Saturday, December 11th, 2010
By Mona Eltahawy
Dec. 10, 2010
I’m a Muslim. I’m a feminist. And I’m here to confuse you,” I told attendees at the TEDWomen conference, where I was a speaker, in Washington this week.
The conversation on Muslim women usually revolves around our head scarves and our hymens — what’s on our heads (or not), what’s between our legs, and the price we pay for it.
For kick-ass feminist icons, I have a long history to choose from.
In the 7th century, there’s Khadijah, Prophet Muhammad’s first wife. She was a rich divorcee who owned her own business, who was his boss, who was 15 years older than him and who proposed to him.
My fondness for younger men clearly has a precedent.
But the first wave of feminism for many Muslim women started at a Cairo train station in 1923 where Hoda Shaarawi removed her face veil, which, long before anyone was burning their bras, she described as a thing of the past. She must be turning in her grave as some today try to justify covering women’s faces.
My paternal grandmother was a teacher, a furious smoker, a fast walker and an adamant supporter of a soccer club hated by most of her children
My maternal grandmother — whose sexually racy jokes would outrage her children — was pregnant 14 times. Eleven of those children survived.
My mother — the eldest of those children and the first woman in her family to get a PhD — has three children.
I am the eldest of the three and I’ve chosen not to have any children. My mother had her youngest when she was 42. My sister is now herself working on a PhD and is longing for a baby.
I was born in Egypt, where I belonged to the Sunni Muslim majority. When I was 7, we moved to London, where I learned to become a minority and learned too how little was expected of Muslim women, Teachers assumed my dad’s work brought us to London and were shocked to hear Muslim wives didn’t take the husband’s name.
We moved to Saudi Arabia when I was 15 and I fell into a deep depression as I struggled to find a place among very different Islams.
At home, I was taught an Islam by parents who were equals and who were raising my brother and me to be equals. Outside our new home was an Islam that treated women like the walking embodiment of sin. I was done with Muslim men.
I chose to wear a head scarf and became a feminist (the two weren’t mutually exclusive) after I discovered essays by Muslim women scholars who taught me women could reinterpret religion. They terrified the hell out of me.
When I returned to Egypt at 21, I learned Muslim men were not the enemy after all, as progressive, liberal Muslim women and men helped me define my own place in Islam.
My headscarves-and-hymens moment came when I took off my head scarf — it no longer represented the Muslim woman I was becoming — and I became increasingly obsessed with female genital mutilation after I learned how many members of my extended family had been subjected to it.
Both Muslims and Christians practise genital cutting in Egypt. It’s not about religion. It’s about hymens — and that’s about controlling women’s sexuality.
I moved to Israel, where I was the first Egyptian to live and work there for a western news agency. I became a liberal Muslim because my ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbours reminded me of ultra-orthodox Muslim Saudis. Orthodoxy serves men much more than it does women.
I moved to the U.S. 10 years ago after marrying an American, but when we divorced two years later I got into my car and spent 18 days driving alone to New York City. It was my American pilgrimage. My reward was a community of like-minded Muslims together with whom I prayed behind Amina Wadud, an American Muslim scholar, in the first public female-led mixed-gender Friday prayer. Without a head scarf and on my period, I prayed next to a man — sacrilege to many but a delight to me.
I belong to Musawah — the global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family. A young British Muslim woman told me at the launch in Malaysia last year that if she had to choose between Islam and feminism, Islam would win. A young Egyptian Muslim woman told me if she had to choose between Islam and feminism, feminism would win.
For my sister-in-law, it is about head scarves and hymens. She wears a head scarf and she’s a gynecologist. For the past five years she was the only woman ob/gyn doctor in a tiny Ohio town.
She was the true “jihadi” — every time her patients heard Fox News talk about Moozlums and “them Ayrabs” she was there as the antidote.
This summer I confused people outside the Islamic Community Centre near Ground Zero known as Park51. When a bigoted couple came to insult and provoke us, I gave them the middle finger. I mustered patience with others. But when Bill Keller, a right-wing televangelist came to shed crocodile tears over Muslim women it was clear he was boosting his ego, not my rights.
I’m no fool. I know that terrible violations of women’s rights are committed in the name of my faith. But Islam belongs to me too.
I’m in a boxing ring. On one side is Bill Keller’s right wing: bigoted and xenophobic. On the other side is the Muslim right wing, which uses Islam against me to fuel its misogyny.
I’m a bumble bee who carries ideas — pollen — from one place to another in the hope that they will blossom into a wild and challenging orchard. The pollen might be sweet, but I “sting like a bee” because like the great Muhammad Ali, I will not hesitate to knock you out.
Confusion is both my right and left hook.