We Interviewed Egyptian-American Activist Mona Eltahawy
“Egyptian riot police broke my left arm and my right hand, sexually assaulted me, threatened me with gang rape and detained me for 12 hours.”
Photos by Daniel Bolt
Mona Eltahawy is the complete opposite of the former Mubarak regime’s official version of the Egyptian woman: she’s opinionated, cerebrally outraged, and loves talking about her vagina. The activist and journalist has spent the last 20 years fighting for the rights of women in Egypt, where many females face catcalls, sexual abuse, and worse for doing apparently unseemly things, like protesting or just walking through a university campus.
Mona’s fight against lady hating took on unfortunate new dimensions in late 2011, when she returned to her beloved homeland to protest on the streets in the wake of Egypt’s ongoing revolution. “It was during that protest that Egyptian riot police broke my left arm and my right hand, sexually assaulted me, threatened me with gang rape and detained me for 12 hours,” she told VICE.
In the two years since, Mona has refused to keep quiet about her experience despite the best efforts of Egyptian right wingers, patriarchal douchebags and a significant amount of online trolls. In 2012, she published the inflammatory piece "Why do they hate us?” in Foreign Policy, and has increasingly become the face of violence against Egyptian women as the country struggles to escape religious zealots, military dictators and other vagina-meddlers.
I spoke to Mona during her visit to Australia for All About Women at the Sydney Opera House on Sunday.
VICE: What was it like being a teenage girl in Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s?
Mona Eltahawy: We left Egypt when I was seven and we didn’t return until I was 21. My teen years were divided between the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia. Up until we left the UK, it was like your regular teenage years. The one thing I remember is that I couldn’t date. That was one thing my parents made very clear. By the time we moved to Saudi Arabia, it was a very difficult shift. To move from the UK to Saudi Arabia at a time when you’ve got hormones and everything exploding was a very, very difficult thing for me.
When I turned 19, I had already started university and I became this feminist in Saudi Arabia. I often say that to be a woman in Saudi Arabia, you have two options: you can either lose your mind or you can become a feminist. So I did start off losing my mind because everything was so culturally and religiously different and then I became a feminist in the 1990s. That decision made me the woman I am today.
I just read an interesting New Internationalist story about sex in the Arab world. It says one problem is the gap between “appearance and reality”. What were you taught about sex growing up?
Sex education is a huge problem in the Arab world as it’s often not taught or it’s removed from the curriculum altogether in Egypt. I was first taught about sex by my mother. I grew up in the UK and my parents are both doctors. One day, when I was about 9 or 10, one of my friends told me that babies come where they come from. So my mother bought this book about sex and got my brother and me and she insisted that we join her in reading it.
Sex is not something that’s taught in Egypt and teachers are embarrassed to talk about it. It’s something you read about at home. In some instances, parents will pull their daughters out of these classes. They don’t want them to be involved in anything that’s sexually educational. For a lot of boys, they find out through porn. If the girls are lucky enough to watch porn, they get something as well, but I’m not sure how straight to form that knowledge is! When a girls reaches her wedding night [when they’re expected to be a virgin] some kind relative may just have to explain to her what is going on. There’s a huge black hole.
You started working as a journalist in Cairo in the early 1990s. Do you have one story that you filed during that period that sticks out today?
I started off at a local newspaper called The Middle East Times, which is no longer in existence. I remember one of the earliest stories that I wrote for them was a study about domestic violence in Egypt from a government run research institute think tank. One of the pull quotes was from a judge during a domestic violence hearing who basically blamed a wife for the fact that her husband was beating her.
Because our newspaper was a foreign paper, it had to through the censorship office before it could go on the newsstands. To be my great surprise, that particular story that I wrote got the newspaper banned. It was not allowed to publish that week. I took this as proof that even though the government had been funding that research institute on woman’s issues and things like domestic violence, to this day there’s still this great cover up and women being told to shut up about the abuses that they face. If our revolution has any chance of succeeding now and in the future, we should never shut up.
And then you moved to the United States in 2000. What there one factor that drove you to move or was it a combination of things?
It was basically because I married an American who I divorced two years later. I had never, ever thought I would end up in the US. I had always wanted to go to London, which I really considered as an early idea of home for me. It had never crossed my mind that we would live in the US.
We lived in New York when I was 14 in 1982. I love New York – it’s one of those cities that you must love – but it never crossed my mind to move to the US, especially not Seattle. This is where I first lived because this ex-husband lived there. When I left him, I spent 18 days driving from Seattle to New York, where I found a job, and then I fell in love with New York more than I was ever in love with my ex-husband! So, I decided to stay because it’s just a fantastic city.
There’s a really interesting polarity in your activism as an Egyptian-American. On the one hand, there’s an intense hatred and criticism of the Egyptian regime, but there’s also a vivid nostalgia and beautiful defence of Egypt. How do you reconcile this polarity?
I think the Egyptian regime has insisted on hijacking Egypt. They have done this through a centralized authority and its insistence on telling us what is Egyptian and what is a good Egyptian or whoever isn’t an Egyptian. But for me, Egypt is a much bigger thing than the regime, which is why I am optimistic about the revolution.
To me, Egypt is a wonderful history, a wonderful people and it’s represented through artists like Om Kalthoum, who is considered the fourth pyramid of Egypt. She’s a wonderful diva whose voice for me is really Egyptian. The country really is bigger than what the regime claims to it to be. That’s what I think of us freeing Egypt from the tentacles basically of both religious fascists and military fascists. Egypt is bigger than both of them.
What are the major everyday differences of being a woman in the US to being a woman in Egypt?
When I tell my American friends about what we’re fighting for in Egypt, I’ll remind them to ask their grandmothers to see what it was like in the US in the 1940s. In some places today in the US, you have the right wing trying to roll back reproductive rights and only teach abstinence. You asked me before about sex education in Egypt and there are places in America where there is also today no sex education given to kids. The connections that I make are where the religious right wing is obsessed with having a foothold and they’re obsessed with my vagina. My message to them both in US and Egypt is stay out of my vagina. I do not want you in there!
On the other hand, because of these decades of feminist fighting in the US, we’ve cleared a space that we’re fighting to clear in Egypt. It’s obviously easier to be a woman in New York than it is to be a woman in Cairo. But I connect those fights through that history. New York wouldn’t be what it is today without those decades of women fighting for that fight. We have that feminist fight in Egypt but we’re just at a different place along the spectrum.
The modern Egyptian feminist fight was launched in 1923 which people often forget. We’ve had cycles and we’ve had progress and been pushed back it a bit. I don’t think anybody’s history is linear. The sort of fight we’re having today is about freedom. We take it for granted in New York and I’m hoping future generations of women in Egypt can take it for granted too.
You probably saw the viral video this week of a blonde woman walking through an Egyptian university. Is that an accurate depiction of life in Egypt as a woman now?
Well, yeah. Unfortunately that is. The sad thing about the woman who was harassed on campus and verbally assaulted on Cairo University campus is that it’s happening in university capitals now. There’s no place for woman to be safe. It’s a reality for the majority of Egyptian women. It’s been happening for decades even if we’re in denial about it and we’re shamed into silence about it.
What has changed since the revolution began is that the attacks have been much more violent and organized against women. And then the revolution is about standing up to authority, and women are more willing to speak out. So the question is: is it getting worse or are women more willing to speak about it? I would say it’s probably both. We’re insisting that people take it seriously. I think part of [the backlash] is about pushing women back off the street and back into the home. We refuse to do that.
There’s been so many more development coming through Egypt since 2011. One story that’s big in Australia is about our expat journalist, Peter Greste, who is currently awaiting trial in an Egyptian jail for allegedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Are you hopeful for journalists like him?
I think it’s outrageous how the Egyptian regime is treating journalists. Not just Peter and the Al Jazeera crew but many others who are completely unknown and have been in jail for months on end without any charge or trail. I think this speaks to the Egyptian regime’s determination to silence any information that it does not approve and basically just set the tone, like it does with state controlled media that it terrifies into speaking what it wants to be heard.
Myself and many other people who work in media demand a release of all those journalists. I think if they don’t release those journalists, it’ll just keep on telling the world that we’re scared of the truth. Any regime that is scared of the truth is not a regime that deserves any sort of respect. I think Egypt’s allies should make it very clear that they will not tolerate any sort of attacks on activist on peaceful activists, protestors or journalists.
You’ve been vocal about the role of Egypt’s allies. There’s this wonderful quote from you about how one of the best things about the Egyptian revolution was that it stuck a middle finger to the “hypocritical” US foreign policy that supports Egypt’s military regime. Can you tell me about the tension of supporting your infamously patriotic adopted country but also having those sorts of opinions?
I only became a US citizen in 2011 ironically after the Egyptian revolution began. The revolution began in January and I became a US citizen in April of 2011. I didn’t want to become a citizen before that because I didn’t want to take the oath when George Bush was still the President of the US. I obviously couldn’t stand him and there are many Obama policies that I still oppose today. The whole thing for me is being very open and very honest about the hypocrisy of the US foreign policy. Over the last few years, I’ve found its foreign policy towards Egypt is very confused and still refusing to acknowledge that for decades it chose the side of a dictator at the expense of the people’s rights.
For me as an Egyptian-American, my fight is in both of those countries. When I’m in Egypt my fight is a much more feminist fight against patriarch. When I’m in New York, my fight is against racism and xenophobia, which is why in September 2012 I painted over this racist and bigoted ad in the New York subway. And I got arrested and I’m yet to stand trial for that as I was charged for various charged of vandalism. My fight in the US is to present myself as a Muslim and I refuse to be bullied as a Muslim.
One of the most famous Mona moments is your article “Why do they hate us?” which received a lot of backlash in the media. One of the many responses is “Why does Mona Eltahawy hate Arab men?” How do your reconcile your thoughts on patriarchy in Egypt with your relationship with your father or perhaps other men?
One of the things I found most frustrating was all these people saying “my daddy doesn’t hate me” or “my brother doesn’t hate me”. It’s not about your father. That’s not what I’m talking about. It’s about what happens when they leave the house and they’re on the street.
Obviously my father and I have a great relationship for which I am very grateful. One of the wonderful things about the home I grew up in is that my parents met at medical school: they got their masters together and their PhDs together. So from a very early age, I saw a relationship of equals functioning together that gave my brother and then my much younger sister this great template for us to work to. It showed us that you can grow up in the home as equals and that boys and girls and men and women can have access to all the education that they want.
Recently, I was on an Al Jazeera show called Head to Head and discussed that essay. I was challenged at great lengths by the audience and the host and I think it served as a title change for me. It’s not something I say just to be controversial. It’s something that I say because I’m Egyptian and I’m a woman. So, as painful as it was for some people to read that article, I think [we need to be] honest about this kind of patriarchy and take this revolution into the home. Just as we overthrew the Mubarak in the streets we have to over throw the Mubarak in the home.
You went back to Cairo after the start of the 2011 revolution. Your sexual assault at the hands of Egyptian riot police during the November protests is well documented. Can you talk me through the steps of emotions that you experienced after this attack?
It was firstly anger. I was determined after I was released from hospital to recognise that, despite what happened to me, I was very lucky. I’m lucky because I have a media profile and I’m a dual citizen and various media departments were looking for me. There was a #freemona campaign that was happening on Twitter. So I was angry but also determined to speak out and shame the Egyptian regime for what they had done to me.
I also understood that had I been an unknown Egyptian woman who was taken in like this than I would have been treated much worse. I would have probably been gang raped and I could have been killed. So, I wanted to expose and shame the Egyptian regime for what it did to me, and also say that there were other people who have experienced much worse than me.
So, I was angry for a very long time. And then when I went back to the US [my response] to what had happened was very, very delayed. That is what post-traumatic stress disorder is. You have a great deal of detachment from what happened to you. It took many months to sink in and still affects me around the anniversary of that attack. Whenever the anniversary comes up, I struggle mightily. The trauma recurs every time the anniversary happens.
Because I know that were at least 12 other women sexually assaulted on that street but for various reasons have not been able to speak out, I’ve been very forthright about what happened to me. There is no shame and I carry no shame about what happened to me or what happened to us. It is the regime who should feel the shame for thinking they can do this to us.
You used tattoos as way to heal post-sexual assault. What’s your favourite tattoo and how did it come about?
I only just have two right now but I’m hoping to get more. When my arms were in a cast, I determined the best way for me to celebrated survival when my bones healed – and I say bones and not my heart healed because I’m still working on that heart. Once my bones healed, I wanted to celebrate my healing by dying my hair red and getting tattoos on both my arms.
So on my right arm I have a tattoo of Egyptian goddess Sekhmet. She is the goddess of retribution and sex – both of which I want. On my left arm, I have tattooed the name of the street where the protest took place and where I was attacked which is now an icon of the revolution, because for five days more than 40 people on the side of the revolution were killed by security forces and hundred injured. So I wanted to honour that street. Under that I have the Arabic word for freedom tattooed into my left inner arm because I believe I was liberated on that street.
I have a scar on my left arm from the surgery. I did not choose that scar but I’m very proud of that’s scar. But because I didn’t choose it I wanted to choose markings on my body of my own. I’d also read that over the last few decades about women who have survived sexual assault choose tattoo to celebrate survival and reclaim their body. And that’s what tattoos help me do. I’ve chosen those marking on my arms to remind me that I’ve survived something terrible.
What’s another tattoo that you’d love to get?
The tattoo on my left arm is Arabic calligraphy. I love calligraphy and it’s a way for me to celebrate heritage and also to reclaim the language that’ is often stereotyped as the code language for terrorists. I would like to take some of the lyrics of that diva I told you about, Om Kalthoum. And get an artist friend of mine to draw them up in beautiful calligraphy and have them tattooed on my arm. That would be a way for me to celebrate this wonderful artist, who represents the beauty of Egypt, but also celebrate survival.
Your Twitter profile says that “bad singing” and “dancing” are the solutions to life’s horrors. What’s one song that you’re really like singing in the shower?
[laughs] Shower or karaoke?! Oh goodness. I often take my laptop into the shower room and sing along to anything that I like. Lately I’ve been singing along very badly to The Weekend’s “Wicked Game”. I like the lyrics “I got my heart right here, I got my scars right here.” I think he’s got a very honest and nothing held back singing style. It’s very appealing to a lot of people but especially those words because they talk about pain and scars. I relate to them a lot.
Sum up the Egyptian woman in 2014 in a few words?
Ferocious. Determined. Enraged. Optimistic. Revolutionary.
Follow Mona: @monaeltahawy
Follow Emilia: @EmiliaKate