An interview with Egyptian-American journalist, commentator and feminist Mona Eltahawy.
In parts of the Middle East, some women are groped as a matter of course. There are men who feel free to run their hands over women, like they’re buying produce, or a cow.
Mona Eltahawy has endured that and much worse, as a young woman and as an outspoken Egyptian-American journalist, commentator and feminist.
In 2011, she was arrested by security forces during the uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and reported being sexually assaulted and beaten.
Her left arm and right hand were broken. She was detained by the Ministry of the Interior and then military intelligence for some 12 hours, two of which she spent blindfolded.
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She borrowed a cellphone from another activist and managed to send out a tweet about being assaulted and held. Alec Ross, then a senior adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, responded. That started a Twitter campaign called #freemona, which eventually helped her get released.
Compared to that, wearing a headscarf seems like just a nuisance.
But to Eltahawy, 47, it is another kind of prison for women. Hence the name of her new book, “Headscarves and Hymens: Why The Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution.” The collection of feminist writings will bring her to Elliott Bay Book Company Thursday, May 21, at 7 p.m.
“The first time I wore a head scarf I was 16,” she said on the phone from her home in Harlem. “I looked and felt like a nun. I missed the wind in my hair. For me, it was not a comfortable thing to wear.”
She once tried on a burqa from Afghanistan, “and I just remember wearing it was incredibly suffocating. You don’t have any peripheral vision.”
No way to see what’s coming, she said — and no way to stand up for your rights.
“We are fighting misogynists in every culture,” she said. “My solution is to listen to the women in each community and amplify their voices.”
Her fearlessness comes from her parents, who met while attending medical school.
Eltahawy and her siblings were born in Egypt, but lived in London while their parents earned their Ph.D.s in medicine there.
“I grew up looking at my parents as equals,” she said, calling their union “a feminist marriage.”
The family then moved to Saudi Arabia, where the parents had teaching jobs — and where Eltahawy first encountered Muslim culture, and soon felt like “the walking embodiment of sin.”
Her first year in the country, the family made a pilgrimage to Mecca, where she writes that she was assaulted twice. While circling the Ka’ba — a large building inside the al-Masjid al-Haram mosque and the holiest place in Islam — a man repeatedly grabbed her from behind.
She cried, but only told her parents that the crowds were getting to her. Later, a policeman groped her breast.
She started to wear a hijab.
“I needed something to defend me,” she wrote, “and I thought the hijab would.”
The author of “Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution” appears at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 21, Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave., Seattle (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
One day, she stumbled upon a feminist book store, and was transformed.
“These journals and books put into words the frustration I felt,” she said. “I became a full-fledged feminist.”
There are many observations in the book about Westerners.
One is that we “respect” other cultures, Eltahawy writes, but let that political correctness trump our defense of human rights — especially those of women.
“There is a reluctance here to speak out,” she said.
At least one critic called her out for making “false moral equivalencies” of the pay gap in Manhattan and virginity tests in Cairo.
Others found her 2012 defacing of a controversial subway ad supporting Israel to be misguided, and damaging to her credibility.
Eltahawy worries that Westerners see Muslim culture through the prism of 9/11. There is no such thing as “The Muslim World,” she said.
“It is much more complicated,” Eltahawy said. “But it ends up being reduced to a stereotype; the angry, bearded Muslim man who looks like he wants to reach through the TV and swallow us alive. You don’t get the image of happy Muslim men, loving their families.”
The women, too, are stereotyped.
“They’re covered in black and silenced and you never hear from them,” she said. “The only thing that is discussed is the veil. We are more than what’s on our head and more than this obsession with virginity.”
Eltahawy’s goal is to “complicate the narrative of Muslims.”
The same group that attacked the U.S., she said, was attacking people in Eqypt, Iraq and Syria.
“The ones who want to kill have been killing Muslims for a long time,” she said. “So when 9/11 happened, I knew what it was like to be attacked by that hateful ideology.
“This ISIS group, they attack Muslims more than they attack anyone else.”
Her readings draw a mix of people — young women who are veiled and not veiled, and Egyptian men who have asked her to sign her book for their sons. She is also greeted by American and Canadian feminists “who remind me not to be complacent.”
The other day, she was asked to project to 2050: What did she see?
The inauguration of the first woman president of Eqypt. The first woman Mufti in Saudi Arabia. And by then, the third consecutive woman president of the United States.
“In 2016, I really want a woman to win,” Eltahawy said. “A Democrat. Whoever she is.”