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Sally Zohney and Mona Eltahawy sit down for a wide-ranging talk about women's rights in Egypt.
SZ: But why? Is it the women’s bodies, the women’s babies? She converted to Islam, she converted to Christianity, she’s a virgin, she’s not a virgin? Why is it women, why not children?
ME: It’s women because it has to do with sex, it has to do with our bodies, and it has to do with the future, because the future comes from our womb. And so if you control the women, you control the future. When I’m being really crude about it I say that our womb is the conveyor belt — like in a factory — of the future. And so whoever runs the factory has to run our womb. And it doesn’t just happen in Egypt, I mean I live in the United States and it happens from the Christian fundamentalists there. In Israel it happens from the ultra-Orthodox Jews who want to put women at the back of the bus. In India it happens from the ultra-nationalist Hindu right-wing groups. And so on and so forth. It’s about our vaginas and our wombs, and they always try to control our vaginas and our wombs, because it’s about sexuality and the product of that sexuality.
SZ: And we let them!
ME: That’s the question: why do we let them?
SZ: I have something to ask you about. I’m sure, being in the States most of the time, or outside of Egypt, people always tell you, You’re not Egyptian, why do you speak on Egyptian women’s issues? Why do you care? If you are living abroad, having a better life than here, why is it worth it to come back here if people always tell you these things?
ME: Because I’m stubborn! Because I like to fight! No, no, Egypt is a very deep and central part of who I am. I mean, I’ve lived in five countries. I was born in Egypt, I grew up between the UK and Saudi Arabia. I left Egypt when I was 7, came back when I was 21, stayed for another 10 years. I’m going to be 45 this summer and I’ve lived in Egypt for about 18 and a half years and Saudi Arabia for six and a half years — so more than half my life has been in the region. I’ve also lived in Jerusalem, in Israel for a while. And now I live in the US.
So all of these countries obviously have had an impact on who I am. But the country that I’ve lived in the most is Egypt, and it’s the country with which I’ve struggled the most in terms of how I identify as an Egyptian. Because I left when I was 7 and came back when I was 21, I missed something. When I came back, I had to decide for myself what being Egyptian meant, without going through the school system, without going through the culturization that many people here go through. Being Egyptian for me is a day-to-day struggle of identity. It’s been a conscious choice for me, like someone who has chosen a new religion. I became a journalist very soon after I came back to Egypt, I was already a feminist after living in Saudi Arabia, so all of those things together formed what it means for me to be an Egyptian.
But I was always, always an inside-outsider. It’s like I’ve got a foot in and a foot out, and that’s what I try to use in my writing. It’s also what keeps Egypt interesting for me, because I get to wrestle with it in my own way. And when people tell me, you’re not Egyptian, you don’t live here — this idea that someone has ownership of identity, or ownership of the revolution is just ridiculous. This is where the stubborn part of me kicks in and says, to hell with you, I am whatever I say I am.
SZ: You said something really interesting. I was already a feminist. Because people ask me, How did you become a feminist, and I really don’t understand how to answer that question. How do you say, Okay, now I’m aware that women’s rights is my number one passion. I’m a feminist. How did that happen?
ME: Well, for me it was Saudi Arabia. I joke, I say. It’s really not a joke, it’s actually quite sad and true that in Saudi Arabia as a female, you have two options: you either lose your mind or you become a feminist. I began to lose my mind very soon after we moved to Saudi Arabia, and feminism saved my mind. I was traumatized into feminism. Moving to Saudi Arabia from the UK, as a girl of 15 years, to this extremely misogynistic, patriarchal society. Seriously, I thought I was going mad! I really did go mad. I fell into a deep, deep depression for many years in Saudi Arabia. And so when discovered feminist journals…
SZ: Is it easy to find them there?
ME: I don’t know how it happened. It must have been some professor who was a renegade of some kind. When I started university, on the bookshelves of this library I found a section of feminist literature, and it was like an oasis to me — to be clichéd about it — an oasis in the desert. All these feminist writers who gave words to that all of the struggles I was having inside. Because I would look around and say, What is this? How can these men do this? How do they tell me what to do and what to think and what to say? I made a vow to myself that I would never to listen to a man about religion. I said, that’s it, I’m not listening to these men, I’m not going to let these men tell me what to think. It just happened, I was so angry. I think my feminism is really, deeply fueled by anger. What was it for you?
SZ: It was gradual. I’m an older sister to a younger brother. And as in every Egyptian family, he — the son — doesn’t have to be home by midnight, but I do. And I’m the older one! When I wanted to get a car it was a process of convincing my family that I could take care of the car myself. For him, it was a surprise birthday present. Then, when I decided to go and live in Lebanon to do my master’s degree, my parents were okay with it, but my family was like, Oh my God, your twenty year-old daughter in Lebanon? In Beirut!? Do you see the movies? It’s crazy! Why!? She can do her master’s here! And I was like, No, I will do it there. It’s even more pressure now, because I’m twenty-something, but I don’t want to get married. I don’t want to get married! And people still say, Enough! You did what you want! You have a good job, you have a good career, you’re grown up! Enough, get married! People telling you what to do, all the time, for every personal decision. That has been my motive. And then, of course, the revolution.
But how do you deal with every foreign newspaper and journalist and researcher that comes and asks you, What do you think of women who went to protest in Tahrir? Those aliens, who landed on the moon and marched with men? Side by side! How do you deal with that question?
ME: It’s a chance to take the stereotype and to turn it upside down, to really address the issues. It’s a chance to say, yes, there are deep problems in Egyptian society and in the Arab world about women’s rights and discrimination, but those women [demonstrators] give me hope because they went out and protested. I’ve been a feminist for years — it’s an obsession for me — and then the revolution came about and this great experiment, the revolution and feminism for me were like potassium and water. When they came together, they made this beautiful purple explosion.