatever made me mad on that particular day.’
After living in Egypt and the United Kingdom, Eltahawy’s family moved to Saudi Arabia in 1982, when she was 15 years old. “I felt like I had been put on trial,” she writes of the experience, “found guilty of being a teenager and sentenced to life imprisonment.” At age 16, she vowed to become a journalist because she wanted to “be free.” She worked as a reporter for news and correspondent, including stints in Cairo and Jerusalem for Reuters, before moving on to writing opinions in the 2000s.
Everything changed for Eltahawy during the Arab Spring. In 2011, she was arrested by Egyptian authorities while covering protests in Tahrir Square. Eltahawy was detained for 12 hours, sexually assaulted and threatened with gang rape. His left arm and right hand were broken. He managed to borrow a phone from another activist and tweet a message to his 5,000 Twitter followers – “beaten, arrested, home office” – that was picked up by The Guardian, among other posts. “My fame saved me,” he writes. “If I were an unknown woman, I might as well have been gang-raped or murdered.”
Since then, she has become a spokesperson for a radical Middle Eastern model of feminism that criticizes patriarchal oppression in all its forms. “Yes,” she wrote. in a viral article for Foreign Policy in 2012, “Women all over the world have problems … [but] Name me an Arab country and I will recite a litany of abuses fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem to want or be able to untangle, lest they blaspheme or offend. “
The essay was criticized for reinforcing Islamophobic attitudes about the subjugation of women within Muslim cultures. “Any woman of Muslim descent is caught between a rock and a hard place,” she says now. “The stone is racist Islamophobes who don’t give a damn about Muslim women, but are too eager to weaponize my words and anything I say that criticizes misogyny among Muslims. The hard place is the misogynists within various Muslim communities, who don’t give a damn about Muslim women either, who want to silence any criticism of a woman of Muslim descent because they accuse us of giving ammunition to the rock. Neither side cares about us. They talk to each other about our bodies, they use our bodies as battlefields of power. “
Eltahawy has previously stated that he would support legislation prohibiting the niqab, a stance that was condemned by Muslim feminists for denying women their right to dress as they please. His position has been softened over the years, motivated in part by legislation passed in France, Belgium, Austria and, more recently, Switzerland, to ban the wearing of the burqa or niqab in public. “The niqab is inherently misogynistic, because you are erasing a woman,” he says, but notes that he wrote his columns criticizing the niqab years before successive waves of legislation in Europe against Muslim dress, targeting xenophobic voters. “In France, they are obsessed with Muslim women. Obsessed! They are doing a terrible job with the pandemic, so Macron could easily lose to Marine Le Pen in the next presidential election. So who becomes your scapegoat? Muslim women. So my position now is that unless she is a Muslim woman or a woman of Muslim descent, this is not her conversation. “
Eltahawy is a heavy user of social media and posts multiple times a day on Twitter and Instagram. (She also has a newsletter, Feminist giant, a summary of feminist news from around the world). Like many famous journalists, he has embraced the Patreon membership platform, more out of necessity than nothing: “When the pandemic started, I couldn’t make money like I used to, which was occasional freelance writing, but mostly public speaking.” From so many years as a journalist, Eltahawy prefers the creative control that desktop publishing gives him. “The New York Times Opinion Editor he once asked me to stop saying ‘fuck’ on Twitter, “he says. “Although I did not work for the Times, I was never a full-time employee. I thought, Are you kidding me? All this fascist shit that the Times op-ed pages were running at the time... They were publishing mercenaries and all those right-wing idiots promoting fascism, and do I have to stop saying shit?
In her chapter on violence in Seven Necessary Sins, Eltahawy relates that she was groped at a club in Montreal in 2017. She punched her attacker in the face and then tweeted about the incident with the hashtag #IBeatMyAssaulter. “Stop sending girls only to ballet classes … the patriarchy does not want us to be as fluent in violence as men,” he writes. It’s hard not to interpret this as an accusation from the victim, as well as dangerous advice – women often reckon that if they don’t comply, they could end up dead. “I say intentionally that you cannot always fight back, and my priority is that we survive,” he responds. “I don’t want us to put our lives in danger any more. The last thing I want to do with my chapter on violence is put the burden on women; what I want to do is notify the patriarchy. Those of us who can fight back will fight back. ”It’s a nuanced argument, but encouraging women and girls to violently confront abusive men (the book is aimed at a young audience) feels reckless.
Eltahawy’s vision is anarchic: he wants to rip out the guts of the patriarchy and throw its entrails into the fire. The pink-washed, ‘boss girl’ iteration of feminism is not for her: “Boss girl feminism does girls a great disservice by telling them they can do anything. It deceives them and diminishes the challenges and dangers that patriarchy brings them ”. Her model of feminism is all prominent chin and patterned boot. “Fuck the patriarchy,” Eltahawy repeatedly writes in Seven Necessary Sins. It’s a good feeling, but what’s next? “When I speak of anarchist feminism,” she says, “I speak of destroying capitalism, misogyny, militarism, capacitism, age discrimination, and any form of hierarchy, because that is indeed what anarchism is. Anarchism is destroying the systems of authority and oppression that sustain those hierarchies. “
It’s a shame you can never witness that in your life, I observe. “That is one of the greatest tragedies of my life,” laughs Eltahawy. “I wake up every morning trying to forget that.” He runs his hand through her soft fluff once more, kohl-framed eyes full of defiance. But every day I wake up and think, today is the day that I will destroy the patriarchy. Because for me feminism is not a t-shirt, it is not a 9 to 5 job. Feminism for me is every day. It is my existence. So I absolutely believe that I will dismantle the patriarchy and I absolutely know that it probably won’t happen in my lifetime. Within that paradox is this very fine line that I walk. I think that’s probably the most honest way to describe it. “
The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy is published by Tramp Press. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism