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Seven Necessary Sins: A call to arms for the feminist fight ahead

Mona Eltahawy’s bracing manifesto on what it means to be a feminist today

Seven Necessary Sins
Seven Necessary Sins
Author: Mona Eltahawy
ISBN-13: 978-1-9162914-4-7
Publisher: Tramp Press
Guideline Price: €15

“When a woman is ‘too much’, she is essentially uncontrollable and unashamed. That makes her dangerous.” Mona Eltahawy’s feminist manifesto Seven Necessary Sins is a brash, rage-fuelled “fuck-you to the patriarchy,” a book whose defiant tone is clear from the first sentence to the last. Written by a woman who has made it her life’s work to be “too much”, her book is both a call to arms and a how-to guide into battle.

Eltahawy is an Egyptian-American author and award-winning public speaker whose work has been published in the Guardian, the New York Times and the Washington Post. She frequently speaks about current affairs on the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera and other media outlets, where her goal is “always to disrupt the patriarchy”.

Her second book – following the acclaimed Headscarves and Hymens – was published in the US last year, and it is fitting that the independent Irish publisher Tramp Press has brought it to readers this side of the water, adding to a successful non-fiction catalogue that includes contemporary feminist titles such as Emily Pine's Notes to Self and Doireann Ní Ghríofa's A Ghost in the Throat.

The eloquent and considered prose style of these works is missing from Eltahawy's book, which often reads like rhetoric. Elsewhere, the author's journalistic background is evident in long passages of reportage told in flat, pedestrian language. Some of the most memorable lines in the book come from the quotes of other women, such as the South African businesswoman and feminist Owethu Makhatini ("Set everything on fire and start all over"); writer and actress Mindy Kaling ("And the scary thing I have noticed is that some people really feel uncomfortable around women who don't hate themselves"); and the American poet Audre Lorde ("Your silence will not protect you").


Plenty to applaud

Beyond these stylistic issues, there is plenty to applaud. The extent of Eltahawy’s knowledge is astonishing – she brings the reader on a journey through the many horrors done to women by the patriarchy in countries across the word in these so-called civilised times.

Structurally, the book is divided into seven "sins" that Eltahawy says women are socialised to avoid: anger, attention, profanity, ambition, power, violence and lust. There is great urgency in the first two sections, Anger and Profanity. The book opens with accounts of the author being sexually assaulted, first as a teenager on a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia ("If at that most sacred of temples – the holiest site of my religion – I am not safe from predatory hands, where am I safe?") and latterly as an adult woman in a nightclub in Montreal.

The difference between the two incidents is that Eltahawy fought back in the club, or as she puts it herself, “I was still high on the glory of beating up a man who had sexually assaulted me”. Eltahawy hangs on to this high for the duration of the book, giving a fresh, vital quality to the manifesto.

The standout chapter is Power, where the author forensically details the blatant misogyny seen in political regimes across the world, from Trump's America and Putin's Russia to Bolsonaro's Brazil: "Almost two decades into the twenty-first century, it is clear that Donald Trump is just one of several men who [came] to power on an unabashedly patriarchal and authoritarian agenda. The leaders of Russia, China, Egypt, the Philippines, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Italy, and India especially come to mind."

Eltahawy’s knowledge of international affairs, from Bolsonaro’s support base – “the BBB bloc: do boi, da Bíblia e da bala, or beef, Bible, and bullets” – to a supreme court ruling in India allowing women access to sacred temples, to a luxury hotel and spa in Višegrad that had been used as a rape concentration camp during the Bosnian war in the 1990s, shows us an activist who has painstakingly educated herself about the atrocities done to women in recent times and who now wishes to educate the world.

Wake-up call

Her book is meticulously researched – a 10th of it is given over to citations – and particularly astute on the need for intersectional feminism. Eltahawy, who identifies in later life as both queer and polyamorous, issues a wake-up call to white women of privilege who “have allowed their race to trump their gender, believing that their docility, compliance, and allegiance to white supremacy will protect them from the ravages of patriarchy that the rest of us experience”.

One of many interesting facets is her consideration of the “double bind” of women of colour who find themselves dealing with both misogyny and racism.

Seven Necessary Sins is not an easy read, nor is it intended to be. Mixing personal experience, including a fascinating first-person account of the Arab Spring in Tahir Square, with stories of intersectional activists from around the world, the book is a bracing, honest account of what it means to be a feminist today.

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts