Facts about Mona Elthahawy

  • Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-born commentator who lives in the USA where she works with Arab and Muslim issues. Her columns can regularly be read in various international media publications, as well as on her blog
  • You can also follow her on Twitter
  • Mona Eltahawy was the keynote speaker at the 9 May 2011 conference  "Cyberactivism Changing the World?" arranged by KVINFO in cooperation with the Danish Centre for Culture and Development (DCCD) and Dansk PEN

The Egyptian-born blogger and commentator Mona Eltahawy became a citizen of the United States just a few days before the country succeeded in liquidating the wanted terrorist Osama bin Laden. After completing the formalities at the immigration office,  the first thing this energetic journalist did was to hit the keyboard and write the blog article “No Dignity at Ground Zero”, which was later published in a number or newspapers including The Guardian and Denmark’s Politiken. For Eltahawy, that the way in which Americans were celebrating the death of bin Laden at precisely the location where thousands of people lost their lives in the 2001 terrorist attacks was utterly tasteless.   
It is precisely this that Eltahawy is capable of doing extremely well – writing a salient and independent commentary in a highly politicised media landscape, where both feelings and opinions proliferate and where speaking out requires much courage and resolution.  
“Every day a Middle Eastern woman blogs about her conditions, she changes her life for herself and thousands of other women in the Arabic countries,”

Eltahawy is 43 years old and was born into a medical family in Port Said Egypt; she has lived in the UK and Canada, and has for the last 11 years been living in the United States. She has worked and written for many international media organisations and is a frequently used guest analyst on television, including CNN. In addition, Eltahawy teaches in the impact of the growth of social media at a number of American universities. She began her career as a journalist for the illegal Egyptian newspaper Middle East Times, later going on to report for Reuters in the Middle East and Israel, and for The Guardian and The Washington Post. She has also written about the Danish Mohamed Cartoon crisis for a number of international media organisations including Denmark’s Politiken. 
Her high-risk life stands in sharp contrast to the setting for this interview, which took place in Copenhagen in the idyllic gardens of Dansk PEN (the Danish branch of the PEN global association of writers). There, Eltahawy was awaiting the arrival of around 20 other Middle Eastern female bloggers who were being flown in to attend the 9 May 2011 “Cyber Activism: Changing the World?” conference, arranged by KVINFO along with the Danish Centre for Culture and Development (DCCD) and Danish PEN. 

A revolution for women’s freedom

According to Eltahawy, she and many of the women bloggers who are visiting Copenhagen for the conference are, in fact, currently changing the world. They do this every day by defying harassment, arrest and death treats to spread their message – whether by means of Tweets from their living rooms, blog postings about their daily life in Syria, Saudi Arabia or Lebanon, or through much longer journalistic articles and television reports. Eltahawy calls what is currently going on in the Arab counties a revolution on many levels. 
 “Where the 70’s feminists met in each other’s living rooms with their mirrors, ponchos and therapy, Arabic and Muslim women meet in the blogosphere. Here they get organized, blog about their everyday lives and about politics, and arrange demonstrations. The mirror has simply been replaced with the keyboard.”

The mirror has simply been replaced with the keyboard 

“Only the method has changed,” tells Eltahawy with a smile. “Where the 70’s feminists met in each other’s living rooms with their mirrors, ponchos and therapy, Arabic and Muslim women meet in the blogosphere. Here they get organized, blog about their everyday lives and about politics, and arrange demonstrations. The mirror has simply been replaced with the keyboard.”
However, it is not this story of liberation that attracts most western media focus, perhaps because so few are aware of how many women are actually part of the uprising.
“If you ask anybody about whether the revolution in Egypt has anything to do with gender, many will answer that it only is a revolution against Mubarak’s dictatorship. But that’s not entirely true. At Tahrir Square, a utopia was played out in the 18 days  – a utopia about what Egypt can become in the longer term – a country where women and men are equal and have the same rights. All over the square, women and men were demonstrating side by side and they were sleeping next to each other. That women can be outside at all after nightfall without being escorted by a man is huge. It was amazing to see in such a conservative country.”

From behind the veil

Eltahawy tells that social media has had the greatest importance for the marginalised groups within the Muslim community: the young, homosexuals and women. Suddenly, everyone can express themselves in their own blog, they can find a voice for themselves and a space to be free, and they can have an opinion upon which others can comment. The Internet has provided a democratic platform for those groups of society, who previously have been unable to organise themselves so effectively. This has of course had been most significant in countries where the sexes live separated from each other, such as they do in the Muslim countries. 
“I’m particularly impressed by how Saudi women have taken the media to heart and the whole ‘digital unveiling’ that has happened in this ultra-conservative country where women literally are unveiling themselves in front of the computer screen. It is strong stuff when they write themselves out of the shame and the sexual assaults they have experienced. Of course, it’s been going on for years, but it has been kept secret. Not until social media came along have their voices shaped a united movement which has influenced all that is happening now.”
“I’m particularly impressed by how Saudi women have taken the media to heart and the whole ‘digital unveiling’ that has happened in this ultra-conservative country where women literally are unveiling themselves in front of the computer screen(…)”

Computer camps as activism

Eltahawy tells about one activist group from Lebanon called Meem that particularly fascinates her. Her fascination stems from the fact that this group has fully grasped how to mobilise and network across the Muslim countries in order to create protection for and raise awareness of lesbians, bi- and transsexuals throughout the region. 
Meem’s website is both a library with literature and references as well as a support side which individuals can contact anonymously. They hold free IT, blogging and Internet camps, and they have a number of safe houses dotted across the Lebanon, where people can stay for short periods. To begin with, the organisation numbered just 300, but now the network numbers thousands of women who help one another – all of it on a voluntary basis. 

Rapid mobilisation

“Some feminists from the earlier generation, such as for instance Susan Faludi, simply don’t understand how powerful and important the social media movement is in the Arab countries. Last year Faludi wrote that young feminists nowadays are just bloggers wearing high heels. That was really provocative. Many feminists from her generation simply don’t understand that the room, the understanding and the community that they found in their support groups, we have found in the blogosphere. And that we also go out into the real world and fight for women’s rights. We just mobilize double as fast and effectively via the Internet.”

Dangerous protests

The demonstrations and protests of The Arab Spring have claimed their victims. Often, women have paid the ultimate price because they had been out in the streets at night protesting without protection in countries with strict gender segregation. 
“One of my friends who is an Islamic feminist had to sneak out to be part of the demonstrations in Egypt. On Twitter and Facebook there was a lot of debate going on about techniques that could protect the female demonstrators. Women were advised to bring maze and to wear two hijabs, (if they were wearing any), so that if one got pulled off they would still be wearing one, and at the same time the women’s male friends would serve as human shields against the soldiers on the square,” explains Eltahawy.
“One of my friends who is an Islamic feminist had to sneak out to be part of the demonstrations in Egypt. On Twitter and Facebook there was a lot of debate going on about techniques that could protect the female demonstrators(…)”

Western woman attacked

But these precautions did not help everyone. Recently, the Washington-based war correspondent Lara Logan told of how she was attacked and sexually assaulted by hundreds of men in Tahrir Square during her posting in Egypt to cover the uprising for CBS. The story hit the headlines across the world. 
“It was a terrible thing that happened to Logan. And we are many who are deeply affected by the incident. Logan was targeted by Mubarak’s soldiers because she was a woman and an easy victim. At the time she was assaulted, the square was open and there were many different people present – not only demonstrators – so there was no control; and the atmosphere was unpleasant and aggressive, like at a really bad football match,” tells Eltahawy.
She continues to explain that Logan’s attack and the fact that she has talked about it in public has helped to bring focus on the sexual violence in Egypt, which is a part of many Egyptian women’s daily lives. The level of sexual violence has been particularly escalating since 2005 when Mubarak’s regime started using sexual violence and harassment as a strategic weapon against women journalists and activists, explains Eltahawy, who herself is no stranger to such harassment.    
“(…)Logan was targeted by Mubarak’s soldiers because she was a woman and an easy victim. At the time she was assaulted, the square was open and there were many different people present – not only demonstrators – so there was no control; and the atmosphere was unpleasant and aggressive, like at a really bad football match.”

A life under constant threats

“My life as a journalist has been full of threats, hate and sexual assaults. Recently, I’ve been targeted on an Arabic website with threats of getting acid poured on my face and when I was covering a court trial years ago one of the police officers suddenly grabbed my breast. When I told his superior he just shook his head at me,” Eltahawy explains, “but I keep going. It’s all I want to do – to write and react. Their hate keeps me going,” tells Eltahawy. 
Sexual violence against women is one of the most debated topics among the young bloggers because it happens every single day in the streets and workplaces of Egypt, explains Eltahawy
It was sadly only when a white woman was attacked that this violence became a real issue – particularly in the western world where it fitted the stereotype of the dirty, violent Muslim man. 
In her view, it is an epidemic that is completely out of control, and it was sadly only when a white woman was attacked that this violence became a real issue – particularly in the western world where it fitted the stereotype of the dirty, violent Muslim man. 

We want to tell both groups to ‘fuck off’

Danish-Arab Partnership Programme

KVINFO's programme in the Middle East and North Africa is financed by:

 

“We Muslim women are caught in a dilemma; on the one hand, we have to defend ourselves against misogynists who think it is okay to grope a woman in public, or even worse, rape her, and on the other hand, we have to explain and defend Muslim men against racists who think that all Muslim men are potential rapists. Actually, we just want to say ‘fuck off’ to both groups.”
Death threats, harassment and insults have not held the award-winning Eltahawy back; in fact, she views such things almost as part of the job for a Muslim reporter living in the West. She takes only a few precautions when it comes to her own safety and sometimes she lets hateful comments stay posted on her website so that other bloggers and readers can comment upon them. For Eltahawy, strength comes from within and she was recently listed as one of the world’s most powerful Arab women by the magazine Arabian Business. Among those women on the list were many affluent business women, yet only a few journalists like Eltahawy were present on the list.
“We Muslim women are caught in a dilemma; on the one hand, we have to defend ourselves against misogynists who think it is okay to grope a woman in public, or even worse, rape her, and on the other hand, we have to explain and defend Muslim men against racists who think that all Muslim men are potential rapists. Actually, we just want to say ‘fuck off’ to both groups.”
“We’ve only just begun deconstructing Muslim and Arab stereotypes of what women are – and can become. Today in the Middle East, power is still equivalent to money and wealth. If I had to compile such a list, I would include many of the feministic bloggers I’ve been talking about here. In the long run, it is them who via new media will change and mobilize most effectively on behalf of all the world’s Muslim and Arab women.”