Mona Eltahawy has spent her last decade being impolite on purpose.
Eight years ago, a younger, more polite version of the Egyptian American writer and speaker was in Tahrir Square covering the Egyptian revolution during the Arab Spring when riot police detained and then physically and sexually assaulted her. The incident would mark both the beginning of Eltahawy’s fight against polite activism and her rise as a feminist icon.
Eltahawy has spent the past decade writing about politics and feminism for The New York Times, among other outlets, appearing on TV news and talk shows, and publishing two books, Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution and The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls.
Over time, she’s developed a reputation for telling the patriarchy and its footsoldiers—as she calls the white women who believe in polite feminism—to fuck off, literally. Cursing is a very important aspect of Eltahawy’s feminism; the third chapter in her latest book is titled “profanity.” On Twitter, where Eltahawy is known for telling people to “fuck off, kitten,” she’s amassed a following of over 300,000.
“I will not be civil to those who do not recognize my full humanity,” she explains.
But Eltahawy’s rhetoric is driven by more than shock value. It is rooted in her own horrific sexist experiences across the globe, and her commitment to eradicate them for herself and other women in the future. We spoke to Eltahawy about what the last decade taught her about feminism and what needs to happen in the next decade for a true feminist revolution.
VICE: Take me back to a decade ago. What did your feminism look like and what brought you there?
MONA ELTAHAWY: I always say I was traumatized into feminism. I go all the way back to when my family moved from Cairo to London, and then we moved from the U.K. to Saudi Arabia and what I learned on those journeys. Very quickly, what I learned in the U.K. was that very little was expected of Arab-looking women because my white teachers kept asking me, “What does your father do that brought you to London from Cairo?” They never bothered to ask what my mother does, and both my parents were on government scholarships to study for a PhD in medicine. It never occurred to my white teachers in London in the mid 70s that my mother could be studying her PhD. And then when we moved to Saudi Arabia, I saw what happened. My mother couldn't drive anymore. We were utterly dependent on my father to take us everywhere. So those experiences in the U.K. and Saudi Arabia back to back were a reminder of how universal patriarchy is everywhere you go.
But the years 2009 and 2010 brought me to a really pivotal moment in my life, and that was when the revolution in Egypt started. For me personally, the revolution led to the dying of the old Mona and this coming out of this new Mona because in November of 2011, almost exactly eight years ago, Egyptian riot police beat me and broke my left arm and my right hand and sexually assaulted me. I was detained for 12 hours. You very rarely get a before-and-after moment in your life where you can actually point to a moment and say, this is my moment. But that was my moment. The last decade was that moment when I survived. And I survived by the old Mona dying and this Mona coming to be.
What did you learn in that moment?
I think that that moment, that the dying of the old Mona—for whom I'm very grateful because all her strengths and all her experiences brought me to that moment—I think what it said to me was something that I've learned from Audre Lorde, and I think that we all know. She said that your silence will not protect you.
And I think that that's what happened to me. Because if you look at what I used to do up until then and what I've been doing since, now I'm like fuck this shit. I am not waiting anymore. Fuck all of you. That's what's happened to my feminism since. So I died my hair red right there just because I was like, fuck you, I survived. As a gift to myself, I'm not hiding. I got tattoos on both my arms to celebrate survival and retake ownership of my body. I know that since that time, I've basically been like in your face fuck the patriarchy kind of feminism. And this is what I want to take to the next decade. I want, for me, the next decade of feminism is to look patriarchy in the eye and say, I'm going to fucking destroy you.
So it was that moment that pushed you toward the kind of feminism you’re known for today.
It was totally that moment because when when you're surrounded by riot police, and they break both your arms, sexually assault you, and their supervising officer threatens you with gang rape, you're like fuck all of you. What is there to be polite about? When you take that and you see what patriarchy does, then you recognize that civility only upholds the power of those in authority. And along with patriarchy comes, of course, all the systems of oppression that keep patriarchy in place. So, that would be white supremacy, capitalism, homophobia, ableism, Islamophobia, all kinds of bigotry. And I refuse to allow those who don't recognize my full humanity to expect politeness of me. So I'm like fuck you and fuck your civility. I will not be civil to those who do not recognize my full humanity. That's why I say that was such a before-and-after moment. It made everything so clear.
Photo by Angel Garcia
How did people initially react to that disregard for civility?
Well, they didn't want to hear it because a lot of people wanted me to play a victim. And they wanted me to play a good victim. Before I say any of this, I have to also preface the fact that I survived because I'm famous, because people know who I am, because I'm privileged. I wrote this poem called Sekhmets Tits. (Sekhmet is the ancient Egyptian goddess, whose tattoo I got first on my arm.) And it was a poem about basically how I fuck all of this anger out of my body. And I had Egyptians, including revolutionaries, writing to me going, You're disgusting. How could you write this stuff? Because they wanted me to be a good victim. So this is how they reacted. Like I said, I don't give a flying fuck. I'm going around the world saying fuck the patriarchy. I'm the one who's out there going fuck you I will do with my body as I please. And for those who don't like it, too fucking bad. This is the message I'm taking into the next decade.
Do you feel like the reception of your message changed throughout the 2010s?
I think many things have happened across the world that have kind of, like, energized people's recognition that we have to say “fuck the patriarchy” louder and louder. Among those things is Trump coming into office. Trump epitomizes the fact that white women have been enabling patriarchy for so long. He really crystallizes the recognition that white supremacy, capitalism, and bigotry have been there all along, but unless it was hurting people, personally, they didn't want to see it. And he's not the only one. In Egypt we have Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, we have MDS [Mohammed Bin Salman] in Saudi Arabia, we have [Jair] Bolsonaro in Brazil, [Benjamin] Netanyahu in Israel, Boris Johnson in the U.K., Xi [JinPing] in China. When people look across the world, I think they recognize it.
I refuse to allow those who don't recognize my full humanity to expect politeness of me.
I begin all my talks with “Fuck the patriarchy.” And when I say “fuck the patriarchy” now I think people recognize exactly what I'm talking about, because of this moment. So I think this is what has changed in the past decade.
You started the #MosqueMeToo hashtag in 2018. Can you talk about why you felt the need to make a specific #MeToo hashtag for experiences within the mosque?
One of the people who follow me on Twitter sent me an article about a young Pakistani woman called Sabica Khan, who had posted on Facebook that she had been sexually assaulted during pilgrimage in Mecca. Now I'm of Muslim descent and when I read that I was like, are you fucking kidding me? Oh my god, this is still happening. In 1982, when my family first moved from the U.K. to Saudi Arabia, we went on hajj. I was only 15 years old, and I was sexually assaulted twice during pilgrimage. For a 15-year-old to be sexually assaulted twice during the fifth pillar of your religion is horrendous. It took me years to be able to talk about it. When I heard about Sabica, I thought OK, it's time to show solidarity with her. I started the hashtag mostly because I wanted to create a space within the Me Too movement for Muslim women. Because we all know Tarana Burke began the Me Too movement in 2006 for young black women. So she started talking to women who are not rich, not white, not famous. But by the end of 2017 women who were rich, white, and famous came out about Harvey Weinstein. They were very brave to say what they said, but it was a totally different place that they were coming from, and [the movement] began to take on this very white, rich, and privileged kind of feel. Me Too was supposed to be for the not rich, the not white, the not famous, for the disabled, for the poor women, for the Muslim women, for the queer women. That's why I started Mosque Me Too.
You’ve spent a good deal of the past decade criticizing sexism in both “the West” and the Arab world. Why is it so important to you to emphasize the shortcomings of both societies?
This will apply to women of color in general, but I say it especially when I talk about Mosque Me Too. Women of Muslim descent are caught between a rock and a hard place. And this is why it's so important for me to connect patriarchy in the so-called West and in other non-Western contexts, because that rock is the racist, Islamophobic kind of contingent that wants to point to “over there” and over there is anywhere that isn't white and isn't Western. And they're like, “Oh, it's so shit over there, we need to save the women over there.” And they don't give a flying fuck about women over there or about misogyny or about patriarchy. And then the hard place is you know, our so-called community, which also doesn't give a fuck about us, but they want to silence us so that they don't look bad. They will say Stop talking about this Mona because you're making us look bad. You're giving them ammunition to use against us. And I'm like, fuck the right wing and fuck the mysoginysts in the community. So basically, I say fuck the rock and fuck the hard place.
So when Trump was elected I started saying, you know what? I'm moving back to the U.S. because I need to save white women because they're so fucking delusional about what feminism has achieved for them. Their feminism is so polite. I call the white women who vote for Trump, footsoldiers and bootlickers of the patriarchy.
So what would you like to see happen within the feminist movement in the next decade?
We just need to be much more robust, much more confrontational. This is why the civility thing is so important to me. And I will always remind everyone, whether I'm giving a public talk or in an interview, that there are so many feminist heroes around the world that we need to focus on, and we need to adopt their best practices. Feminism must be led by queer feminists of color. And when I talk about queer feminists of color, I'm thinking especially of Dr. Stella Nyanzi, who is a Ugandan feminist who is currently in prison. And she is currently in prison, because she offended the dictator of her country, Uganda, a man who has been in power for more than 30 years. And the way that she offended him is by adopting a strategy that I think around the world we all need to adopt. It's called radical rudeness, and radical rudeness is a strategy that I think goes to the heart of what you asked me about patriarchy in the Middle East and North Africa, patriarchy in the United States and the so-called West. Patriarchy is global, and what patriarchy demands of us across the world is this certain politeness and civility that Stella Nyanzi and radical rudeness destroys. I want people to pay attention to Stella Nyanzi and to start adopting the radical rudeness that she is a proponent of. I want them to look our oppressors in the eye and say fuck you. That is my message for the next decade.
I want feminism in the next decade to be a global force. In the way that patriarchy is global, I want feminism to be global. In the way those authoritarian patriarchs work together, feminism must work together. I want feminism to turn definitions of powerful women upside down—instead of calling just for more women in office, we must push for more women who dismantle patriarchy, not those who uphold it. I’m not interested in a woman prime minister or president just because she’s a woman.
I want feminism to be profane and confrontational—to defy, disobey, and disrupt. I don’t want a polite feminism that challenges too few people. I want patriarchy to fear feminism. Too many countries boast of women in their armed forces. I’m an anarchist and oppose the military and I want to remind people that women are allowed to be violent only for the sake of patriarchy, i.e. the military. We have a right as feminists to oppose and to fight patriarchy. When I asked, merely asked, on an Australian TV show in November, “How many rapists must we kill before men stop raping women,” a TV episode was banned in Australia, ostensibly a democracy that values free speech. That’s what happens when a feminist draws an imaginary scenario of violence against men—there is more outrage at imaginary violence against men than at actual violence against women.
Make patriarchy fear feminism. Everywhere.