Tidbits of Arabic News translated into English

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Interview with Mona Eltahawy

(January 7, 2014)

The BBC Arabic did an interview with Mona Eltahawy. It was Malak versus Mona, so two very strong-willed Arab women going head-to-toe. This is a program called "Without Rules," to imply that the news presenters ask really hard-hitting questions. And they do!

Malak Jaafar (left) and Mona Eltahawy 

Mona said that the revolutions to topple the Arab governments are great, but even more than that, we need a women's revolution that stir things up specifically for women's rights, as well.

Malak: how do you know that Egyptian women (Mona is Egyptian) want a women's revolution?

Mona: society wants freedom, and the society wants dignity, and it's impossible to have dignity when half the people in the society is told you're worth half a person. When we got rid of Mubarak, we got Mursi. When we got rid of Mursi, we got Sisi. So it's father after father after father. We have to say that women must be a complete part of the society, and when we talk about freedom and dignity, women have to be part of that as well.

Malak: how, though, can you change the mindset so that it becomes more than just a revolution for electoral rights, but encompasses all the other things you're suggesting?

Mona: starts talking about how in 2005, she was part of small demonstrations against the government, only about 150 people. But in the new demonstrations starting in 2011, there were millions involved, and lots of women, and women from all walks of life. Not just rich women, but normal women. And when normal girls saw others demanding rights, that meant that ... (and I lost her!)

Malak: when you saw women of all backgrounds being part of the revolutions, how did this inform your own concept of freedom and equality?

Mona: yes, and I really like some of the volunteer groups that have sprung up since. They're really trying to reach out to classes in society that we don't hear about a lot, particularly when it comes to women. Among the most important things that they do is that they go to the villages in the Egyptian countryside and try to help the girls and women there. We know that for these women and girls, feminism and women's rights are ideas that are far, far away from their realities, so when we talk to them, we do so in a very simple way. We paint it in a way so that even those girls can see the benefits of a women's rights movement.

Mona continued: Back in the days when we were having elections, volunteers went to those villages and talked about the important of casting your vote and for whom. It was very clear from the many girls and women we talked to that even though they had the right of the vote, they weren't paying attention to the elections at all, and much of their ideas of the political realities came from their husbands. So we have a very long ways to go in Egypt. We have to go to all the places in Egypt and meet with the women and girls to see what they need, and then maybe we'll be able to help them.

Malak: When you put these kinds of concepts before these women, don't you think it can cause some kind of fear, because the concept of "freedom" and of "feminism" to these sections of society is different from the concept that you yourself or other female activists hold. Maybe to the women you're addressing these concepts sound much more western than local.

Mona: Starts giving a history of the women's rights movement in Egypt since the beginning of the 1900s ... so when we talk about feminism, a lot of people in the Arab world think that we are bringing ideas from the west. But no! We have feminism in our own society, and we have to speak of the great Egyptian feminist women that came before us.

Malak: but in spite of all that, people perhaps think that the feminist movement comes from the west because it's become intertwined with many western ideas, among them sexual freedom; the way the feminist activists present themselves; you, yourself Mona! you don't resemble most Egyptian girls you see day to day on the street.

Mona Eltahawy. (Indeed, if my grandmother was watching, she would have said, Yeboo! Look at that hair! Look at those tattoos! What's this! Hay shino!)

Mona: When we had movements for individual freedom in the Arab world back in the 1980s, those people were also accused of selling out to western values. But they reached a point at which the Egyptian street itself, and all the people, said, no, we have rights, we shouldn't be tortured, police shouldn't be allowed to hit people; this same occurrence is what we need to happen when it comes to women's rights. And I'm not the only one who should be talking. When we're talking about women's rights movements on the ground in Egypt, there's women who look like me, and then there's women who wear hijabs and niqabs; so I'm not the only one talking, and surely Egyptian society needs more than just me talking. We have to fight against the people who take advantage of Islamic religion and Eygptian traditions to say: women have rights!

Malak asked Mona: you say that when you're in New York, you're Muslim, and when you're in Egypt, you're secular. Then when you're doing your activism, people look at you and don't understand, who are you? and what is that that you want exactly?

Mona: yes, yes! I fight for those who are minorities (?). In the US, I say that I am Muslim because I don't look like the stereotypical Muslim woman, and so I am fighting those judgments to let people know that people looking like me can also be Muslim. In Egypt, I say that I am both secular and feminist...

Malak: So you're walking a tightrope.

Mona: yes, exactly!

Malak: but this takes away from some of your credibility.

Mona: Lee, leie?! (Why, why?) I am Muslim and secular at the same time.

Malak: is that possible?

Mona: yes, certainly, of course! In my opinion religion is a matter between myself and our Creator. I am in complete disagreement with political undertrappings of religion. I am against the Islamic political parties that take religion and politics and intertwine the two. Religion comes to play at home between me and our Creator, and when it comes to society, I talk about rights and equality and dignity for all.

Malak: what led you to this conviction, because this concept that you have is not the universal concept, not in western societies and not in Arab societies; at the very least, still today, religion occupies a very large role in public and political life. So how did you arrive at your ideas?

Mona: it was a process that took years. I read tons and tons of Arab thinkers (she listed lots of names) that showed me the way, and showed me there was no conflict between being Muslim and secular, and same thing with the United States. She then listed the names and books of some Muslim Americans. The book she focused on, and that she believed in whole-heartedly, said that in order for a person to be a true Muslim, the country's government must be secular. Because if the government is forcing you to pray and to fast, then it ceases to be a choice you are making.

Malak: and because of this, you are someone who did not support the Muslim Brotherhood being in power in Egypt. Today, the Muslim Brotherhood is not in power, and is in fact sitting in jail. You were someone who supported Mursi being taken out of office. Do you today believe that Egypt is on its way to democracy merely because the Muslim Brotherhood is no longer controlling the government?

Mona: no, no, we have a long way to go. I just wanted to clarify one thing. I was supportive that we got rid of Mursi, but I was totally against that the military that booted him out would then take power itself. I am against religion in politics, but I am against the military in politics as well. I want to remind everyone that it's the military that got us into this mess in the first place. And I'm not against the right-wing religious people being in government per se, but we had reached a point with Mursi, after just a year, when he made a constitutional change and took a bunch of powers for himself; it was like he was flying in the face of the revolution. We elected Mursi to safeguard our revolution. Same thing with Sisi: we also demand of him that Egypt gets to complete the revolution.

Malak: there's an idea that Egyptian society likes have a strong leader, with lots of power, as long as he is handsome, and that's why so many of the Egyptian population likes the current ruler al-Sisi, even though he's a military leader and technically got power through a coup.

Mona: no, I reject that idea completely. Sure, there's people that like stability. But we have a pretty good-sized portion of people who were out protesting, and reveling in the fact that they can raise their voice; we went through a door when we did that, and we can't go back. We had those rights, and we won't give them up. And revolutions don't need a majority; no, they need a minority with lots of enthusiasm to set things going.

Malak asked a few more questions:

And Mona answered:

And then they got to talking about an article that Mona wrote last year called "Why do they hate us?" [Why do Arab men hate Arab women?]

Malak: Mona, I've heard you say in many interviews that the Arab women will not be free until we kill off the Mubarak in her bedroom, meaning the evil husbands. It seems like here we find a link between the political side, where you say that we have to break the image of Mubarak as a president holding absolute power, and breaking the image of the men who won't give women their rights. To what extent does what you say comes from your personal feelings or from personal hatred you have towards men?

Mona: No, no, I love men, and I'm their friend, hahahaha! But what I'm talking about is any patriarchal system of life that tries to fight against a woman having all of her rights. It's impossible for me to live in a society and be quiet when that society harasses a woman walking on the street.

Malak: how can you say that you love men, in the general sense of the word, of course, when you have written an article, and perhaps in the future will write a book, called "Why do they hate us," referring to men.

Mona: but I'm not saying that I hate men; I'm saying they're the ones who hate us and and they're the ones who stand in our way when we demand our rights. Plus, when we had the political revolutions, we Arab women were asked to come out in the streets and help, and we paid a huge price. I paid a personal price, and there were others killed and those who fell in the streets, those imprisoned and those beaten, in Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, and Libya. For us to pay such a price, and then have the society come back and say, okay, that's it, you can go back home now - no, this is impossible, of course.

And by the way, when I talk about feminism, I don't mean that women get rights and men get none. I mean that both have rights and we work together. I mean by feminism that you focus equally on men and women. But the way it is now, all the focus is on men.

Malak: then how did feminism become all caught up in the idea that you have to hate men and it's just for women?

Mona: they even have that thought in the US, where a lot of young people don't call themselves feminist because they couple it with a wild-looking person, but that's not the only face of feminism ... and I'm convinced that we will never have a true revolution unless .......

The end.

See full interview here.

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