Mona Eltahawy--Writer, Talking Head, and Activist--Willingly Steps into the Crossfire

Agent Provocateur

Mona Eltahawy shows up for her April 9 date in New York Criminal Court in a bright pink jacket, her curly shoulder-length hair dyed a vivid shade of pomegranate. She stands out among the other defendants who surround her in the gallery, mostly young black and Hispanic men. When her docket number comes up, she stands politely and lets her attorney do the talking. Facing misdemeanor charges of criminal mischief, making graffiti, and possession of an instrument of graffiti after defacing a subway advertisement with pink spray paint, she's been offered a plea deal that would carry only a few days of community service, but she's decided to fight the charges. Her case is adjourned to June 17.

"I flew back from Cairo for this," she says, stepping out onto Centre Street from the courthouse. "It's good to be back in New York. I've got a number of talks to give. And when I heard I had been nominated for a National Magazine Award, I thought, well, I'll just extend my visit and stay for the awards ceremony on May 2."

If theatrical acts of public vandalism don't obviously seem to go hand in hand with the summits of journalistic recognition, they do for Mona Eltahawy. Born 45 years ago in Egypt and raised in London and Saudi Arabia, Eltahawy began her career as a news reporter for Reuters and the Guardian in the Middle East. But after she moved to the United States in 2000 and watched the events of 9/11 unfold, she turned her attention to opinion writing, appearing regularly in the Guardian, the Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune, the Toronto Star, and many others.

Eltahawy at Manhattan Criminal Court after her hearing on April 9
C.S. Muncy
Eltahawy at Manhattan Criminal Court after her hearing on April 9
“I wanted to be arrested,” says Eltahawy, seen in a video taken on September 25, 2012, as she was cuffed.
“I wanted to be arrested,” says Eltahawy, seen in a video taken on September 25, 2012, as she was cuffed.

Along the way, Eltahawy became a full-scale media star, appearing as a talking head on CNN, MSNBC, and the BBC, delivering keynote addresses at conferences around the world, and building up a Twitter following of nearly 175,000. (Time named hers one of its 140 Best Twitter Feeds of 2013.) She's won numerous journalism prizes, been named one of the "100 Most Powerful Arab Women" by Arabian Business magazine and one of Newsweek's "150 Fearless Women of 2012," and is the subject of a glowing profile in this month's Smithsonian—the author met her at a dinner party hosted by Jesse Sheidlower, the editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary.

For Eltahawy, politics are always intensely personal. Holding dual citizenship in Egypt and the United States, she has carved a niche for herself as one of the most influential popular commentators explaining the Arab world for Western audiences. The role of cross-cultural interpreter is inevitably fraught, and Eltahawy has hardly shied away from controversy. Her forceful arguments and willingness to say things that confound expectations has made her one of the most ubiquitous and divisive female Muslim voices in Western media.

In her columns and television commentary, Eltahawy stakes out contentious positions on numerous hotly disputed topics: Writing in 2006 for the Daily Star, she said Muslims ought to relax about the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. In 2008, for Newsweek, she described the Israeli-Palestinian debate as mired in equivalent violence on both sides, and called the Arab fixation on the Palestinian struggle a distraction from more important issues, writing that "Israel is the opium of the people." When Nicolas Sarkozy introduced a ban on burkas in France in 2009, a move widely seen on the left as xenophobic, Eltahawy offered a vociferous defense in the New York Times and other outlets, arguing that the ban should be extended to all countries.

Each of these positions made Eltahawy distinctly unpopular in some quarters, though it's easier to find online critiques than people willing to be quoted criticizing her. Ikhras, a website edited by two Arab-American men devoted to calling out what they see as Arab collaborationists in the American war machine, has gone so far as to call Eltahawy a "House Muslim." Writing in Ikhras, Sarah Hawas called her a "native informer," trotted out by Western media outlets to confirm and reinforce their audience's preexisting views.

Talking with the Voice on the Saturday after her court date over pancakes and chicken at Corner Social, one of the new restaurants dotting Malcolm X Boulevard near her Harlem apartment, Eltahawy laughs this criticism off. "In an age of social media, there is no inside and outside," she says. "When videos are being uploaded to YouTube to shame our dictators, this ridiculous notion of the 'native informant' is done."

Margot Badran, an Egyptian-American scholar of women's studies at Northwestern University, says that accusing Eltahawy of imposing Western values onto Arab problems doesn't make sense. "Her feminism has deep historical roots in Egypt," Badran says. "The notions of equality under the law, and with regard to education and political rights, that's all very Egyptian. She didn't have to take lessons from any Westerners to get that."

When Egypt burst into revolution in January 2011, Eltahawy began traveling back and forth to Cairo, where her younger sister lives, broadcasting and explaining events to a ballooning audience of Twitter followers turning to social media to track the developments unfolding in Tahrir Square in real time. Jezebel referred to her as "the woman who's explaining Egypt to the West."

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