Mona Eltahawy: Goddess of Solidarity

Article published on 28 April 2017 on (now closed)

When people spew biased discourses about Muslims – putting more than a billion people spread across the planet into one tiny box for their own comfort – I do two things: I show them a picture of my maternal grandmother, praying in her Rolling Stones tongue and lips logo T-Shirt, and I quote Mona Eltahawy: Either from her excellent book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution or from one of her many talks and tweets that every day, add more weapons to my Muslim woman toolbox to fight against harmful perspectives of who I am and who I can be. And thanks to Mona Eltahawy, I have an array of wonderful tools to play with.

Sekhmet, the ancient Egyptian goddess of retribution and sex, adorns the inside of one of Eltahawy’s forearms, while ‘Mohamed Mahmoud’ the name of the street where she was attacked in November 2011 during the Egyptian revolution, next to the word ‘freedom’, defy the scars that were left there when she was sexually assaulted by the police. They broke both of her now tattooed arms. In 2012, Eltahawy wrote about this violent assault in a powerful piece for Foreign Policy, Why Do They Hate Us? which she expanded into her book Headscarves and Hymens. Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution.

While Headscarves and Hymens offers a comprehensive account of internalized misogyny, sexual harassment, domestic violence, gender politics and women’s rights, leaning on facts and the painful stories of so many women, it is also a deeply personal book. Mona Eltahawy’s rage for justice informs each sentence of her work, and because she speaks from an authentic place, she shakes you to the core. While the focus of Headscarves and Hymens is on the Middle East, Eltahawy manages to bring the scope of the book to a much wider geographical level, reminding us that misogyny is everywhere, and that our battle against patriarchy is global. 

One story of domestic violence from Lebanon catapulted me to Turkey, where the police is also known for its capacity to face a woman covered in bruises and on the verge of death with a pseudo-impartial ‘we cannot interfere in a family matter’ stance. My heart aches when I read Eltahawy’s words saying that “many women expect to be beaten”, because I know she is right, I recognize that terrible cycle that begins inside the home within so many patriarchal cultures. In Turkish, the word elegy (ağıt) is described in the Turkish Language Association’s dictionary as follows: on one line, it is a lament or elegy for someone departed, and on the next one, it is a lament for a bride. For some women, marriage can be equal to death. That’s how institutionalized misogyny is in many countries across our world. 

As an Egyptian-American, Eltahawy is in a perfect position to speak up against anyone who tries to silence Muslim women, whether it comes from within or outside of Muslim communities, especially in the West where discourses portraying Muslims as a monolithic entity, and reducing Muslim women to their headscarves arise every day. 

 “I am here to confuse you,” Eltahawy says in a TED talk on Muslim women’s image and bodies. While she probably manages to confuse many people who feed on stereotypical perspectives on what it may mean to be a Muslim or about Islam in general, she offers me – and I would imagine many Muslim women like myself – clarity. 

Eltahawy is an empowering voice for countless people through all the work she does, also beyond her writing, fighting daily against exclusion, undemocratic practices and ideas, globally. She uses Twitter in an insightful way to raise awareness on key issues such as female genital mutilation or violence against women and LGBTQ, and, to foster solidarity. While doing so, she is also forced to – such is the unfortunate reality of Twitter – respond to the numerous trolls that try to silence her daily. But she has thick skin, remember, she has Sekhmet on her forearm, and a lot of rage inside. 

One recent example of how she uses Twitter to gather stories and invite women to speak out is #DearSister. After she received an e-mail from a stranger lecturing her on her views, hidden behind the patronizing “dear sister, I say these things with greatest certitude of your Islam”, ‘Sister Mona’ masterfully took on Twitter to start a conversation. Within hours, thousands of women responded with their own experiences of being lectured by their “brothers”. Here again, Eltahawy’s approach revealed the many frustrations of Muslim women without ever turning them into victims. 

This use of Twitter as a tool to engage in a conversation with as many people as possible while also expressing her own views is extremely constructive. Last month, Eltahawy was in Rwanda with the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement (EGAM) to participate to a commemoration of the Rwandan genocide. “I am here to learn from and show solidarity to genocide survivors,” she wrote on Twitter, “Their strength and insistence on justice and reconciliation are incredible.” 

The year before, she was in Bosnia and Herzegovina, visiting a former rape camp, raising awareness on the horrors perpetuated by a war that took place only a couple of decades ago. Weaving those stories together requires much effort, it would be a lot easier to sling a few slogans and write articles here and there, feeding into the ongoing polarized discourses that keep arising in our world. Eltahawy knows better than that. She works every day to keep away from empty portrayals.

I believe Mona Eltahawy is one of the most important feminist voices in the world today. She manages to link different issues around feminism from across the globe, moving away from the toxic West vs East dichotomy, showing that identity is fluid and complex. She keeps shaking people’s assumptions, always remaining critical of all sides, because at the very core of her work is a fight against injustice. She is not afraid to call out the hypocrisy of the left that says she might be feeding extreme right discourses. She knows that is a possibility, which is why she shouts loud and clear that she won’t allow any racist and bigot – no matter where they are from – to use her discourse to spread more hatred. 

“Girls and women are forced to be cultural vectors. Their bodies are the medium upon which culture is engraved, be it through headscarves or cutting. But women are too often barred from authoring the culture that marks them – and only by refusing misogynistic culture can they become the authors of their own lives,” Eltahawy writes in Headscarves and Hymens. While she places herself at the center of the issues she tackles, writing from a deeply sincere place, she gives enormous space to voices around her – online and offline – and creates a platform for many people to express their own stories.

In Headscarves and Hymens, Eltahawy mentions that a male editor once tried to dissuade her from the personal, asking her bluntly who might care about what happened to her. “The most subversive thing a woman can do is to talk about her life as it really matters. It does,” she writes. It does indeed. Every single word Eltahawy utters brings us one step closer to equality. But as she also highlights in her book and her discourse in general, change must come from the inside – we, women; we women with Muslim heritage – only we can make a difference inside the societies that we are part of. 

“Home is where the hurt is, and home is where we must start to heal.” Mona Eltahawy gives me the strength to do that, unapologetically, and I encourage every woman and man out there who is searching for ways to express their voice to pick up this book, and wake their inner resilience to fight against the patriarchy.