Mona Eltahawy: I’m serious about women fighting back. I want patriarchy to fear us

‘The revolution is not polite. The revolution is about f*cking’, says Mona Eltahawy, the Egyptian-American activist, feminist, author and award-winning journalist

Mona Eltahawy wants you to read this and, if you’re a woman, get angry. If you’re part of the patriarchy, she wants you to be terrified.

Girls, she says, are “socialised that it’s very dangerous to be an angry woman, that we have to be nice, we have to be polite, we have to wait”. 

She cites studies which show that “by the age of 10, girls have fully absorbed and believe they are weak and vulnerable. And boys have fully absorbed and believe the world is theirs, that they are entitled to adventure, and that they’re basically immortal.”

She wants women to hold onto “that pilot light of anger” they’re born with, “because it’s your north star. It’s your compass to liberation… Historically speaking, angry women have been punished severely. And so we’ve absorbed these lessons of ‘no, don’t be angry, play by the rules’.” But if we play by the rules, the patriarchy throws us crumbs, and she no longer wants crumbs.

Eltahawy is speaking to me over Zoom from “the home of my beloved” in Montreal. She has spent the lockdown between here and her own home in New York. Hanging on the wall over her shoulder is a striking piece of art with a story. It is a portrayal of a naked young woman with the words “There will be millions of us” scrawled across her breasts. The subject is the young Egyptian woman Aliaa Elmahdy, who posted a nude photo of herself online during the Arab Spring protests in 2011, and subsequently had to flee to Sweden and change her identity.

Mona Eltahawy: ‘Girls are socialised that it’s very dangerous to be an angry woman... we have to be nice, we have to be polite, we have to wait.’
Mona Eltahawy: ‘Girls are socialised that it’s very dangerous to be an angry woman... we have to be nice, we have to be polite, we have to wait.’

“There was more outrage at this young woman’s nude protests in her own home than there was at the Egyptian military sexually assaulting female revolutionaries with so-called virginity tests. And even the so-called revolutionaries, my comrades, were saying to her, ‘This is not the time, because you are basically fulfilling the stereotype of the conservatives that all we want is sex.’ And I was like, ‘Yes, we do want sex. The revolution is not polite. The revolution is about f**king.’”

She wrote an op-ed in the Guardian in support of Elmahdy. Then, two weeks later, Eltahawy herself was arrested in Tahrir Square and “they broke my arms and sexually assaulted me. The more my side gave into the kind of f**kery that said to her you are wrong and not the military, the more we ended up paying the price.”

We are constantly being told that we’re hormonal, we can’t have any positions of power, because we’re subject to all the hormonal ups and downs that we go through – as if men don’t have hormones, as if their bodies are independent of them

Eltahawy uses the word f**k a lot, and probably wouldn’t want it asterisked out, as newspapers are inclined to do. There is a whole chapter on profanity in her book, The Seven Necessary Sins For Women and Girls, a searing, jolting, furious and sometimes uncomfortable manifesto for women to dismantle the patriarchy by embracing the “sins” they are socialised to avoid. The others are anger, attention, ambition, power, violence and lust.

Since profanity frequently seems to encompass women talking about their bodies, we discuss how much better the world might be if girls were taught to see their hormonal surges as a source of power, instead of being ashamed and apologetic.

“We, as cisgender women specifically, are constantly being told that we’re hormonal, we can’t have any positions of power, because we’re subject to all the hormonal ups and downs that we go through – as if men don’t have hormones, as if their bodies are completely independent of them.”

She has been thinking about this a lot lately because she is in the late stages of perimenopause and loving it. “My God, the power that I am tapping into, it’s like don’t even look at me funny, because I will crush you. The patriarchy has made those of us who are cisgender women feel shame and, by doing so, they have stripped us of a power that was ours all along. It’s time to reclaim that power.”

Approaching menopause, “I feel that my body is mine in a way that it didn’t used to before. The way I am able to look at the world, and what I want from the world.” It is, she says, a liberation and “a sense that I’ve been planting, I’ve been planting, and I’m now going to harvest what I’ve planted”.

I don’t want your crumbs, patriarchy. I want the whole cake and not even your cake; I want to make my own cake

It hasn’t all been easy. “I used to wake up every morning with crushing anxiety, that is the only way to explain it. But I’m like leaving it all behind. Now, I’m like six months away from a whole year without my periods, and I’m counting every day.” She wants transwomen to know that what she is saying is not meant to exclude them, but to acknowledge that “I am not reducible to my womb, or what used to make me ‘a woman’, I’m much more than that.”

So what are the unnecessary sins for women? What are things she would like us to escape from? “Comfort and complacency” are two. “That’s why I talk about women who serve as foot soldiers of the patriarchy because that comfort is driven by the crumbs that patriarchy throws them. I would say, I don’t want your crumbs, patriarchy. I want the whole cake and not even your cake; I want to make my own cake.”

The ultimate crumb is the word “empowered”. “It’s a ridiculous, nonsense word. In the US, they have all these campaigns about you go girl, which is basically appropriating black women’s language and leaving black women out of it.”

She wants women to come up with their own definition of success, ambition and power, instead of just reaching for the ones that have served men. “Feminism is not me making it, me and a few other women, past the obstacles. Feminism is dismantling those obstacles so that everyone can make it. F*ck being CEO, f**k having the corner office, f**k wanting to be a billionaire or wanting to be rich.”

She believes the end of the pandemic – which has disproportionately affected women globally in terms of the burden of care, the numbers on the front line, the numbers who have lost their jobs or had to quit or who are trapped in domestic violence – offers an opportunity to redress the balance.

“The pandemic has ripped off the bandage and said, ‘Look, look at all the terrible things that have been [happening] under your normal.’ This is a chance now to reset all of that, because we are literally dying [due to] the way that patriarchy has been running the world.”

In the book, she points out that if the epidemic of violence against women was reported in the same way “the latest political standoffs were”, there would be no ignoring it. Which leads us to some of her manifesto’s most provocative passages, in which she argues that women should fight back. “Imagine if we declared war,” the chapter begins. She recounts a story of beating up a man who sexually assaulted her in a club in Montreal. Though I had a crick in my neck nodding along to parts of it, parts of that chapter of the book made me uncomfortable, I admit. How literal are you, I ask: do you want women fighting back the way you did in the club in Montreal?

“I do. And I know that shocks people terribly, and so before I answer properly, I also want to preface all my answers with saying that I want us to survive. And I know that there are situations in which it is impossible to fight back. Hospitals, prisons and cemeteries are full of women who fought back and the street is full of men who assaulted them, walking about completely free. But I’m very serious about women fighting back, because I want patriarchy to fear us.”

One of the experiences that inspired the chapter was her trip to Dublin in October 2018 for the Safe Ireland summit. “I was in a taxi taking me from my hotel to the summit. And the taxi driver was asking me so what brings you to Ireland. And I said, ‘I’m here for a feminist conference about violence against women.’ I can’t remember his exact words, but he wanted to say something about ‘not all men’. Then the news comes on [the radio]. And the lead item was this woman whose body was found. And it was it was like – that’s my answer to this man.” The report was about the murder of a woman in her early 30s, a mother of two, who had been found strangled in her own home. Her boyfriend of three months was found guilty last year of her murder and sentenced to life.

That story, and the others she heard during the two days of the summit, filled her with rage, “a litany of women, broken people, murdered people”. It was after that, she realised, “I want the patriarchy to fear us.” When she wrote about beating up her assailant, a University of Miami law professor, Mary Anne Franks wrote to her and told her it was an example of “optimal violence”.

One of the things that gives her hope is the prospect of teenage girls and young women beginning to embrace their power

It’s not a rhetorical flourish, I clarify again. You mean that literally? “Whenever you can, fight back. This is not to place the burden on the woman being raped, or the woman being beaten, because that should never be a burden. What I do want to do is fix that paradigm, so that men expect us to fight back so that they don’t think that it’s okay, and that they will get away with it. It’s a very, very delicate balance, honestly, because when I’m not being accused of inciting violence, I know that I will be accused of placing the burden on the victim.”

She is writing an essay about the Sarah Everard case “and this upside-down situation where the month of March began with the abduction and murder of Sarah Everard”. A serving police offer has been charged. “And then the vigil to honour Sarah Everard that was broken up violently, and women were violently arrested by police… The police now are coming forward acting like f**king heroes saying we will believe you, come forward with your cases, and I’m like, on what planet am I supposed to trust you?”

One of the things that gives her hope is the prospect of teenage girls and young women beginning to embrace their power. “My hope is that they are using that power to dismantle patriarchy rather than to uphold it. Because often we will say the young are the hope, but then I look at young people who also vote Republican, [or who are] transphobic. So not all young people are going to take us to a better world. But the young people who recognise the injustices that they have to fight, and for whom feminism truly is a dismantling of power, and not just a T-shirt” fuel her optimism for the future.

When she looks at the lives of women, she imagines it as a funnel – young girls and teenagers in the full of their power on one side, and menopausal women at the other end, and all of the rest of us in the middle, being squeezed and silenced by threats and crumbs. Women, once they come through menopause, “are squeezing ourselves out from this funnel and back to that power that we have as four-year-olds”.

The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy is published by Tramp Press.