The regime beat us both. But when we are released, I face a misogyny and a violation of my rights from society that he does not. That’s the second revolution. Mona Eltahawy in conversation with Nils August Andresen.
Read the Norwegian version here.
Mona Eltahawy, few articles in Foreign Policy has created as much heated debate as your piece about misogyny – “Why do they hate us?” – in the Middle East last month. To an outside observer, it is striking how painful self-criticism, and the public display of dirty laundry, is in many contexts. It is not unique to the Arab world; we see it in the Turkish position on the Armenian genocide, and we saw it in the belated Russian and half-hearted Russian apology for the Katyn massacre. Why do you think it is that your essay has provoked so much controversy?
In the Arab world, there is a strong feeling that the region has long been a target of the West, that it has long been a target of Western intervention, be it colonization in the last century, or various invasions, such as the invasion of Iraq in 2003 in this century by the United States. So it is a feeling of vulnerability, and a feeling that if you look us make bad to the outside world, it is encouraging the outside world, especially the West, and especially America, to invade us. By the logic of this convoluted theory, what you’re really doing when you criticize – what I was really doing in my essay – is calling on the Americans to invade us. But it is this kneejerk reaction, this kind of defensiveness.
But it is not specific to the Arab world, because I think it something we see in any vulnerable community. So I’d like to talk about “feminism of color”, as we would call it in the US. The example I often give is that of Alice Walker, when she wrote The color purple. The black community in the US was outraged, because she exposed the violations of women’s rights within the black community. She talked about things like genital mutilation, she talked about violence towards women, hostility to lesbianism, that the black community didn’t want to be exposed, because, again, it felt its vulnerability within America at large.
When you write these essays that do provoke many people, how do you make these confrontations a catalyst of change, rather than something which leads to polarization?
I think there are many ways to change, not just one way. But as a writer, I see my role as someone who pokes the painful places. And that’s what I try to do with this essay. I clearly wanted to provoke. When I sent the editor the first draft, and he said that this will turn into a powerful article, I said to him that I want to piss of as many people as possible. So I knew what I was doing. I’ve been writing for 20 years, and I know when to write soft, and when to write hard. But I often favor writing hard, because I like to a very provocative and controversial and in-your-face approach, because that’s the kind of writer that I am.
There are other writers out there who take a more placid approach, you know, let’s all sit down and talk, and let’s involve both the men and the women. There’s room for all of that. But for me, in order to surmount the obstacle, that is mainly denial, and a ongoing attempt to silence any kind of self criticism, you have to kick where it hurts.
What is the relationship between writers like yourself, and those who take a more conciliatory approach? In Norway, one of the things that frustrates me is that people who share many of the same goals, but who take different approaches, spend a lot of time going at each other.
I see provocative writers, those of us who write in a provocative way, at the end of a spectrum. For me, the voices of the right wing, be it the political right wing in Europe, or the Muslim right wing, I fight both of those right wings. In this conflict, I see my self in one sense in the middle. In the essay, though, I focused on the Muslim right wing, and the dictatorships that maintain misogyny. But in another sense, I’m on the extreme left, if you like, because I see more and more people heading towards the extreme rights, both the political right in Europe and the Muslim right. And what writers like myself do, is that we try to pull the spectrum towards us, so that those who are in the conciliatory camp can point to us and say “I’m not as crazy as Mona”, or “Did you see Mona’s essay, oh my God! I don’t think they hate us! – but still, let us talk about this and this and that.”
So I kick you where it hurts, and then someone else can come and say “I’m not going to kick you, I’m just going to sit across the table and talk to you, but not in that terrible way Mona does.”
It’s the good old-fashioned “good cop, bad cop routine”?
Yes – so my role is to be the crazy one over there, and then others can say, you know, let’s try to talk about some of the things she talked about, but not in that crazy way. And I’m fine playing that role.
It has been claimed by some of your critics that only focusing on the oppression of women misses the wider context of oppression in Arab communities: In Saudi Arabia, women cannot vote, but the vote of men matters not either; women are too often subjected to violence at the hands of men, but they are in turn subjected to violence by the regimes. These objections to your essay seem to believe that the regimes are more to blame than the culture.
I lived in Saudi Arabia for six years, and I visited at least three times a year for another twelve. Saudi Arabia is another planet. To focus on areas where you can make some comparisons between men and women, or some comparisons between Western women and Saudi women, is emblematic of people’s willingness to bend over backwards in order to ignore the egregious violations of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. I don’t think I’ve seen any other country which so blatantly violates women’s rights and gets away with it. It is not about the voting, it is about the fact that Saudi women are treated like children their entire lives.
What has happened in Europe over the past few years is that the left wing has been quiet in the name of cultural relativism and political correctness, because it doesn’t want to arm the right wing. At least on the right wing, the racism is overt. I can see the racism on the right wing, and I can fight it. With the left wing it is a racism of low expectations. They don’t expect anything at all from me as a Muslim.
The soft bigotry of low expectations – that is actually a quote from George W. Bush.
A friend of mine was the first to say that. If Bush said it first, that is an unfortunate coincidence! Don’t tell anyone, or people will start saying “Mona is neocon!”
But the left expect so little of the Muslim community, they say that this is their culture. And, just as importantly, even when they have higher expectations, they don’t want to speak out, because they are afraid of arming the right wing. By staying silent, they have abandoned Muslim women. They are willing to use women as a bargaining chip, so that they don’t fuel the right wing.
It is not about giving the West a feeling of superiority, it is about serious violations of women’s rights that must be condemned by everyone. But they must be fixed by the people inside.
It seems that whenever there is criticism of conditions in non-Western countries, there is this avalanche of critics who will point out that that the West too is far from perfect, or, in this instance, that misogyny exists also in the West – eating disorders and fashion industry, domestic violence, or unfair treatment in politics and public life; there seems to be such a strong urge to create moral equivalency.
Exactly – you know, it’s bad for women everywhere, except perhaps in Scandinavia, though there are still problems. Yes, you can talk about the patriarchy everywhere, yes there is misogyny everywhere – but not in the same form, not to the same extent, and in some countries you can fight that through the legal system, and in the Middle East, we don’t have that. There is no equivalence.
Some have criticized your article for alienating Muslims – men and women. The anti-Islamophobia blog Loonwatch has said that while you try to connect to Muslim women based on their gender, you attack other aspects of their core identity: Race, nationality, religion and culture. Others have said that you push away Muslim men, by them portraying them as cruel.
I expected a lot of this criticism. This is stuff that comes all the time when you point out something painful. What I did not expect was the amount of support I got. And a lot of the support came from Muslim men.
What do you think about the prospects for change in gender roles in the Middle East? We heard at the Oslo Freedom Forum from Mir Ahmad Nasr about how the Arab Spring has been accompanied by a change in family relations, and a new questioning of authority. Is this something you thing will be relevant for the situation of women as well? Do you share this optimism?
Yes, I’m very optimistic, since even before these revolutions began. Remember that these revolutions didn’t happen over night, they have been bubbling up for years. No one just wakes up one day and thinks “Hey, I’m going to overthrow my dictator of 30 years today”. And one of the most important processes in the region has to do with the fact the majority of the population in the region is under 30 years old. 70 percent of Saudis are younger than 30, whereas the heads of the royal family are over 80 – that is an enormous difference.
And in this situation the Internet has been introduced. Over the past few years, young people, men and women, who have had access to the Internet, have used it to challenge authority. And in challenging authority, they have been able to find a space to say to themselves: “I count”, and they took that sense of empowerment to the street, and they made a revolution. And you think this will also manifest itself in the shape of women’s rights?
Yes, of course. Don’t forget that so many women were sexually assaulted on the frontlines of the revolution, in Egypt, in Yemen, in Syria, in Bahrain, that there is no way that, after having fought a revolution along side men, these incredibly courageous women will suddenly go back to whatever used to happen in the past. That’s why I mentioned Samir Ibrahim, the incredibly brave activist, who was subjected to so-called virginity tests after the military broke up Tahrir square. And she tried to sue the military. Can you imagine, a 25 years old women, from southern Egypt, from a very conservative background, who used to be a saleswoman before the revolution – she took the military junta to court, and said that what they did to her was wrong! There’s no way that a woman like her is going to go back to be anything less than someone who fights for complete freedom. So what my essay is trying to do, is to say that the women like Samir now have two revolutions that need to be completed: The revolution against the regime, which oppresses all of us; but also a second revolution against a society that oppresses us as women.
When I was beaten and sexually assaulted and detained, I was with a male friend. He was also beaten and detained; so, yes, the regime beat us both. But when we are released, I face a misogyny and a violation of my rights from society that he does not. That’s the second revolution.
What are your views on the similarities and the differences in the challenges we face when we engage misogyny in Arab and Muslim communities in the Middle East and when we engage misogyny in Arab and Muslim communities in Europe and the United States? In the Middle East, the Arab culture is dominant. You said initially that some in the Middle East interpret self-criticism as an invitation to invasion. That theory is a quite convoluted theory. In order to achieve change, negative attitudes must be confronted aggressively. However, in the West, where Muslim and Arab cultures are a minority, and often are met with stereotyping and intolerance from elements in the majority community, how do we talk about these issues while avoiding fuelling illiberal responses?
It is always a balancing act, and it is a different balancing act in the West. I was accused of fuelling Islamophobia by exposing these violations of women’s rights, because there is a real concern about Islamophobia. But that cannot imply that we should not speak out against violations that we see within those communities. And I think the best way to do that is to find interlocutors within the communities, in order to have a conversation that everybody can join. So far, a problem has been that the dominant group talking about violations of women’s rights, or children’s rights, or the silencing of dissent, has been the political right wing; and so everybody else becomes very defensive, and does not want to join the conversation. They want to protect Muslims; but that doesn’t help anybody.
And how do we find these interlocutors?
Find people who are working inside the communities, and who understand that it helps nobody to be in denial and to silence people’s voices – and they exist. There are social workers, who understand that violence, when it is not confronted in the home, is lethal, and kill women and children. Find them, because they are trusted within the community, and they are also trusted to be the bridge between the Muslim community and the community at large. And through them, find the voices that they work with within the community, because this cannot be a conversation that is owned by the political right wing. Because that helps nobody. Because that ends up making it easier to silence the voices within the community that are trying to make it better.
After 9/11 you could say that there has been a strengthening of more radical identities, among Muslims, but also among, in its own way, on the far political right. At the same time, the debate about Islam in the West has finally, one could say, begun. In Norway, we hardly knew that there were Muslims in Norway. There were Pakistanis, for sure, but not Muslims. But then you had 9/11, and you had the cartoon controversy, and suddenly you had a debate. And of course it was very defensive. At the same time, more liberal Western Muslim identities have started to appear. In the last three or four years, in particular, the debate about Islam has increasingly been characterized by a differentiation of Muslim voices. You’re talking about the right wing’s monopolization of the debate, but does it not also seem like we are going in the right direction here?
Yes, I believe we are going in the right direction. Many people in the West were introduced to Islam through very painful episodes. The first time people realized their neighbor was a Muslim in the US, was 9/11. So the introduction was to the worst kind of example of violence in the name of religion. That was not a good start to the conversation, and that is was very defensive, and that is why there have been so many attempts at silencing voices within the community, in order to achieve a united front. But a united front doesn’t help anybody, because it ends up stifling the diversity of voices that are essential to a healthy community. And I believe that a diversity of voices is a strength for the Muslim community also as it enters the conversation with the majority community, because that is the best way to fight the stereotypes, that we are monolithic blobs.
And I think that the revolutions now in the Middle East and in North Africa are a positive reintroduction to Islam for many people, because they are realizing that the Osama bin Laden-model of change failed. Nobody was out on the streets calling for Al-Qaeda. So bin Laden symbolically died a long time before the Americans actually killed him. Even in Yemen, where you have the presence of Al-Qaeda on the Arab peninsula, the protestors rose up peacefully, with out weapons, and without chanting Al-Qaeda slogans. So this reintroduction to Islam, to a very different kind of Islam, finally makes clear that there is a diversity of voices.
What will be the role of Islam as we go forward in the Middle East? At the Oslo Freedom Forum we heard from Moroccan journalist Ahmed Benchemsi, who said we will see different stages in the development of democracies in the Middle East, and that the Muslim Brotherhood, as the only organized oppositional force in the authoritarian regimes, will play a prominent role at the current stage, while at the same time giving an impetus for more secular forces finally to organize as democratically oriented political movements. What’s your take on this?
I’m no fan of the Muslim Brotherhood. They’ve been in parliament now in Egypt since November, and they have failed to deliver on most of the things that their voters elected them to deliver on. But even before they were elected to parliament, I considered what has happened to the Brotherhood after the revolution as almost the beginning of the end of the Muslim Brotherhood in its current form. In the past, the Muslim Brotherhood was able to play the role of the victim; they said “Mubarak jails us, Mubarak tortures us, he won’t let us participate”, but they’re no longer the victims. They are the majority in parliament. So the victimhood card can no longer be played.
So now, you have an ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has morphed into a political party, called the Freedom and Justice Party. And the Muslim Brotherhood has to decide: Are they an ideology, or are they a political party? Once you form a political party, you become tainted by politics. You can no longer be on the high moral ground, because you need to make all kinds of compromises. Finding its place in this landscape is going to be the biggest test for the Muslim Brotherhood. And how will wrestling in the dirt of politics affect the mystique of their ideology, which they always used to wrap around them, with slogans like “Islam is the solution”, which really meant nothing, how are those slogans now going to be viewed? So that is a positive development, I think.
How do you view the liberal opposition? Have they started to organize in a meaningful way?
It wasn’t surprising that the Muslim Brotherhood did so well in the elections. They were the only organized force, they had charitable institutions, they provided social services that the regime didn’t, and, just as importantly, the regime could not close down the mosque, and the Muslim Brotherhood used the mosque as a political pulpit. Other political groups did not have the mosque to use, and most other platforms were controlled by the regime; but just as importantly, other political forces also did not go out and provide social services to the poor and disadvantaged. But if we think five or ten years ahead, the picture changes. The non-Islamists now realize that they have to start preparing for the next elections. So Egypt remains exciting, and I remain optimistic, because I’m looking five and ten years ahead. It’s going to be a mess for the next five years, probably the next ten years, but at the next elections, as long as we guarantee that we are going to have elections, five years from now, it is going to be a different political mix, because more parties will be prepared for the elections.
According to a recent poll, 45 percent of the people who voted for the Muslim Brotherhood said they would not do so again. The Muslim Brotherhood is a disciplined movement, and it members will continue to vote for them; but they are maybe only 10-15 percent of the Egyptian population. And other people who voted for them, but who do not belong to the movement, have watched their performance, and felt disappointed. The Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t speak credibly about job creation, about fixing the economy; they don’t talk about putting on trial the people responsible for killing Egyptians during the revolution. So Egyptians are asking themselves why they voted for the Muslim Brotherhood.
How do you see the role of Islam in all of this? Can it play a constructive and positive role? Must mainstream Islam change in order to do so? Is it changing?
One thing I hate is when people say “If we only practiced true Islam, everything would be fine.” There is no such thing as true Islam. There is 1.5 billion Muslims around the world, there is 1.5 billion Islams. Every Muslim, who identifies as a Muslim, carries within her or him a different kind of Muslim. In a country like Egypt, where Islamists hold 70 percent of the seats in parliament, many people in the opposition realize that to appeal to the average Egyptian, who does with sympathize with a religious message, you might have to use religion to argue against the Islamists’ message.
And those groups exist. In Cairo, the general secretariat of a movement that I belong to, called Musawah, will soon open. Musawah is the Arabic word for equality. This movement was launched in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia in 2009, and it is a movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family. And what it does, is that it specifically targets family law in Muslim majority countries and in Muslim communities that are allowed to have arbitration courts, such as in the UK and the US. Family law is often the only aspect of the legal system in Muslim majority countries that is stilling according to religion. And here, religion will have a role. In Egypt, for example, the entire legal system has been modernized, except for family law. If you for example are a Christian, you have to abide by church law on marriage and divorce. That means that Coptic Christians in Egypt cannot divorce, because of church law. Sometimes Christians convert to Islam to divorce, and then go back to being Christians again, out of desperation to divorce.
Muslims, on the other hand, are subject to Egypt’s interpretation of Islamic law, according to which a man can say to a woman that he divorces her three times, and they are divorced. It is according to the same religious family law that a man inherits twice as much as a woman.
Musawah is trying to fight that discrimination and injustice against women in family law. One of their approaches is called Islamic feminism. I am not an Islamic feminist. I’m Muslim and I’m feminist, but not an Islamic feminist. I don’t use Islam for my feminism. In the past, I used to do that, but then I got tired of playing my verse versus your verse. I would say “this verse can be interpreted in this way”, and my opponents would say “no, it should be interpreted in this way” – and I grew tired of that. I’m a feminist, and I base it on secular grounds, and I’m also a Muslim, but I’m not going to argue endlessly about every verse in the Quran.
But some people within Musawah are using reinterpretation, especially by progressive, liberal female scholars. And they are now going to base their general secretariat in Egypt, which is an important step at this point in time, as we look at women’s rights in these revolutionary societies. There will have to be room in the new Egypt for the religious argument for feminism and for women’s rights. So this is a space that the revolutions open up for a new role for Islam, and it opens up a new space for contesting the conservative and radical interpretations of Islam that the Muslim Brotherhood and the salafis promote in Egypt.
Many in the West see it as a threat that Islam will play a more prominent role in politics as the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power. But you see it more as an opportunity to get more diversity into the debate about religion in the Middle East, contributing to further questioning of illiberal authorities in those societies?
Absolutely. The point for me is not whether parliament is majority religious or majority secular at this first stage, but rather that there is accountability and challenging of authority. And in that sense, Egypt has changed forever. The last time I was in Egypt was the International Women’s Day. And I went there specifically to march to parliament and to call on parliament to respect women’s rights. We chanted against the military, and against the Muslim Brotherhood. This for me is what the revolution has accomplished: That when the government does something I don’t like, I can go to the streets, and I can hold them accountable. Accountability, not Islam, is what the Arab Spring is all about.