Mona Eltahawy: How to Fight the Patriarchy
"I believe we’re going through a global feminist moment."
“Someone had turned the lights off in my mind.”
As a woman in Saudi Arabia, as a girl there, you have two options: You either lose your mind or you become a feminist. So I kind of lost my mind, and then I became a feminist. Saudi Arabia made me the woman that I am. I was born to Egyptian parents from Cairo. I come from a middle-class family in Egypt. My parents met in medical school, they did their master’s degrees together, and then they got a government grant to study for a Ph.D. in the U.K., in London. I grew up in a feminist home. I grew up with parents who valued knowledge, who brought up my brother and me, and much later my sister when she joined us, with the values of knowledge and education, and they told us, “We expect the same from you all, you will all go to university, and this will be a normal thing in your life.” The last year we spent in the U.K., my mother was the breadwinner. My father wasn’t able to find a job, so he was a househusband. This was 1981 in the U.K.: He’d come and pick us up from school and cook dinner, and have dinner ready for my mum when she came back from the hospital.
Then we moved to Saudi Arabia. My mother could no longer drive, I couldn’t go anywhere unaccompanied. Grown men were asking my father if they could marry me, grown men in supermarkets asked me if I was alone, and I was groped during pilgrimage—although pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam. This was the first time in my life I was wearing hijab, and I looked like a nun. I’d gone to Catholic school in Glasgow, Scotland, during our last year in the U.K., so life in Saudi Arabia was like someone had turned the lights off in my mind. I could not understand how this could be a Muslim country, because I was brought up as a Muslim, as I said, in a feminist home, yet here was a very different example of Islam, an Islam I did not like, an Islam that was suffocating me, and an Islam that made it clear that women were the walking embodiment of sin. I knew when we moved to Saudi Arabia that there was something wrong, but I didn’t have the words for it, and this is when I fell into a deep depression. I began to wear my hijab inside Saudi Arabia as a way of fighting that depression, and as a way of hiding—hiding my body from the eyes and hands of men. Teenage girls around the world often go through this, the stage where your body begins to develop and you just don’t know what to do with your breasts and your hips, and the way men begin to look at you. So I thought, I’m just going to hide from these men, because I could not handle it, and at the same time I felt suffocated by religion. Then at nineteen, I discovered the antidote to all of this shit, and it was feminism.
And it was feminism on the bookshelves of my university in Saudi Arabia. To this day I don’t know why this renegade professor (a real kindred spirit) was at my university, and left all of these journals and books of feminism in Saudi Arabia. There I discovered Nawal El Saadawi, Fatema Mernissi—a whole bunch of women who voiced that frustration. You often hear of Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique, and giving word to something that you didn’t know existed. This idea of finding something that put into words what you were struggling with—that was my feminist awakening in Saudi Arabia. Interestingly enough, in Saudi Arabia, on those bookshelves, I also came across The Perfumed Garden. The Perfumed Garden is the Arabic Kama Sutra. It was written by a sheik, a cleric, and he begins in the name of God, the most merciful, the most beneficent, something like “Praise be to God for the cock and the cunt.” Here I had an example of the erotica of my own heritage, in a country that is constantly and consistently fighting women and women’s sexuality—just the mere existence of women. So I thought, Whose Islam is out there on the streets? I do not understand this. And I found all of these feminist books, written by Muslim women of various Arabic-speaking countries in the region, and then I understood that there were all these different varieties of Islam, and that the Saudis worshipped a misogynist god that was not my God, but a god with a small “g.”
My greatest sadness and regret would have to go back to my socalled obsession with sex. Why I waited so long to explore my sexuality—it makes me sad, when I think of my younger self, and why I denied her something so pleasurable and something so beautiful. It makes me sad that I couldn’t discuss this with fellow Muslim women. It took me a really long time to pluck up the courage to talk to other Muslim women about this stuff because of the guilt. I’m so open about it in my book because I hope younger Muslim women reading this book share, either with me or with their friends, their journey to their own sexuality, in whichever direction and form it takes. So I mention those things, although I know that they’re going to be difficult for my family to read. Where I come from, it’s not common for women to talk about sex, and that’s exactly why I did it: because these are revolutionary times.
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“We’re going through a global feminist moment.”
When eighteen female revolutionaries were sexually assaulted under the guise of so-called virginity testing after the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt, there was more anger directed toward us, the women who exposed this horrendous crime, than toward the military that assaulted us. All the outrage that should have been directed at the men who were trying to break us, and sexually assaulting us, and dragging us through the streets, was being directed toward the women—and not toward the trifecta of patriarchies I call the State, the Street, and the Home.
But I believe we’re going through a global feminist moment. In China, just after International Women’s Day, at least ten feminists were arrested for protesting against misogyny and patriarchy, and five of them are still in jail. We saw women in India rise up after the Delhi gang rape; they’ve been speaking out against sexual violence for a long time, but we finally got to hear their voices. We saw women in Afghanistan who insisted on burying the woman called Farkhunda after her lynching, and they broke with Muslim tradition to do that. We saw women in Turkey who did the same after a woman was raped and killed, and they told the local imam, “No, we will not abide by your tradition. No other man will touch her, and we will bury her.” And here in this country, we saw three queer black women launch Black Lives Matter after Trayvon Martin was murdered.
The common thread is we are all women of color. In my part of the world, we’re often told feminism is a Western import, it’s not part of our culture or religion. But all of these women are saying, “We’re tired of having to choose between racism and sexism,” and having to fight Islamophobia and xenophobia in parts of the world where Muslims live as minorities, having to fight against that and having to fight against misogyny. More and more women are saying, “It is our right and it is our role to criticize the misogyny from within and without, and also fight those who are attacking Islam.”
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“There is no country that has gotten rid of misogyny.”
When people in the U.S. say, “Muslim men are this, Muslim men are that,” I bring in the Christian Brotherhood, and talk about what the right wing in this country has done to women’s reproductive rights, the abortion clinics that have had to close in the South, the case of Purvi Patel in Indiana, who’s gone to jail on charges of feticide—and you’ve hardly heard a thing, because she is a disempowered, brown, Hindu woman. When that starts to happen to white Christian women, then maybe we will hear a big fuss.
During my thirteen years in the U.S., especially in the South and at the University of Oklahoma, I’d often describe those regions as the Middle East, because there were so many similarities between the two: the conservatives, the religion, and the patriarchy. In the Middle East we fight the Muslim Brotherhood; here in the U.S. we fight the Christian Brotherhood. Men of the extreme right of any religion are obsessed with our vaginas, and my message to them is, “Stay out of my vagina unless I want you in there.”
That’s a really important thing to remember, because the religious right has whittled us away through sexuality and the control of our bodies. There’s a connection between “modesty culture,” where you wear a hijab or a niqab and you cover your face, and “purity culture,” where you sign a virginity pledge to your father until you get married, where your community is obsessed with your purity and your body.
When people say misogyny in the Middle East is caused by colonization, I say, “Yes, we had colonial history, and it was awful, but we got rid of the Brits in Egypt over fifty years ago.” What have we done since then to reverse the misogyny? What have all these countries done since they liberated themselves from occupation and colonial powers?
It’s not about political engagement, it’s not about poverty, it’s not about wealth, it’s not about how long ago we got rid of colonization—it’s about misogyny and patriarchy. There is no country that has gotten rid of misogyny. Those of you who follow global politics will remember when the Swedish foreign minister tried to take a stand on feminist principles against Saudi Arabia, and the Arab League prevented her from speaking because the Saudis were able to dominate the Arab League. She tried to make a point about a blogger who was supposed to receive a thousand lashes (he was only flogged once because of international outcry), but she was also going to make a point about Saudi Arabia’s horrendous women’s rights record. She was attacked in Sweden by the business community—this is Sweden, and yet this woman was called “emotional.” She was also told that she didn’t have a grasp of international diplomacy. This is the Swedish foreign minister! Clearly, misogyny is global.
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“Fight your fight here.”
What you can do to help me, and the women in the region from where I come and about which I write, is to fight your fight here. At least 25 percent of women on college campuses in this country experience a form of sexual assault. Fight that. Fight against what the religious right wing is doing to women’s reproductive rights in this country. Because believe me, the men that I am fighting where I come from read these statistics and say, “Do you know how many women are raped every five minutes in America?” as if that makes anything better. But they just shrug, and they say, “You see, even in America, that country that you keep talking about, where you lived, they still treat women badly.” So fight your fight here, and fight, most importantly, complacency. I think complacency is so dangerous. So many young women will just shrug and say, “I don’t need to be a feminist, everything’s been solved.” No, we are post-nothing. If anything, the past few in this country have taught us that we’re not post-racism, we’re not post-sexism, we are post-nothing.
Hold your political representatives to account for the hypocrisy that allows them to throw women like cheap bargaining chips across the table when they meet with Middle Eastern regimes. If they dare bring up the issue of women and misogyny, and then these regimes say, “It’s none of your business, it’s our religion,” respond with, “Women’s rights are human rights, and it is our business.” The State Department produces a Human Rights Report every year, with a section in every report on women’s rights, and they know what it’s like. They know that in the year 2002, fifteen schoolgirls were burned to death in Saudi Arabia because they weren’t veiled. What kind of culture allows a morality police, basically a militia made up of zealots, to choose a veil over a girl’s life?
There should have been a revolution in Saudi Arabia when those girls died, and absolutely nothing happened. When the U.S. secretary of state goes to a country like that and says nothing, it is a crime. When John Kerry goes to Saudi Arabia after women have engaged in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience against the ban on driving, and he’s asked, “What do you think of what the women did?” and he essentially says, “The social environment in Saudi Arabia is none of our business,” that is the equivalent of someone going to South Africa during apartheid and shrugging—because what is happening in Saudi Arabia is gender apartheid, and we have to name it as such.
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“The revolution really is personal.”
After Tahrir Square, when they broke my arms and sexually assaulted me, I was not only robbed of the ability to write for three months because my arms were in casts, but I felt that I lost a great sense of beauty. Soon after I was attacked, Gloria Steinem sent me a kind email and suggested I read a wonderful book called Trauma and Recovery, by the feminist psychiatrist Judith Herman. In this book, Judith Herman connects sexual violence and the ensuing trauma with the PTSD that war veterans experience. She makes a wonderful point about how war veterans have things like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and recognition from society that they performed an honorable role. Whereas those of us who survive sexual violence often feel that we’ve lost something. I feel that I lost a great sense of beauty, but there is nowhere we can go to honor that. There is no monument to the unknown sister.
I remember becoming a feminist at the age of nineteen and feeling fucking terrified. I knew that I was opening a door and walking down a corridor I could never turn back on. You understand that this choice is going to destroy the patriarchy, of course, but by destroying everything that you’ve been taught—everything your family has taught you, everything your religion has taught you. So I try to imagine 19-year-old me, and how scared I was: Headscarves and Hymens is for her. I get so many tweets, and all these people write me the most ridiculous things like, “The Middle East is falling apart, why are you talking about sex?” As if sex is not an important thing. My answer to them is that sex is about consent and agency, and what is a revolution without consent and agency? Then I get asked, “Well, women in the Middle East are struggling with literacy and employment and—” What? Because you’re poor, you shouldn’t have consent and agency, and the right to enjoy your body, and the right to enjoy sex with whomever you want? Because you can’t read or write, your body is not yours and doesn’t belong to you? So sex is central to this, sex is something I spent many years of my life struggling around and against, and that guilt, why? Every time I hold readings like this, I hear from Muslim women who share their stories because they need someone to speak first. It took me the longest time to be able to share sex and guilt with fellow Muslim and Arabic women; why can we not even speak to each other about this? Consent and agency and sex are integral to our liberation, and that’s why I insist on speaking about these things.