Transcript/Podcast: Robin Morgan Interviews Mona Eltahawy, Egyptian-American Journalist and Activist
September 26, 2012
Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy was arrested yesterday for allegedly defacing a so-called hate speech poster in New York City's Times Square subway station. The posters, implying strongly that Muslims were "savages," were installed in New York subway stations after a court order forcing the Metropolitan Transit Authority to do so. They were paid for by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, a conservatively pro-Israel group.
Just prior to her arrest, Eltahawy had given an exclusive interview to Women’s Center Media Live with Robin Morgan, where she spoke with Morgan about anti-Muslim sentiment, extremists on both sides fueling hate and inciting each other, and the fight for freedom by women and youth in the Middle East. The show aired Sunday, September 23. We are making available Mona's interview as a standalone download; its transcript is below.
Robin Morgan: Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-American feminist, brilliant journalist and pal. She was a correspondent for Reuters in Cairo and Jerusalem. She has reported news from the Middle East for The Guardian in the UK. She has written for US News and World Report. She writes essays and op-eds for publications around the world on Egypt and the region and the Islamic world and a particular focus on women’s status. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and lots of really highly respectable wonderful journalistic places. She is a force majeure and she is here with me today fresh from the plane landing from Cairo. Are your jets still lagging?
Mona Eltahawy: Very much so.
Robin: Yes, I nabbed her because she’s just back from Cairo where you were for, what, two, three months?
Mona: No, I was in Cairo for almost a month.
Robin: To your friends it seems much longer.
Mona: [laughs] I’ve been back and forth, though, so it’s been a bit.
Robin: So you were there when all the latest exploded. I know you went there to work with the women’s groups in the post-uprising. Tell what you’ve been doing.
Mona: I’ve been going back for various reasons. I’ve been going back for personal reasons because I wanted to show the military which was behind an attack on me in November that I would not be deterred from coming back to my country of birth. I wanted to go back to work with feminist groups on the ground there because I’m soon launching a national campaign against sexual violence. And I’m also gearing up to write a book on an essay I wrote about the relation of women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa.
Robin: Don’t do only one thing at a time, Mona. You are the original multitasker.
Mona: I try my best, Robin.
Robin: Yeah, you succeed. When things exploded over this asinine video that these troublemaking crazy Christians did in California, I think. How did impact on women, were women involved? What’s going down in terms of that?
Mona: What you saw in Cairo was clearly a right wing responding to a right wing. And a very fringe right wing on both sides.
Mona: And whenever two right wing fringes respond and especially if they are religiously motivated in any shape or form, women are never part of the equation. It’s usually an alarm bell to women and those of us who care about liberties generally. Especially for those of us who identify as feminists because when I look at the right wing groups in Egypt responding to this unbelievably amateurish film that had been on YouTube for at least two months, I think it was?
Mona: And it was just picked up in time for a protest again, nicely timed to the September 11th anniversary.
Robin: Oh how convenient!
Mona: Yes, exactly. Outside the US embassy which had nothing to do with the film. You recognize that it’s two very fringe right wings talking to each other above the heads of the rest of us. And wanting to hijack a very, very sensitive and special moment in time called our revolution.
Robin: You know, my PQ is very high, my paranoid quotient, and I did have this fantasy that the generals and even the Muslim Brotherhood, in other words the right wing in Egypt, were in some kind of crazy conspiracy with the crazy Christians who made the video. They supply each other with the flint to strike the flame. And the folks in the middle who are trying for democracy for equality, for sanity are the losers.
Mona: Absolutely, Robin. You know I’m not a great conspiracy theorist myself.
Robin: Nor am I, usually!
Mona: But there are moments where you really have to wonder who is benefitting from this and who is behind this. There were so many unanswered questions as we watched these events unfold. Not just in Egypt but in Libya, where the Ambassador and three staffers were killed. And then three days when fourteen Muslims were killed in clashes with fellow Muslims over this ridiculous film that no one would have watched unless the right wing groups managed to provoke each other.
Mona: And then in Egypt, not just in Egypt, in all the countries where we’re having revolutions that continue because none of them really been completed yet. We’ve spent almost two years trying to change the stereotype of us as crazies, as angry, irrational people. And I think we’ve managed to succeed because we point to revolutions and say, “Look, you see, we chose the peaceful way, we didn’t choose the Al Qaeda way.”
Robin: That’s right.
Mona: And look who steps into this? The Al Qaeda types to say, “Here we are now.” And so all this work of almost two or three years, in three or four days was almost ruined. In Egypt when we’re discussing a constitution, and we have really right wing and rabidly anti-women and rabidly anti-freedom men writing a constitution it’s a very sensitive time and also we don’t want the return of emergency law. But when you see this chaos outside the American embassy, of course you begin to hear our justice minister who was at one time a respected judge talk about the possible resumption of emergency law. So again it’s only the right wing that benefits.
Robin: You said to me when you just arrived that you are tired of being a “cleaner” and that the crazies undo all the work that you and people like you have done to bust up the stereotypes of Muslims and the Muslim world. Do you know about the campaign on Twitter, which I think is witty and absolutely wonderful. Clearly it’s spontaneous and young people…the hash tag is #muslimrage.
Mona: Yes I saw that, in response to the crazy Newsweek cover.
Robin: It’s so witty! A tweet will be: “Took my laundry to the laundromat, #muslimrage.” “My mother got furious with me because I ate the top of the cupcake off #muslimrage.” [Mona laughs] It’s an ongoing campaign of, hello, we’re human, we’re normal, we’re like you, dare you recognize our humanity. And it’s all under #muslimrage.
Mona: Absolutely. This is what the revolutions were all about. Watching men and women and children in many cases to join them in public squares and public areas and spaces where they had been denied the ability to express anything. Telling their regimes and any allies who supported these regimes against our freedoms that we too deserve these freedoms. In the space of three or four days you have these people who had nothing to do with the revolution whose space was opened up by our revolution.
Robin: Coopting it.
Mona: Exactly. And wanting to derail it. And so those of us who have worked so hard, especially those of us who move between these various worlds, those of us who move between the so-called east and the so-called west (which I don’t believe exist)
Robin: [laughs] I don’t either.
Mona: Those of us who move between say the US and Egypt or the Middle East and North Africa who for such a long time have been saying, “We’re the ones who will bring about freedom and change, not Al Qaeda and not Osama bin Laden, not the violent types,” we’re the cleaners. We’re like the Harvey Keitel character in Pulp Fiction, where after someone is gruesomely murdered, Harvey Keitel’s character steps in to cleanup. I’ve gotten to this stage, and you know we do this and I go on various TV and radio stations and I’m happy to do it because I care deeply about these revolutions.
Robin: Of course.
Mona: I go on and I do this, “The revolution is about us, the revolution is not about the right wing in the US or about the right wing in the Middle East or North Africa.” And the very next day I am cursed and called a disgrace to Islam by the right wing or am called a crazy jihadi by the right wing in the US. So I’m damned if I do, damned if I don’t.
Robin: Of course you are.
Mona: But I’ll be damned if any of them silence me. Or try to silence me because these revolutions will not be derailed by people who care nothing for freedom. We will win, not them.
Robin: You’re going to outlast them, for one thing. And besides you have the virtue of having truth on your side as well as the thirst for something better, the real hunger.
Robin: I was having this argument with someone the other day about, “why are Muslims so easily insulted.” And I didn’t know quite where to begin but I came across an extremely good list which is just a little beginning of a list but well, in recent years, you know, just:
-The invasion of Iraq, as discredited pretext
-The images of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison
-The burning and desecration of the Qur’an by troops in Afghanistan and a pastor in Florida
-Detentions without trial in Guantanamo Bay
-The denial of visas to Muslim intellectuals
-The deaths of Muslim civilians as collateral damage in drone strikes
-Even political campaigns against the specter of Islamic law (Shari’ah law) in the US which was completely specious
Those are just for starters. That would be perfectly understandable for being a little cranky! But the concept of “Muslim rage” in King Kong raging through the streets is just…as you say suits only the right wing in various countries.
Mona: It’s utterly unrepresentative and also I’m glad to hear that list because there is a moment which we must recognize that injustices have been committed.
Mona: But as a Muslim and as someone from that part of the world, the Middle East and North Africa, from the various Islamic worlds that exist, I also have to add that many of our dictators who are supported by various US administrations and by various European governments, were very happy to use legitimate anger and offense as a way to distract from their own injustices.
Mona: So we also have to position ourselves in the middle of so many people using these injustices for political gain and manipulation. And I like to refer to the first amendment because I’m an Egyptian-American. I love the first amendment when I’m in the United States because the first amendment gives me the right to freedom of expression, the right to worship, the right to offend, and the right to protest offense.
Robin: Pretty good.
Mona: It’s wonderful! But as an Egyptian I know that five US administrations which hold that first amendment holy were happy to support a dictator who denied us those same freedoms in Egypt.
Mona: So my goal for Egypt is for us to have a first amendment and a constitution and a bill of rights that guarantees everybody’s rights in the way that everybody’s rights are guaranteed here. I believe in the freedom to offend. But I also believe in the freedom to peacefully protest offense. That’s what I want our revolution to be about.
Robin: Wow, that’s a real revolution. Stick around, we’re going to come back and do another segment.
We’ll take another short break here. You’re listening to Women’s Media Center Live, the talk show with a brain via WMCLive.com our home on the web. We’ll return in just a moment with more of Mona Eltahawy’s insights into the real Middle East. Don’t you budge.
Robin: And we’re back with Mona Eltahawy the Egyptian-American, journalist, feminist, wonderful trouble-maker person, tell us about what, the work you’ve been doing on sexual harassment in Egypt.
Mona: One of the things I hope to do when I return to Cairo, cause I’m moving from New York to Cairo, is to work with all the fantastic feminist groups on the ground and uh Human Rights activists who, for a long time now have been fighting against street sexual harassment and sexual violence of all kinds. Um one of the best campaigns that I’m a huge fan of is called HarrassMap. And what HarrassMap does is it uses a crowd source platform developed by a group called Ushahidi in Kenya, which I think means “witness” or “to bear witness.”
Robin: Yes it does.
Mona: And what it does is that it encourages women who have been harassed or sexually assaulted in any way on the streets of Cairo to text message or call or send a Facebook message or tweet to the HarrassMap campaign and what they do then is they put this red spot on a map of Cairo and you click on the red spot and then you read the testimony of the women who has reported.
Mona: And what it does is it basically shows you kind of like the hot areas so you know which areas are particularly bad but it’s also a way of collecting documents and holding authorities accountable so that when the group goes to legislatures when we have a parliament again or when it goes through the police or law enforcement, it can say, “Look how many cases we’ve documented,” that just shows you that the police aren’t taking this seriously and it shows you that we need a much stronger law enforced and you need to take women seriously when they make these complaints.
Robin: Wow. When you and I last talked about the state of the women’s movement per say, in Egypt post the first uprising, (I don’t call it Arab Spring anymore, it’s not a season, it’s a climate) but you were concerned because there were, the groups were in schism, they weren’t necessarily working together, which is understandable because there has hardly been a lot of time to practice under dictatorship. What is the state now? Are people beginning to reach across and call yes or what?
Mona: I think we’ve reached the stage in Egypt where people understand that with a president from the Muslim Brotherhood movement and a still very powerful military, we’re caught between a very bad rock and a very horrible hard place because you’re talking about two sides of one coin: authoritarian, totalitarian, doesn’t believe in civil liberties and for whom and for which women’s rights are, absolutely at the bottom of any totem pole hierarchy and one of the highlights in my last visit to Cairo was attending a meeting that veteran feminists Nawal El Saadawi called in which it brought together various feminist groups, women and men who are interested in focusing on women’s rights at this very, very sensitive stage in Egyptian history. We still don’t have a constitution, and we don’t have a parliament, and the constitution is currently being written by a group of mostly men who I would not hesitate to call misogynists, many of whom actually believe it’s ok for a girl who is only 9 to marry and many of whom are not concerned with women’s rights at all. So we recognize that this is a very sensitive time and if we don’t jump on this it will jump on us. And So Nawal El Saadawi is trying to coordinate all the various groups on the ground into an initiative but I know her initiative is one of at least three. So I think women’s rights activists are looking around now saying, “Ok look, there are so many of us and we’re doing very similar work, let’s get together because we need that power of us together to fight against this misogyny, to fight against this hatred of women, to fight against the military and the fundamentalist movement for whom women’s rights are not a priority.”
Robin: And also so no one group has to reinvent the light bulb, because it doesn’t know what another group is doing.
Mona: Exactly! There is so much fantastic work going on, there is no need to duplicate what other people are doing, let’s just get together. You know, one of the most touching moments in that night was when a senior citizen got up and she had her walking stick with her and she said, “Look, I want you guys to help me go out there and protest because I want to protest with you! But I need help here because I want to know when I can come out and I wanna know that you young kids out there can actually protect me so that if they attack our protest I can stay standing and not have to be knocked over or be hurt [Robin laughs] so can we coordinate this please?” And everyone looked around and said, “Yes! We must!”
Robin: Aw, that’s very cool, ah I need some of these people, in the next 15 minutes I am gonna need exactly that [laughs] . Tell a little bit about, which I find especially exciting, the book. The book that I can’t wait to read, that I can’t wait to help promote, that I ok, say, say, say I’m very excited about this!
Mona: I have such bad Attention Deficit Disorder that I have managed to put off writing a book for years and years but I think finally I’m about to burst so I must. So I’m writing a book that is based on an essay I wrote a few months ago called “Why do they hate us?” and this essay caused a huge ruckus because the point that I was making is that uh a lot of the misogyny against that uh we experience as women in the Middle East and North Africa is driven by sheer hatred for women.
Mona: Clearly and obviously this is not just limited to that region or that…
Robin: Oh you think? [laughs]
Mona: It’s global I’m sure but that’s where I come from and so that’s the region I can most talk about. So I want to write a book that I’m determined to call “Headscarves and Hymens.”
Robin: “Headscarves and Hymens”
Mona: “Headscarves and Hymens” because it’s such a…
Robin: You’re such a wimp, you just just don’t take risks, [Mona laughs] you know. what a pity. If you only had a spine, Mona. [Both laugh]
Mona: I’m trying to provoke them and see how far I can go with this, it’s my contention that for women in the Middle East and North Africa, we’ve come to a point where it’s all about what’s on our heads—the headscarves—and what’s in between our legs—the hymens. So whether you’re talking about female genital mutilation or the so called virginity tests i.e. sexual assault and rape enacted upon female revolutionaries in Egypt by the military it’s really about Headscarves and Hymens and ya know one of those women who survived these horrendous virginity tests and sued the Egyptian Military. A young woman called Samir Abrahim she told a great story during this meeting that Nawal El Saadawi called. She said, “Listen people, we need to get working women in these meetings because I know this woman, who was selling vegetables, she was selling rocket arugula somewhere and this extremist, this Islamist, came up to her and said, ‘Woman you’re not covered properly’ and you know what she did? She took off her blouse and said, ‘How do you like me now?’” [Robin laughs] So those are the kinds of stories that I want to document but also the kind of violations that we have to recognize but you know also one of the things that my books wants to do is to say that we have to identify as feminists. The time where all of these amazing young women who are saying, “No, no, no, it’s not about women’s rights, it’s about everyone’s rights,” I understand that. But we’re at a critical moment in our history and the region and the way we fight it is by identifying it as such. We are feminists, and we draw upon this wonderful history of Nawal El Saadawi, of Doria Shafik who invaded the Egyptian parliament with fifteen hundred women in the 50s, of Hoda Sha'arawi in 1923 who…
Robin: Took off her veil, yes.
Mona: We’re feminists are here and we are fighting.
Robin: I think it’s the most important front there is in the global women’s movement is what women are doing in the Middle East and the most courageous and the most just most important for all of us. Because if it can be done there it can be done everywhere. And it also, if we are not for us, then who is? It doesn’t mean that we’ve been saying, some of us, have been saying for 40 years it isn’t about excluding men but it is, for once, focusing on women who, hello, duh, happen to be the majority of the species.
Mona: And without that social revolution that is driven by women’s rights, the political revolution will fail.
Mona: Because these are revolutions against patriarchy.
Robin: And you can’t have democracy with only half the people.
Robin: So, I’m so glad you’re back, I already have separation anxiety for when you go again, um moving there really panics me—your moving there, my moving there would really panic me too [Mona laughs]. But we’ll have to make the most of it while you’re here and thank you so much for doing this, thank you for everything you do but thank you also for coming here today to be with Women’s Media Center Live.
Mona: Robin, thank you for your inspiration and encouragement and I will be back, I promise you, for regular visits.
Robin: You better.