Uncle Sam, I want to know what you’re doing with my fucking tax money. . . . Because I’m from New York, and the streets is always dirty. We was voted the dirtiest city in America. There are still rats on the damn trains. I know you’re not spending it in no damn prison because y’all be giving n****s like two underwears, one jumpsuit for like five months. . . . What is y’all doing with my fucking money? . . . I want to know. I want receipts. I want everything.
My name is Mona Eltahawy and this is my declaration of faith: Fuck the patriarchy.
Whenever I stand at a podium to give a lecture, I begin with that declaration of faith. Whether I am speaking on a panel on feminism in front of an audience of one thousand in Lahore, Pakistan; at a summit for activists and politicians working to end violence against women and children in Dublin, Ireland; on a stage as part of an evening of multigenerational African feminists in Johannesburg, South Africa; or at a lunch for medical students in New York City, USA, my declaration never changes.
I could say, “Dismantle the patriarchy.” Or, “Smash the patriarchy.” Or use any number of verbs that signal urgency, but I don’t. I am a writer, and I understand how language works. I understand how audiences—and readers—react to the language I use. I know exactly what I am doing. And I say, “Fuck the patriarchy,” because I am a woman, a woman of color, a Muslim woman. And I am not supposed to say “fuck.”
In my experience, almost nothing can match the power of profanity delivered by a woman at a podium, unapologetically. Because how many women—not to mention women of color or Muslim women or working-class women, or, or, or . . . —are ever even invited to the podium? And of those, how many, when they get on stage, still speak as if they are asking for permission to speak? I have lost count of the number of times that I have heard women on a panel preface every contribution as if our right to speak is an imposition, as if our contribution is a burden, as if our thoughts are secondary or tertiary even to the discussion at hand. How many times do you hear a woman dismiss or diminish her right to comment on an issue by saying, “I am not an expert, but . . .”? How many times are women interrupted, spoken over, and spoken for?
We must recognize that the ubiquitous ways patriarchy has socialized women to shrink themselves—physically and intellectually—extend also into language, into what we can and cannot say. It is not just a fight for airtime. It is not just a policing of women’s egos. It polices women’s very language.
At the heart of that policing, standing guard over our language like a baton ready to strike, is a concept that seems deceptively simple: civility.
When Donald Trump was elected, many truths that white Americans were oblivious to—willingly or naively—were forced onto their consciousness. It was impossible to deny that racism was a driving force behind his election, and yet analysts and pundits insisted it was the “suffering working class” (read: white working class) and “economic anxiety,” as if people of color who were working class were immune from suffering or economic anxiety. Many white Americans exclaimed, “This is not the America I know,” precisely because they had refused to or had never had to come face to face with that racism, and Trump’s shameless expression of racism and bigotry finally forced some of them to see that America. Those of us who are not white and who have experienced that racism all too well have long known that America.Those of us who insisted on calling racism what it was rather than by a series of euphemisms were urged not to call a racist a racist.
Denial and gaslighting—the latter, a form of psychological abuse that aims to make someone doubt their own thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions—went on full throttle as talking heads, politicians, media, and others went out of their way to blame everything but racism for Trump’s success at the polls. Moreover, those of us who insisted on calling racism what it was rather than by a series of euphemisms were urged not to call a racist a racist, and we were instructed to be civil when arguing with Trump supporters. For the sake of unity, free speech, and healing, civility was held up as paramount. The obsession with civility, no matter what, was at times bipartisan, as when both Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, and Congressman Steve Scalise, a Republican—both of whom are white—criticized Maxine Waters, a Black Democratic congresswoman, for encouraging her supporters to protest Trump administration officials in public wherever they saw them.
But paramount to whom? Who does civility serve?
Racism is not civil. Racism is not polite. And yet here were all those people lined up to insist that we be civil when talking about Trump and his supporters. Those people lined up to insist on civility were, of course, white. For white Americans who have no experience of racism, it is a concept, a theory, an idea to be debated, and not a lived reality to be endured or survived. Fuck that.
Those who insist on civility in the face of its very opposite are those least affected by the incivility that Trump represents. They have more power and privilege than most of us. It is imperative to recognize that we are not playing on a level playing field. I refuse to be civil with someone who refuses to acknowledge my humanity fully.
It is often easier to point out the incivility of racism than it is to point out the incivility of patriarchy. But just as civility is a luxury that only those unaffected by the bold racism of the Trump era can afford, I believe civility is similarly a luxury afforded by those unaffected by patriarchy. I will not be civil to anything or anyone that refuses to acknowledge the full humanity of women and girls. This is a battle. To that end, the shock and the offense profanity causes are necessary and important.
Filthy. Disgraceful. Indecent. Vulgar. That is what the powerful and their enablers will call you if you dare poke them in the eye—even when you are invited to do it.
Take comedian Michelle Wolf who, in April 2018, let loose a bipartisan evisceration of Beltway politicians and media in her role as host/performer at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. (Tellingly, the notoriously thin-skinned President Donald Trump did not attend.) After peppering her speech with several swear words, as well as references to sex acts and genitalia, Wolf was criticized by an uneasy alliance of both supposedly free-speech obsessed conservatives and supposedly free-speech obsessed journalists. The hypocrisy was hard to miss.Trump has gone out of his way to be the antithesis of civil toward Black women, displaying blatant misogynoir.
“I think sometimes they look at a woman and they think, ‘Oh, she’ll be nice,’ and if you’ve seen any of my comedy, you know that I don’t—I’m not,” Wolf told National Public Radio (NPR) after the event. “I think they still have preconceived notions of how women will present themselves, and I don’t fit in that box.”
It is instructive that in the era of Trump—a man who has torpedoed the notion of civility—women are still expected to be polite and demure. One criticism of her performance was that she did not cater to the room: “She knew that the speech—at least in parts—was likely to go over like a lead balloon in the room. And that it would stir huge amounts of controversy in its wake. THAT WAS THE POINT,” wrote CNN editor-at-large Chris Cilliza.
At a time when the word “resistance” has been sanitized and neutered, a “vulgar” Wolf understood the power of words and used them to deliver a knockout punch to a crowd more accustomed to being comfortable. As Cillizza put it: “She wanted to napalm the room and she did. Unapologetically.”
That is the power of profanity—and why it is important for women to not shy away from it.
Trump has boasted that his celebrity lets him “grab [women] by the pussy.” He has used a host of epithets to describe women, whether they’re journalists, political opponents, or TV hosts. He has gone out of his way to be the antithesis of civil toward Black women, displaying blatant misogynoir in a country where Black women are disproportionately affected by violence and where medical negligence leaves them especially vulnerable. It is stunning that women are still expected to cater to the room.
Profanity is an essential tool in disrupting patriarchy and its rules. It is the verbal equivalent of civil disobedience. Fewer people are as expert at disrupting patriarchal authority with the power of her words than the Ugandan scholar and feminist Stella Nyanzi, an epidemiologist at Makerere University who holds a PhD in sexuality and queer studies. She understands the agility of words and their ability to disturb the powerful and their networks of wealth and privilege. She describes herself as a “queer laughist” and defends LGBTQ rights in a country where homosexuality is illegal and where, the Guardian reports, the first lady—known as Mama Janet—“has been accused of working with extremist US evangelical Christians to spread homophobia in Uganda [and] said she serves only because she was appointed by God.”
Nyanzi is an activist who goes to schools to teach girls and boys how menstrual health products are used in a country where it is estimated that at least 30 percent of teenage girls miss school when they start their period, according to the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Build Africa. Sanitary pads are imported in Uganda and too expensive for many families. Of the girls that Build Africa spoke to, 90 percent said they used rags in place of pads during their period.
Nyanzi is a feminist who has stripped naked at her university to protest the closure of her office and who talks openly about sex in a country where women are expected to be “gentle and quiet” and, as journalist Barbara Among told Canada’s Globe and Mail, discuss sex and menstruation only in private with a mother or aunt.
In other words, Nyanzi is a force who strategically uses profanity to take aim at patriarchy on behalf of those most harmed by it. When Uganda president Yoweri Museveni—who has been in power since 1986—reneged on an election promise to provide Ugandan schoolgirls with sanitary napkins, Nyanzi took to Facebook, writing, “That is what buttocks do. They shake, jiggle, shit and fart. Museveni is just another pair of buttocks . . . . Ugandans should be shocked that we allowed these buttocks to continue leading our country.”
That has been described as the least expletive-laden of the insults she had flung at Museveni by then, and yet she was detained in a maximum-security prison for five weeks in 2017, ostensibly over that post. Many suspect however that her detention was more likely connected to her criticism of “Mama Janet,” the first lady, Janet Kataaha Museveni, who told parliament in her capacity as education minister—a position she was given by her husband—that there was no money for menstrual health products.
“What malice plays in the heart of a woman who sleeps with a man who finds money for millions of bullets, billions of bribes, and uncountable ballots to stuff into boxes but she cannot ask him to prioritize sanitary pads for poor schoolgirls?” Nyanzi asked on Facebook.
Nyanzi is a hero. Her insistence on violating patriarchy’s rules by talking explicitly about taboo subjects—be they the president’s buttocks, sex, sexuality, queerness—should be studied everywhere as a masterclass in the power of refusing to obey the rules of “politeness.” Who made those rules?
“Uganda was colonized and Christianized by the British. . . . We were brought up to be good girls, to be decent, to be polite, to speak nicely to authority. Women here are not to be heard, they shut up, they don’t speak, they’re to be seen as beautiful,” Nyanzi told the Globe and Mail in 2017, explaining perfectly the origins of “civility” and why profanity is a powerful tool to upend that civility, which is foundational to patriarchy.
Under the British and other empires, white, Christian values were imposed on colonized people—a narrow set of values, of what is and is not “decent” and “respectable.” It was against that set of values that “radical rudeness” was used by activists in colonial Uganda.
In an article in the Journal of Social History historian Carol Summers explains that activists in 1940s colonial Uganda, especially in the kingdom of Buganda, defied, disobeyed, and disrupted power—both of the British colonizers and of the colonizers’ local allies—via “a rude, publicly celebrated strategy of insults, scandal mongering, disruption, and disorderliness that broke conventions of colonial friendship, partnership, and mutual benefit.”
Who determines what is “civil” and what is “rude”? Who benefits from upholding those social codes? In the 1940s it was British colonizers—the patriarchs of their day—and the networks of power they facilitated.
To place Nyanzi’s deliberate profanity within the historical Ugandan context—and to understand the disruptive power of rudeness then and now—it is instructive to note that what made the rudeness of the “disorderly, intemperate and obnoxious” Buganda rebels “more than just adolescent immaturity . . . was that it was rooted in an understanding of the significance of social rituals, constituted a strategy to disrupt them, and was tied to an effort to build new sorts of public sociability to replace the older elite private networks.”
In other words, it is imperative to understand how civility, decorum, manners, and the like are used to uphold authority—patriarchy, whiteness, other forms of privilege—and that we are urged to acquiesce as a form of maintaining that authority. Whether we are urged to be civil to racists or polite to patriarchy, the goal is the same: to maintain the power of the racist, to maintain the power of patriarchy.
Excerpted from The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy, (Beacon Press, 2019). Reprinted with permission by Beacon Press.