Mona Eltahawy tweeted that she had been sexually assaulted during the 2011 Arab Spring protests in Cairo: “5 or 6 surrounded me, groped and prodded my breasts, grabbed my genital area and I lost count how many hands tried to get into my trousers,” she wrote.
The writer and activist said she was among the women sexually assaulted by Egyptian security forces who were dispersing demonstrators from the city’s Tahrir Square. “I thought people would be so angry that they’d start another revolution, this time for gender [equality],” she said. “But it didn’t happen. [The public] accused the women of lying; they said the military would never do that.”
Eltahawy’s fury at the response to widespread reports of sexual assault at protests in her native Egypt led her to write Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution. The book, published in 2015 and released in Spain in November, questions a “misogynistic triad” — the state, the street and the home — that works together to oppress women.
Eltahawy spoke with HuffPost Spain last month about everything from the New Zealand mosque attack to her views about the niqab, a full-face veil worn by some Muslim women.
Eltahawy previously faced criticism for defending government bans of niqabs in public places — a measure for which the most right-wing European parties rallied — but now she thinks differently.
“Unless you’re a Muslim woman, shut the fuck up and listen to Muslim women,” she said.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You are in favor of banning the niqab because you consider it a form of oppression, and for that reason you’ve been called an Islamophobe.
In 2006 or 2007, when this debate began to be taken seriously and presented at the legal level in countries like France, Belgium and areas in Spain, my position was: I am in favor of prohibiting the niqab everywhere. But I didn’t want anything to do with the Islamophobic and xenophobic European right-wing that proposed this. They wanted to convey that they cared about Muslim women. However, it really had nothing to do with them but with a racist agenda. My position now is: Unless you’re a Muslim woman, shut the fuck up and listen to Muslim women, because in the past 12 years I’ve seen that debates on how Muslim women dress or don’t dress really excite racists and Islamophobes. Muslim women are between a rock and a hard place. On one side is the rock of the racist and Islamophobic right — wanting to use the bodies and words of Muslim women as a weapon against the Muslim community — and on the other side is the hard place of the Muslim misogynists who want to silence women. And I say: Fuck them all. I’m not on either side. I’m on the women’s side. There is already plenty of debate and discussion among Muslim women on whether or not to wear a hijab [a veil covering the head and the chest] or a niqab. So I don’t write about that anymore.
Sometimes, in the West there is a misunderstanding about everything the veil represents.
Usually the purpose of the hijab is modesty, and I am against modesty, which is only for girls and women because boys and men are never asked to be modest. To me, my sister and my mother, the hijab represents three different things: My mother wears a headscarf because of her faith. She believes it is required of Muslim women. I don’t agree, and she doesn’t agree with me. My sister also used to wear a hijab because of religion, but now she wears it to tell racists to go fuck themselves. Now it’s a question of identity. I don’t agree, and she doesn’t agree with me. I wore a hijab for nine years because I wanted to, because I started to think that it was an obligation and then I read that for me it wasn’t an obligation anymore. But it took eight years for me to take it off. From the outside it’s very difficult to appreciate how complicated it is to make a decision.
“The hijab is not a gadget, it’s not a toy; you can’t wear it one day and feel good and want to show the world that you’re not racist or Islamophobic. What about the other 364 days of the year?”
So should the feminist movement in Spain, for example, say nothing regarding this issue, and not take a position on the veil?
Exactly. This is what I believe. I know it bothers a lot of people, because they say that, since it is a women’s issue, it affects them too. This is a very complicated matter. But the most important thing is to combat the patriarchy. The Spanish feminist movement would do a much better job facing the patriarchy in areas it is familiar with, in cases such as “la Manada” [the case of five men convicted for sexually abusing an 18-year-old at the 2016 Running of the Bulls]. Sexual assault in this country, as in all countries, is terrible. Focus on that. There are problems with patriarchy in all cultures and communities. Let me fight my stuff and you fight yours. Together we fight the patriarchy, which is our ultimate goal. That said, I am still against the hijab and the niqab, but I want it to be us who have this conversation.
Last month, the prime minister of New Zealand wanted to support the Muslim victims of the mosque terrorist attack by wearing a hijab. What do you think of this gesture?
Many women in New Zealand, not just the prime minister, wore a hijab for one day in support of the Muslim victims of the massacre, and I am deeply against it. I am against it because the hijab is not a gadget, it’s not a toy; you can’t wear it one day and feel good and want to show the world that you’re not racist or Islamophobic. What about the other 364 days of the year? Firstly, I think it was a lazy and naive gesture. You can show your support by fighting against white supremacism, against armed violence, against Islamophobia within your own white family. That way you will support the Muslim community much more than wearing a hijab for a day. Secondly, the hijab continues to generate a huge debate among Muslim women. These ... women that know nothing about the hijab have taken the side of those who believe that Muslim women should wear a hijab. Some of us think they shouldn’t.
[By wearing a hijab] my mother and my sister are what is known as visibly Muslim women; in countries where there is Islamophobia, visibly Muslim women are more vulnerable to violence because it’s easier to recognize them. My suggestion for non-Muslim women who want to show their support is: If you see a Muslim woman being attacked because of her hijab, go and defend her. But you won’t help her if you wear a hijab for one day.
In Headscarves and Hymens you say that in your parents’ time it was actually unusual to wear a veil in Egypt (and in other countries), and that now the situation is just the opposite. Do you believe that part of this hijab and niqab “resurgence” is the result of the xenophobia Muslims are suffering in the West?
Some women actually do this as a way of saying: This is me, you will not silence me and you must accept me this way. This is the reason why my sister wears a hijab. I wish us Muslim women didn’t have to constantly use our body to prove that we’re Muslim. I wish this wasn’t the only way to show our opposition to Islamophobia or xenophobia. The body of Muslim women is like a blackboard where everyone leaves their message. But what happens to the messages we want to write? I don’t want my body to equate a hijab.
In Spain, we already have our own extreme right party, and one of its greatest trump cards is immigration.
Using the term “immigration” is a way to inspire fear in people. The usual: “They will take your job, they will rape your women … you need to vote for me, I will protect you.” Protect me from what? Where’s the danger you’re trying to protect me from? You’re the danger. That’s why I hope people in Spain go and vote en masse.
There are people who question the concept of Islamophobia.
I think that’s nonsense, and it’s dangerous. Clearly, the attack [on mosques] in New Zealand was Islamophobic. [The terrorist] went and attacked people because of their religion. There are people who prefer to talk about anti-Muslim fanaticism. To me it’s the same. The result is the same. The attacker massacred 51 people. That’s Islamophobia to me. But I have another example that happened to my family. In 2012, a white man set my brother’s mosque on fire, in the American Midwest. He said it was because he heard on Fox News that Muslims kill Americans, so he decided to burn the Muslims’ place of worship. It’s dangerous to play with words or imply that we are fighting over words, when what’s really important is not what we call it but the fact that people are dying because of this. They are massacring people.
“It’s too easy and privileged to tell women to simply abandon their religion in order to free themselves from patriarchy. There is also patriarchy outside religion.”
What do you think of Islamic feminism, another concept that’s causing quite a bit of controversy?
I’m not an Islamic feminist; I’m secular. I separate Islam from feminism. But there are many Islamic feminists who have done very important work. Patriarchy, which includes a long series of oppressions, has used all its means against me: racism, capitalism, homophobia. So I wanted to use all the weapons to fight, combat and destroy patriarchy. And one of these weapons is Islamic feminism, which creates a focus on feminism for women that would otherwise not see feminism as something useful or powerful. These academics, who understand Islamic jurisprudence and writings, use this knowledge to reinterpret religion in feminist ways.
It’s too easy and privileged to tell women to simply abandon their religion in order to free themselves from patriarchy. There is also patriarchy outside religion. My goal is to destroy it from the inside and the outside, and I’m glad that Islamic feminism is there to fight it from the inside. But I believe that this approach can only bring you to a certain point where someone will say: “That’s what God says.” That’s why I’m a secular feminist. I don’t want my interpretation to oppose another person’s interpretation. My red line is anything that hurts women and girls in 2019; that’s what I will fight against, regardless of where it’s coming from.
So it’s not a contradiction to be feminist and Islamic?
They believe it’s not; they believe they can resort to studies in order to reinterpret religion. One of the best-known Islamic feminists, Amina Wadud, is a friend of mine and her work greatly inspires me. She says God is fair. How can a divine being who’s fair allow inequality? She says Islam teaches that there is nothing between you and God, regardless of whether you are a man or a woman. According to her interpretation, you can be a Muslim and a feminist. I prefer to keep one thing apart from the other.
Are all religions corrupted by misogyny?
Yes. Patriarchy is in all of them, especially in Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam). In Spain you should know this with the Catholic Church, but if in 2019 we want a religion to stay relevant we must put a stop to all its misogynistic elements, set them apart. There are people who will never abandon religion because it gives them peace of mind, or because they would lose their life or their family. Who am I to tell someone to abandon it? We must be more open with them and remove all the misogynistic elements from all religions. For example, in Tunisia polygamy was banned, and I agree with this. A man should not be able to marry four women unless a woman can marry four men. I am not monogamous; I don’t believe in monogamy and I don’t have just one partner, but Islam allows men to be polygamous and not me. It’s unfair. Either both can have multiple partners or neither can.
You have lived in five different countries ― Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, Israel and the U.S. Have you experienced misogyny in all of them?
If there is something I’ve learned by living in these countries it’s that misogyny and patriarchy are universal. It takes different forms, but it’s everywhere.