Muslim Feminists Rewrite Boundaries On The Street And At Home

Aug 14, 2015
Originally published on August 18, 2015 12:59 pm

When writer Mona Eltahawy was 15 her family moved to Saudi Arabia from the UK. It was a shock. Suddenly her highly educated mother could not drive or go anywhere unless accompanied by a man. Boys and girls lived segregated lives and it seemed to Eltahawy that women were considered the walking embodiment of sin. She found her refuge in reading and eventually discovered the writing of Muslim feminists.

"I always say now that to be a female in Saudi Arabia, a girl or a woman, you basically have two options: to lose your mind or become a feminist," she says. "And at first I did lose my mind because I fell into a deep depression. But then I was saved by feminism so it worked out I guess. It made me the woman I am."

Now a journalist and a writer, Eltahawy believes this is an exciting time to be a Muslim woman.

"Because I am able to challenge things and ideas and people that — when I was that 19-year-old discovering the words of feminism — were unheard of," she explains. "I could never imagine I could challenge things in this way, that almost 30 years later I am able to address so many people with my own vision of what I think a Muslim is or a feminist is or ways that we can challenge that toxic mix of religion and culture."

Her new book Headscarves and Hymens is a collection of essays. In one of them Eltahawy writes about the numerous sexual assaults against women who took part in the Arab Spring protests in Cairo. Eltahawy herself was attacked during demonstrations in November of 2011. After the protests she made a BBC radio documentary, The Women of the Arab Spring. She wanted to be sure their stories were told.

Eltahawy advocates for a social and sexual revolution to overturn what she calls a trifecta of oppression against Muslim women: by the state, on the streets and at home.

"When you tell your story you not only overcome fear, silence and shame, but you also pave the way — you break down the barriers for those who come after you, who can't speak," she says.

Eltahawy uses every means she can to share her ideas — she loves social media and tweets constantly. (You can follow her @monaeltahawy).

"The power of words not only gives you the ammunition and the artillery with which to fight back against whatever forces you feel are silencing you, but they connect you and they help you find other people who are engaged in similar struggles so you feel these kind of parallels — your alliances," she says. "You know ,you look to your right and you look to your left and you see other people who are also using words and you think, this is powerful."

Creating 'A Space For Rebellion'

Making connections is important to Pakistani writer Rafia Zakaria as well. When her cab pulled up in front of the Hirshhorn museum in Washington, D.C., on a recent afternoon, she was excited to see a huge poster of Iranian artist Shirin Neshat hanging on the front of the building. Seeing Neshat's Muslim name gave her a surge of pride and connection.

"Sometimes it's very lonely as a Muslim woman who's writing or a Muslim woman who's doing artistic work because you're constantly pushing boundaries so when you see that, it just, it makes you happy," she says.

She sees parallels between the Neshat's visual work about Iran, and her literary work about Pakistan.

"I think Shirin's work represents a reclamation of Iranian history for Iranian women," says Zakaria. "Just by the act of saying: I am an Iranian woman and this is how I see Iran. For me, the act of saying: I am going to claim Pakistan by writing a history for Pakistani women and that's told through their perspectives. I think that project of reclaiming identity is crucial to Muslim woman today."

The exhibition intersperses Neshat's films and photographs with archival material from pivotal events in Iran's history.

In the same way Zakaria says her book The Upstairs Wife, juxtaposes the history of Pakistan with her own family's story. Zakaria focuses the family story on her aunt who was trapped in a polygamous marriage. She also explains how and why laws that allowed for polygamy were passed by the Pakistani government.

"You know when the laws were being passed I don't think anyone in my family paid any attention at all," she says.

Zakaria says in her book she set out to push the boundary between the private and the political.

"It's an appeal to Pakistani women to say: OK, you like your private sphere and you imagine it as a sanctuary from the public and the political — but is it really? I don't think it is," she says. "This idea that you can just live your life and it's not going to be touched by what's happening outside is just a myth."

Zakaria believes a Muslim feminist revolution should honor women like her aunt.

"You know we have to be connected to the women that came before us that have modeled resilience, that have modeled dignity in suffering and modeled strength in suffering," she says. "But then we also have to create space for rebellion. We have to create space for expressing what we want and our needs and our ideas."

'Taking the Revolution Home'

In the Muslim world, much of the feminist revolution has to be fought on the home front, says Mona Eltahawy, because that is where so many Muslim women live so much of their lives.

"Home is where all the silence and the shame and all the taboos fester," she says. "But what makes me optimistic is it's also the home where all those women who went out and marched and fought side by side and were hurt and were detained and were violated: they went home with the men and looked at the men and on many levels have said you know: You're just like the guy that I just tried to overthrow. So taking the revolution home, it might seem like it's a very quiet process, it might need much more time. But that Mubarak at home knows that his time will come and that we will have a reckoning."

When Eltahawy and Zakaria were growing up they found their way out into the world through the words they found in books. Now, they are writers using their own words to inspire the kind of change they hope make life better for millions of other women around the world.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Words are a way to find each other. Those words, from Mona Eltahawy - a writer and a feminist and a Muslim. Her book, "Headscarves And Hymens," is a stinging condemnation of the treatment of women in Islamic countries. Pakistani writer Rafia Zakaria is also a Muslim feminist who wields her pen as a weapon. In her book, "The Upstairs Wife," Zakaria uses a family story to illuminate the history of Pakistan and womens' place in it. As part of our series Muslim Artists Now, NPR's Lynn Neary spoke with both writers.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: When Mona Eltahawy was 15, her family moved to Saudi Arabia from the U.K. It was a shock. Suddenly, her highly-educated mother could not drive or go anywhere unless accompanied by a man. Boys and girls lived segregated lives, and it seemed to Eltahawy that women were considered the walking embodiment of sin. She found a refuge in reading, and eventually discovered the writing of Muslim feminists.

MONA ELTAHAWY: I always say now that to be a female in Saudi Arabia - a girl or a woman - you basically have two options, to either lose your mind or become a feminist. And at first I did lose my mind because I fell into a deep depression. But then I was saved by feminism, so it worked out, I guess, and it made me the woman I am.

NEARY: Now a journalist and a writer, Eltahawy believes this is an exciting time to be a Muslim woman.

ELTAHAWY: Because I'm able to challenge things and ideas and people that, when I was that 19-year-old, discovering the words of feminism were unheard of. I could never imagine I could challenge things in this way. And almost 30 years later, I am able to address so many people with my own vision of what I think a Muslim is or a feminist is or ways that we can challenge that toxic mix of religion and culture.

NEARY: Her new book, "Headscarves And Hymens," is a collection of essays. In one of them, Eltahawy writes about the numerous sexual assaults against women who took part in the Arab Spring protests in Cairo. Eltahawy herself was attacked during demonstrations in November of 2011.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE WOMEN OF THE ARAB SPRING")

ELTAHAWY: My name is Mona Eltahawy, and I'm a writer and activist.

NEARY: After the protests, she made a BBC Radio documentary, "The Women Of The Arab Spring." She wanted to be sure their stories were told.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE WOMEN OF THE ARAB SPRING")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: When women were harassed, they start saying, why did they go there at the very first place? What? We are there to defend our countries.

NEARY: Eltahawy advocates for a social and sexual revolution to overturn what she calls a trifecta of oppression against Muslim women by the state, on the streets and at home.

ELTAHAWY: If I fight the state by breaking the barrier of fear then I fight the street and the home by breaking the barrier of silence and shame. So that's why I think that it's so important to tell our stories. And also, you know, when you tell your story, you not only overcome fear, silence and shame but you also pave the way, you break down the barriers for those who come after you who can't speak.

NEARY: Eltahawy uses every means she can to share her ideas. She loves social media and tweets constantly.

ELTAHAWY: The power of words not only gives you the ammunition and the artillery with which to fight back against whatever forces you feel are silencing you, but they connect you and they help you find other people who have been engaged in similar struggle. So you feel those kind of parallels. You're alliances, you know? You look to your right, you look to your left, you see other people who are also using words and you think, this is powerful.

NEARY: Making those kinds of connections is important to Pakistani writer Rafia Zakaria as well.

Rafia?

RAFIA ZAKARIA: Hey.

NEARY: Hi.

ZAKARIA: Nice to meet you. It's an honor.

NEARY: Great to meet you too.

We met at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., which is currently exhibiting the work of Iranian artist Shirin Neshat. Zakaria was surprised when she arrived to see a huge poster of Neshat hanging in front of the museum.

ZAKARIA: I pulled up and I got out of the cab, and I see - the first thing is a Muslim name.

NEARY: Zakaria says she felt a surge of pride and, yes, connection with Neshat when she saw the poster.

ZAKARIA: Sometimes it's very lonely as a Muslim woman who's writing or a Muslim woman who's doing artistic work because you're constantly pushing boundaries. So when you see that, it is - it just makes you happy. It makes me happy.

NEARY: Do you see her work - her artistic work, in telling the story of Iran visually as being similar to what you're trying to do in telling the story of Pakistan as a writer?

ZAKARIA: Absolutely. I think Shirin's work represents a reclamation of Iranian history for Iranian women just by the act of saying, I am an Iranian woman and this is how I see Iran. For me, the act of saying I'm going to claim Pakistan by writing a history for Pakistani women and that's told through their perspectives, I think that that project of reclaiming identity is crucial to Muslim women today.

NEARY: All right, let's go in then.

The exhibition intersperses Shirin Neshat's films and photographs with archival material from pivotal events in Iran's history...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Today the ailing Mossadegh holds all power. But some say he owes a lot to the Reds, and the big question for the West is, what is the payoff to Russia?

NEARY: ...In the same way Zakaria says her book, "The Upstairs Wife," juxtaposes the history of Pakistan with her own family story. Zakaria focuses the family story on her aunt, who was trapped in a polygamist marriage. She also explains how and why laws that allowed for polygamy were passed by the Pakistani government.

ZAKARIA: You know, when the laws were being passed, I don't think anyone in my family paid any attention at all.

NEARY: Zakaria says in her book she set out to push the boundaries between the private and the political.

ZAKARIA: It's an appeal to Pakistani women to say, OK, I mean like your private sphere and you imagine it as a sanctuary from the public and the political. But is it really? I don't think it is. And, you know, this idea that you can just live your life and it's not going to be touched by what's happening outside is just a myth.

NEARY: But Zakaria believes a Muslim feminist revolution should honor women like her aunt.

ZAKARIA: You know, we have to be connected to the women that came before us that have modeled resilience, that have modeled dignity in suffering and modeled strength in suffering. But then, you know, we also have to create space for rebellion. We have to create space for expressing what we want and our needs and our ideas.

NEARY: In the Muslim world, much of the feminist revolution has to be fought on the home front, says Mona Eltahawy, because that is where so many Muslim women live so much of their lives.

ELTAHAWY: Home is where all the silence and the shame and all the taboos fester. But what makes me optimistic is it's also the home where all those women who went out and marched and fought side-by-side and were hurt and were detained and were violated, they went home with their men and looked at the men, and on many levels have said, you know, you're just like the guy that I just tried to overthrow.

So taking the revolution home, it might seem like it's a very quiet process. It might need much more time. But that Mubarak at home knows his time will come and that we'll have a reckoning.

NEARY: When Mona Eltahawy and Rafia Zakaria were growing up, they found their way out into the world through the words they found in books. Now they are writers using their own words to inspire the kind of change they hope will make life better for millions of other women around the world. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.