In this CairoScene exclusive, our resident feminist Sally Sampson sits down with journalist, feminist and activist Mona ElTahawy to talk sexual harassment, inequality, hijabs and hymens...
My story begins in March 2012 in Paris. I’d stopped by there for a few days to visit my uncle while on my way back to Egypt, after having lived in London for over two years.
Gathered around the dining room table in my uncle’s house, my uncle did what he’s always done best: sit quietly and listen to what I have to say…with a slight smile on his face. Not a sarcastic smile; just the sort of smile that may come to your face if you were ever made to witness something inexplicable for the first time. Like someone trying to resuscitate a dodo.
I sat there passionately talking about the plight of women in the Middle East and in the world; about how I wanted to help empower the women in my country and be part of the Arab Women’s Spring that I kept reading about everywhere.
And when I finally paused to take a breath, my uncle turned his laptop to me and said oh-so-casually: “There’s something I want you to see!”
It was there that I was first introduced to journalist, feminist and overall rebel, Mona Eltahawy. She was being interviewed by Bill Maher on the Egyptian revolution and once I’d finished watching the clip, I’m not going to lie, I had the biggest smile on my face. It was like they’d actually managed to resuscitate the dodo… and my uncle observing this shrewdly made a suggestion:
“‘I think you need to try and contact her. It looks like you two probably have a lot in common!”
Fast-forward to January 2014 and there I am sitting at Left Bank in Zamalek, chatting away with Mona Eltahawy. We spend hours just talking about women’s issues, the current political climate, her background, her plans for the future and all through this I can’t help but stop, think of my uncle and smile at how right he was: Mona and myself, it turns out, do have a lot in common!
I was incredibly excited to make contact with Mona in the first place, but I was even more excited when she actually agreed to a sit-down with me so that I could get to know more about her and hear her take on the position of women in Egypt today.
I am very interested in your journey. And of course, in how bold and fearless you are. Were you always like that?
Well it’s been a process. I lived in London when I was very young and I remember people would often ask me ‘What do your parents do?’ and I would answer and say that they were both doctors. This often surprised them. For me, it was interesting to see how the stereotype that they had in their minds of what Arab women were expected to do and the reality of my family’s situation didn’t add up. They had this image of a woman wearing full niqab, sitting at home, which does exist of course, but that’s not every Arab or Egyptian woman out there.
After living in London, however, we ended up moving to Saudi Arabia, which was a complete change as you can imagine. And we lived in Jeddah, which is one of the more liberal areas supposedly. But, it was there that I saw my mother who had been a doctor and an independent woman while we were in London, all of a sudden unable to drive a car or go somewhere without my father by her side to accompany her and that definitely put a lot of things into perspective for me.
Not only that, but after being in Saudi Arabia for a few years, I took the decision to wear the veil which, though it was my personal decision at the time, was nevertheless a decision that was made very much against the gradient and the trends of the time. In Egypt, not a lot of women or girls were wearing the veil at all, but I chose to wear it and I continued to wear it even after my family and I moved back to Egypt a few years later. It was during this time that I began to read for a lot of Islamic scholars, many of whom were women, and I eventually came to the decision to take off the veil. It wasn’t a rash decision; in fact it took me eight years to take it off. And in a similar way, everything about where I am now has been a gradual process.
When was the first time that you became aware of women’s issues and what sparked you to do something about them?
Well I became aware of what sexual harassment was for the first time when I was living in Saudi Arabia. And it happened in the most shocking way too. My family and I had travelled to Mecca to take part in the Hajj and there at one of the holiest places in the world as far as Islam is concerned, and as we were going round the Ka’aba, a man behind me grabbed my ass. I froze and couldn’t say anything. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before and it took me a long time to be able to even talk about it. Not only that, but as I went forward to kiss the Black Stone of the Ka’aba, the man that was sitting there letting people come forth one by one, grabbed my breast. I was beside myself and completely traumatised, but looking back, it was then that I clocked that there really was an issue there that needed to be tackled.
I became obsessed and I used spend a lot of time reading. I read books for many female authors; numerous female Muslim authors, in fact, and it was through my readings and my experience that I slowly built up my opinions and formed the voice that I have now regarding some key gender issues of our time.
What do you consider some of the greatest injustices against women in Egypt at the moment?
Well there are many, but if we’re going to talk about injustice, let’s talk about female genital mutilation (FGM), for example. The removal of the clitoris which is the only organ, in either the male or the female body, that is there for the sole purpose of pleasure. The percentage of women who have undergone FGM in Egypt is staggeringly high and it all stems from this idea in Egyptian culture that a woman should not be allowed to feel any form of sexual pleasure, otherwise she’s indecent and immoral. Even the word for FGM in Arabic ‘Tat-heer’ which means ‘purification’ says it all and it’s ridiculous.
It’s all built on double-standards and hypocrisy really because the reality is that men are allowed to go out and have multiple sexual experiences before they are married, whereas a woman is expected to remain a virgin in every sense of the word. Until her wedding night that is when she is supposedly then expected to transform into this sex goddess, but how can that happen when her whole life she’s been taught that sex and sexual pleasure is wrong? And it gets worse! Even, if she does enjoy her first time on her wedding night, by some miracle, because it can be quite a traumatising experience for many women who don’t know what to expect, she’s in danger of being considered a slut or a whore because then the guy wonders if she’s been with someone before him. So she really can’t win.
And not only does FGM prove to be a gross injustice towards women, but it’s unfair to men also, because if a man’s wife is unable to be as involved in the sexual act as he is and he can’t stimulate her, it can make him feel inadequate, which can have other repercussions on their relationship
How do you feel the current political climate has impacted the women’s spring in Egypt?
Well politically in Egypt at the moment, all we are doing is changing leaders. Going from one fascist dictator to the next because, even though there has been a revolution on the streets, there has yet to be a revolution in the minds of the Egyptian people. What we need is a social sexual revolution to take place from the inside out and only when this happens, will Egypt truly flourish, but it is still a work in progress.
But even now the shift has begun, and for many women in particular, who are now actively involved in political marches and the sort which makes me optimistic for the future. I saw how being a woman and participating in the first revolution in 2011 could change you. I could see it in the eyes of the women around me at Mostafa Mahmoud. It changes you to actively be a part of shaping the future of your country.
Even the Muslim Brotherhood, who at that time condemned women who went out to take part in the protests and labelled them as disrespectful or indecent, are currently encouraging women to take part in their marches. And regardless of their reasons for doing so, you cannot convince me that those women and girls now marching, raising their voices and taking part in what's happening will ever be able to go and take a backseat ever again, or be told that they cannot have a say in the future. And this is part of the social sexual revolution that I’m talking about.
The revolution is within us and it is still ongoing.
What advice do you have to give to women/girls in Egypt, who’ve been raised in this culture of silence and repression and who struggle to break out of it?
Well I would have to say that we all need to start looking at feminism as a spectrum and a broad spectrum at that. So it’s not about everyone doing identical things. It’s about every single person within that spectrum doing what they feel like they can do within their particular sphere.
How about women/girls who get harassed in the streets? Would you encourage them to speak out and respond to their harassers?
I would certainly say exercise caution. I would hate to tell someone to respond or fight back and for them to get hurt in some way or another. Because yes, it can be unsafe, you can’t always know how the other person will respond and unfortunately, the legal system does not provide enough protection for girls in that way. In fact, the blame often falls on girls who’ve been harassed and women are often held responsible for somehow ‘provoking’ their harassers. And there have been instances also where girls have answered back and paid the price for it, where the other person in turn beat them up or even killed them.
So yes, exercise caution, but even I sometimes, can’t help but respond and often I do find that the men are completely taken aback by it. There have been certain instances where I have deliberately yelled back and reversed some of the obscenities that the men harassing me have shouted out. I’ve recently taken to reversing the insult and calling out ‘Sharmoot!’ at them and the look of absolute shock on their faces is priceless! I love it!
Lots of men feel alienated by feminism. Why do you think feminism is a just as much a man’s issue as well as a woman’s?
Because patriarchy (which is what we’re against, not men) does not just affect women; it affects everyone in the society, including the men. Patriarchy is so damaging to men because it dictates that a man is not allowed to have feelings, for example. A man who cries is not considered manly. And that kind of repression has so many effects in the long term.
And I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but there was this advert a while ago that was made to encourage girls to wear the Hijab and what it portrayed was a lollipop without its plastic wrapper on, covered in flies and another lollipop with its wrapper intact with fewer flies around it. The idea behind the ad was that a girl should cover up or wear the Hijab in order to keep men away. Now aside from the fact that a woman is depicted as this sexual object that you lick, how are men supposed to feel about themselves when they are likened to flies? What does that say about them?
So, this kind of thinking affects everyone in society, including the men.
On Google search, when you look up ‘Mona Eltahawy’, among the related searches that appears is Aliaa El Mahdy. What do you think of Aliaa El Mahdy and the controversy that surrounds her?
I thought Aliaa El Mahdy’s initial statement was extremely powerful. Here was this girl who took off her clothes in her parents’ home to make a statement against the sexual hypocrisy and double standards in the society and posted a photo of that on her blog. She did not go around publicising the photo; it was people who went to her personal blog seeking it out that made it the sensation that it became, which in itself said a lot.
I don’t think that anything she’s done after that was as powerful as that initial statement, however.
How do you feel about being perceived as ‘radical’?
Here’s the thing: all along, I’ve never said that I speak for anyone but myself. But I’ve always told my side of the story and given my opinion, because that’s what I do. And I don’t make any apologies for my opinions, so if that makes me a radical or a troublemaker, then I am fine with being called just that.
I understand that you have a new book in the works as well. What can you tell me about it?
Well it’s hopefully going to be called ‘Headscarves and Hymens’ and talks about the social sexual revolution that is necessary in our society, as I was saying earlier. And we’re hoping that it will be ready for release later on this year.