Inspiring Thursday: Mona Eltahawy
“It would take (…) years and feminism — and multiple (…) times when my body was groped, pinched and touched without my permission during the nine years that I wore hijab — to know unwaveringly that sexual assault has nothing to do with how you’re dressed. It has everything to do with the predator who assaults you.”
Egyptian-American feminist Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning journalist, author, and speaker based in New York and Cairo. She was born August 1st 1967 in Port Said in Egypt. In 1992, she graduated from the American University in Cairo with a degree in mass communication with a specialisation in journalism. Among other jobs, she has worked as a columnist for many years, writing for papers such as The Washington Post, New York Times, and The Guardian. She also worked as a correspondent for Reuters News Agency in both Cairo and Jerusalem.
When she was 7 years old, she moved to the UK with her family. Her parents met at medical school and both have a PhD in medicine. Her parents’ relationship was based on this status of equality through education, which served as a great example for Mona and her siblings. When she turned 15, her family relocated to Saudi Arabia, which was a difficult time for her. In many respects, Saudi Arabia is a contrast to the place she had moved from, and at that age “you’ve got hormones and everything exploding”, as Eltahawy says, which only magnified the challenging transition.
After several episodes of sexual assault during the Muslim pilgrimage at Islam’s holy site in Mecca, Eltahawy decided to start wearing hijab when she was 15. At this crowded event, she experienced being groped by a man as well as a Saudi police officer. It was not until she was older and more mature that she understood that these men had actually used “the sanctity of a sacred space to ensure the silence of their victim”. At the age of 15, she did not have the emotional capacity to confront any of the men who assaulted her; instead she burst into tears and coped by covering her body. Years later, Sabica Khan, a young Pakistani woman, wrote a Facebook post, telling a similar story of sexual harassment at the holy site, and hundreds of women followed her example and told their own stories online. To support the women, Eltahawy tweeted about her own story with the hashtag #MosqueMeToo, which went viral.
In November 2011, Eltahawy participated in the Egyption revolution riots and ended up getting arrested by the Egyptian riot police. She was then detained for 12 hours, beaten, sexually assaulted, and threatened with gang rape. Her left arm and her right hand were also broken by the police officers. While she was in custody, she managed to write a post on Twitter about her critical situation, and a new hashtag, #FreeMona, was quickly circulated, ensuring that her story was heard, and due to her platform as a journalist, alongside her dual citizenship, she was freed from detention. The episode left her angry and broken, but, at the same time, she recognised that she had been fortunate; had she been an uknown Egyptian woman, the situation could have been much worse for her and ended with gang rape and, possibly, murder.
After the episode, she was determined to speak up about the Egyptian regime and its mistreatment of women. When her bones finally healed, she decided to celebrate it by dying her hair red and getting tattoos where her cast had been. On the right arm, she has the motif of Sekhmet – the Egyptian goddess of retribution and sex – on the left arm she has a tattoo with the name of the street where the protest took place.
In 2015, her book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution was published. The book is based on her article Why Do They Hate Us, which she wrote for Foreign Policy in 2012. The article addresses misogyny in Arab society.
One of Mona Eltahawy’s key messages is that “angry women are free women”. By this statement, she believes that we need to teach, cherish, and nurture the anger within girls from a young age, and recognise the power of rage. She continues to say that, for a long time, people have used words like “feminazi”, “ballbreaker”, and “bitch” to describe women like herself – outspoken and angry women – in an effort to insult them.
“I want to bottle-feed rage to every baby girl so that it fortifies her bones and muscles. I want her to flex, and feel the power growing inside her as she herself grows from a child into a young woman.”
By Ida Larsen, WAVE Intern