“We’re in a global feminist moment”: Mona Eltahawy on why men hate us, and how they love us

Mona Eltahawy
Mona Eltahawy
Image: Flickr/PEN American Center
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Egyptian writer and feminist Mona Eltahawy was brutally attacked by police forces in 2011 while protesting Egypt’s post-Mubarak military regime. Her subsequent essay Why do they hate us? published in Foreign Policy in April 2012, considers brutality against women across the Arab world and calls for a new revolution. “Amina Filali — the 16-year-old Moroccan girl who drank poison after she was forced to marry, and beaten by, her rapist — is our Bouazizi,”  wrote Eltahawy, referring to the Tunisian fruit vendor whose self-immolation catalyzed early anti-government protests in North Africa. That essay, tellingly retitled as an answer instead of a question (“Why they hate us”) is the first chapter of Eltahawy’s new book, Headscarves and Hymens.

Why did you start your book by talking about hate?

For the longest time, I struggled to explain why, after Tahrir Square, were women [protestors] subjected to virginity tests? Why did women keep getting assaulted and why was I assaulted? And why was more anger directed toward the women who exposed the military’s virginity tests than toward the military for doing those tests?

And the answer is: it’s hate—that’s what misogyny is!

But it’s not just hate; love—or what we construe as love—can also be problematic for women, right?

Sure. Where I’m from, there’s this constructed notion of masculinity in which the man says: “I’m a man, and I’m going to protect you. And if I can’t protect you, then there’s something wrong.” After I was assaulted in Tahrir Square, I got all these messages from Egyptian men like “Dear Sister Mona, I am so sorry for what happened to you. I will not rest until I restore your honor. Forgive me for allowing this to happen. Your brother so-and-so.”

But I would write back and say “Dear Brother So-and-so, first of all you owe me no apology. And second of all, my honor is intact. But together, men and women can restore Egypt’s honor.”

So what should men and women do?

We often say to men: “Don’t harass women women, don’t sexually assault women because she could be your sister, your mother, your whatever, right? I think is that Egyptians have to start looking at men in the street as our boyfriends, our brothers, our fathers, instead.

Remember that, in front of us, they’re perfectly well behaved, but if we have 100% of women and girls in Egypt facing sexual harassment, then an incredibly high number of men must be doing it! We have to start having conversations with the people in our lives, instead of saying “Our men are good,” or invoking this class argument, like “Oh it’s just the uneducated men from the poor neighborhoods who are doing it.”

Speaking of what women should do, you are famously anti-veil…

The more women cover up, the more it lets men off the hook from behaving well.

Some forms of veil are justified by the idea that you’re not tempting men. Well how about men just behaving, and keeping their hands to yourselves? How about instead of criticizing how I dress, respecting me and my right to the public space?

It’s like the conversation about [date rape] here in the US, where the women are told, “Don’t be too drunk.” But why not tell men, “Don’t rape”? It’s that simple, you know? That’s why I say misogyny lies on a global spectrum.

Why is your book only published in the West, and not in Arabic?

Eventually I want it to be translated into Arabic, but I’m planting this book as a flag on the global spectrum of misogyny. I think we’re going through a global feminist moment.

Look at the protests in India after the Delhi gang rape. In China after International Women’s Day, ten feminists were arrested and five are still in jail! And in Afghanistan, after that woman Farkhada was lynched, women in Kabul insisted on burying her. That’s even though, according to Islamic burial traditions, men bury everyone. In Turkey, too, women buried a woman. She was a victim of a rape and a murder, and then women defied the local imam, telling their community “No man will touch her, ever again.”

Women of color have always been kind of boxed in by the idea that the more you talk about the misogyny of your own community; the more you make that community look bad. So we’ve constantly had to struggle with the question, “Do I fight the racism or the sexism?” But today, I’m seeing so many women of color plant their own flags and say, “You know what, I’m going to fight both.”

Your book cites iconic feminists thinkers from many parts of the world. Who would you encourage Western readers to get to know?

I try to name drop famous feminist women of my own heritage, which goes all the way back to Khadija, first wife of the prophet Mohammed and the first person to become a Muslim. She was his employer, and she was, I think, twice-divorced and once widowed. She proposed to Mohammed when he was 25 and she was 40! She’s a strong woman in our heritage, but hardly anyone ever talks about her.

So how come we don’t remember what the prophet did with Khadija? With massive unemployment of young men in our region, why don’t clerics encourage them to marry their female bosses? They should tell men to marry the kind of woman who can say, “You know what? I’ll take care of you.”