It was living in Saudi Arabia that made Mona Eltahawy a feminist. Completely covered up and wearing a hijab, the teenaged Eltahawy was groped multiple times while on the Haj. She had one hand out on the Kaba, the holiest site in Islam, when she felt the man behind her touch her. “I was 15 and in Mecca which is Islam’s holiest city,” she recalls, “I couldn’t express what I had just experienced. I felt so violated and ashamed,” says Eltahawy. It didn’t end there; as she went ahead, a Saudi policeman reached out and squeezed her breast.
That period was a turning point for her, says Eltahawy, who was in conversation with Germaine Greer and Shobhaa De at the Tata Literature Live! Festival on Saturday on whether women will always be the second sex. The 48-year-old Egyptian-American journalist recalled what a shock it was to move to Saudi Arabia where women are in fact the second sex, after having lived in the United Kingdom for years. She herself was only 15 and recalls how her mother, who had been her father’s equal in every way until then, felt like somebody had cut off her legs. “My parents had studied together and worked together. Now, it was my father who took us everywhere and my mother, who missed her independence and mobility, felt that she had been disabled,” says the 48-year-old writer, who believes that misogyny is so ingrained in Saudi Arabian society, that women only have two choices — go mad or become a feminist. She picked the latter.
Her India visit is part of Eltahawy’s ongoing global tour, which she is doing to promote her book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution. Coming to India was very important to her, she says, because this is the first country from the global south where she is promoting her book. “We have a lot in common. We understand what it is like to be women of colour, because the issues of race and religion intersect with our issues as women,” she says.
Eltahawy has been criticised much for her radical views with many Middle Eastern feminists taking issue with what they see as her “Islamophobia”. There was severe backlash against her cover story for a foreign policy magazine, called Why Do They Hate Us?, where she highlighted how deeply misogyny had seeped into the Middle East culture. She has been repeatedly accused of being “Islamophobic”, particularly for her objections to the niqab, which many Middle-eastern feminists have reclaimed as an element of choice. Eltahawy disagrees, “‘Choice’ is a very loaded word. These arguments that wearing a face veil or headscarf is a choice are all part of the modesty culture, which exists in India too, and which unfairly puts the burden of covering up on women. It’s very similar to the “purity culture” which exists in the UK, where young girls promise their fathers that they will remain virgins until they marry.”
Feminism’s fight is against the “trifecta of state, street and home”, she says. Eltahawy herself was physically and sexually assaulted by the Egyptian police when she was reporting on the Egyptian uprising from Tahrir Square in Cairo. Both her wrists and one hand were broken and she was held for 12 hours without medical care. She was released only after she secretly sent a tweet about her illegal incarceration. She says, “During the revolution in Egypt, men and women came and fought together. But once it was over, women were back to being oppressed.” Eltahawy recalls how many of the women revolutionaries were violated and humiliated by a virginity test and says that to this day there has been no public outcry on the issue. “We have the Mubarak in the state, the Mubarak in the streets and the Mubarak in the bedroom. When the day ends, the first two will go home, but what about the last one? It is a fallacy that men who are revolutionaries and activists are feminists by default,” she said.
Eltahawy asserts, however, that men do have a role to play in the feminist struggle. “Men are often trapped by these notions of masculinity, where they have to be the providers and protectors. Feminism will destroy these strict notions of what is masculine and what is feminine and will liberate men from their restricted roles. There are many men who are supportive and who won’t hurt women, but they need to go beyond that. They need to challenge the system itself, from which they have derived all their power and privilege, in order to bring equality and liberation for all,” she said.