Egyptian-American Mona Eltahawy, an award-winning journalist and a vocal speaker on women’s rights believes that all religions are used by men to control women. Mona gets candid in an interview to Ashok Kumar of OneWorld South Asia at the latest edition of Jaipur Literature Festival.
OneWorld South Asia: What makes you angry about the state-of-women in developing countries like India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh?
Mona Eltahawy: What makes me angry is the inequality and injustice towards women in these countries. We look for an excuse to ill treat our women in the name of culture.
It makes me very angry when people use culture and religion as an excuse. My question is who decided this culture? Nobody asked women if they wanted to follow this culture of oppression.
It makes me very angry that we have a toxic mix of religion and culture that we use to justify discrimination against women. Look at Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. It seems most religions with a very few exceptions, are used by men to dominate women.
OneWorld South Asia: What do you have to say about the role of Khap Panchayats in India or the religious clerics in the Middle East or the other Muslim dominated countries who try to control the sexuality of women?
Mona Eltahawy: I will answer this question in the words of a woman named Gloria E Anzaldúa. She said, "I will not glorify a culture that hurts me in the name of protecting me."
All of these religions, the morality leaders, and the self appointed leaders are obsessed with women's bodies and are obsessed with controlling women's bodies. They are specifically obsessed with a woman's vagina, and I say to them, stay out of my vagina unless I want you in there.
OneWorld South Asia: So, do you think the challenges for Muslim women are different from those of women from other religions?
Mona Eltahawy: I think the challenges are similar and women from each of these communities must lead the fight. Being a Muslim, I speak mostly about Muslim women and about my part of the world. I believe that a Hindu woman must lead the conversation about how the Hindu religion is used against women.
I am an Egyptian. I am Muslim. Therefore, I don't just fight against sexism, I also fight against racism, I fight against homophobia, I fight against Islamophobia, all of those things. White feminism does not fight for all of those things, and is focused on the challenges faced by white women.
At the end of the day we can look at each other and see that we are in solidarity, we are fighting the same fight because all religions are used by men to control women, with very few exceptions.
OneWorld South Asia: How helpful it is looking at women's issues from the prism of religions like Islam, Hinduism, or from the prism of regions like Afghanistan, India or Pakistan?
Mona Eltahawy: I believe that feminism does not belong to white European women. Feminism is not something that we import from the white European world. Feminism is equally indigenous to India, Afghanistan, Egypt and we have indigenous feminist movements in all of these regions.
Here in India, you have Urvashi Bhutalia who launched Kali for Women, which is the first feminist press in India. In Egypt, I mention the names of many feminists in my book. We have feminists all over the world and I connect all of this with the idea of global feminism.
The definition of feminism for me is equality and liberation of women. It is important for us to recognise indigenous feminism because we are not white and hence, don't have the luxury of fighting for just sexism.
In India, just like in Egypt, we have other challenges as well that we must fight. There's a word called intersectionality that we use in feminism, which recognises that we are fighting against many injustices as women of colour.
OneWorld South Asia: What kind of silence has been broken by your book "Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution," released in 2015?
Mona Eltahawy: I am using my book to remind people that the revolutions and uprisings which began in Tunisia in 2010 and continued in 2011 in Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya, were all just political revolutions.
The revolutions were launched by men and women against the dictator in the Presidential palace. My book is a reminder that there is a dictator on the street and a dictator at home, like a ‘Mubarak’ in the street and a ‘Mubarak’ at home.
Unless we rise up against the ‘Mubarak’ in the street, and the ‘Mubarak’ at home, to usher in a social and sexual revolution, our political revolutions will fail.
OneWorld South Asia: Which one of the two ‘Mubaraks’ is more dangerous?
Mona Eltahawy: Well, the most dangerous ‘Mubarak’ is the one at home, as the Mubarak in the Presidential palace and the ‘Mubarak’ on the street all go home. So, that's the most dangerous ‘Mubarak’ and that's why the sexual revolution is the most necessary and the most dangerous to all of the ‘Mubaraks’.
Quoting Audre Lorde, a Black-American poet, I want to tell women that “Your silence will not protect you.” So find ways to break the silence because breaking the silence and speaking the truth is the best way to be free.
OneWorld South Asia: How can countries like India deal with the menace of sexual exploitation of women?
Mona Eltahawy: My solution is that we should have a curfew for men. After 7 pm, one day of every month boys and men must stay at home and then you shall see how safe the streets are.
When men sexually assault women and we say it's the woman's fault it is called victim blaming. It is the man's fault. We have to stop telling women how to protect themselves from rapes and we have to start telling men to stop being rapists.
Editorial inputs: Kamakshi Ahuja