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Mona Eltahawy: 'No one ever asks men, don't you think violence against women begets violence?'

We speak to the author about her new book, The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls, which is published by Tramp Press.

Image: Mona Eltahawy

MONA ELTAHAWY WANTS women and girls to commit sins. Not just any sins, but the seven sins she believes are necessary in order to overthrow the patriarchy.

The Egyptian-American journalist and activist, who was born in Egypt, has a new book that details these sins – and they range from anger and ambition to violence and lust.

The book, The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls, is published by Tramp Press, the Irish independent publisher that’s had an incredible run of years. It’s home to critically acclaimed books by authors like Doireann Ní Ghríofa (A Ghost in the Throat) and Emily Pine (Notes to Self). It’s a fitting home for Eltahawy, whose previous book, Headscarves and Hymens, was about the need for a sexual revolution in the Middle East.

When we chat over Zoom, Eltahawy is an energetic, positive, open book. As The Journal talks to her about power, trauma, feminism and sexism, she’s not afraid to introduce challenging ideas to the conversation.

One of those – perhaps the most controversial part of her book – is the idea of women fighting back with violence.

“In the book, I quote feminist psychiatrist, Judith Herman, who says the legal system is set up to protect men from the superior power of the state, but not to protect women and children from the superior power of men,” says Eltahawy. “Now, obviously, you also have to factor into that hierarchy being a black person, or a woman of colour, disabled, all the other kind of hierarchies of oppression.”

She says that people have accused her of inciting violence, asking her if “violence begets violence”. But she retorts – doesn’t this question completely ignore “the centuries-long violence against women?”

“No one ever asks men, ‘don’t you think violence against women begets violence?’, because [violence against women is] a normalised and expected violence,” says Eltahawy. “But then when I talk about my right to defend myself, when I talk about beating up a man in a club [who sexually assaulted me], people are like, hold on now, violence – no, no, we shouldn’t be adding violence. I’m like: What do you mean, adding violence?  Violence exists, and it exists in those in power.”

Her book details, chapter by chapter, how women can ‘commit’ these ‘sins’ in order to bring power to themselves, and fight back against a patriarchal system that oppresses them. It’s a fiery, frank, and fact-filled read (there’s a substantial bibliography at the back), and Eltahawy shares stories from across the globe. 

She says that “patriarchy enables and protects men’s violence against women”. In the book, she asks the reader to imagine an “intentionally disturbing scenario” of women declaring war against men in order to end patriarchy. She details how men in this scenario would be killed for no reason other than being men. She asks how long it would take before this would be noticed.

She writes that violence is already taking place against women because they are women, and that women are being encouraged to accept it and never fight it. It’s an intentionally disturbing scenario because it makes the reader confront their own ideas about violence, and violence against women. Eltahawy knows this – and wants this. She wants people to feel confronted, to examine their own biases and their own acceptance of some scenarios being ‘just how things are’.

She says that the reaction she gets from white feminists about her chapter on violence tends to be – “but what about pacifism? Is violence really the answer to violence?”

But that’s not the case “when I talk to Black feminists, when I talk to feminists of colour, when I talk to trans people; people who have been subjected to violence”. By this, she means that those most likely to experience violence know the power in fighting back. Her thoughts on violence also intersect with her thoughts on other topics, like colonisation. Having lived in Egypt, the UK and America, and having travelled extensively before Covid, Eltahawy has a specific interest in global power relations and how they intersect with patriarchy.

In the chapter on violence, she describes patriarchy as “the oldest form of occupation”. She wants people to think about the idea of colonisation and how it relates to patriarchy.

She says that people are “okay” about women being in a liberation movement and fighting against occupation, like women being in the Black Panthers or the IRA: “They’re willing to accept women’s violence in that instance.”

“But then when you’re talking about women, [such as] IRA fighters fighting about internal violence against them from their comrades, oh, my God, it’s over. And then when you’re talking about women now, not fighting for the good of everyone, but fighting against how the State and the street together oppressing us. All of a sudden, all the arguments about our right to liberate ourselves from occupation go out the window.

“I do deserve to liberate myself.”

Finding power

Eltahawy has non-traditional thoughts about power, too. It’s not just, for her, about getting any woman into power. She tells a story in the book about watching the 2016 World Cup final in Cairo with her father, and getting to tell a young boy that the powerful women he saw on screen were the president of the host country Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

She was proud of her teachable moment, until she returned home and got thinking about Rousseff in particular, and her relationships with men like Jair Bolsonaro, and the rates of sexual violence against women in Brazil.

“I was like, what do we really need from women in power? Is it just basically marching in goose step, not necessarily fascist, but just an imitation of men in power?” she recalls. “And so for me having a woman in power, the question that really we have to get to is: is this a woman upholding patriarchy, or dismantling patriarchy? That for me is much more important than just filling in boxes and quotas.”

She says that talking about people like Margaret Thatcher “it’s also a great reminder to tell people look, feminism isn’t about a few exceptional individual women who somehow make it beyond the obstacles of patriarchy, and become president or prime minister.”

Feminism is about destroying the obstacles that hold everyone else back. Because I’m not interested in a few exceptional individuals.

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Eltahawy describes herself as anarchist – she’s not interested in getting into power as it currently exists. But when she talks about feminism, she says “people immediately want to know how you’re going to fix it”. 

“And I remind them that look, you cannot ask the person who’s oppressed to come up with the ways to persuade their oppressor to stop oppressing them. So it’s almost like an impossible task. That’s why I’m an anarchist feminist – I never want to be inside your power structures.”

But she doesn’t see this as something that everyone should aspire to. Instead, she hopes that being on the fringes, she can help other women find power. 

“I like to think that I’m stretching the space in which we can have these discussions so that those who are inside and who think that they can bring about change from within can point to people like me and say, ‘we’re not asking for what Mona is asking for. She wants to dismantle the State! She wants to abolish the police, prisons and borders and have no borders anyway!’”

Processing trauma

Eltahawy has experienced some truly traumatic things over the past few decades. In 2011, she was arrested by Egyptian authorities while reporting on the protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo. She suffered fractures on both arms. 

She writes about this in the book, and also about how as a girl she was sexually assaulted during Hajj, a religious pilgrimage.

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Is it difficult to have to share these stories? “It’s all difficult,” she acknowledges. But she tells her story in order to educate and encourage. She uses an example of protesting with activists in Cairo to show why she does what she does. 

“The activists in Cairo at the time were saying ‘we are breaking the barrier of fear when people see us doing this, even if they don’t want to do it, we’re breaking this barrier of fear’, because up until then, they could never imagine someone marching in the street saying ‘down, down with Hosni Mubarak’.”

Their early activism was followed in January 2011 with widespread activism against Mubarak.

“And then, of course, what happened in 2011, in January, millions of people across the whole square and other squares in Egypt, so that I consider what I’m doing feminist revolutionary work.

She sees her work in general not just about breaking down the barrier of fear, but about breaking down the barrier of taboo. “Whether it’s talking about sexual violence, whether it’s talking about sex and desire… I feel like it’s only fair if I want to inspire, educate, enlighten, whatever word you want to use, in the same way that we would go out on the street and just show people look, we’re protesting, and we know it’s dangerous. I want people to see, look, I’m talking about these things.”

And I know it’s dangerous. And I know that they’re taboo. But if I want them to talk about it, the least I can do is also talk about it, considering how much privilege I have. So even if I’ve been hurt by all of those things, I offer them as an act of solidarity, but I also offer them as an act of ‘let’s break down these barriers of taboo together, because they have silenced and shamed us for too long’. And we have nothing to be ashamed of. And everyone has a voice, so let’s start listening to each other.

She says that part of her feminist revolution is to be visible, “to say ‘here I am’”. She publishes selfies on Instagram with the caption ‘this is 53′, to show people what a woman in her 50s looks like. She dyed her hair bright red after she was assaulted in Egypt. She shaved her hair off at the beginning of the pandemic.

“I’m not interested in having just the men look at me, I want the women to look at me too. I want everyone to look at me. I’m a very out-there person. It’s why I dyed my hair red. That’s why I have tattoos. Because when my arms were broken, I recognised that using my body as a canvas was a way to communicate in the way that I couldn’t because my arms were in a cast, and I couldn’t type. After I dyed my hair red and got tattoos. I moved back to Cairo from New York to say fuck you to the regime. So here I am, I’m not hiding.”

Her work doesn’t stop with Seven Sins – she’s currently working on three other books, including one on gender and beauty, one on anarchist feminism, and one on profanity. 

If it was any normal year, she’d be over in Ireland for a trip to mark the publication of the book. “I’m a massive fan of Ireland,” she says. Her first trip here was to talk at the Cúirt festival in Galway in 2006. Since then she’s come back a few times, and has made some fast friends.

“I recognised when I was [at Cúirt] that Ireland was one of the few countries where I could talk about fighting religion and fighting culture, and the audience could immediately understand what I’m saying,” says Eltahawy. 

She considers the last few years in Ireland, with our two landmark referendums, as a revolution. Ireland is mentioned in Seven Sins, but Eltahawy wants us to turn our gaze away from Europe and the US when it comes feminism. 

In her latest work, she makes a point of deliberately de-centring white people, and white feminism. “I consider Trump’s election the biggest reminder of the failure of white feminism,” she explains. “How on earth the majority of white women voters in the United States vote for that man, and after decades of feminism, is a reminder that for them race trumped their agenda, because they are told if you are foot soldiers of patriarchy, we will protect you.”

As she says in the book, “I want a feminism that is led by the not white, the not rich, the not heteronormative, I want it to be a queer, black indigenous people, people of colour feminism.” 

The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls, published by Tramp Press, is out now.

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