Via Taslima, Mona Eltahawy talks to Robin Morgan. Mona is determinedly hopeful, but not blind to the reality.
Mona: I think we’ve reached the stage in Egypt where people understand that with a president from the Muslim Brotherhood movement and a still very powerful military, we’re caught between a very bad rock and a very horrible hard place because you’re talking about two sides of one coin: authoritarian, totalitarian, doesn’t believe in civil liberties and for whom and for which women’s rights are, absolutely at the bottom of any totem pole hierarchy and one of the highlights in my last visit to Cairo was attending a meeting that veteran feminists Nawal El Saadawi called in which it brought together various feminist groups, women and men who are interested in focusing on women’s rights at this very, very sensitive stage in Egyptian history. We still don’t have a constitution, and we don’t have a parliament, and the constitution is currently being written by a group of mostly men who I would not hesitate to call misogynists, many of whom actually believe it’s ok for a girl who is only 9 to marry and many of whom are not concerned with women’s rights at all. So we recognize that this is a very sensitive time and if we don’t jump on this it will jump on us. And So Nawal El Saadawi is trying to coordinate all the various groups on the ground into an initiative but I know her initiative is one of at least three. So I think women’s rights activists are looking around now saying, “Ok look, there are so many of us and we’re doing very similar work, let’s get together because we need that power of us together to fight against this misogyny, to fight against this hatred of women, to fight against the military and the fundamentalist movement for whom women’s rights are not a priority.”
That plus a miracle.
Mona’s planning a book.
Mona: I’m writing a book that is based on an essay I wrote a few months ago called “Why do they hate us?” and this essay caused a huge ruckus because the point that I was making is that uh a lot of the misogyny against that uh we experience as women in the Middle East and North Africa is driven by sheer hatred for women.
Mona: Clearly and obviously this is not just limited to that region or that…
Robin: Oh you think? [laughs]
Mona: It’s global I’m sure but that’s where I come from and so that’s the region I can most talk about. So I want to write a book that I’m determined to call “Headscarves and Hymens.”
Robin: “Headscarves and Hymens”
Mona: “Headscarves and Hymens” because it’s such a…
Robin: You’re such a wimp, you just just don’t take risks, [Mona laughs] you know. what a pity. If you only had a spine, Mona. [Both laugh]
Mona: I’m trying to provoke them and see how far I can go with this, it’s my contention that for women in the Middle East and North Africa, we’ve come to a point where it’s all about what’s on our heads—the headscarves—and what’s in between our legs—the hymens. So whether you’re talking about female genital mutilation or the so called virginity tests i.e. sexual assault and rape enacted upon female revolutionaries in Egypt by the military it’s really about Headscarves and Hymens and you know one of those women who survived these horrendous virginity tests and sued the Egyptian Military. A young woman called Samir Abrahim she told a great story during this meeting that Nawal El Saadawi called. She said, “Listen people, we need to get working women in these meetings because I know this woman, who was selling vegetables, she was selling rocket arugula somewhere and this extremist, this Islamist, came up to her and said, ‘Woman you’re not covered properly’ and you know what she did? She took off her blouse and said, ‘How do you like me now?’” [Robin laughs] So those are the kinds of stories that I want to document but also the kind of violations that we have to recognize but you know also one of the things that my books wants to do is to say that we have to identify as feminists. The time where all of these amazing young women who are saying, “No, no, no, it’s not about women’s rights, it’s about everyone’s rights,” I understand that. But we’re at a critical moment in our history and the region and the way we fight it is by identifying it as such. We are feminists, and we draw upon this wonderful history of Nawal El Saadawi, of Doria Shafik who invaded the Egyptian parliament with fifteen hundred women in the 50s, of Hoda Sha’arawi in 1923 who…
Robin: Took off her veil, yes.
Mona: We’re feminists are here and we are fighting.
Yes. You have to spell it out. If you say “everyone’s rights” then it never is. You have to spell it out.