Global Feminism: Mona Eltahawy
You will see that the centre of the feminist universe is most certainly not white feminism, and that’s where you can begin to learn and unlearn.
This podcast contains some coarse language.
2022 was a bad year for gender equality.
It was the year Roe v Wade was overturned and anti-trans legislation and hate surged in the United States of America, the year women were jailed and killed in Iran for their clothing, and the year that female students in Afghanistan were banned from attending university by the Taliban.
At a time when women's rights are under attack in so many places, it's more important than ever to think globally and stand in solidarity with women around the world. Feminism isn't just about the rights of women in the Western world – it's a global movement that fights for the rights and equality of women everywhere. And on International Women's Day, we have the chance to come together and stand in solidarity with women all over the globe.
Hear Mona Eltahawy, one of the world's most prominent feminists and a fierce advocate for women's rights. Her writing has sparked vital conversations about the ways in which young women are leading the charge for change, and the challenges and issues that women face around the world. She takes a no-holds-barred approach to tackling some of the most pressing issues facing women today, including sexual violence, reproductive rights and the patriachy.
Eltahawy was hosted by Australian Greens Deputy Leader and Spokesperson for Anti-racism, Education, International Aid, and Animal Welfare, Senator Mehreen Faruqi. Mehreen has been an unflinching voice on social, environmental and racial justice, pushing to dismantle the systems of power, privilege and patriarchy that allow these injustices to continue.
UNSW Centre for Ideas: Welcome to the UNSW Centre for Ideas podcast – a place to hear ideas from the world's leading thinkers and UNSW Sydney's brightest minds. The talk you are about to hear, Global Feminism, features feminist and fierce advocate of women's rights, Mona Eltahawy and UNSW Sydney alumni and Greens Senator for New South Wales, Mehreen Faruqi, and was recorded live for International Women's Day 2023. We hope you enjoy the talk.
Mehreen Faruqi: Good morning. Assalamualaikum, and welcome to today's very special International Women's Day event, Global Feminism with Mona Eltahawy. I’m Mehreen Faruqi, your host, UNSW alumni, a former academic here and now, your senator for New South Wales and Greens Deputy leader.
I acknowledge the Bidjigal people who are the sovereign owners of the land that we're all gathered on today and pay my respects to elder's past and present and extend that respect to other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who are with us today. No matter where we are in this country. We are on stolen land, sovereignty was never ceded. This is, always was and always will be – Aboriginal land. It is with great pride that I stand here before you unapologetically – a brown, Muslim, migrant, feminist as fuck.
I say unapologetically because if there is one thing that people with stories like mine are asked to do constantly – it is to apologise for our presence, because we are not quiet enough, not respectful enough, not thankful enough, not Australian enough.
But honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever be Australian enough for some, not even if I stood on Bondi Beach serving sausage sangers in an Akubra, draped in an Australian flag with a southern cross tattoo on my arm. For some, I’ll always be too migrant, too Muslim, too loud. But what’s the point of having a platform – if you don’t tell it like it is? It’s not enough to say I am a feminist, if you’re going to ignore the struggles of indigenous women, women of colour, disabled women and trans women. It’s not enough to say I’m anti racist, if you don’t step aside to make space for people of colour. It’s not enough to say I’m an environmentalist, if you don’t make racial justice central to the struggle for climate justice.
So this International Day, I do also want to pay tribute to some of the women in my life who have made me who I am – my mother, who is generous and kind and ready to sacrifice her needs to nurture others. My grandmother who was fun, active and dynamic – well into her eighties and she let me play cricket and fly kites to my heart’s content. My aunt – an activist and a feminist, she was spunky and fiery and taught me to be fiercely independent, loud and proud. My mother-in-law, who was honest, forthright, and wise despite facing very difficult circumstances in life – she calmly went about doing what had to be done, without seeking any recognition or reward. These women have given me the gift of shaping me of learning and unlearning from life, as I live it. To change and to be changed, and to fight fiercely for what is right. We have to dismantle the same old systems of power, patriarchy and colonialism that have silenced, oppressed, exploited, and screwed over people for centuries. So today, we have the privilege of welcoming and hearing from a woman who is doing exactly that – and with gusto – Mona Eltahawy.
For me, to have a conversation with Mona on International Women's Day is a dream come true, Mona. I have been a longtime admirer of this firebrand, who always sparks the flames of hope and courage when she visits us. Her no-holds-barred approach to feminism and justice is something we need more of in this world. So, I'll end my fangirling here and properly introduce the very accomplished Mona – Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning author, activist, commentator, disrupter of patriarchy. Mona became a correspondent for Reuters in 1993, first in Cairo and then Jerusalem, she has also reported from the Middle East for The Guardian newspaper. Her opinion writing has appeared in The Washington Post and the International Herald Tribune, and from 2014 to 2018, she was a contributing opinion writer at The New York Times, where her column on Egypt and the Middle East appeared monthly. She's the author of Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East needs a sexual revolution, and The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls. In 2020, Eltahawy started FEMINIST GIANT, a newsletter dedicated to writing about global feminism and gender issues. So now, without much ado, please join me in welcoming the fabulous – Mona Eltahawy.
Mona Eltahawy: Thank you. Thank you so much. Good morning, everyone. My name is Mona Eltahawy and my pronouns are she/her/hers. And I begin, as I begin everything with my declaration of faith – fuck the patriarchy.
The Egyptian feminist, Nawal El Saadawi died almost two years ago, it will be in March 2023. When we remember her – while we always remember her – but that marks the second anniversary of her death. In one of her most famous books, Woman at Point Zero – the protagonist is put on trial, the protagonist is a sex worker who murdered her pimp, and she’s put on trial by a panel of male judges who say to her, “you are a savage and dangerous woman”, and she says to them, “I speak the truth, and the truth is savage and dangerous, so I am here to be savage and dangerous”. You might remember my appearance on Q&A in 2019, which I hope brought plenty of savagery and danger. I moved to the United States in 2000, from Egypt. And I was shocked at how religious in zealous way, white Americans were – in a way that was considered default, in a way that was considered absolutely normal and in a way that my people, would never allow it to be and never considered normal or absolutely natural.
It was incredible to watch how white Americans allowed that level of religiosity in their politics and understood very well that there was a group of religious zealots because that’s the only way to describe them – who are determined to destroy a fundamental tenant of feminism and that is the right to choose abortion. And they had been doing this since 1979.
Now, remember that year – 1979, because I will bring it up again in a few minutes. Because in 1979, and in the United States, the so-called ‘moral majority’ joined forces with Ronald Reagan and it basically became a Christian coalition to turn America into a white supremacist Christian nation and its main goal was to destroy Roe v Wade. You would think that people would take it seriously, you would think that people would understand that these religious zealots were serious, but you will clearly be wrong. Because when Roe v Wade was overturned last year by the US Supreme Court – the majority of white Americans were shocked, and I don’t know why they were shocked because religious zealots, as I said, had been working on this for 50 years.
But I hear again and again, and it’s important to remember this today on International Women’s Day and by the way, I hate days. I hate Valentine’s Day. I hate Mothers’ Day. I hate International Women’s Day because every day – we should be honouring our mothers, our fathers, love, fucking, women, everything. There isn’t just one day, but here we are on International Women’s Day and the number of white liberal women in the United States who are saying things like, “oh my god, I had no idea”, oh my god, I took for granted my reproductive rights, oh my god, oh my god”, and this was said in a way that I never heard – black, brown, or Indigenous women in the United States speak and I have to preface women here with cisgender, because clearly, transwomen and non-binary people, and gender expansive people were not going around taking any rights for granted and I will get to that in a minute as well.
So what does it mean when white liberal women say, “I had no idea this was going to happen”, why is this happening, how are my daughter going to survive this?” – what it means is, 1979 in the United States was not recognized as the year of the revolution of the zealots because 1979, for those who care about history in the United States and not many people do, was recognised as the year in which zealots took over in Iran and in which, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to create a zealotry in that country as well. And I bring up those two countries because those two countries are the countries that often come up in the United States when you talk about religious zealotry.
Because for white people in the United States, and I’m sure for white people in Australia as well, there was something wrong with you if you lost rights because you’re white and it’s your God given right to have rights and who would dare to take rights away from you. Rights were taken away from brown women over there in Iran whose revolution was stolen by the zealots – that is understood.
Rights were taken away from women in Afghanistan by the zealots over there, who have returned and continue to take rights. Universities reopened in Afghanistan yesterday, and still women cannot attend universities or school. So, fuck the Taliban – that is understood.
You talk about religious zealotry in the United States and I have been, since the year 2000. Because I come from Egypt and came to the United States, I grew up in Saudi Arabia and I understand religious zealotry. My first book, Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, catalogues in detail the religious zealotry that has been my enemy, and that I have been of the savage and dangerous enemy too – that is understood by white people in the United States and by white people here in Australia.
But then you start talking about white Christian zealots, people look at you as if you’re insane. There’s no such thing because it’s the norm and it’s the default. Now here in Australia, I know that many of you will say, “yeah but we’re not as Christian as United Sates”, you don’t need to be, your Prime Minister before this current one – Scott Morrison was religious enough for all of you.
But still, people don’t take it seriously. So what does it take? What does it take to make you take seriously – the kind of religious zealotry that you understand over there, but not over here. And clearly, what is at stake here or what’s at the heart of this, is that – it’s easy to understand zealotry when the zealots don’t look like you. It's easy to see fascism when the fascists don't look like you.
And the problem in the United States, as it is here, as it is in New Zealand, and all the other countries… and I bring up New Zealand because when Jacinda Ardern said she was stepping down, and she said that it had nothing to do with misogyny – excuse me for not believing her.
New Zealand is the worst country for domestic violence and intimate partner violence in the 38 countries of the OECD – these are the rich, so-called developed countries. So again, I'm not talking about Sub-Saharan Africa, or people who look like me and my people. This is domestic violence in your country. This is domestic violence in New Zealand, and that country's youngest Prime Minister, was bullied out of office in an ostensible democracy. Your ostensible democracy banned a TV show.
So again, I'm not talking about over there, I'm talking about over here. So, what does that mean on International Women's Day – when I'm talking about over here and what you need to take seriously, especially the zealots who look like you and the fascists who looked like you.
You can begin by recognising the feminists and the revolutionaries who don't look like you. Because in the same way that zealotry and fascism is always over there, too often feminism is just over here and it's not just over here, or in the United States where I've lived since 2000. The United States is not the centre of the universe and white feminism is not the centre of the feminist universe.
If anything – if you follow feminism as closely as I do, and a global feminism that Mehreen and I will discuss in our conversation – you will see that the centre of the feminist universe is most certainly not white feminism, and that’s where you can begin to learn and unlearn.
Because one of the current centres of feminism right now is that glorious feminist revolution in Iran – glory and power to the women and girls in Iran, for women and girls who rose up after a Kurdish woman was murdered in the custody of the so-called morality police. And I begin by… or I mention and centre the fact – Mahsa Jina Amini, was Kurdish because it’s an important reminder of the intersectionality of this incredible feminist revolution in Iran. Because she was Kurdish, because she was a woman, because she wasn't wearing the proper hijab, because, because, so many things… and that Feminist Revolution in Iran is so rattling to the zealots over there, that they are poisoning school girls because school girls have been at the centre of this feminist revolution. It began with mostly university students but when three 16-year-old school girls were killed in the streets for taking part in the revolution. School girls – you might have seen their pictures, were in schools across Iran raising their middle fingers to their fascists and on the streets, rising up with their compatriots.
And now, at least a thousand school girls have been poisoned with some of kind of poisonous gas that is being released in their schools. That is courage. That is the recognition of the savagery and danger of patriarchy now, not of feminism, and we have to respond to that savagery and danger of patriarchy with our own savagery and danger.
Another point – or another centre of the feminist universe that is not white and not the United States and not the so-called West, and I use all of those terms because when I began my feminist newsletter, FEMINIST GIANT, I told the contributors who curate these incredible global round-ups three times a week that when they’re curating stories of feminist resistance from around the world to dissenter whiteness, to dissenter the so-called west and focus on First Nations Indigenous people, gender expansive people, cis women around the world – who are not white, disabled people and people we rarely associate with feminism but who are engaged in that savage and dangerous fight against patriarchy.
In that fight, again – a centre of the universe are Mexican feminists and our Argentinian feminists, and I bring both of them up because they’re very relevant to any discussion about Roe v Wade, because as the religious zealots in the United States were winning in their revolution to destroy Roe v Wade – Mexican and Argentinian feminists were winning in the reverse fight. In the past, American feminists used to help Mexican feminists access abortion. Now, Mexican feminists are helping American or women in the United States access abortion. How? In 2020 – on International Women's Day, sorry – on International Safe Abortion Day, Mexican feminists were out on the streets in such power, they had their police force cowering, literally behind barricades. Instead of using the barricades to beat back protesters, the police were literally hiding behind the barricades because Mexican feminists were using Molotov cocktails, hammers and all kinds of weaponry to attack the police, because they are savage and dangerous. Because we need to be savage and dangerous.
And you know what happened? This was in September of 2021, less than a year later… that’s last year in September of 2022 – the Mexican Supreme Court legalised abortion and that’s because they understand savagery and danger and they understood that the Mexicans and feminists in Mexico were not fucking around Argentina.
Argentina. In Argentina – this incredible coalition called, Ni Una Manos, which translates roughly into ‘not one war’, which began as a movement against gender-based violence across the Americas – Central and South America protested or organised protests that were so expensive and extensive across Argentina. It became known as the green wave, you will see them wearing green scarves and green handkerchiefs and when their congress was taking a vote in August of 2020, sadly, it was a vote that failed. Ni Una Manos, was outside of the courthouse and it this is the only time I’m going to read now because I want to remember their words exactly and it was a coalition of cisgender men and women and trans people, and remember that coalition because increasingly across the world – the coalition between cis feminist, queer people and trans and gender expansive people has been shown itself to be the strongest coalition against the patriarchy. And this is what Ni Una Manos said in August of 2020, “if the law is not passed, we will not leave the streets and they will not be able to leave the congress building because in the streets – legal abortion is already the law. We will not let ourselves be burnt because this time, the fire is ours”. We will not let ourselves be burnt because this time, the fire is ours – that statement has been seared in my heart ever since I read it and their revolution in Argentina to decriminalise abortion succeeded in December of 2021 and when their Congress decriminalised abortion – to much fanfare across it – Argentina actually became the first major Latin American country to decriminalise abortion.
So again, the centre of the universe is not white feminism and again, that kind of courage – risk taking savagery and danger is found in Argentina, in Mexico, as it is found in Iran, Afghanistan, the incredibly courageous women that are protesting in Afghanistan against incredible odds.
I bring this up again and again, because these are the stories that you rarely hear. We rarely heard anything about the school girls being poisoned in Iran recently, until their feminists kept clamouring and clamouring for attention so that the media could cover what was happening in Iran. So, I want you to ask yourselves, how you are being savage and dangerous? Now, if you’re going to be like the Americans, who I speak to the people in the United States – I got to stop saying the Americans because there are more Americans in the United States, because the Americas are several continents – but if you’re like the majority of white people in the United States that I speak to, you will be complacent and you will be taking your rights for granted, and you will be fools.
Because I am seeing white people in the United States today, incredibly and ironically cheering the Feminist Revolution in Iran, again – zealots over there and completely missing the fact. The point, the reality that their own zealots in the United States are becoming more and more powerful. They completely miss that, they cannot make the connections – because again, it’s only people over there who are zealots and only people over here who are fascists.
I want you to remember Poland, I want you to remember Hungary, I want you to remember Israel – three countries that are often associated with so-called democracies that are fascist. In Israel, the most fascist government has just been elected. We can’t get rid of that fucking Netanyahu, and he has brought with him the worst kind of fascists – who are determined to destroy their Supreme Court, which was the last bastion of trying to recognise some Palestinian rights – as meagre as their recognition was – but even that is going to be gone.
And you know, what’s happening with the Adelaide Literature Festival in this country. You know the shame and the disgrace of your conservatives that are trying to prevent Palestinians from speaking and bringing their art here, and bringing their resistance here because again, the only kind of Palestinian resistance that people want to see is the violent kind – first of all, they’re right, but second of all, not the only kind.
Poland and Hungary have made it impossible to have abortions and they are incredibly dangerous countries to be queer and gender expansive in, and I bring the United States in this again, because just last week – Florida, that bastion of fascism and zealotry; because we’ve got states in the South now that are competing with each other over who can be the most zealous and who can be the most fascist in the run up to the 2024 elections.
Florida wants to pass a law that will allow extended members of basically… if a child is transitioning and their parents recognise and give them gender affirmation – Florida wants to pass a law to allow extended members of that family to kidnap the child away from their nuclear family to a Southern state like Florida, where they will be giving sanctuary to hold on to this kidnapped child. This is what we’re talking about in the United States – in the year 2023. This is apparently the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world that is very, very quickly sliding into fascism.
In 2016, when Donald Trump was elected president, I was among many people who were calling him fascist and warning of the growing fascism in the United States and we were met with derision and misogyny. I was being told to, “shut up little girl and go and look up the definition of fascism”. When I moved to the United States, I would warn my friends in the US that you have to pay attention to the fact that you cannot have anyone running for politics unless they are filmed going to church, unless they declare their religion. It’s impossible for an atheist to be in politics in the United States – people would shrug and say “Oh, you know, First Amendment, the First Amendment does not give religious zealots the right to use democracy, to cut democracy at its knees, because the majority of people in the US support a pregnant person’s right to abortion. And yet, those zealots have used democracy to destroy that right, and the fact that white people are not seeing that over there and over here, is because arrogance and naivete will keep you, as it has kept them, thinking that it will never happen.
People never thought Trump would happen. Those of us from countries where fascism and religious zealotry are fact… always told them it could happen. Black, brown and Indigenous people have always had it happen to them. It’s not new. So that same arrogance and naivete is encouraged and fueled by the fact that those zealots look like you, speak like you – are your fathers, your brothers and you sons and your husbands, your mothers, your sisters, your wives and your daughters. But for too many people, that kind of reality remained a dystopia that was only to be found in the books of The Handmaid’s Tale… in the pages of The Handmaid’s Tale. While that book was an important document, because Margaret Atwood took actual events that happened across the world and put it into her novel – for too many people, it’s become the safe, it’s almost like the reverse of safe space… they can only recognise a dystopia like that in The Handmaid’s Tale to make them think, “oh, yeah, that’s when they’re going to take my rights”, but not in the day-to-day, some kind of ecological disaster which we’ve already had – many – but they still refuse to recognise that it is happening today. Not in The Handmaid’s Tale TV show or the book, but in today, the United States.
And when I travel and I go to whatever you want to call them – white majority countries in the so-called West – I was in the Netherlands for example, a few months ago and I tell them,“the religious zealots are coming for you, the religious zealots are coming for your wombs, the religious zealots are coming for trans and queer people”. They say, “no, we’re not the Americans”. So now, it’s become another kind of ‘over there’, you know, oh, we’re not crazy like the Americans – excuse me for my ableist language. But people actually say that, “we’re not… we’re not religious like the Americans”. But again, I remind you of Scott Morrison and the Pentecostals – you don’t need to be religious like the Americans because this is about white supremacy and white supremacy will use whatever tools it has to maintain its power.
So, my time is up and I’m going to continue this with Mehreen, but I want you to remember this on International Women’s Day – it is time, it’s actually beyond time to be savage and dangerous. Look your fathers, brothers, mothers, sisters… whoever it is, the people who look like you, look them in the eye and tell them you have vowed to be savage and dangerous because if you don’t, you will lose your rights. It’s not just about people over there, it will come for you because fascism is on the rise around the world. And as long as I have breath in me, I will be that savage and dangerous feminist against the patriarchy and every day is International Women’s Day – cisgender and trans – every day is the day to say, fuck the patriarchy. Thank you.
Mehreen Faruqi: Could you please join me in thanking once again, this savage and dangerous feminist. And on a very personal note – Mona, thank you for being one of the very few people outside of my family to pronounce my name correctly.
Mona Eltahawy: Gladly and with honour, Mehreen.
Mehreen Faruqi: So could I start with ‘over here’. When we were having a conversation last week, and I know that you have been to Australia a few times, and you said, Australia seems to be stuck in the 1950s. I tend to agree with you, why do you think we are stuck that far back in the last century?
Mona Eltahawy: I think because you know, terms like ‘white supremacy’ are not being used enough. I mean, I know that when I was here last and I was calling Scott Morrison – a white supremacist – the Australian newspaper, which loves me, had headlines like, “Mona Eltahawy calls our Prime Minister a white supremacist”, as if I had lost my mind you know? And he is. And so, I think that’s why that kind of like… yanking people out of comfort and complacency, I think it’s because you have a robust economy that works for many people and not for everyone, but it works for those who are white. It works for those who are, you know, the whole list: cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, conservative, you know all of that – white men. And so, while the United States is often accused of being obsessed with race, I mean, it’s not obsessed with race enough. I think that you need to catch up with that kind of language that forces people to recognise all of these uncomfortable truths.
Mehreen Faruqi: And you talked about, you know, ‘over there’ as well and like you, I’m quite familiar with the difficulty in criticising misogyny and patriarchy everywhere and that includes in countries like where I come from as well, Pakistan, but when you do that – the backlash that you face from racists who get on our backs and who feel they have been validated somehow for us criticising patriarchy in other places.
We know that misogyny is present everywhere and yet, you talked about this idea of, ‘look how bad it is over there’. And probably like the United States, I found that in Australia as well – this incredible women’s revolution in Iran has brought out conservatives and you know, the not-so feminists and you know, who are lining up to say how amazing it is and we’re all in solidarity with the women in that part of the world – who had often always just criticised us for being oppressed for a number of things.
I mean you talked about the reason, some of the reasons, like they see fascists who are not like them, or zealots who are not like them… but does it have something to do with the kind of white saviour industry as well?
Mona Eltahawy: Yeah I mean, this could be a whole discussion of just on its own, you know. I know that one of the reasons that I upset people so much in that Q&A, that you know, has been banned is because here was a brown woman of Muslim descent, you know who’s not Australian, who came to Australia and was basically in people’s living rooms telling… you know, asking questions like, how many rapists must we kill?, and reminding people of intimate partner violence and domestic violence over here.
Not because my role – is to talk about how bad my men are, you know, and just how bad it is to be a Muslim woman or whatever, etcetera, etcetera and, the number of people who wrote to me – after my Q&A appearance, would say things like, “why don’t you focus on your parts of the world?”, and I’d say, “you know what, I did in my first book. Maybe Google, you know”. So, what ends up happening… and this is another reason why I think Australia is stuck in the 1950s. I think that the misogyny in this country is through the fucking roof. I mean, if New Zealand is the worst in the OECD countries, I’m sure Australia is pretty, pretty close behind.
And I think that the MeToo movement and Grace Tame and everything that came out about sexual predation in politics is a reminder of this very real misogyny here. And it becomes this… the succinct way of putting it, Mehreen, I say that for those of are of Muslim descent – especially for those of us who are cis women – we are caught between a rock and a hard place.
And the rock is the white supremacists, and the racists and the Islamophobes, whom are of course, misogynist themselves – who want to weaponise my words and use them against my people especially against, Muslim men. So that they can point and say, “you see, even the Muslim women are saying the Muslim men are bad”, and then the hard place is our so-called community or communities (plural) that want to silence us and shut us up because they’ll say things like, “they’re just going to use everything you say against us”, and they will do anything to defend Muslim men and what about us? We’re like… we’re fucked in-between these two and so I say, fuck you to the rock and fuck you to the hard place.
Mehreen Faruqi: You have kind of answered partly my next question because you call it a rock and a hard place. I say, damned if you do and damned if you don’t, because that’s exactly what it is. When you push for progressive change, you like abortion, decriminalisation – you’re actually attacked from all sides for various reasons. So hence, this journey of feminism for you, has it been a bit of a lonely journey, and is it changing?
Mona Eltahawy: Kind of. Yes and no. You know, because it can be lonely in the sense that actually… you know what rather than lonely, I think what it is, Mehreen, is that I wake up in the morning and I’m convinced today is the day I’m going to destroy the patriarchy and then I go to bed, knowing the patriarchy will probably outlive me and I’m like, fuck.
So, in that sense… it's kind of like more frustrating than lonely. But I gain a great deal of comfort through feminists, camaraderie, and community. You know, we use the word, ‘community’ especially since the pandemic began, more and more people have been using the word, ‘community’ – it's everywhere now. And it should be you know, when we talk about mutual aid, when we talk about reaching out to friends and comrades who are less privileged and who need help, etcetera, etcetera. But the amount of feminist camaraderie around the world is incredible. Like, you know, when we were talking on Zoom, and you know, we were exchanging experiences. It's like, I know, I have a feminist sister and comrade in you.
When I go to South Africa and I speak in Soweto, I know that I have feminist comrades there as well – so that really gives me that sense of solidarity. I often say love and solidarity on social media a lot. That really is what keeps me going – that love and solidarity and the knowledge that, you know, whether whoever outlives who, whether it's me or patriarchy and you know – don't take any bets, but I'm not sure – but I know that love and solidarity is going to outlive all of it.
Mehreen Faruqi: Hear! Hear! So let’s talk about intersectionality. Whenever I have criticised, or even raised the issue here. Often it is in feminist forums of western white feminism ignoring the plight of many other intersectional people like trans women, women of colour, Indigenous women. I have been told to be quiet, that I am the one who is dividing the movement and playing right into the hands of the misogynist men. So, have you experienced that, and I guess, what do we do about this, like the centering of white feminism? How are we supposed to change that? Because it is so dominant in white western countries.
Mona Eltahawy: I have experienced that, and I've experienced it. I mean, I remember I will never forget this particular experience. I've written a lot about hijab and niqab. You know, the title of my first book, obviously is Headscarves and Hymens, and I got to a stage where I just did not want to discuss the veil anymore.
I'm sick and tired of talking about the veil, and the only time that I will talk about it is in a discussion with women of Muslim descent, or women who come from Muslim families… outside of that, I’m just not going to count it anymore. I’m done. And I said that I think, it was maybe 2011, at a University in the UK and I will never forget this enraged white woman who came up to me and she was like, “how dare you want to silence me?” and I’m like, “are you fucking kidding me? I’m going to silence you”, and she’s like “it is my right”, and I’m like, “no, it is not”, and it was. “It is my right to talk about whatever…”, she was acting like I literally had my hand on her mouth, and she completely missed what I was saying which is that we end up being caught in this rock and a hard place.
The hijab, the niqab – all these discussions are incredibly nuanced, and very, very complex discussions that are not, are you for or against? It is not, and that's why I've just stopped you know.
So that was one instance, and I think when I am asked about this… No, actually there was another instance where after my second book came out, The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls – in the chapter on anger, I posed the challenge to white women (cis white women specifically) and I said to them, you of all people, have the most privilege and yet you are the last to be angry and you are the last to be angry because you have that proximity to white power that has cushioned you for the longest time. So, you’ve never needed to be angry. But here we are, you know, the rest of us have been enraged forever. Welcome to the anger.
They only started to get angry when Donald Trump’s video was leaked about, “grab them by the pussy”, and so that takes me to the final bit of my answer which is – for the majority of the cis white women, it’s only misogyny that is a trouble for them. It’s rarely anything else. And for the rest of us, it’s not just misogyny, I cannot afford to focus just on misogyny. I have to focus also on racism, on classism, on homophobia and transphobia, on ableism, on ageism, on, on, so many other things.
And so, this is why I insist that we de-centre whiteness, and we de-centre the so-called West. Because it has to move out of just this misogyny thing. A Ghanaian friend of mine once described white feminism as an argument between a husband and a wife and that’s it. And the rest of us are just watching this argument and it has to be much more complex than that.
Mehreen Faruqi: So you are on Twitter and social media, and Twitter, quite frankly – is a cesspit of racism, sexism and just about any ‘ism’ you can think of. But you are a powerhouse on social media. How do you deal… because there is a lot of bullshit, and a lot of attacks, and a lot of abuse that happens there. How do you deal with what’s thrown at you? Any tips?
Mona Eltahawy: So more recently since Elon Musk – that fascist fuck, Donald Trump – fascist fuck… I have a whole roster of fascist fucks. Since Musk took over, I have been very intentional with the time that I spend on Twitter, in that, I post mostly FEMINIST GIANT global roundups or my essays, and mostly more recently about menopause – menopause transition has been kicking my fucking ass. I've been telling everyone. The entire world knows about Mona and menopause.
But so, I’ve used Twitter and if anything, I have moved to Instagram where I find what Twitter used to be, but you know Mehreen… I will never leave social media because I often say, social media saved my life twice.
Social media saved my life when Egyptian riot police beat me and broke my arms and sexually assaulted me in 2011 – because #FreeMona was trending within one, five, 15 minutes of my incommunicado detention. And it saved my life again, when the year after I was arrested in New York City, after I spray painted over a pro-Israel racist ad in the New York City subway and I think something like, 200 members of the Occupy movement wrote to a lawyer – an attorney called Stanley Cohen, and said to him “go, and represent Mona” And he represented me for free, for two years until a judge dropped the charges in the interest of justice.
So social media, is that place for me where those of us who, and if I mean – I have more of a platform than many others– but I see what black feminists have done on social media, I see what brown, Indigenous… more recently, trans friends and comrades have done. Social media remains – as imperfect as it is – as that place that isn’t gatekeeped by the usual gatekeepers of traditional or legacy media, which is, you know – the white cis men who were the editors-in-chief, who would tell me things like, “no one cares what happens to you, stop writing about your personal life”, you know, that kind of stuff. And that’s why I started FEMINIST GIANT, because I consider it a form of social media. It’s free, you don’t have to pay to subscribe to the newsletter and that’s what social media has been. It has been a way for us to basically leap over, leapfrog over the traditional gatekeeps of who has a voice and who doesn’t.
Mehreen Faruqi: Yeah, I can't agree with you more. I stay on social media, even though there's relentless abuse and attacking because I won't let them drive me up.
Mona Eltahawy: Yeah
Mehreen Faruqi: Because I won't give them a win. And for me, that's a big part of that battle as well. So, we do have some wonderful questions from our audience.
Here’s one from Victoria. Dear Mona, I skipped school today to ask you how someone like me, as 12 years old, can fight back.
Mona Eltahawy: Oh Victoria, thank you.
Mehreen Faruqi: No one is listening from climate change, or the basic rights of my friends – I feel betrayed. So, my mom brought me here to ask the expert. Over to you.
Mona Eltahawy: So look, Victoria, I became a feminist at the age of 15 and I was just three years older than you, and I became a feminist because I was like, fuck this shit, this world is not what it should be. So, I understand your anger and it's completely justified. Hold on to it. I understand the urgency – I actually not just understand, I love and appreciate the urgency with which you approach this need to change the world, the climate crisis, all of that. And I am – I'm not going to say I'm pinning all my hopes, because that's a big, big… a lot of pressure on you but it inspires me and it helps me you know, how I said, I wake up every morning convinced today’s the day, I’m going to destroy the patriarchy. That conviction is because of girls like you, Victoria. So, you give me that hope that today’s the day, we are going to destroy the patriarchy. So the way you do it, is you know, my book – The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls – you have it, I love you. Oh my god.
I love it. So, those chapters, Victoria. I hope they become more and more relevant in your life, because anger and profanity and violence and all of that – those for me that's like the roadmap that I wrote, so that we can follow each other on that path of destroying patriarchy.
But my biggest advice, if you like, is to be exactly who you are, to stay exactly like this, because this is what patriarchy doesn't want and this is why you by being this way, will help us to destroy patriarchy. So, I give you my love and solidarity and I say, fuck yes. For girls like you.
Mehreen Faruqi: In your books… and here's another one, we don't have a name here. But in your books – you speak about the trifecta, Mona. Is there a unified approach that tackles all elements? Or do they need to be approached individually? What can we do to dismantle the trifecta?
Mona Eltahawy: Thank you for that question. Whoever you are, I love it when people read my work. So, the trifecta that this person is referring to is what I call the trifecta of misogyny. I’m more lately, been calling it the trifecta of patriarchy – and that trifecta is state, street and home. And I want you to remember all three because I started thinking of it when the Egyptian revolution began. I'm Egyptian as you all know, and I wanted to write this book – my first book about feminism and what happens when the revolution goes home, and I would hear from too many male comrades, “Mona, this is not the time to talk about feminism. It's not the time to talk about women. It's not the time, it's not the time, it's not the time…”, as if we were some kind of niche interest and, we're just going to sit here and wait.
When you know, women were out there in Tahrir Square and other places in Egypt and across the region – that had gone through the revolutions, risking their lives, dying, being beaten, being arrested alongside the men. But the men were acting as if this was a revolution to give them a bit of the slice of power – that pie called power, from the state because for too many male comrades in movements across the world, be it the Black Panthers in the US, or any kind of revolutionary movement, anarchists… feminists… on this, I’m an anarchist and a feminist, so my anarchist, feminist comrades across the world have long pointed this out.
They will turn to their male comrades and say, “fuck your misogyny, I’m not here just to help you fight the state and I stay home until you tell me it’s time for my right”. So when you tell that to the male comrades, they don’t understand because they say, ‘the state represses everyone, we will have to fight against the state’, and then I remind them, that, ‘yes, the state represses everyone but the state along with the street, along with the home together oppresses women and queer people.’ So that’s the ‘trifecta’, and we have to dismantle it because none of us will be free unless that trifecta is dismantled.
And the hardest revolution of all – because we need a revolution in the street and the home as well as in the state, against the state. The hardest revolution of all, is the revolution in the home, because all dictators go home. The dictator of the state, the dictator in the street, and others. So, for me, obviously, the thing to dismantle that trifecta is feminism but it’s the robust feminism that focuses on more than misogyny and here, I can’t remember if I talked about my definition of patriarchy when I was last in Australia, but even if I did, I'm going to consider you a new audience, so I’m going to re-tell it.
I want you to think of patriarchy as an octopus. I know the octopus is a beautiful creature, and it's very smart, and it's beautiful in all of this, and it has a brain in each of its tentacles but this is why I liken the octopus to patriarchy. Because the head of the octopus is patriarchy, and each one of the eight tentacles is one of the oppressions that keep patriarchy alive – because the textbook definition of patriarchy is a system of oppressions that works to privilege male dominance.
So, you see that definition, it goes way above people’s heads but talk about the octopus – patriarchy is the head, each of the tentacles is one of those oppressions. So, depending on who you are and where you live – misogyny, racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, ageism, all of those ‘isms’… some people will be strangled by all eight tentacles, some will not by any of them, some by – maybe two, or three but we dismantle that trifecta of patriarchy when we kill the octopus, I'm sorry, octopus, but I'm gonna kill you.
So that's the work of feminism to destroy the octopus known as patriarchy.
Mehreen Faruqi: Here’s another one Mona. What advice do you give to people of faith who believe in reproductive and feminist rights, on making change within their own communities of faith? I don’t want to feel like I have to reconcile the two for the rest of my life as a woman.
Mona Eltahawy: That's a tough question. But I'll tell you something, though, because I talk about this in The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls. Too often, people who do not come from a background of faith will just tell people, especially women who express faith, “oh God, just leave your religion and be done with it”. As if patriarchy isn't this octopus that is everywhere? Patriarchy is like asking a fish, what is water? The fish, the fish is going to ask you, what is this water? You know, because it's everywhere. Patriarchy is in the oxygen. So, you're telling this woman of faith to leave her faith community because patriarchy lives there as if patriarchy isn't outside of it. So, the challenge here then becomes – how do we destroy patriarchy within the community of faith and outside of the community of faith? Now, I cannot tell someone what she can do in her community of faith – that is going to be her struggle but I know every religion across the world has issues with patriarchy, and misogyny. There is not a religion that does not – so this isn't about Islam. This is about Christianity. This is about Judaism. This is about Hinduism, Buddhism, every religion has patriarchal underpinnings and have those issues that this questioner asked me.
So then, it becomes an issue of how do you fight that patriarchy inside, without making it seem like that woman – if she leaves her faith community, she’s going to live in feminist heaven because there is no feminist heaven.
It’s really difficult, you know and in the United States, I mean, this is why I give white people in the United States such a hard time with religion because they act as if the problem is with everybody else's religion and not their own, and with the US media, as I’m sure that the media here are very good at analysing and pathologising Muslim women in a way that Christian women, or women of other faiths, but especially Christian women – white Christian women, are rarely analysed and pathologised.
And that my last bit of this answer is… I will tell you that I tell people in the US, clearly and openly, liberal white women in the US want to save Muslim women, and conservative Christian women in United States look down upon Muslim women – as if they're not fighting the very same patriarchy that Muslim women are fighting. And we have to remember this – that this struggle might look different. It might taste different, it might sound different, but it's the same struggle. I am fighting patriarchy inside of anyone's religious community, and outside of anyone's religious community, and whoever the questioner is, good luck. Because it's difficult. And, and we cannot give any more room for the religious zealots who insist that we leave our feminism at the door of the temple, the mosque, the church, or whatever it is. Refuse, refuse, and take it in there and challenge whoever your preacher, cleric, pastor rabbi is – challenge them and be savage and dangerous in your communities of faith, as well as your workplace and other places where you exist, because feminism needs to be everywhere you go, whoever you are.
Mehreen Faruqi: Here's an interesting one. As a white, cis women, how do I get past the white saviour complex that I have and don’t want to be accused of when I want to help intersectional feminism and beyond?
Mona Eltahawy: Thank you for that question. I think you can do that by saving your mother, your sister, your daughter and your white friend. Because white women need to talk to other white women. The problem is you, it's not about what I often share the story with, with audiences. I was in Texas of all places, if there is a place that is worse than Florida, it's Texas.
I was in Texas promoting my first book, Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East needs a Sexual Revolution. I went to many, many places and wherever I went, I always told people, “I'm not here to make you feel comfortable about how great it is here, and how shit it is over there”, nonetheless, a white woman stood up and she gave me the song and dance about Egypt. “Oh my God, I love Egypt. I lived in Egypt for X number of years – FGM. Horrible, horrible, how can I help Egyptian women?”. So, the savior thing, right? I said to her, “are you aware of what is happening with abortion in your state in Texas?”. Because I mean, abortion work has been illegal in Texas now longer than it has been in the rest of the United States – before Roe v Wade was overturned. I said to her, “why do you want to go and rescue Egyptian women when you need to rescue women right here in Texas?”, and she had no answer.
Because for the longest time, white supremacy has told white women, be grateful you live over here, and not in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan or Iran. You were always told, be grateful you live in Australia, or the US or New Zealand or God knows where else… and not in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan or Iran. And in believing that, you did not pay enough attention to the patriarchy that whites have and theocracy – that white supremacy was building in your own home. That's what's happening in the United States. And it will happen here. It is happening here. So this is how you stop your white saviour complex – stop listening to the white supremacist, patriarchal, misogynist fucks – who keeps saying to you, oh, you should be grateful you don't live in Afghanistan, and challenge your mothers and your fathers and your brothers and your daughters and your white friends about what they've allowed white supremacist patriarchy to get away with, because if you don't challenge them – it will get worse. It is not going to stop abortion.
Roe v Wade was just the beginning, very soon after that they went after critical race theory – so, overt white supremacy, and they continue to go after trans and queer people. So, what are you waiting for?
Mehreen Faruqi: The playbook of US fascists is often played here as well.
Mona Eltahawy: Absolutely, the US is the role model for the whole world. Instead of exporting democracy as the US likes to boast – it’s exporting fascism.
Mehreen Faruqi: We’re running out of time too fast, people. And I’m going to take advantage of having this platform in asking the last question to Mona. Mona – I for one, am really sick and tired of chipping away at patriarchy, you know, brick by brick with a hammer and chipping away at this wall. I really want once and for all, to bring that ball down, to smash it down. What gives you hope? What gives Mona Eltahawy hope that we can do that?
Mona Eltahawy: I think you know, the feminists that I spoke about in my introductory remarks, Mehreen. The women and girls and the men who support them, and the queer and trans people who are with them in the revolution in Iran. The feminists across the Americas, who have been part of this incredible Green Revolution and I’m also especially inspired because I believe this – by people who say, fuck the law because we have too greater respect for the law. We really do. Because I believe in civil disobedience, and I believe there are laws… who makes the laws? You know, there was a great film that I saw in the US last year called, The Janes and it was about an underground community of abortion providers in Chicago that provided illegal abortions before Roe v Wade was passed and I say quote, unquote because I’ve had two abortions – I’ve had an illegal abortion in Egypt and illegal abortion in the US. And I use inverted commas because the state can fuck off with its opinions about what I can and can’t do with my uterus.
This documentary, The Janes had interviews with these women who ran this clandestine underground abortion provider, community… and one of them said, “it is our job to disrespect laws that disrespect women”. And to that I would add – laws that disrespect pregnant people who want an abortion. Fuck the law, who made this law? When its religious zealots, the Supreme Court in United States – it’s full of religious zealots. Why should I respect the laws that they pass? So, what gives me hope, Mehreen, is people who go out there and want to burn shit down.
This is what they’re doing in Iran – they’re burning shit down. The revolution is not polite. Feminism is not polite. Feminism has to be savage and dangerous. So what gives me hope are the people who are feminists – who are savage and dangerous. The feminists who refuse to be polite. The feminists who burn it down because as I quoted from Ni Una Manos, “we will not be burned this time, because the fire ours.
So, own the fire, claim the fire, and burn the patriarchy down with your fire.
Mehreen Faruqi: Maybe one more thing we can all do – is to pledge, to be savage and dangerous from here on. Thank you so much Mona Eltahawy and thank you everyone.
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Mona Eltahawy Keynote Talk
Senator Mehreen Faruqi
Mona Eltahawy and Mehreen Faruqi
Mona Eltahawy is a feminist author, commentator, and disruptor of patriarchy. She is founder and editor-in-chief of the newsletter FEMINIST GIANT. Her opinion essays have appeared in media across the world. Her first book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution (2015) targeted patriarchy in the Middle East and North Africa and her second The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls (2019) took that disruption worldwide. She is a contributor to the recent anthology This Arab is Queer and is editing the anthology Bloody Hell! And Other Stories: Adventures in Menopause from Across the Personal and Political Spectrums.
Dr Mehreen Faruqi is the Deputy Leader of the Australian Greens and a Greens Senator for NSW. She is the Australian Greens spokesperson on education, animal welfare, anti-racism and international aid. Mehreen is a civil and environmental engineer and a life-long activist for social and environmental justice. She became the first Muslim woman to sit in any Australian parliament when she joined the NSW Parliament in 2013. In 2018, she took her proudly feminist and anti-racist approach to challenging the status quo to federal parliament when she joined the Senate.
Mehreen has been an unflinching voice on social, environmental and racial justice, pushing to dismantle the systems of power, privilege and patriarchy that allow these injustices to continue. Mehreen’s recently published memoir and manifesto Too Migrant, Too Muslim, Too Loud is a no-holds-barred account by a political outsider about what happens when you confront a system steeped in power and patriarchy.