Mona Eltahawy talks about women in the revolution

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.

Robin: Yes.

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.



  1. F says

    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?’”

    I’m always impressed and heartened by actions like these. I think of the slapstick action in that one video where the women return blows against the misogynist jerk with the stick. It gives me hope.

  2. says

    There’s a nasty sort of self-fulfilling prophecy in these situations. You know: the somewhat secularized military and the strongman are always saying ‘prop us up; support us or it’s going to be the Islamists’…

    … and they get propped up, they get supported, or they at least don’t particularly get opposed the way they always should have been. And so the civil society that might otherwise have been there and organized to fight for and create genuinely equitable institutions and laws and so on just isn’t there, or at least isn’t particularly organized or experienced the way they need to be to govern–they’re scattered, driven underground by the strongman.

    … and when finally the strongman is toppled, the group that’s best organized to step into the power vacuum and capitalize on the opening is yet another band of authoritarian thugs, this one organized under the banner of the local deity. They don’t need all at once to learn how to run properly democratic institutions and get ideas bubbling up from the polity into the policy level and hold conventions and nominate officials to office properly democratically and get all that messy genuinely people-centred civil government organized chaos stuff working because that’s not at all what they’re about anyway. They’ve already got their organization going because religious institutions already are those, and although it’s a bad mockery of what you really need for genuinely representative government, it works well enough to get people nominated and elected. Hell, putting black robed men together in rooms and dreaming up regressively vicious new laws for everyone they deem needs properly to knuckle under to their rule under their alleged deity is what they’ve been doing for millenia anyway; asking them to formalize it in a legislature doesn’t greatly complicate matters for them.

    People have the naiveté to ask me why I oppose religion. This is just one more reason: it’s too good at serving as an organizational nucleus for this kind of power grab, too long has been, and what emerges afterward is so often such a misery for everyone.

    You need to watch organized clergy like hawks in situations like these. For all their excesses, the anti-clerical elements of the big Enlightenment revolutions knew as much. Egypt could use a Diderot or two; it really could. And we need to create the intellectual space in which they can be properly dismissive of the religionists’ endless demands for misbegotten ‘respect’.

    (Respect. As if. ‘Respect’ in this context means, simply: ‘don’t call us full of shit even when we so obviously are’. Even if we say this verse here in this silly fragmented mangle of a screed against some now long-gone seventh century polytheists, since adopted as the canon of an iron age imperial religion–even if we say this somehow gives us our license to govern, you’re not even to mouth ‘horseshit’, the way anyone who’s awake and not senile or deaf would naturally do. Tho’ I digress…)

    But again: this is just one more of the problems posed by religions. They are demonstrably not harmless. They are the just about the furthest thing possible from harmless. That it’s impossible to run a just society where the clerics hold too much sway is just reason number five hundred and thirteen or so.

  3. says

    … but ugh, I lost my conclusion:

    That being: keeping the clergy from pulling this stuff is only half the battle. If you want not to get into this situation in the first place, you think about democracy ahead of time and in the first place, and you don’t let strongmen alone just because it’s convenient and you’re afraid of the greater evil. You support civil society anyway, you support feminists, workers groups, whoever is in there and saying give us just laws, give us the vote, give us equity. Because if they’ve got it together, at least they’ve got a chance against the worst, full of their passionate intensity, as they do tend to be.

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