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Journalist and activist Mona Eltahawy has dedicated herself to fighting what she calls the most dangerous ideology in the world: patriarchy. “The quickest way for these men in power to show their power, to flex their muscles, is over the bodies of women … History is not linear. Just because we achieve progress in something, it doesn’t mean that it’s going to continue progressing.” By Miriam Cosic.

The fiery resistance of journalist Mona Eltahawy

Mona Eltahawy.
Credit: ANGEL GARCIA

Mona Eltahawy was 15, covered from head to toe for the first time in her life and performing the hajj in Mecca, the fifth pillar of Islam, when two men separately sexually assaulted her: one, a fellow pilgrim, and the other, a police officer.

Eltahawy’s family had only recently moved to Saudi Arabia from Britain when these assaults happened. The experience, quite apart from the general environment of her new home, was what, finally, after years of meditation on the events, drove her into the arms of feminism. “What really saddens me,” she says now, “is that I was 15 years old and I was too ashamed to say what happened to me. When you speak to Catholic boys and girls, they will tell you the exact same thing, that they were too ashamed because they didn’t think anyone would believe us. Who would believe that a priest is raping a boy or girl? And who would believe that while I was performing the fifth pillar of my religion in its holiest site, I was sexually assaulted, twice? No one would believe that. I did nothing to be ashamed of, but this is how we’re socialised by the patriarchy.”

Eltahawy continued to wear the hijab – to hide her shame, she says – before casting it off in a calculated political act when she was 26. Most women begin to wear the hijab after the pilgrimage to Mecca as a sign of piety. Her mother, her role model for equality, ambition and professionalism, did and begged her daughter not to discard it. In Islam, removing the hijab once you’ve started to wear it is worse than never having worn it at all. For Mona, however, the hijab wasn’t about piety; it was camouflage.

“You can’t win. You’re fucked whatever you do, you’re fucked,” says Eltahawy. “But this is when I began to piece everything together. I was looking around me and saying: ‘Okay, I am dressed the way you tell me I should be dressed and I’m still being sexually assaulted when I go out. When we would go shopping, to the market, all of this stuff happens and this is not protecting me. Nothing is protecting me.’”

Eltahawy says there were subtle warning signs early on, mild disparities in attitudes between the sexes. When she was young, her family moved to Britain from Egypt after both her mother and father won scholarships for postgraduate study at the University of London. Her teachers in England would ask what her father did: “And I would answer, ‘Both my parents are doctors and both my parents are the reason we moved to London so that both my parents could get a PhD,’ ” Eltahawy says with emphasis. “It didn’t even occur to them we were not all just following my father around. And they were working women themselves.”

Despite this awareness, the denouement didn’t come until she was at university in Saudi Arabia, just 19 years old, and discovered a secret cache of feminist books. “This is 1986-87 in Saudi Arabia,” says Eltahawy. “There wasn’t, at the time, and there still isn’t, a gender and women’s studies department, right? So, this was some kind of renegade librarian or professor who put these books on the shelves. And they saved my mind.”

Today, Mona Eltahawy is famous as the wild, red-haired, sweary-mouthed warrior who fights against the political repression and the day-to-day harassment of women everywhere. She is a natural leader: her speech is intense, fluent, strategic and persuasive. Her rallying cry, which comes constantly from both her pen and her mouth, is: “Fuck the patriarchy!” With repetition, the phrase becomes less and less like teenage rebellion and more and more powerful. Something akin to ¡No pasarán! during the Spanish Civil War, first uttered in a speech by Dolores Ibárruri, a member of the Communist Party who was, as it happens, a woman.

Last year, Eltahawy had physical revenge on those Egyptian creeps. She was 50, wearing jeans and a tank top at a Toronto nightclub, when a man assaulted her on the dance floor. “I had exactly two thoughts: ‘You’ve got to be fucking kidding me’ and ‘This is still happening?’” she writes in her new book, The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls. This time she tackled the aggressor to the floor, sat on him and punched him repeatedly. Her partner, her “beloved” as she calls him in the book, stopped two men beside him who were moving to break it up. “She’s got this,” he told them, confidently.

Eltahawy’s first book, a powerful examination of the status of Muslim women, was called Headscarves and Hymens, though the title was its least provocative part. And those author-mentors from the secret university shelf – Egyptian feminists, Moroccan feminists, women of her own background – loomed large. Seven Necessary Sins is split into seven chapters, titled “Anger”, “Attention”, “Profanity”, “Ambition”, “Power”, “Violence” and “Lust”: all the sentiments forbidden to decent women everywhere, in the individualistic West as well as in highly traditional religious societies.

“My new book is a reminder that the most dangerous ideology in the world today is patriarchy,” she says. “And that is the case whether you’re in Australia, where you have a parliamentary democracy, or the United States, where we have a two-party system, or the United Kingdom, where they have a constitutional monarchy, or Saudi Arabia, where they have an absolute and hereditary monarchy, or Israel, which calls itself the Jewish state, or Egypt, which has been under military dictatorship since 1952, or China, which has been under Communist Party rule for the past 70 years. All of these countries have different political make-ups. Some of them are theologies, some of them are communist, some of them are capitalist. But here’s the one thing that connects Australia to China to Saudi Arabia to the United States to Egypt to Israel to Argentina – it’s patriarchy.”

Eltahawy calls the patriarchy an “octopus” – something with many tentacles radiating from an intelligent, organising brain. It uses the tools at its disposal. In some countries that tool is racism, in others capitalism or religion. But misogyny animates central command. “The quickest way for these men in power to show their power, to flex their muscles, is over the bodies of women,” she says.

We talk about women driving in Saudi Arabia and going to soccer matches in Iran, the return of anti-abortion laws in the US and the insults that independent-minded women in politics endure there (and here in Australia). We discuss many examples in furious agreement. But she draws a firm line beyond which I, as a white woman, cannot trespass. I tell her of my visceral reaction against seeing women, not in headscarves that I barely notice, but behind niqabs in Saudi Arabia or the blue burqas with mesh-covered eye slits in Afghanistan. I try to describe to her a combination of political outrage, shame at diminishment and physical claustrophobia that I feel, as a fellow member of our sex.

Eltahawy pauses and then enters, gently at first, into a reasoned denunciation of the attitudes of women like me. “I’m glad we’re having the conversation,” she says, “and I’m going to say this in the most loving way possible, Miriam…” Her voice is quiet at first, then begins a climb back up.

“It doesn’t matter how you feel about the burqa because it’s not about you,” she says. “Your feelings about the burqa will do absolutely nothing for the women in the burqa. What I urge you to do is take those feelings of discomfort that the burqa and the niqab trigger in you and interrogate the ways that you can change your own community, where you can actually have an impact. Leave the burqa to me and other Muslim women.”

She refers to white women at her talks who sometimes say how awful they feel for women in the niqab in 40-degree heat, who want to say to them, “Aren’t you hot?” Eltahawy reaches a declamatory pitch: “And I’m like, are you fucking kidding me? Don’t ever do that! Of course she’s hot, we’re all fucking hot in 40 degrees Centigrade! But what gives anyone the right to go up to someone like that and interrogate them about something that does not impact this other person at all?”

She’s right, of course.

“As a Muslim woman, that is my issue,” Eltahawy says, deftly pivoting to Australian politics. “For you, in Australia, it would be your prime minister. You have people like Pauline Hanson and your current prime minister, and the man who was behind the massacre in Christchurch, an Australian man who was plugged in on a terrible white supremacy group in Australia, with its manifesto.”

Eltahawy speaks as a member of Western society, from the comfort of being an American citizen who lives in Canada with her partner, Bob Rutledge, an astrophysicist at McGill University whom she met on Twitter. While she is trying to pull the Muslim world out of its misogynistic traditions, she is also trying to stop recidivism in the West. “It’s a reminder that history is not linear,” she says when we discuss abortion rights. “Just because we achieve progress in something, it doesn’t mean that it’s going to continue progressing.”

She talks about Donald Trump and Boris Johnson and Viktor Orbán and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. And Jair Bolsonaro and his tiff with Emmanuel Macron: “You’ve got politicians who could do something about [climate change] and they’re fucking arguing over whose wife is prettier!” She continues: “One of the main messages of my book is that if we’re going to fight patriarchy around the world, we have to see how patriarchy manifests around the world,” she says. “You can see what’s happening in Australia today. They’re taking away your rights over your own body, rights that you took for granted for so long.”

Hers is a unique perspective on intersectionality. She was born in Port Said, Egypt, and continues to do the hard yards as an Egyptian dissident. During the Arab Spring in 2011, she participated in the Tahrir Square demonstrations that toppled the then Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak. At the time, Tahrir Square was becoming notorious for the sexual attacks on women there, even as the crowd was calling for political freedoms. Eltahawy was seized and beaten by riot police, then blindfolded and interrogated for several hours in prison. Her left forearm and right hand were broken. She, a writer, had to wear casts on both for six weeks. “But I was lucky,” she writes in Seven Necessary Sins. “I was alive – albeit with broken bones and a sexual assault – and I was free. Neither would have been the case were I not who I am.”

She identifies as a woman of colour, a Muslim and a feminist, and is deeply sympathetic to the LGBTQIA community, too – everything white supremacy, the apogee of the patriarchy, is against. She started work on The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls after creating the Twitter hashtag #MosqueMeToo for her teenage assaults. She has a powerful voice on the platform, with well over 300,000 followers. On the heels of #MosqueMeToo came another hashtag, #IBeatMyAssaulter, which she coined after the Toronto nightclub brawl. Both went viral.

She feels she is between a rock and a hard place. “The rock is the right-wing racists and Islamophobes who pretend to care about Muslim women and they don’t give a fuck about Muslim women. They want to use this fake concern to demonise Muslims, and especially Muslim men,” she says. “The hard place is the so-called community that wants to silence Muslim women and tells me, when I want to speak out about these things, to shut up because I’m giving ammunition to the racists and the Islamophobes. All they want to do is defend Muslim men.

“So I say ‘fuck you’ to the rock and ‘fuck you’ to the hard place, because neither the rock nor the hard place gives a fuck about Muslim women.”

The final pages of her book are devoted to the rising generation, the teenagers who have taken up the fight against the patriarchy: Rahaf Mohammed, who was 18 years old when she escaped gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia and received asylum in Canada; and climate activist Greta Thunberg, who is 16. Eltahawy mocks the “middle-aged white men” who are obsessed with trying to humiliate Thunberg.

“These men who rule our countries cannot conceive of the fact that these teenage girls have power,” she says. “These teenage girls know how to fight the patriarchy. These teenage girls are revolutionaries.”

Mona Eltahawy will be at Broadside, the Wheeler Centre’s new feminist ideas festival, as well as the UNSW Centre for Ideas talks series, UNTHINKABLE, in November.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 21, 2019 as "Fiery resistance". Subscribe here.

Miriam Cosic
is a Sydney-based journalist, critic and author.