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Sally Zohney and Mona Eltahawy sit down for a wide-ranging talk about women's rights in Egypt.
SZ: I love that expression.
ME: It’s a great synergy, isn’t it? That’s another reason that I wrote this essay [in Foreign Policy]. I thought, you know, this is a revolutionary time, if this isn’t the time that we talk about the issues that too many people are in denial over and that are very painful, when can we talk about them? We as women, we step up when there’s a challenge. We go out and get beaten and we march. We’re on the front lines with the men.
SZ: Even before the men! I saw women who would take the tear gas and throw it back while young men ran away. One issue that really posed many questions to me, you know the [soccer fanatic group] Ultras’ sit-in, and their rules banning women from sleeping in tents or being there after 10 pm? Some people said, it’s the Ultras’ sit-in, their rules, no problem. And there were those that said, it’s our revolution all together, and they’re calling for the rights of the martyrs, they have no right to say it’s our sit-in. It’s every mother’s, father’s, family’s right to be in the tents, asking for their children who died for a football game. What do you think?
ME: It was a really interesting time. I was following through social media because I wasn’t here. But first of all, I have to say, I love the Ultras. I have so much respect for the Ultras who, along with the Muslim Brotherhood youth, were on the front lines for the 18 days. They were really the shield between the people and the police. I have friends in the Ultras. They’re the reason I went to Mohamed Mahmoud, as a way to honor their courage. I had my arms broken and I was sexually assaulted. So, when I heard that the Ultras did not want women, it was really difficult for me. And I discussed it with my Ultras friend, and he said that internally the Ultras had a huge debate. The group that was against banning women from the tents lost, they were the minority. But the fact that there was a group in the Ultras that said, Women must be a part of this on every level – that gives me hope.
SZ: My only fear from the Ultras’ sit-in rules was that people would take them and say – this was a good sit-in because of these rules, and if any sit-in happens with any violations or virginity tests or whatever, people would say it’s because they didn’t have the rules of the Ultras.
ME: But the other lesson from the Ultras’ sit-in was that the Ultras did own that sit-in and made it clear that they owned that sit-in. And now our obligation is to create sit-ins where we create the rules. We — all the different we’s, there isn’t just one we — have sit-ins in the future in which, whichever we is controlling the sit-in makes the rules and pushes and pushes. The Ultras were not interested in pushing the gender issue. They had another agenda. Their agenda is not gender.
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I think if you look at this as part of the big umbrella of what’s happening in Egypt now, everyone is looking around and thinking, What is my role, and how do I fight in that fight of mine? And it’s okay if you have one goal and I have another goal. I think that this is one of the really — for me — educational things that came out after my essay. Because a lot of people have a lot different ways of working for women’s rights. My way was to be very, very provocative and hit where it hurts and say, That’s it! But other people are sitting there going, Look, you’re alienating people and we don’t do alienation. Fine! You know what, go work in that office of yours or wherever you are in the way that you think is right! We’re learning from each other that it’s okay to be different. It’s okay to have different strategies. We can’t all work in the same way. This isn’t Mubarak’s Egypt anymore, you know? But it’s very difficult in Egypt to be an individual because you’re always accused of being selfish. You have to get rid of that individual part of yourself for the sake of the greater good. What if my greater good is different from your greater good? What do we do then?
SZ: I don’t know. I struggle with that question everyday when someone tells me, But if you say that then you’re against the blood of the martyrs! If you’re going to elect someone and you’re going to vote, you’re betraying the revolution! That idea of martyrs, martyrs, martyrs — it’s abused, I think!
ME: There’s a lot of emotional blackmail that’s happening. Because people feel that they’re losing control of a centralized idea. I think the centralized idea is freedom and dignity, but how we approach and achieve freedom and dignity is different for each of us. Because I’m a writer, and you’re an activist, and someone else is a football fan who has had a vendetta with the police. Each of us joined the revolution for different reasons. That’s why I say that the generation that’s twenty and younger is really going to reap the benefit of all of this, because they’re growing up at a time that they’re seeing so many people fighting over the right to be an individual. So by the time that they reach our age, this is a done deal. No one is ever going to tell you — the blood of the martyrs! The emotional blackmail will not be there anymore. We’re willing to stick out our necks and say, Okay, abuse me all you want. I don’t care! I’m taking the hit because someone has to take the hit. Fine! You know?
SZ: I don’t mind taking the hit at all, honestly. If I know that it will pay off, I don’t mind.
ME: It will pay off, Sally.
SZ: It will pay off, as you said, for those who are younger, but I’ve started to realize that it might not be our generation.
ME: But you are part of the group that has helped push it much further than where it was. And in that sense you’ve liberated yourself.
SZ: It’s a personal revolution.
ME: Exactly. You can’t have a political revolution without the personal, social revolution.
SZ: When the 25th of January happened, my parents said they didn’t want me to go to protest. So I went behind their backs. And then when the idea of Tahrir Square came and you had to sit-in, I was like, I’ll do this behind your backs or with your permission – you pick. I don’t need the car, I don’t need you to tell me to come back – just know that I’m going and be okay with it – or don’t. And that was a personal revolution. Now my parents are proud and they say, Oh, Sally was in Tahrir Square all the time! Sally can tell you everything that happened in Tahrir Square. And I’m like, Uh huh! That wasn’t what you said!
ME: It’s a personal revolution.That’s the thing, we all reach the stage in our personal revolutions, something inside of us pushes us to say, I’m not doing this anymore. And when personal revolutions come together and meet in the square, they become political revolutions. But without the personal revolutions continuing, the political revolution will fail.
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SZ: That’s the problem, because the revolution happened in major cities — in Cairo, in the Suez — not in Upper Egypt. Now they’re having the revolution [in Upper Egypt]. I don’t know if women are able to say to their parents — I’m going to Cairo to join in that march.
ME: Well, if it’s not happening then we’re obliged to make sure it does. I’m convinced that the political revolution will fail without the social revolution because if the goal of our revolution is freedom and dignity, and half of society remains oppressed — my contention all along is that the regime oppresses everybody, but that there’s then another level of oppression, and that is society’s oppression of women.
ME: So if we just get rid of Mubarak, but not the Mubarak in our heads, then what have we achieved? And the Mubarak in our bedroom and the Mubarak in the street — the Mubarak everywhere! The symbol of oppression. So it’s a half a revolution, it’s not a complete revolution. So if the women in Upper Egypt cannot say to their families, We’re going to Cairo, then let’s take the revolution to them. Taking caravans of open mics, storytelling, culture, art — basically things that appeal to people on a very human level. We have to get out there and plant whatever seed helped you to tell your parents, Look, I’m going.
SZ: I could not be forty-something and tell my children, Oh, I missed the revolution because Mommy said no. I just couldn’t live with that thought in my head. I don’t know if it will take every person that much of a big moment — I’m sad it took me a moment like this. I could have done that with other situations, maybe.
ME: There has been so much given to us, so many people that have helped us come up to here, whereas other women have much less. I always tell people, I have these Egyptian feminist icons upon whose shoulders I stand, and it’s really important to remember those icons, women who paid a tremendous price for stepping outside of society, for standing up to misogyny, and for saying, No, I’m going to fight. And they give you and me and so many of us the strength to keep fighting. This idea that this revolution started on January the 25th is nonsense. This revolution has been years in the happening. We didn’t just wake up and say, Oh my God, let’s have a revolution.
Revolutions are not launched or fueled by the majority. Revolutions are always from the minority. The majority is too engrossed in the status quo, is too passive. There’s no revolution in history that was fueled by the majority, that’s a ridiculous notion.And so even if those women in Upper Egypt or other conservative parts of the country cannot reach that moment of personal revolution, what is going to happen is because we the minority are involved in the revolution, the revolution will change Egypt and the change will trickle everywhere. Everywhere! It doesn’t have to happen in every house, but it will shape a new reality. That even those people in the farthest most areas of Egypt that weren’t in the revolution, they will watch it and say, something has changed. You know? That’s it! We are obliged to get the message out as far as it goes – but we do not need the majority! We have to get rid of this idea! Absolutely.
SZ: Thank you, Mona. Thank you for being a fighter. Thank you for being who you are. And keep coming, please come back.
ME: I cannot stay away! It’s very important for me to be back in Egypt. Because of this one foot in and one foot out. I come to Egypt and I kind of get a boost of energy, I plug into something and it fills my veins with a life force. And then I take it out. So thank you.