Society

‘I had to be reborn as another Mona’

Mona Eltahawy, author of Headscarves and Hymens: Why The Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution.

Mona Eltahawy, author of Headscarves and Hymens: Why The Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution.

It has been six years since Mona Eltahawy was assaulted by Egyptian security forces in Cairo, and she often talks about it in a detached way, like it happened to someone else. “I don’t think I’ve fully healed,” says the Egyptian-American writer and feminist, who was in Mumbai recently for a series of events at the India Culture Lab. “When they broke my arms and sexually assaulted me, I feel like I lost something beautiful. But it was intangible.”

A year later, she was on her way to Egypt from a conference in Tunisia, and had a layover in Tripoli, Libya. The political situation there was unstable; militants attacked the airport. Her suitcase was stolen. She lost all her favourite dresses and jewellery.

Eltahawy had a meltdown. It took her a while to understand why: “The suitcase made tangible what happened to me when I was assaulted. This idea that something was taken away from me. I was able to put all my unexpressed grief into this suitcase.” Sexual violence doesn’t just tear into you, it shifts something within. For a long time, she felt she was drifting in an ‘ugly trauma’. Like many women who survive sexual violence, she put on weight.

Taking beauty back

“I’ve never been a size zero, I’ve never had an eating disorder, I’m not obsessed with being skinny. But I realised I’d lost this beauty. I realised that the way to heal was to try to re-assemble beauty. I began to take care of my body.” The first thing she did was reclaim her femininity. As a young woman, she had rejected it as a form of weakness: she had short hair, and people would say she was a boy who had a sex change. Now, she began to embrace her femininity as a source of power.

FILE -- In this Oct. 28, 2012 file photo, a youth reaches out as young girls walk past near Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt. Hundreds of Egyptian women and girls have come out to denounce sexual harassment and share personal stories about it on social media, breaking a taboo and raising the ire of the country’s conservative majority. In posts on Facebook and Twitter from the weekend to Wednesday, rare, candid stories focused on women’s first experiences of harassment, almost all of which occurred in childhood and some involving family members and teachers. (AP Photo/ Mohammed Abu Zeid, File)

FILE -- In this Oct. 28, 2012 file photo, a youth reaches out as young girls walk past near Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt. Hundreds of Egyptian women and girls have come out to denounce sexual harassment and share personal stories about it on social media, breaking a taboo and raising the ire of the country’s conservative majority. In posts on Facebook and Twitter from the weekend to Wednesday, rare, candid stories focused on women’s first experiences of harassment, almost all of which occurred in childhood and some involving family members and teachers. (AP Photo/ Mohammed Abu Zeid, File)

 

“As part of the healing, I promised myself that when my bones—not when my heart—healed, I would dye my hair red as a way of saying, ‘F**k you, I’m still alive’ because red is a fierce colour.” Her hands move in fluid, gentle circles as she speaks. A chunk of brightly-polished silver jewellery sits squarely on the black dress that defines her frame. The flaming hair, the tattoos, these were all part of the re-making. “The assault was a before-and-after moment. I had to be reborn as another Mona. I began to eat healthier and lost the weight I had gained. That was the key to my healing.”

She also took back beauty through poetry. She was drawn to Pablo Neruda, a political and revolutionary poet who also talked about desire and lust. And to women with shared heritage, like Fatema Mernissi. More recently, to African American feminists like Assata Shakur: R/evolution is creative. R/evolution means treating your mate as a friend and an equal. R/evolution is sexy.

Eltahawy’s own r/evolution has been a process, a piecing together of fragments. She knows she has had it easier than some others. Like the 12 women who were also brutally assaulted at Tahrir Square that year but whose families prevented them from speaking out. Or her 25-year-old friend who, in July 2015, went to dinner in downtown Cairo with friends, and has not been seen since. “I’m here. I’m not prevented from travelling. My assets are not frozen. I’m not on trial.”

What shields her? “I have ‘fame,’” she says, her tone putting the words in inverted commas, “I write a column for The New York Times once a month, I’m a dual citizen.When I was assaulted and detained in 2011, a big fuss was made to release me. I recognise that when I’m in Egypt I’m protected in a way that many aren’t. And so I make it a point to stay in Egypt. I feel obliged to push much harder.”

What is she pushing for? “I want to bring sex out.” She offers herself as an example. “I’m saying this, too, as a Muslim woman. Knowing all the religious taboos and restrictions, I’m saying openly that I had sex before I got married. I’m breaking that silence. I tell people, ‘The way I got over guilt is I f****d it out of my system.’”

Sex at the centre

Everything she says and does is a statement. “I’m intentionally profane, I’m intentionally very sexual and I say I claim desire and own my pleasure. I insist on being an angry woman because I believe angry women are free, and I reject the niceness and politeness that girls are socialised into being.” Her revolution begins with the I, and how it can carry out daily acts of defiance, disobedience and disruption: the ‘three Ds’. Sex is at the heart of the revolution because the patriarchy won’t let women and people of different sexualities claim and enjoy it.

She keeps a copy of Classical Poems by Arab Women in her purse, because “these 6th century to 12th century poets were writing in Arabic, my mother tongue, about owning their desire and lust, about consent and agency.” Like Saffiya al-Baghdadiyya, who says, “I am the wonder of the world, the ravisher of hearts and minds. Once you’ve seen my stunning looks, you’re a fallen man.”

Or I’timad Arrumaikiyya, who implores her lover: “I urge you to come faster than the wind to mount my breast and firmly dig and plough my body, and don’t let go until you’ve flushed me thrice.” These aren’t just favourite verses, they’re her weapons of choice. Then there’s The Perfumed Garden by Muhammad al-Nafzawi, who begins the book with these words: ‘Praise be to God and thanks to God for the c**k and the c**t.’ “I’m like, ‘My god, this man is a cleric!’” she says, with a full-throated guffaw, her kohl-rimmed eyes lighting up at the thought. “Then he mentions 70 positions for men and 50 for women.”

The examples are reminders to her that this kind of sexual freedom and ownership of bodies is not West-specific. “For too long, sex, sexuality and queerness have been dominated by White voices. I’m fed up of it being dominated by White voices. Our voices are here, and not just here today.” She speaks with fire in her eyes, but her voice is collected. If there are scars from being assaulted, called a “sex activist”—a euphemism for whore—there is no trace of bitterness. There is just a powerful sense of self. “I don’t want to be stuck in this moment of sexual violence. Yes, I am a survivor of sexual assault, but I am many other things.”

Love and acceptance

Her evolution — from the time she discarded the headscarf at age 25 to the first time she had penetrative sex at age 29, and later as the ‘survivor’ — has been through many cycles. Particularly with her family. “For most parents, to see your daughter talk so openly about sex, especially, is very difficult.”

The day before she started her book promotion tour (for Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution ) she decided to have ‘the talk’ with her parents. She gave them each a copy and wrote in the dedication, ‘Thank you for raising me with the revolution inside me.’

“My mother’s going, ‘Oh my God, the title! You’re always talking about sex.’ I said, ‘There are going to be things in this book that are very difficult for you to read, but I want you to know that I love you, and I did not write this book to hurt you. I wrote this book because this book is my revolution.’” She doesn’t know if her parents have read it yet, but both of them professed their love for her, and told her they were proud of her.

All battles have rough edges, and completions aren’t certain. But in this case, there was nothing to reclaim; the wholeness was always in existence. “It’s been a process of reaching this beautiful impasse where we’re very close, we love each other deeply, and we recognise that we’re different. I post pictures with them on Twitter because I want people to see that it is a struggle with your family, where they learn to accept me and I learn to accept them, but here we are.”


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Printable version | May 26, 2022 1:55:04 am | https://www.thehindu.com/society/i-had-to-be-reborn-as-another-mona/article18514702.ece