‘I want to see Muslim women everywhere.’ Mona Eltahawy at Off the Shelf Festival, Sheffield

Screen 3 at Sheffield’s Showroom Cinema is almost full – and not just of women, approximately a third of the audience are men – to listen to Mona Eltahawy talk about her book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution.

She begins by reading an extract from the book to give us a flavour and then the interviewer asks her about writing the book. It wasn’t an easy book to write, says Eltahawy. Partly because of the research into domestic violence, child marriage and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) but also because of the personal elements she included.

Eltahawy was born in Egypt, moved to the UK at the age of 7 and then to Saudi Arabia when she was 15. Now she divides her time between the USA and Cairo. In 2005, she moved back to Cairo for a few months to take part in protests in Tahrir Square against the Mubarak regime. She said it felt as though they were ‘breaking the barrier of fear’. Men and women protested together against political repression which affects everyone.

However, she says, women are also repressed on the street corner and in the home. She’s speaking out and showing her personal experiences to try and remove the silence and the shame that often prevents women from doing so. Privilege obliges us to fight ten times harder, she says. Not because others don’t have a voice but because they’re too scared to use it. She calls the repression of women through the political, the street and the home a ‘trifecta of misogyny’.

Egypt’s not safe, she tells us, but she feels safer because of her profile. There are thousands of anonymous dissidents in jail in Egypt. One of Eltahawy’s friends disappeared a few months ago.

The interviewer asks what drives her. ‘I’m fucking enraged! I’m angry all the time.’ She talks about the spectrum of misogyny across the world. ‘It’s shit everywhere!’ She tells us not to feel culturally superior. The UK doesn’t have equal pay or equal political representation. ‘I’m not here to make you feel comfortable. Use your anger to fight shit here.’

What does she say to the idea that the fight for women’s rights should be hold while the humanitarian crises happening across the world are on going? ‘Wait for what? Fuck waiting! I want to be free now! Women are half the population. Imagine asking half the community to wait.’

She talks about a letter Martin Luther King wrote from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama in which he said that being asked to wait was code for it’s never going to happen. Eltahawy points out that nothing is going to be solved anywhere without the equality of women. Women and children are always most affected by displacement.

Questions are opened to the audience. The first comes from a Muslim woman wearing a hijab who talks about the roots of Islam and how Muslim women had equal pay and the right to divorce 1400 years ago. Eltahaway says her response to this idea is always to ask ‘What have we done to Khadija?’ She tells us that Khadija was the first wife of the prophet Muhammad. She was powerful and rich. At 40 years old, she was 15 years older than her employee, Muhammad, and she asked him to marry her. She was his only wife until she died.

A toxic mix of religion and culture has made it difficult for Muslim women, Eltahawy says. She’s accused of imitating the west and trying to bring a feminism that doesn’t belong in her part of the world. Why have we forgotten our heritage? She says. What have we done to it?

The next question is about her time in Saudi Arabia. She says the Islam in Saudi Arabia wasn’t the Islam she was raised with. She and her sibling(s) were raised as equals. They came to the UK because both of her parents were studying for PhDs in medicine. At the end of their studies, her mother secured a job but her father didn’t. He became a househusband. But UK visa regulations stated that the father had to be employed so they had to leave. In Saudi Arabia, everything was reversed: her father worked and her mother stayed at home, needing her husband’s permission to do many basic things.

Here, Eltahawy, points out that the UK government support this misogynistic regime, trading with them. She tells us to hold our government accountable. Why are they supporting gender apartheid?

How is she treated by regimes when she speaks out? She says the right wing use anything she says against Muslim men. The right wing within Egypt want to silence her. The external left wing are mostly silent because they don’t want to be accused of racism. She says she deals with a mixture of racism, xenophobia and misogynism. She tells the right wing to fuck off because they don’t care about women’s rights, they use them as a political tool but they don’t want to talk to women. ‘I want to see Muslim women everywhere.’ She wants to see them leading the conversation because in their absence, it’s been reduced to ‘what’s on our head and what’s between our legs’.

She points out that people see Muslim women as one type but there are cultural differences within the UK too. It takes a different skin colour for people to notice and talk about difference. She says she has more in common with LGBT and sexual rights activists than some people who have the same skin colour as her.

Another Muslim woman wearing a hijab tells Eltahawy her position on the veil and Muslim women and asks what Eltahawy’s opinions are. ‘I could not disagree with you more,’ she begins. She points out that this is a positive thing: ‘I think disagreement complicates Muslim women and humanises us’.

Every religion discriminates against women. Every religion ‘is obsessed with my vagina and I tell them to stay out unless I want them in there’. Why is it easier to choose to veil than it is to unveil? She says this has to be a conversation for and between Muslim women. ‘I absolutely reject modesty. I absolutely reject modesty culture. It’s an unfair burden on women.’ She wants any man or woman addressing her to address her intellect not her breasts, her bottom or her legs.

She talks about men across the world taking up public space and that her next book’s going to be titled, ‘What the fuck is wrong with men?’ She says surveys done show that women covering up are subjected to the same level of street harassment as women who don’t. She suggests that covering up is allowing men to misbehave. ‘Fucking behave! That’s my message to men.’

The next question is about LGBT Muslims. Eltahawy says this is one of the reasons we need a sexual revolution. ‘I own my body’ not the church, state, mosque or family. She says that Muslims have a poetic heritage of same sex relationships but that homosexuality was made illegal largely by colonisers including the British in India. ‘You guys have a very prudish past.’ She talks about an organisation called Muslims for Progressive Values who have scholarship and support for LGBT Muslims.

The penultimate question is about whether Saudi Arabian women will actually get the vote this year. Eltahawy reminds us that neither men nor women currently have the vote in Saudi Arabia. If it does happen and the candidates that are currently being allowed to stand are voted for by the public, they’ll be elected to a toothless body. She tells us that female candidates have been told they can’t speak to men when they’re campaigning. She says it’s the guardianship system that needs removing, it’s this that’s controlling the trifecta of misogyny in Saudi Arabia. Again she points out that the UK and the USA support the Saudi regime, a regime that carries out more beheadings than ISIS. ‘Money always wins and women are always sold out.’

The final audience question is about the role of the mothers in FGM and why can’t all women have a discussion about our various repressions? As for FGM, ‘Women are not stupid.’ Mothers doing FGM know they’re enabling their daughters to survive. They have a lack of power to undo FGM, the trifecta needs dismantling for them to have the power to do this. She points out that it was only criminalised in the UK in 1988 and the first case only went to trial this year.

In terms of which women should be having conversations about what, she says that we should be listening to the voices of women from other communities and amplifying them. There’s a power differential: white women are fighting misogyny; women of colour are fighting misogyny, racism and xenophobia. ‘It’s fucking exhausting to be a Muslim woman.’ She points out that there are complexities and disagreements between Muslim women and that these need to be heard.

The event finishes with Eltahawy talking about her aims. She says she wants people to see and hear Muslim women behave badly. She wants her appearance to be recognised as that of a Muslim woman – her red hair, her tattoos, her swearing. She says there’s a vile, gutter struggle to see who can shit on Muslim’s the most in the USA but ‘the revolution is about discomfort’ and Eltahawy’s happy to provide it, ‘Fuck you, you’re not gonna speak for me anymore’.

I don’t want to speak for Eltahawy but I do want to shout ‘Fuck, yes’ at every point she makes and judging by the applause after pretty much every point, so do most of the people making up tonight’s audience.

12 thoughts on “‘I want to see Muslim women everywhere.’ Mona Eltahawy at Off the Shelf Festival, Sheffield

  1. Powerful post, Naomi. Interesting responses from the audience. It seems to me that of all women, Muslims are the most likely to be reduced to a cartoonish stereotype by the media. Eltahawy blows that idea out of the water, for sure.

    • Thank you. Eltahawy seems to attract people who want to talk at her, which I found interesting. It was powerful to see other Muslim women speak in a diverse public audience. Despite living in a multicultural city, I can’t recall another event where that’s happened. On the other hand, while most of the audience were clearly supportive of Eltahawy, it was frustrating to hear some white people who weren’t amplifying but trying to add their own opinion/voice. It really is time to allow women of colour to speak for themselves.

  2. WOW! Echo Susan – POWERFUL POST! Sounds an incredibly informative & important event – is she touring? Both post & book deserve to be, NEED to be shared.

    Thank you so much for sharing this one Naomi.

  3. What a brilliant post how did i miss it? Your summary perfectly encapsulates my frustration (and that of many muslim women of colour). People have long assumed that Islam has denied muslim women a voice so perpetually feel the need to speak on our behalf, so thank you for giving time and space to our voices. Our views differ, our appearances differ, but one palpable change that can definitely be felt within the community is the awakening of muslim feminist sensibilities.

    • Thank you for commenting, I’m pleased you liked the post. It’s very difficult to know where to pitch something when you’re writing about a different culture. I was very aware of making sure I didn’t write myself into it. The discussion was really interesting, there were intersections I hadn’t considered before and I learnt a lot from listening to Eltahawy and the two Muslim women who spoke.

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  5. This woman is bloody idiotic. I have heard her speak and I have read her book.
    I’m an Arab (American) Muslim woman who has travelled the world as an artist with hip hop and weed by her side. Sounds pretty damn open minded to me. So I’ve seen and been through things this liar of a woman and all her readers have not been through.
    Let me be the fist to tell you, this FGM shit it not only banned by law in Muslim countries, but taboo in Islam as well. IF it’s still happening, it’s in the Middle East’s version of redneck trailer trash villages.
    I have chosen to wear my headscarf. I’m not going to argue about this, as there is a video of this author on youtube arguing with a niqabi and let me tell you, that shit cracked me up. This veiled lady put this judgmental and white washed witch in her place. You don’t want to be judged by your tits? So don’t label me a silent doormat by my scarf. I will whoop your ass to the moon and back and look elegant while doing it.
    This idiot is making us out to be helpless, mute damsels in distress scared to death of man and The Man. She does not speak for Muslim women. Well, it’s not like I do either, but fuck her.

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