Out in the Open·Q&A

'I want patriarchy to fear women': Mona Eltahawy says the time for being civil, peaceful and polite is over

In her book "The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls," Mona Eltahawy lays out her manifesto for achieving true gender freedom and equality. The Egyptian-American author and activist speaks with Piya about the society-changing value she sees in anger, attention, ambition, power, profanity, violence and lust.

Eltahawy provoked controversy in 2012 with an essay and subsequent book examining misogyny in the Middle East

Mona Eltahawy's latest book is titled "The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls". (Angel Garcia)

This article has been updated with further background on journalist Mona Eltahawy.

Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy argues radical steps, including the use of "justifiable violence" against men, are necessary to dismantle patriarchy.

In her latest book, The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls, the activist says being civil, respectful and polite are ineffective, and instead women must harness the seven qualities — or "necessary sins" — of anger, attention, ambition, power, profanity, violence and lust.

Eltahawy recognizes her stance, particularly the pillar of violence or "individual retaliation," is "highly controversial," but it's "intentional." 

"I want patriarchy to fear feminism. I want patriarchy to fear women," she told Out in the Open host Piya Chattopadhyay, noting that "patriarchy is not men," but rather, "an ideology that uses systems of institutions and oppressions to privilege male dominance."

Eltahawy, whose blunt views often draw ire, is no stranger to controversy. She provoked widespread outrage in 2012 with an essay and subsequent book examining misogyny in the Middle East. Last year, she coined the hashtag #IBeatMyAssaulter after she says a man in a Montreal nightclub groped her, and she proceeded to beat him up. 

"I want him to remember that and that look of terror in his eyes. I want that terror to be the way that patriarchy reacts to feminism," she said.

Eltahawy sat down with Piya to have a deeply personal conversation about being sexually assaulted, and how her lived experiences have helped her arrive at unequivocal strength of conviction within herself, and of her views on feminism. 

The interview below has been edited and condensed. Click here to listen to the full conversation.

Your mission in life, and in this book, is to fight patriarchy. That is a word that many people might argue has been rendered meaningless ー that it gets thrown around a lot, and may mean different things to different people. What does it mean to you?

I want people to imagine patriarchy as an octopus. The head of that octopus is patriarchy because that is the ideology that moves the eight tentacles of the octopus. And each one of those tentacles is what we call systems of oppression, or various institutions that oppress us. So it would be white supremacy, capitalism, misogyny, homophobia, bigotry, ableism, things like that. I want people to understand that patriarchy is not men. I'm talking about an ideology that uses systems of institutions and oppressions to privilege male dominance.

Mona Eltahawy overlooks Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt the day after riot police assaulted her in November of 2011. (Submitted by Mona Eltahawy)

What does practising the sin of ambition look like in your life?

The sin of ambition for me is, "I deserve more. I am worthy of more." The kind of ambition we usually hear about is a very upper-middle class, white definition of ambition. And that would be [to] become CEO, get a corner office. [It's a] very capitalist, very privileged, kind of ambition — the goal of which is to be wealthy. And I don't want any of those things. The kind of ambition that I want is the ambition that says, "Based on anger and attention, I am more than what patriarchy will allow me to be."

How would you like to see women and girls claiming and redefining ambition for themselves?

I want them to listen to the words of working class Latinx poet and novelist Erika L. Sánchez, who wrote this beautiful essay in which she says, "I know that the ambition of my working-class migrant family, who crossed that border from Mexico into the United States, so that I could have a better life ... I know that their ambition for me was to work somewhere air conditioned and somewhere in corporate America, but that is not the ambition I wanted."

She wanted to be a writer. So here is this woman of a working-class background who understood that her ambition was very different than the ambition that her parents imagined, and she wanted the freedom to dream for herself. This is what I want.

Eltahawy unpacks the ambition pillar:

Harnessing ambition can lead to power. And this one's really interesting to me, Mona, especially when it comes to political power, because in our country … gender parity in the House of Commons has been a goal. It has been lauded by many progressives, a goal that was achieved in our most recent cabinet. But you say feminism is not about counting the number of women in key jobs. Why not? 

Because feminism is about putting women in political power from where they will dismantle patriarchy, rather than uphold patriarchy. I'm not interested in counting how many women are in the cabinet just because they're women.

We have women in the Republican Party, the governor of Alabama, for example, who signed into effect one of the most prohibitive laws when it comes to abortion and women's rights. And here is a woman in a position of political power who is upholding the patriarchy. So that's not the power I'm interested in.

Mona, you essentially reject the idea that the patriarchy can be overturned, can be dismantled, can be burned to the ground while being civil, peaceful and polite. You argue that violence is a necessary sin for women and girls. That is highly controversial. What exactly do you mean by that?

I understood it was highly controversial, and I was intentional. 

Knowing that this is very disturbing, I ask people to imagine — now I'm using this word imagine, and I'm underlining it three times — a scenario in which we kill a certain number of men every week. How many men must we kill until patriarchy sits across the table from us and says, "OK, stop. What must we do, so that you can stop this culling?" Now I'm saying imagine. I'm not saying go out there and kill 100 men today. I'm saying, just imagine this very, very disturbing scenario.

My question here is, how long must we wait so that men stop raping us? What will it take so that men stop murdering us?- Mona Eltahawy

Interestingly, since my book came out … several women have said to me, "Oh my God, I am a mother of sons. How can you be talking about this?" And I say to them, "You are more upset and disturbed at the imaginary scenario of violence against your sons than the actual violence that is committed every day against your daughters or someone else's daughter."

What does that mean about what patriarchy has done to us?

Eltahawy addresses her controversial violence pillar:

So when you're talking about violence in the real world and you're advocating for it, you are talking about physical violence.

I am.

That is so surprising to hear, mostly because you have been subject to violence yourself. You described the instances of sexual violence, of physical violence on your body. And so, I don't get it. 

Why? And my answer to why is because I want patriarchy to fear feminism. I want patriarchy to fear women. 

I want that man who I beat up in the club in Montreal when he stood up and wanted to see who is this woman who just beat me up. He will never forget that he was beaten up because he grabbed a woman's ass. He will never forget that. And I want him to remember that and that look of terror in his eyes, I want that terror to be the way that patriarchy reacts to feminism.

I want to say a very important thing here. My main priority for women is to survive. And so when women have asked me, "What if I'm in a dark alley somewhere and this guy's like 6-5 and I'm 5-2?" I say to her, "Look, your priority is to survive. So when you can be violent, be violent. But number one, survive." 

Mona Eltahawy in New York City, September 2019. (Submitted by Mona Eltahawy)

That night after I beat up that man and I started hashtag #IBeatMyAssaulter, a professor of law, Mary Anne Franks — she sent me an article and she said, I want you to read this article I've written about what she calls optimal violence.

And in this article, she is advocating that more women need to practice justifiable violence against the unjustifiable violence practised on them by men. Because she says, when we start to do that, justifiable violence against unjustifiable violence, there will be this optimal balance of violence in society. And she says you see that optimal balance when men themselves are walking down the street, and they think twice before beating up another man because they think, "You know what, he might fight back, and he might be better at fighting me." Men never think that when it comes to women.

So I'm going to keep pushing you. You know, violence tends to engender more violence. 

It can. But you know what? My question here is, how long must we wait so that men stop raping us? What will it take so that men stop murdering us?

This excerpt is adapted from the Out in the Open episode "Mona Eltahawy's Seven Necessary Sins."


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