Stay out of my vagina!

By Chintan Girish Modi

Mona Eltahawy - Image from TataLitLive
I knew nothing of Mona Eltahawy’s work or background until I landed up at her session at the Tata Literature Live festival on the morning of October 31, 2015 at Mumbai’s iconic Prithvi theatre. All I knew was that she was part of a panel discussion titled ‘Will Women Always Be the Second Sex?’ with authors Germaine Greer and Shobhaa De. I was unaware of Mona’s fame as public speaker and author of the widely acclaimed and controversial Headscarves and Hymens, who divides her time between Cairo and New York City. It can be a blessing, as I realized, to encounter people without preparation.

As I heard Mona speak, I was struck by her candour and laughter.  She was sharing experiences that many are unable to talk about for a whole lifetime. Here was someone who had refused to let her scars eclipse her beauty. She allowed herself to speak freely about pain, desire, joy, anger, frustration. I took inspiration from that.

At the age of 15, while circumambulating the Kaaba, a man pinched Mona’s butt. Not knowing what to do, she cried. She did not have the vocabulary or the strength to tell her parents what had happened. She walked further, and another man (this one, a security official) grabbed her breast. Her agony grew worse.

These incidents that took place at the holiest site of her religion, while Mona was performing the Hajj, filled her with shame and guilt, which she cast off later as she began to, what she called “break the barriers of silence and shame.”

These barriers, she remarked, have come from people of various political hues – those who think that her writing could help strengthen stereotypes about Muslim men, those who do not want her to sully the image of her religion, and those who share neither her religion nor her culture but want to condone violence in the name of honouring diverse cultural practices.

Instead of feeling bound to listen to any of them, Mona keeps her experience at the centre of what she has to say. She is a practising Muslim, and she speaks out against misogyny. Both are important to her. She is not interested in pleasing anyone who does not care about her well-being but only about maintaining status quo. She finds the headscarf to be oppressive, and is critical of it in unambiguous terms. Having worn it during her time in Saudi Arabia, she is unwilling to accept the argument that it is a matter of choice.

Listening to her also made me aware of an aspect of the Arab Spring I did not know about. Mona was
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 out in the streets of Cairo with several young women and men during the revolution that is now identified most prominently with the demonstrations in Tahrir Square. While they were united in their wanting to overthrow Mubarak’s regime, they were far away from reaching a place of equality regardless of gender. Many female protestors, including Mona, were beaten and sexually assaulted by police officials cracking down on the protests. Their access to public space was not defined in the same way as their male colleagues. This is when Mona realized that one needed to address the Mubarak in the bedroom and the Mubarak on the street corner as well, not just the Mubarak in the palace. It was this sense that one needed a social and sexual revolution in addition to a political one.
While her activism draws from her own experiences, she also seems empathetic to other struggles related to gender, particularly issues faced by the transgender community. She mentioned that she was happy to note that the immigration form she was given while landing in India had a third option beside ‘male’ and ‘female’. When Greer spoke rather insensitively and jokingly about transgender issues, she made it a point to draw attention to the very real concerns they face.

She also spoke against female genital mutilation, a practice that many of the women in her family have had to go through. When she thinks about their experiences, she feels very angry. “Everyone wants to control women’s sexuality – the family, the church, the mosque, the state. They are obsessed with my vagina. I tell them to stay out unless I want them in,” she said.

A tattoo of the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet now adorns her right arm. “Sekhmet stands for retribution and sex, and I want both,” remarked Mona, bursting into that full, fearless laughter I remember well.


Chintan Girish Modi lives in Mumbai, and writes on art, culture, gender, education and media. He tweets at @chintan_connect.
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