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


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.

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.

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.”

While she fights her case—she and her lawyer contend she was held longer and treated differently than other people who defaced the ad—Eltahawy has moved back to Cairo to take part the continuing social revolution. She’s working with Baheya Ya Masr, a feminist organization that fights violence against women, and writing a book for FSG’s Faber imprint—an expansion of her controversial Foreign Policy article. The book is tentatively scheduled for publication on the third anniversary of the 2011 Egyptian revolution.

When it comes out, the book will surely be a lightning rod for further debate, praise, and excoriation. Eltahawy’s ready for it. “To be a Muslim and a feminist is to stand in the crossfire and yell ‘Shut the f**k up!’ to everyone around you because you know that anything you say can and will be used against you by everyone,” she wrote in a 2010 article for the Jerusalem Post. “I still feel that way, absolutely,” she says now. But being nominated for a National Magazine Award offers some encouragement. “I’m very honored and very excited,” she says, then giggles. “And I’m also like: ‘Fuck the haters!'”