‘It was glorious to beat a man up and see him run away’

Mona Eltahawy spoke on the final evening of the Irish Times Summer Nights festival

Mona Eltahawy: ‘I’m not victim-blaming, but if you can fight back, fight back.’ Photograph: feministgiant.com

Mona Eltahawy: ‘I’m not victim-blaming, but if you can fight back, fight back.’ Photograph: feministgiant.com

 

Feminism is not about a few of us destroying the obstacles of patriarchy. It’s about destroying the patriarchal system itself, the feminist activist, author and journalist Mona Eltahawy said on the final evening of the Irish Times Summer Nights festival.

Speaking to Róisín Ingle, Eltahawy said she is not interested in exceptional women who become presidents or chief executives. Neither does she have any truck with the term “empowering”, because “it puts the onus on the individual and not the system”.

She told the online audience that feminists need to embrace “radical rudeness” and flip the way they think about patriarchy. “How much longer must we spit out our stories? Our tears will do nothing to patriarchy. Patriarchy is what is rude and profane. It’s the oldest form of colonisation in the world,” said Eltahawy, whose book The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls encourages women to be angry and rude, seek attention and power, and be lustful and violent when appropriate.

Just as we teach children honesty is good, we need to tell girls that the pilot light of rage is their friend. We need to tell girls you are not weak, you don’t have to be vulnerable, and anger is justified

“Just as we teach children honesty is good, we need to tell girls that the pilot light of rage is their friend. We need to tell girls you are not weak, you don’t have to be vulnerable, and anger is justified. Men are rarely told to calm down; they are called assertive, but women are told they are bitches or feminazis if they are angry,” said Eltahawy, who spearheaded the #MosqueMeToo movement to include the voices of Muslim women, and who runs the Feminist Giant newsletter.

The New York-based writer spoke about the way social media saved her life when she was arrested in Egypt, where she was born, while covering the protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo in November 2011. During her interrogation, she said, she was physically and sexually assaulted, and was left with both her arms in casts for three months afterwards, but, by tweeting about the experience, the #SaveMona hashtag went viral and drew attention to what was happening to her. “I was incredibly lucky, because people paid attention to me. If I was a working-class woman I would have been gang-raped and possibly murdered.”

She was arrested again in 2012, this time in New York, when she tried to graffiti over a subway advert that she called a “racist, Islamophobic piece of shit”. “The police came over with a dog, handcuffed me and arrested me for criminal mischief, making graffiti. The judge dropped the charges two years later.”

Eltahawy said she was “traumatised into feminism” after being sexually assaulted, at the age of 15, when her family went on the hadj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Her parents, who had brought their family from Egypt to London when they both won scholarships to continue their medical studies in the UK, then moved to Saudi Arabia. “I was horrified. I burst into tears and froze” when it happened, she said. “It took me years to be able to talk about it.”

‘Men can disrupt other men who are being misogynistic, homophobic or sexually abusive,’ Eltahawy said, adding that lots of men don’t benefit from the patriarchal system either

She described her introduction to feminist journals as a 19-year-old university student as “like picking up molten lava” but acknowledged that her mother was her earliest feminist role model even though her mother doesn’t call herself a feminist. “My maternal grandmother married after she finished high school, and had 11 children. My mother had three children and a PhD. I’m her oldest child, and I’m child-free by choice and happy,” she said.

Eltahawy wants men to become “accomplices, not allies”, to feminism. “Men can disrupt other men who are being misogynistic, homophobic or sexually abusive,” she said, adding that lots of men don’t benefit from the patriarchal system either.

She also encouraged women to fight back if they can when attacked by men. “I want us to survive, and I’m not victim-blaming, but if you can fight back, fight back,” she said, recounting an incident when she was groped in a nightclub. “I found him, tugged at his shirt so he fell down. I sat on him and said, ‘Don’t you ever touch a woman like this again.’ It was glorious to beat a man up and see him run away,” she said.

Admitting that she has lost friends because of her radical views and forceful way of sharing them, Eltahawy said: “I will not censor or temper my views for anyone. I don’t want to be liked. I want to be free.”

The Irish Times Summer Nights festival, sponsored by Peugeot, is a series of online talks featuring Irish Times journalists in conversation with local and international authorities. It ends on Thursday, July 1st, with Roddy Doyle talking to Fintan O’Toole. A ticket covering all events costs €50, or €25 for Irish Times subscribers. Full schedule and tickets from irishtimes.com/summernights

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