Mona Eltahawy: “I Want Patriarchy to Fear Feminism”

As journalists fight for their freedom and safety around the world, that same fight continues for women. Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian American journalist and activist, and a pioneer of #MosqueMeToo, which brought the #MeToo movement to the Muslim world. She joins Michel Martin to explain her book “The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls,” which calls for a radical challenge to the status quo.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: As journalists fight for their freedom and safety around the world, that same fight continues for women around the world. And Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-American journalist and activist. And she’s a pioneer of #MosqueMeToo which brought the #MeToo movement to the Arab world. But in her new book, “The Seven Necessary Sins For Women And Girls”, she speaks to America and she calls for a radical challenge to the status quo. She sat down with our Michel Martin to talk about it.

MICHEL MARTIN, CONTRIBUTOR: One of the things that distinguishes your work and has for years now is you can do the geopolitical analysis with the best of them but you are a person who makes the connection between what’s going on politically all over the world and what happens in the home, I mean even in the bedroom. And so when is it that you made the connection between the personal and the political, do you remember?

MONA ELTAHAWY, AUTHOR, THE SEVEN NECESSAR SINS FOR WOMEN AND GIRLS: I think it was most foremost in my mind during the Egyptian revolution because I was so excited when the Egyptian revolution happened. It was something that I had dreamed of for the greater part of my life with so many other Egyptians because I knew we deserved to be free. So I was so ecstatic when the Egyptian revolution started after Tunisia and then the revolutions and uprisings in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa, the parts of the world where I’m from. And then I thought, you know, these revolutions about dignity and freedom, they’re going to free everybody, including women. And then I heard about the so-called virginity tests that the Egyptian military subjected Egyptian female revolutionaries to and I thought hold on a minute. So here are these women risking their lives and they are sexually assaulted by the military? Absolutely nothing happened, Michel, and I thought, wow, this is it. This is what’s wrong with so many so- called revolutions.

MARTIN: Really, how come? I mean how come that? Why that?

ELTAHAWY: Because when we started to complain as Egyptian women that how can you be silent in the face of the military assaulting women, how can you be silent about gender equality, where is gender equality in your revolution. I was told and so many other women were told this is not the time. We have to fight torture. We have to fight military dictatorship. We have to fight a whole list of things. We were told to wait. Martin Luther King Jr., his letter from a Birmingham jail when he said when you’re told to wait, that usually means it’s never going to happen. And that’s something that everyone who fights for freedom understands very well. So when Egyptian men were telling Egyptian women wait, I was like, OK, now this is where the personal and political are connected. Because I understood then that the men were fighting the state for their own freedom from the state but they didn’t understand that the state and the street, public spaces, and the home together oppress women.

MARTIN: This led to your book “the Seven” — which you call “The Seven Necessary Sins For Women And Girls”, anger, attention, profanity, ambition, power, violence, lust. Obviously, you’re playing on the seven deadly sins and so forth.


MARTIN: But how did you come up with this idea?

ELTAHAWY: I think it all crystallized in February of 2017, it would be, or is it 2018. 2018, because I finished this book last year. So in early February, I heard that a young Pakistani woman called Sabika had posted on Facebook that she had been sexually assaulted during the Muslim pilgrimage in Mecca, which is in Saudi Arabia. And Mecca in Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam. It’s the holiest site for Muslims around the world. It’s the site toward which Muslims pray five times a day. And the pilgrimage for Muslims is the fifth of the five pillars of Islam. She got a lot of support but she was also told she was a liar. And this really, really (inaudible) me because when I was 15 years old in 1982, my family went to perform the first of several Hajj pilgrimages that I have been on. And I was sexually assaulted twice. And it was a very traumatic experience for me that I buried and kept for years. Because to be sexually assaulted in the holiest site of your religion as you’re performing the fifth pillar of your religion breaks something in you. It broke something in me that took years.

MARTIN: Forgive me for interrupting, but you didn’t tell anyone?

ELTAHAWY: No, I couldn’t. I was 15 years old. I mean what I usually connect this to, is all those children who was sexually abused by priests. And the power that the priests held over these children, because this is what I’m talking about essentially. I’m not saying that this is something that was specific to an Islamic experience, that was Specific to a Muslim holy site. What I’m saying is that there is something about the sanctity of the place as there is about the sanctity of the power that a priest holds over his flock, his congregation, that makes the sexual abuse if possible even more painful, because you’re in awe of the place and you’re there to experience something that is awe-inspiring. And then your spirited experience is ruined by this terrible violation. And then you think to yourself this couldn’t have happened. How could this happen in this space, which is the holiest site for my religion, as I’m sure those children were saying. How can this happen from the priest, who is the person between me and God, you know. So when she wrote that, I once again wrote about my experience to support Sabika and also I wanted to acknowledge Tarana Burke’s #MeToo Movement. Tarana is a black feminist in the U.S. who started #MeToo in 2006. And in 2017, #MeToo took on a more global aspect because of very famous white actresses. You know, as much as I admire those actresses who spoke out about their experience of sexual assault in Hollywood, it became this very rich, white privilege thing. And I know Tarana and I know that that’s not what Tarana meant meant it to be. So I wanted to acknowledge and show solidarity with Tarana’s work and say that this movement is for Muslim women too. And so to show support to Sabika, I said for all the Muslim women out there who feel comfortable sharing their experience of sexual assault in a sacred space, let’s talk under #MosqueMeToo and that went viral. Now, five days later I was in this club in Montreal. And now, I’m 50 years old. Now, when I was in Mecca performing pilgrimage, I was covered from head to toe in Hijab. All you could see was my hands and my face. Fast forward to this club in Montreal. And I went dancing because dancing to me is self-care. I heard so many stories from so many Muslim women under #MosqueMeToo, I wanted to go and dance and just get those stories out because I love to dance. Now, I’m wearing a tank top and jeans and I’m 50 years old. And I’m dancing with my beloved and I feel a hand on my back side.

MARTIN: Not your boyfriend’s?

ELTAHAWY: Not my partner. And I was like wow. I said you’ve got to be kidding me, this is still happening? So now I as working on instinct. At 15, I couldn’t — I burst into tears, I couldn’t speak, I was ashamed. Then in that nightclub in Montreal, I immediately turned around, I could tell who he was because he was moving in a sea of couples. I went up to him. I tugged at his shirt. He fell because he wasn’t expecting this and I sat on him, Michel.

MARTIN: You sat on him?

ELTAHAWY: I sat on him and I punched him around 12 to 15 times. And every time I punched him I was like don’t you ever touch a woman like that again. And every time I thought I was done, I was not done. I continued to punch him and it was glorious.

MARTIN: So that led to the book?

ELTAHAWY: Between those two, I thought, you know what, these are exactly the things that women are told not to want to do or to be. These are the so-called sins, what I called sins. To be angry, to want attention for the message that you have, to want to be profane in a world that keeps insisting that you’re silent and polite and civil, to be violent as a right to defend yourself, as a right to make patriarchy fear us. I insist that patriarchy fears feminism. To be lustful and to say that I own my body. And if I want my body to be in a dance club dancing with my beloved, I own this body. And this I own my body came up because the club manager came up to me to ask me what happened and I explained. And he asked me why didn’t you let your husband take care of it? I was ready to beat him up, because I said to him, first of all, he’s not my husband. And, second of all, this is my body. It’s not his body, I own this body. So that went into lust. So I came up with these seven sins because I wanted a message that would terrify patriarchy. And I wanted this message as a message that I insist is led and spoken of loudest by queer women of color, by queer feminists of color.

MARTIN: I want to read this one passage here about violence. And you say that — I can’t read some of these sentences because there is a lot of profanity in it, which is again one of your seven necessary sins. But you said that imagine if we, editing here, snapped and masked and systematically killed men for no reason at all other than for being men. Imagine this culling starting in one country with five men a week then each week, this imaginary scenario would add more countries and kill more men in each of them, 50 a week, then 100 and then 500. And you go on to sort of say how many men do you think must be killed before patriarchy begins to dismantle, 1,000, 10,000, 1 million? Is it barbaric? Is it savage? Many millions of men have been killed in wars begun by men against other men. Imagine this our declaration of war against patriarchy. Look, obviously in an argument like this any sentence you take out of context can be sort of interpreted in a certain way but I don’t want to go around killing men. I don’t want to kill my son. I don’t want anyone killing my son. I don’t want somebody killing my husband or my cousins. So tell me why you wrote this passage and indeed this whole chapter about violence.

ELTAHAWY: Because every day here in the United States, women who are someone’s mother, daughter, sister, and friend are killed by current or former partners. No one wants their daughter or mother or wife because sometimes it’s ex-partners or friend to be killed just because she’s a woman. And there are three human beings in the United States who are killed just because they’re women by current or former partners. So I want to reverse that and shock people into the realization that this is already happening. This culling is happening to women. And it just seems like the backdrop to our lives, Michel. I also say in that chapter if the news that we listen to every day just had a list of the women who were killed or sexually assaulted or raped today, it would be too much. People wouldn’t be able to take it anymore, and yet it happens. So I’m thinking what is it going to take so that we shake people into the realization that three women every day are killed for no reason other than the fact that they are women. Then I also connect, because like you said I connect the person to the political. And I say liberation movements around the world have always claimed the right to be violent against occupying forces. You know, people get into arguments and they discuss is violence warranted in this instance, and people say yes, because we are fighting for freedom and it’s usually men fighting against other men for the freedom of men. So I’m saying well I consider patriarchy occupying force is actually the oldest occupying force in the world. And I demand my right to liberate myself from this occupying force.

MARTIN: So what does this look like? I mean in this case of the bar, I mean this man put his hands on you so you felt that you were acting in self-defense.


MARTIN: What is the vision then of how everyone else should proceed here?

ELTAHAWY: Well, I call it feminism in 3D. And that is — so it is defying, disobeying and disrupting the patriarchy. Defy, disobey and disrupt. And I’m urging readers of the book, women, girls, non-binary people, people — gender queer people who identify with the message of my book to find ways to defy, disobey and disrupt the patriarchy every day. Now, the violence chapter obviously imagines this very very extreme scenario because I want patriarchy to fear feminism. I’m at a stage right now, especially here in the United States, I find that feminism has become too polite and too sanitized. It’s like the word “resistance.” Since Donald Trump was elected, we see #resistance in so many social media post. What does resistance mean? What does resistance mean when we have a white supremacist president who’s been accused by at least 21 women of sexual assault?

MARTIN: Yes, but the reality of this is your book is global.

ELTAHAWY: Absolutely.

MARTIN: So why are you focusing on the United States here? Is it because you feel that women here have the space to do that and perhaps in some other places, they would be brutalized for these steps and you feel like here in the United States they can do it?

ELTAHAWY: No, I’m focusing on the United States because I want women in the United States to understand that they’re not doing enough. My book takes a global look, and I’d be happy to share global examples with you but I also deliberately question and hold up a mirror to especially white womenin the United States and ask them what are you doing? Because I’ve lived in the United States since the year 2000. And I noticed that it was only since Donald Trump was elected that white women began to be angry. And I watched this with great fascination and I thought, wow, finally angry? Where have you been?

MARTIN: A majority of white women voted for Donald Trump.

ELTAHAWY: Exactly.

MARTIN: So I guess that leads me to my question, clearly sufficient numbers of white women felt that he had a compelling message. They have told us time and time again that they are not — they may be disturbed by his language, they may be discomforted by some of his behavior, but at the end of the day they feel he’s acting in their interests. I’ve spoken to many women, Republican women who have said this to me. It cannot be an anomaly. So what’s your argument to them?

ELTAHAWY: My message to white American women is you are failing at feminism. My book is not for the women who voted for Donald Trump. My book is for the women who didn’t vote for Donald Trump who have suddenly woken up and discovered their anger. And my book says to them do you know how long black women in the United States have been angry, indigenous women in the United States have been angry, women of color, Latinas women in the United States have been angry and then I connect that to the global anger of women around the world. White American feminists for too long have considered themselves and the feminism here in this country the center of the universe, the center of the feminist universe and they’re not.

MARTIN: I think some of them would say that they feel that they are morally led. They would say that this is their religious belief. They might say that this is how they were raised. They might say that they believe this is right and good. It is in the best interests for society. Some women would say, and I believe, truly believe that it’s best for women and men to have complementary roles. And so —

ELTAHAWY: What would I say to them?

MARTIN: Yes, what would you say? I mean —

ELTAHAWY: I would say to them that I might be able to listen to your argument if not for the fact that you voted for a man whose policies have affected so many of us in this country as well as the rest of the world. This president that they voted for, if they claim that this was done out of a moral choice and for the sake of their religious beliefs, is responsible for concentration camps on the border between the United States and Mexico in which children are separated from their families, in which children have died, in which people have kept — people are kept in inhumane conditions. So I do not and I refuse to accept the fact that someone says to me this is my religious belief. Your religious belief and your moral choice is damaging to the entire world and is actively hurting if not leading to the death of so many people. So I do not respect their moral choice.

MARTIN: Point taken. And you’ve already said that this book isn’t really for them.


MARTIN: You’re saying it’s really for people who you feel are too quiet and too polite in their pursuit.

ELTAHAWY: And who want to be civil towards women and men —

MARTIN: Well, let me ask you this, though. Many — one of the central projects of many of the great religions of the world is to tame anger and these hot emotions out of everyone, not just of women. I mean I know that you make the point that these are emotions and feelings that have been denied women particularly. But many of the great religions of the world have sought to tame anger in all people. I mean in the beatitudes, the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus says the meek shall inherit the earth. I guess the question I have for you, Mona, is where is the space for quiet people? Is there space for quiet people in the world that you envision or just not yet?

ELTAHAWY: No, I don’t think this is neither the time nor the space globally for quiet people because we are in a world now that is seeing the rise of global patriarchal authoritarianism. Because when you see Donald Trump, you see Netanyahu in Israel, you see Cece in Egypt, you see the crown prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman, you see various fascist far-right prime ministers and leaders of countries in Europe, so many men around the world who are the antithesis of quiet and who are using religion and who are using this idea that we should be polite and who are using civility to keep us quiet and basically keep their feet on our necks. So I’m Egyptian-American and I’ve got presidents of both my countries who are authoritarians and they use this idea that we have to be polite and civil to maintain their power. And I reject quietness and I reject politeness obviously, because if you look at the cover of my book, it’s the antithesis of what I am.

MARTIN: Mona Eltahawy, thank you so much for talking with us.

ELTAHAWY: Thank you, Michel.

About This Episode EXPAND

Antony Blinken joins Christiane Amanpour to analyze the whistle-blower complaint at the center of the Trump impeachment investigation. Then, former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin gives his perspective on the case and New York Times reporter Declan Walsh discusses threats to journalism. Mona Eltahawy sits down with Michel Martin to explain her book “The Seven Necessary Sins for Women.”