The Woman Who's Explaining Egypt To The West


As the world struggles to understand the events and implications of civil unrest in Egypt, one person has emerged as a major authority in Western media: Mona Eltahawy. Let’s find out more about her.

On television, on Twitter, and on the op-ed pages of major newspapers, Eltahawy has been drawing on her experience reporting in the region, as well as her family background in Egypt. Based in New York and living in the U.S. for a decade, her background is in traditional journalism, having reported across the Middle East and North Africa for Reuters and other news organizations. But blogging and Twitter have allowed her to have both a steady presence in the current conversation about democracy in North Africa and the Middle East and to connect with the less-prominent voices speaking out there. Though Egyptian by birth, she’s spent large chunks of her life living abroad, including in Saudi Arabia, Israel and the UK, and refers to herself on her website as “an Egyptian from the inside and outside.”

Of what’s happening now in Egypt, she recently wrote in The Guardian,

How did they do it? Why now? What took so long? These are the questions I face on news shows scrambling to understand. I struggle with the magnitude of my feelings of watching as my country revolts and I give into tears when I hear my father’s Arabic-inflected accent in the English of Egyptian men screaming at television cameras through tear gas: “I’m doing this for my children. What life is this?”

In her more politically-focused analysis, Eltahawy has already managed to get CNN to stop using “chaos” and “crisis,” and using “revolt” or “uprising” instead, saying, “Egyptians want to fix Egypt, they don’t want to destroy Egypt.” Less than an hour later, CNN actually changed its onscreen headline from “chaos in Egypt” to “uprising in Egypt.” (Reducing whatever’s happening to chaos is a good way to establish legitimacy for any violent restoration of “order.”)

Eltawahy’s analysis and commentary has cast a wide net. Last year, on International Women’s Day, Eltahawy started publishing on her blog readers’ stories of how menstruation was used to hold women back.

It was inspired by a young Egyptian woman called Eman Hashim who wrote to tell me via Twitter that at a demonstration she attended in support of women judges in Egypt, a man who opposed the appointments of women to the State Council, an influential court which governs matters of administrative law in Egypt, yelled at the women “a woman menstruates so she shouldn’t be a judge”. A male lawyer yelled “Go home and cook for your husbands.”

She also offered a stinging take on how “Burka Barbie” reflected the ways Muslims are represented to the world:

As a Muslim woman, I’m all too familiar with the media shorthand for “Muslim” and “woman” equaling Covered in Black Muslim Woman. She’s seen, never heard. Visible only in her invisibility under that black burka, niqab, chador, etc. Her male equivalent is Angry Bearded Muslim Man. Whenever the Muslim world is supposed to be upset or offended, invariably that story is illustrated by images of Angry Bearded Muslim man marching, shouting, fists raised in the air in righteous anger and burning something: an American flag, an Israeli flag, preferably both.
In those images you have conveyed all you want to say about Muslims: the men are angry, dangerous and want to hurt us; the women are just covered in black.

Eltawahy calls herself a feminist; here she is on Bloggingheads talking about feminism’s compatibility with Islam, and here she is talking about where she parts from an earlier generation of Muslim feminists. And it doesn’t take much digging to find that Eltahawy’s critics — who call her an “Israel normalizer,” disagree with her support of France’s niqab ban, and generally accuse her of being a neocon — have also availed themselves of some pretty sexist descriptions. Looks like Eltawahy can more than handle it. She recently wrote, “To be a Muslim and a feminist is to stand in the crossfire and yell “Shut the f**k up!” to everyone around you because you know that anything you say can and will be used against you by everyone.”

For more on women’s roles in the current situation, check out this interview with Nawal El Saadawi, an Egyptian human rights activist and former political prisoner. She says, “Women and girls are, beside the boys, are in the streets. We are calling for justice, freedom and equality, and real democracy, and a new constitution where there is no discrimination between men and women, no discrimination between Muslim and Christians, to change the system and to have real democracy.”

Mona Eltahawy [Twitter]
We’ve Waited for This Revolution For Years [The Guardian]
Feminist Islam? [Bloggingheads]
Me And The Feminists [Mona Eltahawy Blog]
What’s Under Your Burka, Barbie? [Huffington Post]

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