A conversation with two Egyptian feminists

Sally Zohney, who works at UN Women and has been actively involved in the revolution since the very beginning, is now part of a group called Tahrir Monologues, which performs stories from the eighteen days in Tahrir Square. She says that the media is far too quick to portray Egyptian women as victims, even though women played an equal part in the revolution. “The woman is either screaming, crying, or being slapped,” Zohney says.</p>

Sally Zohney, who works at UN Women and has been actively involved in the revolution since the very beginning, is now part of a group called Tahrir Monologues, which performs stories from the eighteen days in Tahrir Square. She says that the media is far too quick to portray Egyptian women as victims, even though women played an equal part in the revolution. “The woman is either screaming, crying, or being slapped,” Zohney says.

CAIRO, Egypt — A year and a half after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the fight for women’s rights continues in Egypt as debate cycles through the international media. Within “The Voice and the Veil,” we wanted some of those who engage in the fight for women’s rights on a daily basis to lead part of the conversation. To this end, we brought together two generations of Egyptian feminists who have been part of this revolution since the beginning. We asked them to shape the narrative in the way they saw fit, highlighting the issues they consider most pressing.

The participants are:

The Pulse: Sally Zohney

Sally Zohney hums quietly behind the scenes of the revolution. With a full-time job at UN Women and generally one or more engagements each night, her presence seems ubiquitous. She attends nearly every women’s rights-oriented conference, rally and meeting in Cairo. In addition to her full-time position as a youth coordinator, she is one of the founders of Beheya Masr, a member of Tahrir Monologues, an organizer of anti-sexual harassment rallies and protests, and constantly seeking out new ways to engage and be engaged. She is always tired, consistently busy and convinced that to be any other way in this moment would be letting her country slip through her fingers.

When asked to describe herself in one word, Zohney chose “a voice,” continually speaking for what she believes and hopes to see for her country. And though this voice may not be as loud or oft heard by the international community as others that have been repeatedly highlighted, she is certainly shaping the conversation in Cairo today. We handed Zohney the reins of this discussion to see what this lesser-known, unwavering force of Egypt’s revolutionary youth thinks about the current state of the country’s women’s rights movement and continuing revolution.

The Provocateur: Mona Eltahawy

An Egyptian-American born in Egypt who has spent significant periods of her life in Saudi Arabia, the UK and Israel, Mona Eltahawy first came into the international spotlight last November after she was detained by the Egyptian military while protesting on Mohamed Mahmoud street in Tahrir Square. During her twelve hours of detention, she was sexually assaulted and had both of her wrists broken.

The violent event failed to slow her and she became an even more outspoken advocate of Egypt’s uprising and feminist movement. Her controversial piece on the current state of women’s rights in Egypt, published in Foreign Policy’s Sex Issue in May, sparked debates on issues ranging from her decision to write in English to her use of the word hate to the accompanying photographs that feature a woman wearing nothing but a burqa made of body paint to Eltahawy’s own personal background.

Eltahawy’s complex origins have granted her a dual insider-outsider perspective that informs her critique of the current happenings of the new Egypt. Often characterized as an angry feminist, hers is seen by many as an uphill battle. GlobalPost learns more about where her drive came from, and where she hopes it will continue to take her and her homeland in coming years.

This interview has been edited. It took place at Beheya Masr in Cairo on May 19, 2012.

Sally Zohney: Hi, I’m Sally Zohney and I’m here with Mona Eltahawy at Beheya Masr, a women’s rights organization. I’m here to talk with Mona about a few things related to Egyptian women’s rights and what she thinks of what’s happening on the ground. As always, thank you, Mona, for coming.

Mona Eltahawy: Thank you, Sally! It’s really important to me to meet with you and to meet with the community of groups like Beheya Masr, because it renews my own faith. I love to fight and I know that especially when it comes to women’s rights or feminism and the future of the revolution, it’s a huge fight. I don’t want the world for a second to think that Egypt has given up. Ten to twenty years from now, we will look back at this time and say — this was a turning point in global history.

SZ: Are you hopeful?

ME: I’m very hopeful, though I have learned to pace my optimism. It’s only been around eighteen months since we got rid of Hosni Mubarak. We still have a regime to get rid of, we still have a lot to fight for, so I’ve begun to think of the revolution in terms of looking ahead five years from now. It’s like what people say about running a marathon and running a sprint. I think the challenge is to try and think of how we maintain the stamina for the next five years, because it will be a long five years. No revolution gets resolved in one year.

SZ: I was at some point very optimistic, but now that we’re at the point that laws are being drafted and the constitution will be written, I don’t see women or human rights advocates — men and women — and I’m beginning to think that the fight might take an aggressive, scary, unpredictable turn. I don’t know what will happen in a few months when we have a constitution written — will it be similar to women’s previous status in the laws or will it be worse?

ME: That’s one of the reasons that I wrote my essay [in Foreign Policy] — this essay that people have gone nuts about. It was that sense of urgency that you’re talking about, that sense of uncertainty. But it was also a kind of certainty that really depresses me — and that is when countries are going through change, the quickest thing for them to get a hold of is women. It’s always women. We’re the cheapest bargaining tools.

SZ: Why?

ME: Because we’re the vectors of the future.

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.

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.

More from GlobalPost: Deadly Egyptian soccer riot remembered with three days of national mourning

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.

More from GlobalPost: Egypt's 'revolution of the mind'

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.

SZ: Definitely.

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.

This story is presented by The GroundTruth Project.