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On November 23, 2011, Eltahawy was live-tweeting a demonstration near the American University in Cairo when she was arrested and brought into the custody of the Interior Ministry and Military Intelligence. Her left arm and right hand were broken by the riot police, who also sexually assaulted her, groping her breasts and crotch and trying to force their way into her pants. Twitter followers launched a campaign to free her, with heavyweights like Nicholas Kristof calling for the U.S. embassy in Cairo to intervene. Upon her release, she tweeted the whole episode in horrifying detail before returning to New York for medical care.
In Turin for a State Department–sponsored speaking tour in March, Eltahawy visited a museum of Egyptian antiquities. "The museum director said, 'In this room we have 19 statues of Sekhmet, the Egyptian goddess of retribution and sex,'" she says. "I was like, 'What? Give me some of that!'" She commissioned a design for a Sekhmet tattoo from the New York artist Molly Crabapple, whom she'd befriended over Twitter, and got it inked where her arm had been broken.
The article that garnered her a National Magazine Award nomination, "Why Do They Hate Us?", which ran in Foreign Policy last May, was the first thing she wrote once the casts came off. Right from the title—alluding to Fareed Zakaria's hotly debated 2005 representation of the Muslim world for Newsweek—Eltahawy's piece was calculated to provoke. Packaged as part of Foreign Policy's "Sex Issue," which concerned itself almost exclusively with sexual politics in the Middle East and China, Eltahawy's article was accompanied by images from a photo shoot of an attractive model, nude but for a body-painted niqab. For many Arab bloggers and academics reacting online, the art was a classic piece of eroticized Orientalism, an odalisque for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue age. The pictures "selectively highlight the plight of women in Islam using the naked female body as currency," wrote Sherene Seikaly and Maya Mikdashi, professors at the American University in Cairo and New York University, for the online magazine Jadaliyya, in one of many critical responses.
"At first, I didn't think much of the art," says Eltahawy. "But then I saw how angry it was making people, and I decided I loved it." Her text was no less incendiary: "They hate us," she wrote matter-of-factly. "Arab societies hate women." Reeling off a dramatic and disturbing list of the greatest hits of sexist oppression from across the Arab world, from genital mutilation and "virginity tests" in Egypt to child marriage in Yemen, Eltahawy called for the political revolutions of the Arab Spring to be accompanied by "social, sexual and cultural revolutions that topple the Mubaraks in our minds as well as our bedrooms."
Many academics found Eltahawy's article frustrating. "I was completely outraged when it came out," says Ellen McLarney, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Duke. "It was a blanket condemnation of Arab and Muslim men as being across-the-board misogynistic and patriarchal and oppressive to women in a way that was not contextualized at all. It pandered to western views of Arabs and Muslims that have a dark colonial history."
Leila Ahmed, a Harvard Divinity School professor whom Eltahawy calls a personal hero, wrote in a reaction piece for Foreign Policy that she "found almost every paragraph of Eltahawy's essay . . . troubling as, again and again, broad brushstrokes and sweeping generalizations erased subtle nuances and garbled and swept aside important differences." Speaking to the Voice about Eltahawy, Ahmed says it is too simple to simply blame the oppression of women on Islam. "There is a whole variety of women working on this issue in Egypt and in the Arab world, and many of them are deeply religious," says Ahmed, adding that she worries Eltahawy's piece "implies that Arab women need the West to come and rescue them. It's as if only we here in the West can understand these issues, whereas over there they don't."
Just as the furor surrounding "Why Do They Hate Us?" was beginning to die down, Eltahawy was arrested again, this time in New York. Last September, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, led by America's most famous professional Islamophobe, Pamela Geller, started running ads in New York City subways that read "In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad." Eltahawy was videotaped spray-painting one of them on a Times Square subway platform, over the noisy and physical objection of one of Geller's allies, who tried to interpose herself between Eltahawy and the poster. The incident immediately made headlines, and when, after 22 hours, she was released from jail, Eltahawy was once again on the TV circuit, this time not critiquing Islamic society but defending American Muslims.
But Eltahawy, who also joined demonstrations in 2010 in support of the Park51 Islamic Community Center (called the "Ground Zero Mosque" by its opponents), says the pivot was consistent. "In Egypt, I identify in the ways that people don't assume," she says. "Secular, in-your-face kind of feminist, the things that make me a minority. But I actually like being a minority. Here in the U.S., I'm a minority because I'm a Muslim. I was angry. Here we are, 11 years after September 11, and American Muslims are still being bullied by shits like Pamela Geller." Frustrated that the reaction to the advertisements seemed confined to Twitter, Eltahawy decided to do something more than tweet. "I know I have a media profile," she says. "I wanted to be arrested."