Why are you so willing to head back into danger?” I ask Mona Eltahawy.
We’re sitting in a café on the Upper West Side of New York City, not far from her Harlem apartment, and the brutal reality of the political violence she’s been subjected to seems far away. But the fiery Egyptian-born journalist-activist has been living on the bleeding edge of history since 2005, a prominent voice in the movement that led to the dramatic Arab Spring uprising, climaxing with the 2011 fall of the Egypt’s modern pharaoh, Hosni Mubarak.
And the bleeding edge is still bloody, now that the “Arab Spring” has entered perhaps its most dangerous and unpredictable phase. In Egypt, some of the original revolutionaries, such as Mona, are now turning on the new rulers, President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, who they believe have hijacked the uprising and betrayed its democratic ideals. Eltahawy has been there for all that and now, she tells me, she’s heading back to the streets of Cairo, where she has suffered torture, sexual assault and broken bones from beatings.
The historical stakes are high in this critical phase of the struggle. Will the hopes awakened by the Arab Spring be crushed the way they were in Iran after the overthrow of the shah?
I’d met Eltahawy a couple of months earlier, at a dinner party hosted by Jesse Sheidlower, American editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Although texting is a dinner-party faux pas, even in Manhattan, her dinner companions understood her compulsion: She was urgently communicating with fellow activists who were at that moment clashing with the police in the streets of Cairo. The ongoing social media revolution leaping halfway around the world in real time.
The dinner captured her dual identity perfectly. She was dressed in a stylish black with a silver necklace representing the ancient figure of Fatima, “protection against the evil eye,” she said. And at one point she rolled up her right sleeve to show off a new tattoo on her forearm, an image of the goddess Sekhmet, one of the oldest female deities of one of the oldest civilizations on earth. “She represents sex and retribution,” Eltahawy explained. She’d gotten the tattoo to mark the place where the Egyptian secret police had broken a bone.
In the café, when I ask her about the violence she was flying back into, she is nonplused. “I have a lot of friends and family who are very concerned about me,” she says, “But I try not to think about it. I’ve already had my arms broken and I’ve been sexually assaulted, so I’m hoping they’re not going to do any more than that.”
She’s not exactly self-protective.
“Look,” she says, “it’s dangerous for everybody in Egypt right now. Everyone who wants to stand up to the government, the state, the regime, the military, the Muslim Brotherhood—call it whatever you want. And we’ve been hearing about activists who are abducted, tortured, dumped in the desert naked.” In other words, meet the new boss, same as the old boss, only worse because you helped get the new boss his job.
Born in Port Said to parents who were both physicians, Eltahawy studied journalism at the American University in Cairo and began her career writing for a dissident English-language Egyptian newspaper that had to smuggle its copy out to Cyprus to be printed and then smuggle it back in. She became a globe-trotting foreign correspondent for Western outlets like Reuters and the Guardian, and gradually made the transition from journalist to journalist-activist. “I used my journalism as much as I could to expose human rights abuses, to expose women’s right abuses,” she says. “I was called into State Security for interrogation several times,” she tells me. “At one point a State Security officer whose nom de guerre was Omar Sharif—though he looked nothing like the actor—showed me my security files, and he said, ‘You see how much trouble you are? These are the files to have you followed, to have your home tapped.’” She married and moved to America in 2000 (she now holds dual citizenship), continued writing but, she says, “9/11 killed objectivity for me.”
“What do you mean, it ‘killed objectivity?’” I ask.
“When 9/11 happened I thought I’m not hearing from Muslims like ourselves,” she says, meaning liberal and moderate types. “I’d only hear from old men and conservative women. So I started writing opinion pieces. I wanted to get another voice out there to show that, look, 9/11 doesn’t represent all Islam.”
Soon afterward, her marriage ended and she flew back to Cairo, where she came into contact with the beginnings of the social media protest movement there. “I went to visit my family in Cairo but also took it as a chance to meet a lot of bloggers—a new thing, bloggers in the Middle East, that I was getting to know about. And in June of ’05, one of them asked me, ‘Do you want to come to a protest?’ And I said I’d love to! And it was the first time in my life that I’ve marched in Cairo and chanted ‘Down! Down! with Hosni Mubarak!’ There were only 100 of us. People were looking at us as if we were insane.”
There has been a major ongoing debate in foreign policy and technology circles over how decisive a role social media played in the Arab Spring uprisings.
“For many years now, social media in the Middle East and North Africa were tools and weapons,” Eltahawy says. “Social media created a space that didn’t exist in the real world because the regime didn’t allow it—the space where people could connect and talk about demonstrations and talk about organizing demonstrations. But they were not the reason the revolution happened. The revolution is people out on the street, not on their computer screens. They took it out into the real world.”
“And it started with bloggers and moved to Facebook?”
“Yeah, and it was also very important the way they used YouTube. Because the police, for some twisted reason, would use their smartphones to film themselves torturing jailed people. And they would send those videos to those who knew the victim—to intimidate and humiliate. And these videos would get out, and bloggers would put them on YouTube to expose the brutality of the Mubarak regime.”
The fact that social media can be a two-way street, with the side in power using it to terrorize, is often a neglected side of the equation. But social media is an explosive force, difficult to control, and this time it backfired.
“Something very interesting happened in the summer of 2010,” Eltahawy continues, “six months before the revolution began. People have died because of police torture in Egypt for many years. But this young man in Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast, Khaled Said, was beaten to death by police. And pictures of him before and after began to appear on Facebook. And this man became an icon. Why? Because he represented the background many people on Facebook came from—a comfortable, affluent background, one that had not experienced the brutality of the Mubarak regime and hoped that if they were quiet and didn’t engage politically, they would be OK. So you got all these young people on Facebook who saw him and saw that they could be him. So they began to join protests as well. That was a pivotal moment.”
Eltahawy takes pride that though she became an activist, a frequent TV talking head opining about the Arab Spring, she has remained a writer. Indeed, she was recently signed by the distinguished publishing house Farrar, Straus & Giroux to write a book about her experiences and the plight of women in the Mideast, including her opposition to female genital mutilation. (Her working title is Headscarves and Hymens.)
“When they attacked me at the end of 2011,” she tells me, “I couldn’t write because both my arms were in casts. I could only tweet and use a touchpad with one finger. I understood then that my body was as much a medium as my words. Because I would appear on television with the casts on and I would talk about what happened to me and that was just as powerful as the words that I wrote.”
I asked her to describe the assaults that had led to that point, and it was a frightening and sinister episode in the modern battle between social media protest and old-school police state tactics.
“This happened,” Mona tells me, “during protests on a street called Mohamed Mahmoud. On November 18, 2011 [nine months after Mubarak’s resignation], the army and the police very violently broke up a peaceful protest in Tahrir [Square].”
The demonstrators were marching against the military junta then ruling Egypt.
“I was traveling at the time in Morocco to give a lecture, and then I was supposed to go to the European Parliament to give a talk there about women in revolution—but with what was happening in Egypt, I couldn’t. I needed to be in Cairo to be a part of this, but also to honor the courage of the men and women on that street fighting to defend Tahrir. I was reading about stories of boys as young as 12 going to the streets, and writing their mothers’ phone numbers on their arms with Sharpies, so that if they ended up in the morgue, people would know who to call.
“I was in Tahrir Square about 24 hours,” she continues, “when I went to meet a friend. He said, ‘Do you want to go to Mohamed Mahmoud [street]?’ and I said, ‘Yes, this is why I came.’ All I remember is lots of tear gas, lots of sirens, and we kept pushing and pushing until we got to the front line. I stood on a rock to take pictures of the security, because the front line was mobbed by this kind of metal grating and then an empty space—a no man’s land—and the security people were on the other side, the police and the soldiers. So I stood on the rock and was taking pictures with my smartphone, and they began to shoot at us. I don’t know if it was live ammunition or if it was pellets, buckshot. So we all ducked.”
At this point, as often happens in espionage dramas, a kindly stranger appears to offer a helping hand.
“There was this man who said, ‘I’ll help you if you want to stand on the rock. I’ll hold your hand.’ They started shooting again so he told me and my friend, ‘Let’s go hide in this store.’
“So we’re sitting there in the store waiting for the shooting to stop, and then I noticed that this man was holding onto me and it was very strange, because men and women don’t hold hands in public in Egypt. The shooting was getting closer and closer so we ran farther into the store. More men came in. And one of the guys groped my breast.
“So I began to punch the guy who groped me, because I couldn’t believe—who gropes a woman’s breast as we’re being shot at? I mean, who?! My friend tried to pull me away. He said, ‘Mona, we’ve got to run, we’ve got to run.’ Because he could see that the police were getting closer.
“And then the riot police come and everyone runs away, and I understood that these guys had entrapped us. They were plainclothes security or thugs. And they kept us there until the police came. I thought my friend had managed to escape, but they took him to a place where he could see me getting beaten and they beat him as they were beating me.”
“Oh, my God.”
“So I was surrounded by about four or five of the riot police who had nightsticks and they were beating me. It was really painful. So to protect my head I went like this [putting her arms in front of her head], which is why my arm was broken here and my hand broke here and here. As they were beating me, my phone fell, so I didn’t have my smartphone anymore, and then they started to drag me away, and I actually said, ‘I gotta get my phone, I gotta get my phone,’ because I understood without this phone, I couldn’t tell what happened to the outside world.
“They wouldn’t let me get my phone, of course. Then they dragged me into the no man’s land where they sexually assaulted me. I had hands all over my body, I was pulling hands off my trousers. They were pulling my hair, they were calling me a whore, the daughter of a whore, everything. And at one point, I fell to the ground and something inside me said if you don’t get up now, you’re going to die. I don’t know how I got up. Because if I hadn’t gotten up—you know that picture of the woman they stripped down to her underwear and they were stomping on her in Tahrir—did you see that picture?”
“I didn’t see that.”
“It became known as ‘blue bra girl,’ it was a very unfortunate name. Because they stripped her down and she was wearing a blue bra. But the soldiers were stomping on her chest.”
“Where does this behavior come from?”
“Oh, my God. It’s rage, rage that the people rose up and were able to do something.”
“And their privileged position was being threatened as well?”
“Exactly. So I managed to get up somehow. And they drive me to the Interior Ministry and all the way, their hands are still all over my body.”
“You must have been terrified.”
“I didn’t know what the hell was going to happen to me. We passed all of these men coming out of the Interior Ministry and I thought, ‘someone is going to stop this.’ I mean, they can see what they’re doing to me. Nothing. It’s like their eyes are dead to me.
“So they take me to their supervising officer. This man in a leather jacket—plainclothes. He says to me, ‘You’re safe now. I’m going to take care of you. You see those guys over there?’ And there’s a mob of riot police just waving their arms like this. He said, ‘You know what would happen to you if I wasn’t here?’ So he’s basically threatening me with gang rape. And he’s saying this, ‘I’m protecting you,’ and their hands are still all over my body.
“This only stopped when a man from the military, an older man from the military in fatigues said, ‘Take her away.’ And I thought they were going to let me go. But they took me inside the Interior Ministry. I spent six hours in the Interior Ministry and three hours into it, an activist came from Tahrir to try and negotiate a truce, and he didn’t know me and I didn’t know him, but he had a smartphone. So I asked if I could use it.”
Here at last, Twitter to the rescue.
“By that time they weren’t paying too much attention to me, and I managed to tweet, ‘beaten, arrested, Interior Ministry.’ And that’s how I got the word out. I was told afterward that in 15 minutes, #FreeMona was trending globally. Al Jazeera and the Guardian reported my arrest and the State Department tweeted back, We hear you and we’re on this.”
America comes through, I say.
“Yes, I know! But that’s why I say I must speak about what happened to me very, very openly because I have a privileged position. Because of who I am, because of my profile, Al Jazeera, the Guardian and the State Department paid attention. How many thousands of Egyptian women and men and children go through this anonymously?”
“Very upsetting to hear.”
“I got off lightly, Ron. Human rights groups continue to document this torture to this day, despite the elections we’ve had. And this Interior Ministry where I was kept, they had cells there for what has been described as sexual torture, of men, women and children.
“Six hours into this detention—now, remember my arms are broken, yeh? I kept telling them, ‘I need medical care.’ Nothing.”
“You must have been in great pain.”
“It felt like hell. And I also told every single man who tried to talk to me or interrogate me, that I was sexually assaulted, because I wanted them to know. This is not my shame, this is their shame. Because this is how they train them.
“And then at one point, the big guy, the big boss now, dressed in a nice suit, he thought that because I look like I come from a privileged background, that we could identify. So he says to me, ‘You know those men who did this to you?’ This is the riot police. He said, ‘You know who they are? They are from the dregs of society. We lifted them up, we scrubbed them clean, and we opened the door this much in their minds.’ And he thought I was going to say ‘of course, these barbarians.’
“‘Why do you think we’re having a revolution?’ I asked him. ‘Who let them live like this?’ So I ended up defending the men who broke my arms and sexually assaulted me against this bastard who thought I was going to play the class card.”
Remarkable she had the self-possession to argue politics at such a moment.
“This is the reality of what’s happening in Egypt. But they use this against each other. They treat these men like animals and they turn them against us, and we have to break that by saying, ‘you have made them live like this and you use them against us. You are the enemy, not them.’”
“So in other words, even after Mubarak left...”
“Even to this day when we have a democratically (quote, unquote) ‘elected president.’ This happens.”
“This still goes on.”
A year or so ago, Foreign Policy magazine asked Eltahawy to write an essay analyzing the question of Islamists and women. She called it “Why Do They Hate Us?”
It was a play upon the title of a semi-famous post-9/11 Fareed Zakaria piece with nearly the same title, his about why the Muslim world, or at least the Islamist faction of it, “hates” the U.S. For our freedoms, he said, basically. (“Islamists” is a term used not for Muslims in general or mainstream Islam, but for extremists willing to use violence to establish theocratic regimes.)
Mona’s piece was about why she believes Islamists and their regimes hate women. Beneath the title was a graphic picture of “blue bra girl” in the process of being nearly stomped to death. Strong stuff. As were its words: “An entire political and economic system—one that treats half of humanity [meaning women] like animals—must be destroyed.”
Tell us how you really feel, Mona.
“You still have hope then?” I ask.
“What we need even more than regime change,” she tells me, “is a social and a sexual revolution that believes in individual freedoms, that believes essentially in removing the internal Mubarak. The regime oppressed everyone—but beneath that the culture repressed women. It’s a toxic mix of culture and religion and we have to change that. And if we don’t do it, the political revolution will not succeed.
“It’s going to be a mess for a few years, but it’s a necessary mess because we have to mature....But I remain optimistic because I’m looking five to ten years from now and I’m insistent that we organize so that we provide an alternative to Islamists.”
Her sensitivity to those who she believes would conflate Islam with Islamists inspired her to take an action last year that received worldwide attention. The spark was a poster put up around New York City subway stations by a right-wing pro-Israel group. The poster attacked jihadists and labeled them “savages.”
“Did you wake up one morning and read about this?” I asked her.
“And snapped,” she said. “What really upset me was that this campaign was for me the latest example of an attempt to bully Muslims. Ever since 9/11 Muslims in this country who had nothing to do with 9/11 because the guys who took part in that came from other countries—none of them was an American Muslim. But we’ve been paying the price for it ever since.”
We talk about the disturbed woman who pushed a Hindu man in front of a subway killing him because she thought he was Muslim or Hindu and they all should be blamed for 9/11. Weirdly both Mona and I knew the unfortunate victim. “Sen!” she said. He worked in a copy shop I used. It was shocking to learn someone you knew as a gentle soul had been struck by a lightning bolt of mad hatred.
The posters also made her frustrated with social media. “I felt I hit the wall with it,” she says, because it was all atwitter about the outrage, but nothing was being done. She felt she had to take direct action—take the fight to the streets. She went out, got some spray paint, and started painting over posters.
But she didn’t black out the posters—she used pink spray paint. “People have accused me of trying to shut down speech. But I chose pink for a reason, Ron: because it was see-through. And I wanted people to see the words underneath. I considered this nonviolent civil disobedience. I love the First Amendment. I believe in the right to offend. I received my first death threat after I defended the Danish cartoons against the prophet. [Back in 2005 a Danish newspaper published a series of images of Muhammad, considered blasphemy to most orthodox Muslims.] I considered the ads hate speech.”
Eltahawy was arrested for the act. She was eventually offered a plea bargain to a minor violation but refused the deal and demanded a trial, which has yet to take place.
Ever the optimist, she is convinced she’ll win: “If a judge in New York considers hate speech [the posters] political speech then my protest of hate speech should also be protected political speech.”
While she’s been attacked for the poster action, she’s an equal opportunity offender—she’s also been attacked for making one of the most important, and courageous, statements about the vexed Israel question I’ve come across from an Islamic activist: She called the Arab world’s preoccupation with the Israel-Palestine problem “the opium of the Arabs.”
Yes, she supports the Palestinian position (she’s been attacked for tweeting support of the hunger strike of a jailed jihadist in Israel) but, she says, “getting rid of this opium would involve disenabling our regimes from using Israel as a distraction from their own crimes against us.”
Toward the end of our talk, I found myself asking her, “What made you Mona?” How did she become the unique voice she’s become. It turns out a secret stash of feminist literature in Saudi Arabia did the trick.
“I think several things [made me different],” she says. “First that I grew up with parents who were equals because my parents met in medical school. When we moved to the UK, I often say that I learned to become a minority. I understood that wow, people expect Muslim women to be nothing, but I have a mother who’s doing a PhD. What is this?
“And then we moved to Saudi when I was 15, and this was a huge schism in my life. My world turned upside down in Saudi Arabia because my frustration at the way women were so badly treated there. It finally found an outlet when I was 18 or 19 and I found ...feminist literature in the library of my university.”
“In Saudi Arabia?”
“Yeah, some professor had put feminist journals up there—[in the city of] Jeddah . It saved me. And I often say that as a woman, you either lose your mind or you become a feminist. And so I began using my mind. I fell into a terrible depression. But I was saved by feminism. That was a real pivotal moment in my life. Becoming a feminist in Saudi Arabia.”
Before she left to pack for her trip back to the violent streets of Cairo, Mona showed me again the tattoo of a goddess she had inscribed on her arm where the police had broken it. “Sekhmet,” she said, “very much a woman. The head of a lioness.”