The Seven Necessary Sins to Bring Down the Patriarchy
Mona Eltahawy on how to fight the Trump regime, the inadequacy of white feminism, and the story behind #MosqueMeToo
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I first became acquainted with Egyptian American activist and author Mona Eltahawy’s work via Twitter, where she has a fabulously profane and informative presence. She pioneered hashtags like #MosqueMeToo and #IBeatMyAssaulter into movements, illustrating how women, people of color, and non-binary individuals are oppressed through misogyny, racism, and toxic masculinity. Born in Egypt and reared in England, Eltahawy’s family relocated to Saudi Arabia when she was 15, a move “which traumatized me into feminism,” she recently joked on the Global Crossroads podcast. She became a journalist, first reporting from Cairo and then worldwide, “until 9/11 rendered news reporting and so-called objectivity completely obsolete for me… My opinion writing became more front and center feminist and centered on the destruction of the patriarchy.”
Eltahawy first addressed this in 2016’s Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, condemning patriarchal authoritarianism, the political, cultural, and religious repression that reduces women to second class citizens in the Arab world, connecting that to the oppression faced by women worldwide. In her latest book, The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls, Eltahawy is out to destroy the social construct that privileges male dominance by illustrating the seven sins women and girls need to defy, disobey, and disrupt the patriarchy: anger, attention, profanity, ambition, power, violence, and lust. It’s a searing manifesto, illustrated with stories of global activists, like Uganda’s Stella Nyanzi who uses incivility to fight for women’s rights, or Islamic scholar Amina Wadud, who led Muslim prayers in New York City (a ritual traditionally reserved for men). The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls is a must-read for any individual who seeks to resist.
Mona Eltahawy and I spoke by Skype. We discussed how the patriarchy is connected to the rise of authoritarian governments worldwide, why it is imperative that the patriarchy must be overthrown, and how silence protects no one.
DS: Can you describe what patriarchy is and why it needs to be smashed?
ME: Patriarchy is a system of oppression that works to privilege male dominance and work against the interests of anyone who is not a heterosexual and largely conservative man. I try to get people to imagine patriarchy is as an octopus, and the head of the octopus is patriarchy and each of the eight tentacles represent various forms of oppression. Patriarchy is the head, which exists globally and universally. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a theocratic state, an authoritarian state, or a democratic state, patriarchy is universal.
What does differ are the tentacles that patriarchy uses to privilege male dominance and to work against the interests of mostly women, people of color, and non-binary people. Those tentacles can be capitalism, racism, homophobia, ableism, classism, a whole host of oppressions, but I want people to focus on the head, which is patriarchy.
We must destroy patriarchy because it’s the last thing that we often talk about. We talk about the specifics of China or the U.S. but we forget that the backdrop of these specifics is patriarchy. That’s why I begin and end everything I do, every talk I give, with “Fuck the patriarchy,” because whether I’m speaking in Mumbai or Lahore or New York, patriarchy exists.
DS: Why is it important that this disruption happen globally and why now?
ME: Another concept that I talk about in my book is the trifecta of misogyny. I think that the Trump regime, and that is the word that we must use to describe what is happening in the US right now, is the perfect example of the trifecta of misogyny. It’s not just Trump. It’s decades and decades of patriarchy and racism and capitalism and misogyny and homophobia and ableism, etc., and it’s not just in the United States or Egypt or Saudi Arabia or anywhere else. It’s also what happens in the public space, which is what I call the street and in intimate spaces, which is what I call the home. The trifecta of misogyny connects the state, the street, and the home. At the center of that is patriarchy.
When people want to compartmentalize things, they will say, “You know you talked about feminism but this Trump regime fucks everyone over. Or the Egyptian regime is that for everyone. Or the Saudi regime oppresses men and women.” Yes, it’s true, but the state, the street, and the home together oppress women and non-binary people specifically and they work together. By tackling patriarchy, by tackling that head of the octopus, we recognize where the most power lies.
bell hooks says “Feminism is for everybody.” When you tackle social issues and social inequities, oppressions, and horrors through a feminist angle and through a feminist lens that focuses on patriarchy, then you are bound to focus on what she has long called for, which is a focus on the destruction of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Focusing on patriarchy is a way to fight the Trump regime.
DS: How is the rise of patriarchy connected to the rise of authoritarian governments worldwide?
ME: Whether you look at China where the Communist party has been in power for 70 years, or Saudi Arabia, where an absolute hereditary monarchy has been around for decades, or the United Kingdom, where you have a constitutional monarchy even though they don’t have a constitution, or the United States where they have a two party system, regardless of the political system—they all have patriarchy that lives and breathes through every system at play in those places.
People are finally beginning to look at it, because they see Mohammad bin Salman, who is the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, and they see how close he is to Trump and how close he is to Brexit and Boris Johnson, and they see in Egypt, my country of birth, the fascist leader Sisi, a military ruler, and they see how Steve Bannon, the chief strategist for Trump, who has been going around Europe setting up a fascist movements, and now you have Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, who they call the Trump of the Tropics, and now you see Modi in India, who could be the Trump of India, and now you see Netanyahu, the Trump of Israel, who just banned the entry of two [American] elected officials at the urging of Donald Trump.
When you see all of that, you see this thread called patriarchy, that ties all these patriarchal authoritarians together. Regardless of whatever political system they claim, inherently it is what is at play now and is on the rise. People prefer to say fascism is on the rise, or racism is on the rise, or white nationalism is on the rise, but what is on the rise is patriarchal authoritarianism. In some countries we call it fascism, in some countries we call it white supremacy. It’s the most dangerous ideology on the rise today.
DS: Recently you wrote an essay about Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar being banned from visiting Israel. What is the import of this event? What is the message being sent to authoritarian governments?
ME: The message is that patriarchal authoritarians like Trump and Netanyahu know how to appeal to their base through racist, misogynist actions. This is essentially a racist and misogynistic act by Israel, a violation of freedom of speech and freedom of expression and the right of all of us to boycott. Essentially what Trump and Netanyahu were doing is punishing political rivals who have been outspoken in their opposition. And who are these rivals? They are women of color who have taken on a progressive political platform. They are the first two women who are elected Muslims in Congress, and one of them is the first Palestinian American. It is imperative that we recognize how these patriarchal authoritarians work together and signal each other about the ways they can oppress their political rivals.
You see these patriarchal authoritarians all around the world. Mohammad Bin Salman in Saudi Arabia imprisoning 17 women’s rights activists, and Trump has not said a word and is very happy to do business with MBS. The same thing with Sisi. You look at the global map and see how these patriarchal authoritarians are working together to punish outspoken women of color wherever we are.
DS: If you were going to tell people how to resist, what would you say?
ME: You must look for whatever candidates you can support, because we’re coming up to an election year, and not just for president, one that is pivotal for the Senate and House. We have to pay attention to the Senate races that are coming up. We flipped the House in 2018; we must flip the Senate. We have to take what happened to these two representatives and use that as fuel fodder for going out there and finding progressive candidates. If we want to stand up to the fascism of Trump, if we want to reverse his fascist policies, be they the concentration camps on the border, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights. We have to fight this in races that are not just presidency. We have to start electing more leftist and progressive candidates in every race possible.
DS: You started this work in the wake of a sexual assault. Can you discuss the context of this and other sexual assaults and how they are connected to sexual violence against women enacted worldwide?
ME: I got the idea in February of 2018, in the space of a week, when I started a movement called #MosqueMeToo, because I learned that a young Pakistani woman called Sabica Khan had been sexually assaulted in Mecca, the holiest site for Muslims, while she was on pilgrimage. Now I was sexually assaulted twice while I was performing pilgrimage in 1982 when I was fifteen. At first I couldn’t speak about it at all. When I did begin to speak about it, I was told “You’re going to make Muslims look bad. Don’t talk about this.” I talked about it on Egyptian television in Arabic. I wrote about it on social media and in my first book.
I started #MosqueMeToo for Muslim women to talk about their experiences but also to carve out a space for us in #MeToo. Because although Tarana Burkes launched #MeToo in 2006, #MeToo really took off globally in 2018 and became associated with very white, privileged women’s experiences, and I wanted women who were not white or privileged to have a space. Over five days it was really heartening to see many Muslim women and men share their experiences, but it was also disheartening to see Muslim men attacking us, saying, “Shut up! You’re making Muslims look bad.You’re too ugly to be assaulted, etc.”
Five days of this and I decided to go dancing. That’s my self care. I’m dancing and I feel a hand on my ass, and I’m like, “You are fucking kidding! How is this happening? I’m supposed to be here letting it out!”
This time I did not cry. Freezing and crying are perfectly acceptable reactions. Freezing is how many women react to sexual assault, because that’s how we survive. But at this stage of my life I did not freeze because I had built up a resistance, years of learning to yell at men and hit back at men. I found the man who sexually assaulted me. I grabbed him from the back of his shirt. He stumbled. I sat on him and I just began to punch. Every time I wanted to stop punching him I was like “Nope, I’m not done. I was yelling at him, “Don’t you ever touch a woman like that again.” It was glorious.
This guy from club management asked what happened and he says to me, “Why didn’t you tell security?”
This is patriarchy. Patriarchy essentially says patriarchy will protect you, as long as you behave of course, and patriarchy will protect you from the other branch of patriarchy that gives another man the right to assault you. So essentially my body is a proxy battlefield between patriarchy and patriarchy. If I behave the good patriarchy will protect me from the bad patriarchy. Fuck patriarchy. I don’t want protection. I will fucking beat you and glorify over it if you touch me without my consent.
DS: You say the most subversive thing a woman can do is to talk about her life as if it really mattered. Can you expound upon this?
ME: You’ll see a lot of women who will put a lot of emphasis on fighting everything but misogyny. They will fight racism, they will fight against capitalism, they will hide fight against a whole bunch of oppressions, and yet their own life is the last thing they’ll fight for. We’re told, “Oh, that’s just your personal experience. It doesn’t matter… Go away until you find a school of thought that tells me that your personal life does count.” My point in saying that the most important thing a woman can do is talk about her life as if it matters is because it does.
For those of us who are women of color, it’s about more than class. It’s about more than race. It’s about the octopus, and the best way to talk about the octopus is to talk about our lives. So when I say that the most subversive thing a woman can do is talk about her life as if it matters, it’s because it does. That goes to the heart of The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls. We must embrace those sins and act those sins out in our day to day.
DS: You refer to Audre Lorde’s famous statement: “Your silence will not protect you.” How does this tie into that?
ME: We are socialized to be self-sacrificing. We are constantly told to wait. Waiting gets us nothing, because when you’re told to wait, as Martin Luther King Jr. says in Letter from a Birmingham Jail, basically it’s never going to happen. Half of society is told to wait. It’s a fucking disgrace. What are we going to wait for? If we focus on patriarchy first and foremost, everything falls into place. We’re told to focus on the individual tentacles of the octopus instead of focusing on the head of the octopus.
Women are told that if you’re good and if you behave and that if you don’t talk about these really uncomfortable things, you’ll eventually get what you want. It’s never going to come. You have to make an incredible insurmountable fuss about what’s going on in your life for people to pay attention. You’re going to be caught attention-seeking. You’re going to be called a whore. If not an outright whore, an attention whore. People are going to tell you you’re too ambitious, too power hungry, too too much everything.
Audre Lorde wrote that essay while she was waiting to get a diagnosis of cancer which she eventually died from, and she said everything that I’ve been silent about has not protected me from illness, has not protected me from misogyny and patriarchy, has not protected me from sexism, from racism, from zero. Why be silent? Because silence protects you from nothing.
The reason that women especially are socialized into being silent is because it disturbs the status quo, because patriarchy would much rather us go about and preserve male dominance and the promise it gives to male dominance, that it’s entitled to our bodies, our time, our love, our affection, etc. That ties into what I call feminism in 3D: defy, disobey, and disrupt. Silence is the antithesis of all that. Defy, disobey, and disrupt the patriarchy because silence will not protect you.
DS: In your chapter on anger you call white women the foot soldiers of patriarchy. Can you explain this further and can you discuss what white women (like me) need to be doing right now?
ME: White women understand misogyny very well because it affects them by and large on a day-to-day level. I think they don’t understand that for those of us who are not white it is much more than just misogyny. When I talk about patriarchy being the head of the octopus, I always explain that the tentacles include racism, capitalism, homophobia. It’s what Kimberle Crenshaw terms intersectionality, and we recognize that these many oppressions work together to keep us underfoot.
I think that white women are much more comfortable talking about misogyny. They’re not comfortable about talking about more than that because it takes them into these uncomfortable places that reminds them that the majority of white women voters voted for Trump, that in Europe more white women than white men voted for right-wing parties in several elections, reminding white women that they have a privilege that does not extend to those who are not white and that privilege comes about through proximity to the privilege that white manhood gives them.
So what happens is this very dangerous and toxic exchange by which many white women accept crumbs that are thrown to them by the white supremacist patriarchy, that promise (white women) privilege, power, and protection in return for allowing their racial concerns to trump gender. You’ll see that in the women who are evangelical who submit to the man being head of the family, who fight reproductive rights, who fight women being more overt in their feminism and politics, but you’ll also find it in women who are not white evangelicals, women who do not associate with white supremacy, and those are women who do not see the insidious ways white power gives them a privilege that I don’t have.
Even if you’re a white woman who doesn’t associate with white supremacy, you still benefit from it. Unless you’re being overly and actively anti-racist, you benefit from racism. I want white women to know that unless you’re being overtly anti-white supremacist/capitalist/patriarchy, you actually benefit from white supremacy. I want white women to be very cognizant of that and to actively fight it.