Why Mona Eltahawy Wants to Smash the Patriarchy

2 May, 2021

Employer: We are very impressed with your CV and we would love to know, where do you see yourself in 5 years? Her: With the workers, organizing in the feminist revolution aiming towards smashing the patriarchal, capitalistic, neoliberal, racist, heteropatriarchal violent system.

Employ­er: We are very impressed with your CV and we would love to know, where do you see your­self in 5 years?
Her: With the work­ers, orga­niz­ing in the fem­i­nist rev­o­lu­tion aim­ing towards smash­ing the patri­ar­chal, cap­i­tal­is­tic, neolib­er­al, racist, het­eropa­tri­ar­chal vio­lent system.

The Sev­en Nec­es­sary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Elta­hawy
Tramp Press (April 2021)
ISBN: 9781916291447

Hiba Moustafa

For those who don’t know her, Mona Elta­hawy is a fierce Arab fem­i­nist, but she is not the first. As Reem Almowafak has point­ed out, Arab fem­i­nism launched in the 19th cen­tu­ry, and has had many proud activists in sev­er­al coun­tries, includ­ing Lebanon, Syr­ia, Sau­di Ara­bia and Egypt, where most recent­ly one of its great­est con­tem­po­raries, Dr. Naw­al El Saadawi, died in Cairo at the age of 89. That was also the home base of the Egypt­ian Fem­i­nist Union, found­ed in 1923, which even­tu­al­ly came under the aegis of the Arab Fem­i­nist Union in 1945. Just to estab­lish that Elta­hawy has not come out of a vac­u­um and has had the ben­e­fit of major men­tors, includ­ing El Saadawi, about whom she wrote upon her pass­ing in March (on her Fem­i­nist Giant blog): 

“Naw­al El Saadawi spoke the truth and the truth is sav­age and dan­ger­ous. She ter­ri­fied and thrilled gen­er­a­tions of fem­i­nists into unrav­el­ling from the binds of patri­archy… It is not the job of fem­i­nism to bur­nish the rep­u­ta­tion of patri­archy. It is not the job of fem­i­nism to mol­li­fy misog­y­nists or pla­cate patri­archy. It is the job of fem­i­nism to ter­ri­fy misog­y­nists and to destroy patriarchy.”

Mona Eltahawy (Photo Rémy Ngamije).

Mona Elta­hawy (Pho­to Rémy Ngamije).

In her lat­est book, Elta­hawy nev­er minces words, for The Sev­en Nec­es­sary Sins for Women and Girls is a call for women and girls to “defy, dis­obey and dis­rupt” the patri­archy. It is, Elta­hawy writes, a man­u­al for smash­ing the patri­archy. Patri­archy pro­claims it pro­vides pro­tec­tion for women from men. Such pro­vi­sion of pro­tec­tion is con­di­tion­al on wom­en’s obe­di­ence, and a con­di­tion­al pro­tec­tion is no pro­tec­tion at all. Mona Elta­hawy rejects this pro­tec­tion in its entire­ty; she does not want to be pro­tect­ed; she just wants patri­archy to stop pro­tect­ing men. She argues that patri­archy is uni­ver­sal and to com­bat it fem­i­nism has to be uni­ver­sal as well. 

With bib­li­cal irony, Elta­hawy presents not Sev­en Dead­ly Sins but sev­en nec­es­sary sins women and girls need to embrace to upset the patri­archy — Anger, Atten­tion, Pro­fan­i­ty, Ambi­tion, Pow­er, Vio­lence, and Lust. They are sins only in the sense that they are what girls and women are required and expect­ed not to do or even want. Elta­hawy gives patri­archy the mid­dle fin­ger as she dis­sects why those sins are denied to women and girls, and why they should embrace them all. 

In Anger, Elta­hawy calls on her read­ers to imag­ine a world where girls learn that anger is beau­ti­ful and a force to be reck­oned with — where girls learn to express their anger just as they learn how to read and write and where the anger girls feel toward their own mis­treat­ment is jus­ti­fi­able and even required. Anger can be used as a tool to dis­obey, defy and dis­rupt the patri­archy, for instead of being taught to embrace and express their anger, girls are social­ized into com­pli­ance and acqui­es­cence, into being what Elta­hawy calls “foot sol­diers of patriarchy.” 

Reflect­ing on her own expe­ri­ences of sex­u­al harass­ment and sex­u­al assault as a four-year old girl and a 15-year-old teenag­er, Elta­hawy argues that girls grow into believ­ing that they are weak and vul­ner­a­ble because “patri­archy is uni­ver­sal­ly crush­ing [them] into sub­mis­sion.” This explains her reac­tion to the lat­ter expe­ri­ence by cov­er­ing her­self up with a hijab. Such a reac­tion is not unique to her; girls all over Egypt wear hijab as a part of their school uni­form and even in the US girls are sent back home if their clothes are deemed too reveal­ing or “dis­tract­ing” to boys. Instead of teach­ing boys not to assault and rais­ing them into men who should not assault, girls are taught from a young age that they bear the onus of their safe­ty and that it is their fault if they are assaulted. 

Available from  Tramp Press .

Avail­able from Tramp Press.

Girls every­where are forced into sub­servience under the pre­text of girls being weak and vul­ner­a­ble and boys being strong and pow­er­ful, but what is being per­pet­u­at­ed as bio­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences are actu­al­ly a myth; they are social norms dic­tat­ed by patri­archy. Think­ing that patri­archy is lim­it­ed to con­ser­v­a­tive tra­di­tion­al soci­eties is anoth­er myth; it is every­where and to fight it fem­i­nism has to be as uni­ver­sal. Fem­i­nism has also to be more than an abstract idea and it is anger that “car­ries fem­i­nism from idea to being.” The kind of fem­i­nism Elta­hawy upholds is nei­ther coy nor apolo­getic; it is “robust” and “aggres­sive.” As iter­at­ed through­out the book, Elta­hawy’s fem­i­nism defies, dis­obeys and dis­rupts patriarchy. 

Patri­archy, uni­ver­sal as it is, does not influ­ence women the same way. It is par­tic­u­lar­ly harm­ful to women in minor­i­ty groups such as Black women and Mus­lim women, who are caught between the rock of Islam­o­phobes who do not care about their well-being and the hard place of their own Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties which over­look misog­y­ny so that Mus­lim men may look good. It is even hard­er for Black Mus­lim women who are caught in what Elta­hawy calls “a tri­fec­ta of oppres­sion: misog­y­ny, racism, Islam­o­pho­bia.” So to speak, the more the girl or the woman is mar­gin­al­ized the more she will be bru­tal­ized by patri­archy. Here, Elta­hawy shies away nei­ther from crit­i­ciz­ing the two cul­tures she belongs to, Mus­lim and West­ern, nor from offend­ing any­one on either side; she is here to dis­rupt after all. 

Anoth­er tri­fec­ta influ­ences all women every­where. It is the tri­fec­ta of the state, the street (soci­ety) and the home (fam­i­ly). Elta­hawy here links the per­son­al to the polit­i­cal. Like June Jor­dan, a Black poet who has inspired her, Elta­hawy argues that the dif­fer­ent sys­tems of oppres­sion that affect us indi­vid­u­al­ly are actu­al­ly com­mu­nal. There­fore, she reasserts, fem­i­nism has to be uni­ver­sal in order fight all forms of injus­tice – racist, sex­u­al, colo­nial and/or impe­r­i­al – because they are all interconnected.

In bold and cap­i­tal let­ters, the sec­ond chap­ter, Atten­tion, opens with a ques­tion almost every woman who dares to act as if she mat­ters hears, “WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?” Elta­hawy’s answer is “ME, MYSELF, AND I.” The most sub­ver­sive and rev­o­lu­tion­ary thing a woman can do, she argues, is to say that she counts and to “talk about her life as if her life actu­al­ly mat­ters.” It is rev­o­lu­tion­ary and sub­ver­sive because patri­archy requires the oppo­site of women, to be hum­ble and mod­est and to take the small space that is allo­cat­ed to them and be thank­ful for it. To dis­suade women from demand­ing atten­tion, patri­archy has attached to it the worst insult meant for women, whore, that any woman seek­ing atten­tion is labeled “atten­tion whore,” not to men­tion that “seek­ing atten­tion” is in itself a stigma.

Accused of seek­ing atten­tion through her protests and activism, Elta­hawy declares that she does want atten­tion because what she says and does deserves atten­tion. She wel­comes and embraces atten­tion because it enables her to deliv­er her mes­sage to the largest audi­ence pos­si­ble. Not only does patri­archy shames women for the atten­tion they want or get, it also has a game to play. Like a bone, Elta­hawy argues, patri­archy “dan­gles [atten­tion] in front of women”; if they want much of it, they are called whores and if they do not want it, when patri­archy thinks they should accept it, they are stalked and beat­en with it. Elta­hawy refus­es to play by the rules of such a game. 

Patri­archy uses atten­tion as a reward and pun­ish­ment, a reward giv­en to the women who ful­fill cer­tain cri­te­ria, espe­cial­ly of con­ven­tion­al beau­ty, and a pun­ish­ment inflict­ed on those who do not by with­hold­ing it from them. Tak­ing the form of pun­ish­ment, atten­tion can be life threat­en­ing when women, par­tic­u­lar­ly trans­gen­der women, are pres­sured into ful­fill­ing tra­di­tion­al notions of beau­ty or when they face emo­tion­al and phys­i­cal abuse, and some­times death, when they do not ‘pass’ as fem­i­nine. Again, Elta­hawy refus­es to play by any rules and calls for a world where women wait not for atten­tion but cre­ate, seize and com­mand it, reassert­ing that the most sub­ver­sive thing a woman can do is to talk about her life as if it real­ly matters.

When it comes to Pow­er, Elta­hawy argues that mat­ters are more com­pli­cat­ed than who is the pres­i­dent or the chan­cel­lor for there are many places where pow­er exists and oth­er ways than pol­i­tics to be pow­er­ful. Besides, one has to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between a pow­er that dis­man­tles patri­archy and a pow­er that upholds and serves it. In addi­tion, one has to ask not whether a woman can be pres­i­dent but whether that woman is a fem­i­nist, whether she is devot­ed to dis­man­tling patri­archy and whether she will use her pow­er to dis­man­tle or uphold patri­archy. Attempt­ing to answer these ques­tions, Elta­hawy exam­ines the case of Brazil which, though it once elect­ed a woman for a pres­i­dent, has nonethe­less remained deeply patri­ar­chal. Dil­ma Rouss­eff, the first Brazil­ian woman pres­i­dent was impeached for break­ing bud­get rules to be suc­ceed­ed first by her vice pres­i­dent, a cen­ter-right man who named all-white, all male cab­i­net, then by Jair Bol­sonaro, an “unabashed­ly misog­y­nist, racist, and homo­pho­bic for­mer army cap­tain” who became pres­i­dent in 2018 of a coun­try that only end­ed mil­i­tary rule in 1985. Elta­hawy expands on how some men, includ­ing Bol­sonaro him­self, set in motion Rouss­ef­f’s fall. How­ev­er, it is not only about Rouss­eff. Elta­hawy argues that in a coun­try whose elect­ed pres­i­dent told a mem­ber of Brazil’s con­gress that he would not rape her because she did not deserve it is a coun­try where women can nev­er be safe. It is also not just about one man or patri­archy alone; it is about an entire sys­tem where patri­archy is in the works with “mil­i­tarism, cap­i­tal­ism, author­i­tar­i­an Chris­t­ian val­ues” and where women some­times join the ranks of men as “foots sol­diers of patriarchy.” 

How does patri­archy get women on its side? By promis­es of pro­tec­tion, but these promis­es, Elta­hawy argues, are false and if any pro­tec­tion is pro­vid­ed it comes at a price. To ensure white wom­en’s alle­giance and obe­di­ence, patri­archy and white suprema­cy tan­ta­lize them with promis­es of pro­tec­tion be it from black men, brown men, immi­grants or any oth­er imag­ined dan­ger. Patri­archy also gives women crumbs of pow­er in return for their obe­di­ence. Elta­hawy argues that women have to refuse those crumbs since the goal of fem­i­nism is not to ele­vate some women in the hier­ar­chy of pow­er but to dis­man­tle patri­archy and oth­er forms of oppres­sion. That some women gain access to pow­er does not auto­mat­i­cal­ly mean all women are empow­ered; women in posi­tion of pow­er can them­selves per­pet­u­ate patri­archy and oth­er sys­tems of oppression.

On a more per­son­al note, Elta­hawy recounts how she and oth­er men and women chal­lenged the bal­ance of pow­er in 2005. Back then, Elta­hawy joined the first mixed-gen­der Fri­day prayer led by a woman, Ami­na Wadud, an Islam­ic stud­ies pro­fes­sor at Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Uni­ver­si­ty at the time. Recit­ing vers­es that address the equal­i­ty of men and women and giv­ing a ser­mon about how male jurists exclud­ed women from the cod­i­fi­ca­tion of Islam­ic law, Wadud wait­ed for no one’s per­mis­sion to offer her own inter­pre­ta­tion of Islam and a woman who does not wait for per­mis­sion, Elta­hawy argues, is a pow­er­ful woman. It was not unex­pect­ed there­fore that Wadud received hate mail and death threats in the days that fol­lowed the prayer because patri­archy is thin-skinned and takes any dec­la­ra­tion of pow­er by women to heart. The fact that noth­ing in Islam bars women from lead­ing mixed-gen­der prayers proves just how patri­ar­chal inter­pre­ta­tions of Islam have tak­en root over cen­turies to the ben­e­fit of men. 

Many reli­gions are patri­ar­chal, Elta­hawy admits, and a fem­i­nist no mat­ter her reli­gion has to fight patri­archy in every space and from with­in and with­out reli­gion. Things are not as sim­ple as leav­ing one’s reli­gion; patri­archy is uni­ver­sal and exists in sec­u­lar spaces as well. There­fore, dis­man­tling patri­archy has to con­tin­ue on both sides, the reli­gious and the sec­u­lar. Some­times, the sec­u­lar works hand in hand with the reli­gious to police wom­en’s bod­ies. The stark­est exam­ple is men­stru­a­tion. In many reli­gions, women are for­bid­den from pray­ing or enter­ing reli­gious places while men­stru­at­ing. Refer­ring to the #Right­To­Pray hash­tag, Elta­hawy explores how women in India fought to gain access to Hin­du tem­ples that for cen­turies have been barred to women and girls of men­stru­at­ing age. Women are always told that they have to wait, that there are more impor­tant issues at stake, and that there are oth­er forms of oppres­sion that deserve more attention. 

Though Elta­hawy admits that there are too many forms of oppres­sions to fight, she asks why women have to wait. Telling women to wait means that they are not impor­tant and she is will­ing to con­tin­ue fight­ing this tri­fec­ta by “defy­ing, dis­obey­ing, and dis­rupt­ing patri­archy in the state, the street, and the home.” To do that, women have to seize, define and reshape pow­er. They have to imag­ine a bet­ter world with­out wait­ing for any man’s per­mis­sion for only then they can be free. 

Shock­ing is the least that can be said about the open­ing to the book’s penul­ti­mate chap­ter. In Vio­lence, Elta­hawy calls on the read­ers to imag­ine the fol­low­ing: an under­ground move­ment called Fuck the Patri­archy (FTP) launch­es a sys­tem­at­ic, en masse killing of men for no rea­son except that they are men. They do not want mon­ey, they do not want to change a gov­ern­ment, they do not want a pay raise, they do not want par­lia­ment seats and they do not want men to promise to do laun­dry or babysit their own chil­dren. They want patri­archy dis­man­tled or they will con­tin­ue to kill men. If this is shock­ing, be ready for the unset­tling ques­tions Elta­hawy asks. How many men would be killed before patri­archy is dis­man­tled? How long would it take before the world pays atten­tion to the killing of men? How long would it take rep­re­sen­ta­tives of patri­archy to hold a sum­mit to put an end to the killings? How would men feel to see their fel­low men so killed? Would men change their behav­ior? Would boys be brought up a dif­fer­ent way? 

Why is this sce­nario shock­ing in the first place? Is it because vio­lence is strict­ly a male domain? Is it because women are and should remain the only tar­get of vio­lence? Vio­lence against women and girls hap­pens every day and if every sin­gle inci­dent of vio­lence against them was report­ed, it would be rec­og­nized for what it tru­ly is, an epi­dem­ic. Yet, the vio­lence women and girls face does not shock the world; on the con­trary, the world teach­es them to live with it and not to fight, but fight they should, Elta­hawy declares. One of the ways that vio­lence against women and girls is not rec­og­nized for what it is tru­ly is that it is por­trayed as the excep­tion rather than the rule, as if it were com­mit­ted by psy­chopaths and not by ordi­nary men, but it is com­mit­ted by ordi­nary men: fathers, hus­bands, part­ners, boyfriends, broth­ers and sons. That men dis­tance them­selves from vio­lence by pre­tend­ing it is only done by psy­chopaths is exact­ly why it nev­er stops. 

Elta­hawy opens the final chap­ter, Lust, with a fierce dec­la­ra­tion that she owns her body, that her body belongs only to her, that it is her right to have con­sen­su­al sex with whomev­er she wants, when­ev­er she wants, and that she has the right to express her sex­u­al­i­ty in any way she pleas­es. Such a dec­la­ra­tion is rev­o­lu­tion­ary, Elta­hawy argues, because it defies, dis­obeys, and dis­rupts patri­archy whether that patri­archy takes the form of the state, the street, the home, the tem­ple, the church, or the syn­a­gogue as each of these enti­ties think it owns wom­en’s bod­ies, or in Elta­hawy’s words, the body of any­one who is not a cis­gen­der, het­ero­sex­u­al man. 

In a deeply per­son­al nar­ra­tive, Elta­hawy recounts her strug­gle over the years to own her body and sex­u­al­i­ty, admit­ting that patri­archy impos­es heav­ier bur­dens of puri­ty and mod­esty on women and girls than it does on men. Still, she argues, patri­archy has a strict def­i­n­i­tion of how and what to be a man, a def­i­n­i­tion that excludes any man who is not “a con­ser­v­a­tive, het­ero­sex­u­al, mar­ried man” and that man always belongs to the most pow­er­ful group in any coun­try or cul­ture; it is the pow­er­ful who set the rules, after all. Such def­i­n­i­tion of what a man is not only is asso­ci­at­ed with men in pow­er, Elta­hawy argues, but also with mas­culin­i­ty that is invest­ed with pow­er. Fem­i­nin­i­ty on the oth­er hand is invest­ed with weak­ness and infe­ri­or­i­ty, thus patri­archy nar­rows gen­der bina­ries and to revolt against those bina­ries is a rebel­lious sub­ver­sion of patriarchy. 

The Sev­en Nec­es­sary Sins for Women and Girls is rev­o­lu­tion­ary and unapolo­getic, and Elta­hawy does not flinch from say­ing what she has in mind even if it dis­turbs or dis­rupts the way things are.

Follow Arab feminists on Twitter:

Alaa Al-Eryani (Yemeni): @YemeniFeministM
Mona Elta­h­away (Egypt­ian): @monaeltahawy
Zainab Fasi­ki (Moroc­can): @zainab_fasiki
Joumana Had­dad (Lebanese): @JHaddadOfficial
Lou­jain Hathloul (Sau­di): @LoujainHathloul
Rula Jebre­al (Pales­tin­ian): @rulajebreal
Emna Mizouni (Tunisian): @EmnaMizouni
Samar Yazbek (Syr­i­an): @SamarYazbek

Hiba Moustafa is an Egyptian emerging poet & translator. Her publications include an Arabic translation of Lucille Clifton’s “poem in praise of menstruation” by Rusted Radishes (Lebanon, 2019), “Spaces” by Sister-hood (UK, 2020) & "Contemplation" in We Wrote in Symbols: Love and Lust by Arab Women Writers from Saqi Books (UK, 2021). Currently she translates for My.Kali. Hiba holds an MA in English literature. She is a volunteer senior translator & copyeditor with Translators without Borders. Find her on Twitter.

Arab feminismArab Feminist Unionfemale genital mutilationNawal El SaadawipatriarchyReview


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