Mona Eltahawy said quite frankly that she wanted “to piss off as many people as possible” with her essay, “Why Do They Hate Us?” published in last week’s issue of Foreign Policy magazine.
At a Tuesday night panel on the Egyptian revolution at Columbia University, the Egyptian-American columnist said she was expecting a lot of people to be upset by her premise of an Egyptian patriarchy hostile to women.”They” in the headline refers to Egyptian men, “us” to Arab women.
“Clearly when you read it I am being very provocative, I am using a very strong language. I have been a writer for 20 years, so I know what I am doing,” she said.
She added that what actually surprised her was “so much positive feedback,” adding that a Saudi female activist has offered to translate her article into Arabic so Saudi women also have a chance to read it.
The journalist was arrested on Nov. 24 last year while protesting in Tahrir Square in Cairo. She was held in custody for 12 hours, during which time she said she was physically and sexually assaulted. Her left arm and right hand were fractured. The news of her arrest went viral on the Internet, as she tweeted that she was “beaten arrested in interior ministry.”
In this essay, Eltahawy writes that women have not yet benefitted from the revolution and the women’s revolution won’t begin “until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors on our streets and in our homes.”
“We have to remove the Mubarak that is in our head,” Eltahawy reiterated at the Columbia panel, referring to Hosni Mubarak, who stepped down in February 2011 after 18 days of street protests. “We have to remove the Mubarak in our head, the Mubarak in our bedroom, the Mubarak in our streets.”
The article spurred a flood of comments to Eltahawy’s widely followed Twitter page.
Her critics have argued that while women’s oppression does exist, her analysis is simplistic and irresponsible as it uses “Orientalist” arguments to defame Arabic culture and serves a neo-colonial agenda of the “white man.”
Several bloggers with an Arab background–female and male and from different countries–have challenged Eltahawy’s ability to speak for them.
Gigi Ibrahim, a blogger and prominent activist in the Egyptian revolution, called the essay ”disgraceful.” Samia Errazzouki, a Moroccan-American writer, wrote a rebuttal entitled, ”Dear Mona Eltahawy, You Do Not Represent ‘Us’.” In a blogpost, journalist and activist Mona Kareem called on Western media to highlight the voices of other Arab women for an accurate picture of “Arab feminism.”
Eltahawy rejected critics saying that she has been denying Arab women’s agency. “Women will complete the revolution that a man called Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia began when it set himself on fire,” she said. “When I say that Arab women will complete a revolution that a man began, I am clearly recognizing their agency.”
She told the forum that a revolution is about freedom and dignity and there would be no real revolution if gender issues are not tackled. “There are hierarchies of oppression,” insisted Eltahawy. “When you unpack the layers of oppression, it is clear that Mubarak oppressed everybody, men and women, but under that, society oppresses women and this is where we get to the real revolution.”
When asked about the rise of Islamism in Egypt and the prominence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the parliament, Eltahawy frowned on the mixing of politics and religion, saying that it would be detrimental to women.
“We didn’t have a revolution so a 14-year-old girl can get married in Egypt. We had a revolution for freedom and dignity and if that freedom and dignity doesn’t apply to more than half of the society, then it’s not a revolution,” concluded Eltahawy.
Eltahawy said she would see success only if the revolution goes “social,” “sexual” and “moral.”
In her essay, Eltahawy also offers examples of women’s oppression in other parts of the Middle East, from Yemen where “12-year-old girls dying in childbirth do little to stem the tide of child marriage” to Saudi Arabia, where “a gang-rape survivor was sentenced to jail for agreeing to get into a car with an unrelated male and needed a royal pardon.”
BIO: Hajer Naili is a New York-based writer for Women’s eNews. She has worked for several radio stations and publications in France and North Africa and specializes in Middle East and North Africa.