The outspoken journalist and activist Mona Eltahawy thinks everyone has the “right to offend”, just like everyone has the right to “protest offence”. She suffered censorship crudely enough in the past, and therefore defends tackling white supremacism as well as patriarchy by fighting back. Peacefully.
She worked as a journalist in Egypt before and during the Revolution of 2011, when she got an arm and hand broken by the riot police, who also sexually assaulted her, she recalls. Her lawyer believes it was censorship-motivated. Today the author of Headscarves and Hymens lives and works in New York City and Cairo, being a contributor to media like The New York Times or The Guardian.
Eltahawy defines herself as a feminist of Muslim descent born in Egypt. She spoke to Salam Plan in Madrid’s Casa Árabe, during her Spanish tour this week to present her new book, The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls (Beacon Press), which is coming out next Septembre. It is her manifesto against what she calls “universal patriarchy”.
What does Donald Trump mean to you?
Donald Trump for me is a fascist fuck. Donald Trump is a white supremacist, who has been clear all along about his misogyny, his racism, his islamophobia, his homophobia… he’s a whole host of discrimination and bigotry. He was elected by a mostly racist body of American voters and he represents today the growing rise of global authoritarianism that has -at his core- patriarchy, a patriarchy which uses all these forms of oppression.
So, Donald Trump for me is a very dangerous man, but he’s one of many. He’s probably the most powerful of the many, but you have his equivalent with Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duterte in the Philippines, Orbán in Hungary and so on and so forth. And then you have Sisi in Egypt and Mohammed Bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, when we talk about authoritarianism.
“Donald Trump is a very dangerous man, but he’s one of many. You have his equivalent with Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duterte in the Philippines, Orbán in Hungary, Sisi in Egypt, Mohamed Bin Salman in Saudi Arabia…”
Do you think everyone who voted for Trump agrees with his rhetoric and all these ideas?
Well, 60 million Americans voted for Donald Trump. What is especially shocking to me is that the majority of white women voters voted for Donald Trump, knowing that he had been accused by at least twelve women of sexual assault, and knowing his rhetoric, that is racist, misogynist, homophobic, islamophobic and all of it. So, if you voted for Donald Trump, you are a racist.
Many Americans get very upset when you say that and they say: “No, I’m not a racist” and they give you a whole bunch of excuses. But you understood very well that you voted for a racist, and if you voted for a racist, you are a racist.
What lessons could the other politicians draw from his success?
Unfortunately, the Democratic Party in the United States for too long has been moving towards the right, because they believe that the best way to win more votes is to bring people over from the Republican party. This is a disaster, it’s a mistake. Some politicians are learning sadly, and you see this in Europe too, that they should co-opt the rhetoric that has won the election for the Republican party.
But I’m seeing now more and more younger politicians and politicians of colour, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez , Ilhan Olmar, Rashida Tlaib… especially the women of colour, who have been elected to the US Congress, I’m seeing that they represent a wonderful and refreshing and much needed antidote to the hate of the Republican Party and to the mistakes of the Democratic Party.
“The women of colour, who have been elected to the US Congress, represent a wonderful and refreshing and much needed antidote to the hate of the Republican Party and to the mistakes of the Democratic Party”
The Republican Party has been openly racist for decades. Donald Trump did not invent racism. He’s not the first American politician to run on these platforms. Donald Trump is the fruition of many years of white supremacy, islamophobia, capitalism… many, many other forms of bigotry and discrimination. He’s just especially avert about them.
At the same time, the Democratic Party has been dominated by white politicians and has not fought islamophobia in any effective way. In fact, when we talk specifically about islamophobia, I believe that one of the biggest mistakes of the Democratic Party is that the only time up until now, when they speak about Muslims, is when they talk about American Muslims in the military and in the police.
Also about Obama not being a Muslim.
Exactly, yes. The Democratic Party wants to play the good Muslim card, by saying ‘Muslims are us as well: they also fought for us in Afghanistan and Irak. This is not the kind of opposition to islamophobia that I support. I don’t want to be called a good Muslim or a bad Muslim, I want to be called an American citizen who has every right to be in this country, regardless of whether I’m in your military or not.
American politics has a massive problem with white supremacy, especially, and discrimination of all kinds. (…) Muslims in America were punished for 9/11, and we had no role in 9/11. But the Bush Administration launched two wars against Muslim majority countries and, inside the United States, launched the Patriot Act, which targeted specifically Muslims. And so you saw the rise of islamophobia.
“I don’t want to be called a good or a bad Muslim, I want to be called an American citizen who has every right to be in this country”
Where is the limit between freedom of expression or criticism and islamophobia?
I believe in the right to offend, but I believe in the right to protest offence. When we talk about the First Amendment in the United States, it protects you from the Government controlling your speech, but cooperations can and do. And the media does have its own kind of self-control in a way.
Speech has incited hate and violence in Boznia, Rwanda, in New Zealand… I’m against censorship, but I recognize the power of speech, and I think it’s imperative on us to protest hate speech with all the methods that we have at our disposal because people are being killed (…).
I was a journalist in the Middle East for ten years. I’m against censorship, because where I come from [Egypt], it is used to silence us, because once you give the state the power to censor, at first you think it is for a good reason, to protect us, but then the line gets bigger and bigger, and that is what happened in the United States with the Patriot Act.
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The week after the New Zealand attacks, Islamophobia cases in the UK rose by almost 600%, according to the Tell Mama organization, which holds the records for it. How would you tackle hate speech? Media are always pointed at, but what about politicians and institutions?
I think politicians must stop using lazy stereotypes of people in a hateful rhetoric for votes. [They] must stop monopolizing any kind of fearmongering that they have used for a long time to portray people as ‘under attack’ or to say ‘these people are coming to take your jobs, to rape your women’.
I think that the media must start portraying a more complicated image of people who are not white. I think that the media is too lazy to portray people. They give you all these very, very reductive images of people. So, you’re not allowed to be a full human being.
Media news rooms are very white. The media must start hiring people of different backgrounds, because they will understand reporting on all of those communities in a much more complicated and rich way.
I think the aim of hate speech is to dehumanize, because if you dehumanize you make it easier to attack. And complication is the best way to humanize someone. Allow people to be complicated.
“The aim of hate speech is to dehumanize, because if you dehumanize you make it easier to attack. And complication is the best way to humanize someone. Allow people to be complicated”
What do you think about New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s reaction to the recent attacks?
I think she’s done some very good things and I think she’s done some very lazy stereotypical things. I think the fact that she refuses to say the name of the man who committed the massacre is very good. I think that the fact that she and the government worked very quickly to change the legislation on semi-automatic rifles and guns generally is very good and necessary, and a lesson to the United States.
I think the compassion that she showed to the Muslim community when she went [to support them]… she looked genuine. But I reject anyone who is not Muslim using the hijab as a form of solidarity, for many reasons. Number one: the hijab is not a gimmick or a toy that you put on one day and you take off the next day (..). It’s an empty gesture. It is much more meaningful to show solidarity by fighting white supremacy every day.
Number two: as a Muslim woman who fought for eight years to take off my hijab [in Egypt], and as a Muslim woman who is in a family where my mother wears hijab for piety, my sister wears it for identity -she wants to say ‘fuck you’ to the racists- and I reject hijab and all forms of modesty… So, when I see white non-Muslim women putting on the hijab, I see that they have chosen a sight that is not mine (…). I would prefer instead of wearing a headscarf, when they’re out in public, that they support Muslim visible women. If you see a Muslim visible woman being attacked verbally or physically, intervene and help that woman.
“I’m a Muslim woman who is in a family where my mother wears hijab for piety, my sister wears it for identity -she wants to say ‘fuck you’ to the racists- and I reject hijab and all forms of modesty”
People are sometimes surprised or do not believe that Muslim women can be feminists.
I keep my feminism and Islam separate, because for me anything that hurts women and girls, I will fight, regardless of where it comes from. Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, secular politics… I will fight patriarchy everywhere.
I believe the Abrahamic religions -Judaism, Christianity and Islam- are very patriarchal and we have to fight the patriarchy inside those religions. But I also believe there is patriarchy outside those religions.
I think that Islamic feminism in this sense is useful, and I am not an Islamic feminist. I have used their work to give to Muslim women a weapon who write to me and say ‘I want something that will help me fight x, y and z’. (…) If a woman says to me, “my religion is helping me to be more feminist”, I want to have all the weapons at her disposal to fight patriarchy, because I want to fight patriarchy wherever it exists.
You just said you are not an Islamic feminist. How would you define yourself?
I’m a feminist, I was born in Egypt and I’m of Muslim descent. This is how I usually present myself, and I think that makes it complicated enough and that’s all you need know [she giggles].
Why do you say ‘Arab countries need a sexual revolution’ in your book Headscarves and Hymens?
When the revolutions began in Tunisia in 2010 and then spread to many other countries, including my country of birth, the revolutions were men and women together fighting the state. I wanted to ask in my book: when we go home, after we all have risked our lives together… Are the men that we stood shoulder to shoulder with against the state, are they revolutionaries at home, in the street? And we found in many cases the revolutionaries have a patriarch inside them.
Without the social revolution against the dictator in the public space and the sexual revolution against the dictator in the bedroom, the political revolution against the dictator in the palace will fail.
[In] Egypt right now, the political revolution is stuck, because it is one group of men fighting another group of men for a small piece of power: the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. I’m not interested in this, I’m interested in this revolution in the street and the revolution in the bedroom [which] -together- will make possible a much more comprehensive form of liberation on the state level as well.
What is the main lesson you have learned throughout your years of journalism and activism?
To stay angry and to recognize that the revolution lives inside you. So that way, wherever you go around the world, that internal revolution finds the various forms of oppression that patriarchy co-opts and utilizes. I often say that my goal is to destroy patriarchy all over the world (…). The tattoos which I have on my arm [, one of them says]: ‘we are the ones we have been waiting for’.
Don’t you get tired of staying angry?
[She giggles and then gets serious again]. No, not really, because it really does fuel me and I can use it everywhere I go. And for my next book I use anger as what I call one of the necessary sins. Because women are discouraged of being angry. It’s one attribution we’re not allowed to be by patriarchy.
What other six “necessary sins” do you talk about in your new book?
These are attributes that patriarchy does not want women and girls to want to do or to be: anger, attention seeking, profanity, ambition, power, violence and lust. Each of the chapters is about one of these sins and I write about why those sins are important in the fight against patriarchy.
I call this fight “feminism in 3D”: defying, disobeying and disrupting patriarchy. And it’s not about the Middle East or North Africa, it’s about the world. It’s about how patriarchy is universal. And I use stories and examples from feminism fights from around the world: Uganda, South Africa, South Korea, Argentina, India, Ireland… as a way of showing the feminist international revolution that targets patriarchy around the world. So, it’s like my feminist manifesto [she giggles].
I believe Judaism, Christianity and Islam are very patriarchal and we have to fight the patriarchy inside those religions. But I also believe there is patriarchy outside those religions. It’s universal
And how do you imagine Egypt and the US, the places you know better, in ten years’ time?
One of the things that gave me hope in the United States lately is what I was mentioning earlier about the election of these women of colour. I think they have come to American politics and really turned it upside down (…).
I believe the revolution, everywhere in the world, comes from the margins. It doesn’t come from the majority; the majority is too comfortable and wants to hold to the status quo.
In the Middle East and North Africa, Egypt now, including Saudi Arabia too, I really believe that feminism and talking and sexual ownership of our bodies -be it of feminist discourse or LGBTQ discourse-, so queer groups, who are increasingly visible -in Tunisia, in Lebanon they have been for a while now, and in Egypt we have something called the Alliance of Queer Egyptians now-…
So, in the Middle East and North Africa, [I imagine] an increasingly feminist-queer identified struggle; in the United States, an increasingly feminist of colour struggle will be the places of the margins that will influence society at large. They give me optimism, because I’m a tendentious optimist.