MYRIAM GURBA SPEAKS TO FEMINIST GIANT MONA ELTAHAWY ABOUT REVOLUTION!
a conversation with the author of The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls
Mona Eltahawy secured my eternal devotion after I first read her self-described declaration of faith: “Fuck the patriarchy.” I, too, am a member of this faith and I live my faith through guerrilla-style tactics which I execute daily. My favorite tactic is withholding laughter from unfunny men who are under the impression that they are otherwise. A feminist giant, Mona is a writer, activist and revolutionary whose most recent book, The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls, not only defends women’s anger, it celebrates it. I spoke with Mona about the radical changes she’s embarking on as a writer and publisher, technology and revolution, sexual and romantic terrorism, and ugliness.
Myriam Gurba: It’s my honor and pleasure to be in conversation with feminist giant, Mona Eltahawy. Mona is an activist, writer, and enemy of the patriarchy. And I love her most recent book, which is The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls. Feminist sins structure the book and these include anger, attention, profanity, ambition, power, violence, and lust.
I’m chatting with Mona as part of Tasteful Rude’s Sampler Edition. Tasteful Rude is a magazine I’ll be publishing via the Brick House Cooperative. The Brick House is an alliance of experienced and independent-minded journalists, veterans of the Awl, Splinter, Gawker, Deadspin and a ton of other publications, who’ve come together to build ourselves a new home. It’s a shared publishing platform collectively owned and operated by journalists with no advertisers or investors to interfere with us doing our job: bringing the public great journalism.
This description leads me to my first question.
Mona, you expressed a lot of enthusiasm for the Brick House and you recently announced that you are approaching writing differently. For example, you have noted that instead of working through your agent, you’re now going to be representing yourself directly. And you also announced something interesting, that instead of using a laptop or other more traditional word processing device, your next book is going to be written on your phone. So, I was wondering if you could talk a bit about why you’re changing the way that you write and publish and what do you think mainstream media, by and large, is getting wrong in terms of technology and business models?
Mona Eltahawy: Great. Well, first of all, Myriam, I am delighted and honored and thrilled to be in conversation with you. This is long overdue.
The main reason that I am delighted, honored and thrilled is because the way I introduce myself always is, “This is Mona Eltahawy. My pronouns are she, her, hers and my declaration of faith is fuck the patriarchy.” And I feel that you understand all of that.
So, I feel like I’m talking with a real comrade here.
I’m super excited about Brick House and your magazine and all the other magazines that will be part of the collective, because that spirit of independence is truly what is driving all the changes that I have been announcing. Every fucking five minutes on Twitter I’m like, “Hey, I’m doing things differently now,” because I just want the entire world to know.
I think what happened is, two things, Myriam. I’ve been a journalist since 1990. So that’s what, 30 years? And I worked everywhere you can imagine. I’ve worked in small local newspapers. I’ve worked for global news agencies like Reuters. I’ve written for “major” newspapers. I don’t even want to name them now because fuck them all. I’m at the point of not wanting to write for them anymore.
I was just fucking done. Done! Done! And then the pandemic, and the pandemic just made me think, so many of us are under lockdown and those of us that can be under lockdown at home are so privileged because we’re not out there risking our lives every day as essential workers, who are, ironically enough, the most undervalued. So, I’m sitting here in my privilege at home, and then I was thinking, fuck it. I have risked my life so many times for so-called mainstream media and I’m still not doing what I want to do. So what the fuck am I waiting for?
There’s a global pandemic. This is the first pandemic all of us have lived through and I’m like, “What the fuck am I waiting for? Will I die of fucking COVID-19 before I do what I want?” So I was like, that’s it, what do I want? And I’m an anarchist feminist. I want to be independent! I want to be rid of all of these structures! I want to be rid of all of these hierarchies! And ultimately I want to write exactly what I want to write when I write and not have to stand in line. Yes sir, no sir, three bags fucking full sir. I was like, “Fuck this shit.” It’s going to be me and my readers and I don’t want anyone in between that. And so I did that. I started that.
Excellent. My next question dovetails from that. You participated in the Egyptian revolution and you’ve written and spoken about your experiences with state violence while protesting. One critique that I’ve encountered of U.S. interpretations of the Arab Spring, and of the Egyptian revolution in particular, is the emphasis that U.S. interpretations place on the technology and social media alone.
And it seems to me that an outsized role is being given to technology alone as being the most important factor in facilitating the uprisings. Critics have said that the technology could not have had the influence that it did without the grassroots organizing that was happening throughout the Arab world, that that is what enabled the mobilization of resistance. Can you speak to this critique? And can you also describe what you see as parallels between uprisings here in the United States, as well as perhaps the Arab Spring or other uprisings currently happening?
Yeah, absolutely. It was the Tunisians who began the wave of revolutions and uprisings in the region. It was almost exactly 10 years ago now because it was in December of 2010. And it was begun by a Tunisian man, [Mohammed Bouazizi], an unemployed man who was trying to make a living selling produce with an unlicensed cart who set himself on fire after the police confiscated his cart; they said that he was unlicensed. Then protests began and that was the trigger to protest in Tunisia. That led to their longtime dictator fleeing, literally fleeing the country and then so many other revolutions and uprisings followed in Tunisia’s wake.
Now this thing that a lot of journalists began to say, the Facebook revolution, the Twitter revolution, I-don’t-know-what revolution. I’m a big enemy to revolutions being called seasons or flowers or cakes or colors or flavors or anything because revolutions are not those things. Revolutions are about courage and they’re about feet on the street. You have to connect that. You have to connect the courage of a person saying, “Fuck it, I’m done,” to their feet on the ground and confronting the powers that they are done being patient with.
I do oppose this idea that it was Twitter that sparked this revolution because of course it wasn’t although revolutionaries do use Twitter. Twitter was a tool. 10 years before the Egyptian revolution, blogs were the tools that activists were using. I remember the very first protest I ever took part in against the Egyptian dictator Mubarak was in 2005 and it was partially organized through blogs.
It’s not so much that social media were the triggers of the revolution, but that social media in their various forms, back then we used to call them new media, were the communication forms that activists used. And we have to make an argument that a hundred years ago during revolutions people would use pamphlets, right? The printing press and all that. And then people would use faxes. So many activists will tell you when the fax machine came into being that they would announce protests by sending faxes to people. And then it became mobile phones and then social media. So it’s just, it’s a medium of communication and connection. It’s not in and of itself what drove the revolution.
So that’s my criticism of people who want to call it a Twitter revolution or Facebook revolution. But at the same time, I say this very cognizant of the fact that through those various social media, people who had been traditionally kept out, marginalized out of mainstream media and out of discourse that the regimes used, seized upon social media to say, “I count.” To say, “Here is my voice.” Kind of what we’re talking about when we talk about independent media. To say, “Okay, I am not waiting for your permission anymore.” Because the regime in Egypt, for example, didn’t give certain people jobs, didn’t allow certain people in culture, in art, the economy. It kept them, especially young people, out of these spheres. So young people took to social media, whether it was blogs or Twitter or Facebook and said, “Here I am, I count.” And they found each other. It became an organizing tool.
But you can’t have a revolution without organizers. You can’t have a revolution without activists. So what I’m saying is they use social media to find each other, to find other people and then go out on the street. And the reason that I don’t want to completely pooh-pooh the importance of social media is because I’m bringing it now to the United States. And I’m seeing how people who have long been marginalized, Black people, queer people, Indigenous people, disabled people, women generally, but most specifically, Black and Indigenous women and other women of color, who have not had the platforms that I am now done with and that so many of the journalists and publishers like yourself and others of the collective are done with, are saying, “This is ours. We count.”
And there’ve been so many successful campaigns that began on social media and crossed over into so-called real life. And I don’t make a distinction between real life and virtual life. Virtual life is very real for me. It’s not any less real than so-called IRL. While I refuse to give an out-sized role to social media in the Egyptian revolution or other revolutions in the region, I acknowledge that they were a tool. At the same time I do emphasize the importance of social media in giving a space for marginalized voices, and this is what connects what happened in the region in North Africa and Southwest Asia/Middle East to what’s happening in the United States now.
I look at Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter was started by three queer Black women, and the phrase Black Lives Matter was born when Alicia Garza went on Facebook and wrote it after Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman. She wrote it on Facebook. It went viral. It is now a revolution. A black led revolution started essentially by three queer black women who were never given spaces to say these things in so-called mainstream media. It’s important, but it’s a tool.
Absolutely. This leads me into a question about women because you mentioned the marginalization of women, in particular the marginalization of women of color. You’ve been very critical of how the response to the pandemic has not only disrupted political, social and economic gains made by women over the last century, but that it has also thrust and locked women back into caretaking roles while simultaneously deepening women’s poverty and exposing us to more violence. In what ways are women challenging this problem? Because misogynists are treating the pandemic as a serendipitous moment, right? As a moment through which to roll back time and to punish.
Absolutely. Whether it’s the fascist fuck called Donald Trump in the United States, the fascist fuck who’s the dictator of my country of birth, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, and various fascist fucks around the world, we’re in this moment of patriarchal authoritarianism, where you’re seeing a country like Hungary roll back LGBTQ rights, seeing a country like Poland trying to utterly destroy reproductive rights and reproductive justice. And you’re seeing it happen here in the United States, of course, with the various, I call them multiplicities of fuckery that Trump and others have carried out, whether it was the anti-trans policies or the determination of various states across the United States of America, under cover of COVID-19, to roll back reproductive rights and reproductive justice.
Ironically enough, this is happening exactly 25 years after the Beijing conference. I was in China 25 years ago for three or four days at the United Nations Women’s Conference, which used to take place every 10 years. The last one took place in China 25 years ago and it never happened again. We developed the Beijing Platform. It was decided when feminists and activists from all over the world came together first at an NGO conference and then at the official conference in Beijing. The platform has been recognized as the most progressive platform for women, girls and LGBTQ people in the history of those conferences.
At the same time, the patriarchal authoritarianism that we’re seeing now was developing back then because you saw the Vatican, conservative Catholic and Muslim states, and white evangelical Christians, who usually hate each other, put aside their hatred in order to unify over their obsession with controlling women and queer people. Controlling bodies that have wombs, controlling genitals of anyone who’s not a cishet conservative man, and also at the same time controlling children. That unholy alliance has continued to this day. Now you see it fully bared because this is a moment for them now to pull out all the stops about the nurturing of women, family values. We have to have babies because the birth rate is going to fall. At the same time, you look at a country like the United States, where unemployment is terrible and women are being laid off or made unemployed at higher rates than men.
But which women specifically? Black women, Latinx women, women of color. You’re seeing that, when you look at essential workers, of course it’s Black and Latinx workers who are disproportionately affected when it comes to being essential workers, whether it’s farm workers, grocery store workers, sanitation workers, healthcare workers. It’s disproportionately affecting people of color, but again, within them, they are disproportionately women.
You look at grocery store employees, women. Caregivers, women. Nursing home employees, women. All the time. So whenever we talk about, and we have to talk about Black, Indigenous and people of color being disproportionately affected by the pandemic, we also have to see within that disproportion, that there’s a further layer of disproportion when it comes to women.
On top of that, we’ve got women and children and queer people suffering from a spike in intimate partner terrorism during lockdown. It’s a fucking disaster. This is one of the reasons that I launched my newsletter, Feminist Giant Newsletter, to basically continue to ring the alarm that this pandemic is disastrously setting back the rights of women around the world.
Absolutely. What you mentioned about this disproportionately falling on the shoulders of women of color takes me to personal experience. I’m employed by a school district that issued several statements about the method that was going to be employed for reopening. Initially, the district was going to reopen and they were going to have face-to-face instruction. There was a great deal of protest against that and so then the district modified its plans. One of the suggestions for reopening was that [when] the district was to reopen, students would be able to learn remotely from home, but teachers themselves had to be on campus in their classrooms in order to instruct. The district stated that the reason for that was because there was superior technology on campus and teachers’ home lives would be a distraction.
Teaching is an overwhelmingly feminized profession. Teachers in the United States K through 12 are primarily women, right? When we were instructed to return to our classrooms, we were told absolutely no children on campus. If you bring your children to campus with you, it will interfere with your ability to do your job. But if we wanted childcare for our children, we could pay the school district about $1,500 a month to have college aides watch our children.
As far as I’m concerned, it seems like they’re attempting to extract a profit and again burdening women, and women of color, with the task of childcare. That’s one way I’ve been witnessing the disproportion unfold.
Another question that I have is this. Your last book took on the seven necessary sins for women and girls, and you’ve announced that now you’re writing on the theme or subject of ugliness, which I find really fascinating. When I learned that news, I immediately thought of Tressie McMillan Cottom’s essay in Thick, “In The Name Of Beauty.” In that essay, she asserts that beauty is capital.
I’m curious about what drew you to the concept of ugliness? What makes you want to explore that? I would suggest that ugliness for women is one of these sins, right? That we’re not supposed to be ugly, that men are given the privilege of ugliness and that if a man is ugly, he’s relatable. If you consider who’s cast in porn, often it’s ugly men so that the mediocre man can relate to the person doing all the fucking, right?
What admonition do women typically hear on the streets? Smile, because it makes you look prettier. I’m curious about you deciding to confront the phenomenon of ugliness head-on.
When the pandemic started and I was doing all these Feminist Giant dispatches from the pandemic where I was bringing in things like the economy, violence against women, queer people and children, all that stuff, I also wanted to acknowledge this moment as a moment of transition because, like I keep saying, fuck normal. There was no going back to normal. At the same time, I didn’t want to emerge from this feeling like I’d been on vacation at home. So I was like, “Here’s what I’m going to do…”
It was that same time when you had all these white supremacist Trump fucks going out, saying, “I want to go to the salon. I’m free. I own my body.” These are people who don’t believe in bodily autonomy for women who want abortions, of course, but all of a sudden my body, my choice became their mantra. I was like, “Fuck this shit. What is this, I have to go to the salon? I want to be free.”
Okay, here’s what I’m going to do.
When I first dyed my hair red and got tattoos eight years ago or nine years ago, it was my way of saying, “Fuck you. I survived, you didn’t kill me,” because it was the Egyptian regime that did that to me. My red hair and my tattoos became my way of using my body to send out this very political message.
This time around, I wanted to use my body to send another political message, which was to say, “Stay the fuck home and fuck normal because there is no going back.” I don’t want to go back to anything because all that so-called normal that people are scrambling to go back to is what brought us to this. The multiplicities of fuckeries that I keep talking about, which is white supremacy, misogyny, ableism. The amount of hatred towards disabled people right now where they’re considered disposable. Oh, you have a preexisting condition? Too fucking bad. It’s just horrendous.
So I wanted to do something to say, “Fuck normal. Stay the fuck home. I refuse to emerge from this as if nothing happened.” I was like, “I’m going to shave my hair off.” In the days and weeks leading up to wanting to shave my hair off, I was remembering how, when I was much, much younger, I had really short hair because one of my grandmothers told my mum, “Cut Mona’s hair off,” since I used to cry a lot when my mum used to detangle my hair. So from the age of three to my mid twenties, I had very short hair, like shorter than yours.
When I was seven and we moved to London, the kids I used to go and play with would ask me the question, “Are you a boy or are you a girl?” I was like, “Huh, that’s interesting,” this kind of very androgynous thing. They couldn’t tell. And then when I was 13 years old and my family went back to Cairo, one of my aunts later told me that when she first saw me with this very short hair, she told her siblings, these are my mother’s siblings now, that I was so ugly that my mother, her sister would have to pay a dowry to a man to marry me. During that visit to Egypt, there was this man walking behind me. He yelled out loud enough for me to hear, “That girl used to be a boy and they gave her a sex change.” From the age of 13, I was given this burden/gift of ugliness. I was convinced I was ugly, and I hate those pictures from those years. I never looked at those pictures.
So, I braced myself. I kept looking in the mirror and I was like brace for ugliness and write what ugly means, because this is a really ugly time right now. From the time when the Egyptian regime broke my arms and sexually assaulted me through their riot police, I’ve been using my body as a canvas to deal with these issues. I was like, this is an opportunity now to again do this. This body is a canvas and it deals with the ugliness of what we’re living through right now. I got the beloved to shave my hair off, we filmed it and I posted the video and I made it all about stay the fuck at home. I was like, okay, sit in this now and bring out those pictures of when you were 13, and I did. I began to write on my phone what it was like to look into the eyes of 13 year old me and reclaim her and say, “I am here for you. You who they called ugly. I am here for you and you are a beautiful kick ass fierce girl who is burdened with this ugly thing, but I’m here for you now.” I amassed all this power and I look ugly in the eye now and we like, we are together now, let’s explore what this means.
So I decided to write this book called BuzzKiller: A Memoir in Hair Revolution, because I wanted to explore these issues about ugliness. And then also to deconstruct the power around ugly. Who has the power to call us ugly? It’s the male gaze, right? But it’s a great big killer type of male gaze, right? Especially for us as women of color, right? White supremacist, very capitalist, very ableist, very ageist, all of that. So this book deals with all of that, but it’s also been taking me into other areas like androgyny, like queerness, like non-binary identities. So it’s been a real exploration. It’s really been revolutionary for me.
So the scourge of ugliness, first being called ugly and first hearing that type of language, that happened to you at around 13, that coincided with your entry into puberty, right?
That’s the story that I hear over and over and over, that girls feel powerful during girlhood. They’re not widely being sexualized by the public. Once we develop these markers, that changes. Once our bodies begin to develop, and once it’s noticeable that we’re developing breasts, hips, that’s suddenly when a new metric is applied to us. I remember my personality having changed a lot. I became a completely different person nearly overnight at age 13. I had an incredible amount of confidence. I sometimes refer to it as surplus confidence. I had so much confidence as a child. I wasn’t a conventionally beautiful child, but I was a ridiculously happy and proud child. You know what I mean?
And then once I set foot in the land of puberty, suddenly men began responding to me differently, and whereas I had once been able to entertain adults through my wit, I couldn’t do that anymore. I had to use my body, my body was all men cared about, no one cared about the rest of me. Nobody cared about that. So I’m really excited about your foray into memoir. My last question takes me to something that I’ve been thinking about a lot, and I’ve been thinking about it in terms of geography. I’ve been thinking about romantic terrorism and sexual terrorism.
Typically when people have conversations about romantic terrorism and sexual terrorism, the conversations are had in such a way that the public demands proof of a woman’s suffering and of a victim suffering, right? They demand proof. And typically that proof isn’t testimony because the sufferer herself becomes de-legitimized, right? Because often the victim is female and so there is a way that we discuss romantic terrorism that often centers the victim. One of the noxious questions that bothers me a lot, the archetypal awful question to ask a victim is, why didn’t you leave? That puts the onus on the victim.
I think a better iteration of the question is: what did he do to prevent her from leaving? And an even better iteration of that modification is: why wouldn’t this woman’s community aid her in leaving him? That question makes the problem not an interpersonal one. Instead, it becomes a problem that we root within the community. I was wondering in what kinds of ways we can shift those dialogues in order to take the onus off the victim and to talk about sexual terrorism and intimate partner terrorism in a way that reframes the problem as one that is social.
We were talking earlier about the role of social media in revolutions and Egypt back in 2011 and back in 2011, that revolution was against the state, right? In Egypt now, a feminist revolution has begun against patriarchy, and I think it dovetails beautifully with what you’re asking me. And I’m so glad that you say romantic terrorism and sexual terrorism, because Myriam I never used the word terrorism, unless and except when it’s this terrorism, because any other form of violence you get into [definitionally] depends on whose side you’re on.
But with this form of violence, it’s very clear what is happening. It is absolutely terrorism because it is designed to terrorize and control behavior, and so I’m so glad that you say romantic and sexual terrorism. Thank you. I say intimate partner terrorism, but I’m going to start saying romantic and sexual and I’m crediting you for it. Now in Egypt, we’re seeing women using social media in the same way that activists used to in the run up to January 25th, 2011 to expose exactly this violence, to expose rapists, to expose sexual predators, to expose sexual assault, and to expose violence from various men in their lives.
That for me is the revolution that has to happen before any revolution against the state has any chance of succeeding, because the state oppresses everyone, but the state, the street and the home together oppress women and so what you’re asking me about is about the state, the street and the home. When I talk about the trifecta of misogyny, the state, the street and the home, the two corners on the bottom, the street and the home, are the ones that carry the biggest burden of that trifecta of misogyny. They are exactly where that focus should be. Your question asks me, why isn’t the community intervening? Why aren’t the community and the perpetrator of the terrorism being scrutinized rather than the person who is subjected to it?
That’s because we don’t take the street and the home to account for the various fuckeries the patriarchy performs in those areas. We basically demand, in the same way that we say to an activist, that you have to go, [to do it alone], even though the state has all the weapons at its disposal, you activists have to go and somehow overthrow this dictator basically with your hands tied behind your back. You’re supposed to be a peaceful protester, right? All this obsession with, but they were peacefully protesting! Fuck that shit, loot and riot and destroy and set things on fire because it’s not a level playing field! The state has all the power and all the money and how are we supposed to rise up against it? The same with the streets and with the home. It’s even worse for women, queer people and children when it comes to the street and the home, because that is not considered the oppression that the state subjects us to.
People acknowledge from the violence from the state, because men are subjected to violence from the state, but you try to convince people of the violence of the street or the violence of the home, suddenly they just don’t understand what oppression or violence means anymore! And that’s why the conversation now during this Black led revolution about abolition and defunding is so beautiful and so necessary, because the police are not going to protect us. Why would the police protect us? The police protect the state and the police protect property and the police protect capital.
In the same way that we understand this, we have to understand that we’re rising up against patriarchy, and not just the patriarchy of the state but also the patriarchy of the street and the patriarchy of the home. Once we recognize that, then the question has to shift because then we realize that the system is rigged and no one is going to save us unless we get the community to understand that this harms everyone, and not just the individual women and children and queer people who are subjected to this terrorism.
People often fail to see that when a batterer kills his partner, he typically has killed his partner not for staying, he has killed her for leaving and it’s during separation that a victim’s chances of being murdered increase exponentially. So when people put this onus on the partner, “Well, why didn’t you just leave?” I say that she’s trying to survive. She’s trying not to get killed. I think of those killings as honor killings and I think of them as executions and they’re executions that are publicized, right?
You hear on a weekly basis stories about men. Some of them are frustrated men, some of them are quiet men, some of them are men with these records of domestic violence and terrorism. You hear these anecdotes that are widely publicized about how one day they simply snapped and they killed their partners, and the story is presented as if the fallout is restricted to that community. But what that executioner is doing is sending this message to all women: We are a fraternal order of patriarchs and as such, we execute.
You never know when one of these coercive batterers is going to be your executioner, and this is why we stick to them like glue, because we don’t want to be executed. That’s what a femicide is, it’s a political execution.
It absolutely is and it’s a microcosm of what the state does. So that the state is acting on the macro level and the street and the home are acting on the micro level. Where the state gives itself the right to execute people, where the state has a monopoly on violence, these men who are batterers and intimate partner terrorists are like mini dictators at home, right?
The home is the most dangerous and vital of all revolutions because all dictators go home, whether they’re the dictator in the presidential palace or the dictator on the street corner that taunts and is a sexual predator, they all go home. And that’s why they all defend the home with every tooth and nail because they understand what happens in the home socializes us all into obedience and acquiescence.
Every man can be a dictator at home.
Exactly, and that’s why the state will never take our side and that’s why the criminal justice system is always rigged. You know, there’s a feminist psychiatrist who I quote in my book called Judith Herman. She wrote a book, right? She says the criminal justice system was designed to protect men from the superior power of the state, but not to protect women and children from the superior power of men. See, that’s what we have to recognize, and that’s why I love your review of my book when you spoke to Vogue magazine, is you flagged the violence chapter.
You’re the only person who recognizes what I’m saying because everyone else is terrified of it, Myriam, because in the same way-
Oh, I’m not…
Thank you, I love you for that. In the same way that I believe the protests must riot and must loot and must burn shit down, I believe we have a right to defend ourselves. Not just to defend ourselves, I believe we have a right to riot and loot and burn shit down when it comes to these fucking fascist predatory fucks who are in home and on the street.
Yes. I was listening to several lectures that were given by a forensic sociologist who works on romantic terrorism, and more specifically on coercive control. His name is Evan Stark. He presents some statistics during a lecture where he indicates that over the past several decades, women’s violence against men, in particular homicides committed in self defense, have declined.
Men’s violence against women has not, and so regardless of an expansion in the system of battered women’s shelters, because there was a shelter revolution in the 1970s, men’s violence hasn’t been curbed. What was curbed was women’s self-defense but men can continue to act with impunity.
That’s because prisons are full of women who dared to fight back so we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t. So if we stay they’re like, “Why did you stay?”
If we fight back? “Oh, you’re going to go to prison for daring to fight back.”
Absolutely. And I found this out the hard way because I was trapped by a batterer and in a relationship with him. I loosely call it a relationship. I was stuck with him for three years and I was able to free myself I refer to that as my liberation, because when you’re with a batterer you are his captive. You are his prisoner.
So, I was able to free myself with the help of some queer friends who he had managed not to push away, because he was very skillful at pushing people away from me. Isolation was one of his tactics. Once I was free of him I had some friends pressure me to call the police. I was really reluctant to do that, but I did.
I was really concerned about his continued ability to abuse because he works with young people. I didn’t want him to have access to young people so I thought, “Okay, well maybe police will be useful in this instance.”
I spoke to a detective, and propaganda has been so effective at leading people to believe that detectives are these incredibly compassionate people who are well trained in interview and interrogation, when in reality so many of them are incredibly sloppy. I’ve heard social workers say that domestic violence detectives actually aspire to be homicide detectives, that that’s why they do the sloppy work that they do.
Once I spoke to a domestic violence detective about what had happened to me, including that the batterer had threatened to kill me, the batterer had told me how he wanted to kill me and described it in graphic detail, the detective actually said to me that what I was describing to him was common and that I should not be concerned about the description because most people have fantasies like that.
Oh my god.
“Men have fantasies like this and fantasy never hurt anybody.”
Oh my god.
And so I remember after I got off the phone with the detective, I was shaking because I understood that what he had told me was that he had those fantasies. He had those fantasies. He gave me a peek into his sadistic imagination, an imagination that “never hurt anybody.” I learned the hard way what it’s like to come up against a police officer who’s just verbally cornering you with violent misogynist rhetoric.
Yeah, absolutely. And they’re not the ones who are going to go after the violent misogynists. They identify with each other.
Exactly, exactly. But on a more positive note, when you were talking about tattoos, and using your body as a canvas and tattooing yourself as a form of reclamation, it reminded me that when I did leave this batterer, one of the things that I did to commemorate my liberation was to get a tattoo. I got this tattoo of a spider. The reason that I got it was because the batterer, in spite of all the violence that he perpetrated against me, and he was very violent toward me, was frightened of spiders. He had arachnophobia.
So he would hit me, he would beat me, but if there was a spider the fucker would jump on a chair and begin screaming and he would urge me to go kill the spider. So I’m like his victim creeping around the house with a shoe killing spiders on this asshole’s behalf. I got this tattoo on me to warn him, “You ever fucking come after me again, you’re going to get it. You’re going to be the one that gets bitten this time, asshole.”
I love it. That’s a great story. It’s a positive story, not your story before.
I thought you would get a kick out of that.
And it’s a black widow too.
One of your tattoos was to basically celebrate your liberation from his violence. My tattoos were to celebrate my liberation and survival from the violence of the Egyptian regime. That’s patriarchy with a big P and patriarchy with a small P, and they are connected.
And the state upholds that small patriarch and it ensures that with its monopoly over violence, that it delegates to the police, that it’s never used against that patriarch at home. Because they’re all in it together, the state, the street and the home.
Exactly. It’s a fraternity.
It’s a fucking fraternity that spans the globe.
Fuck them all.
Yeah. Well, this has been wonderful, Mona.
Thank you so very much.
It’s been great to talk with you, Miriam. This is long overdue, I’m so happy to see you.
Right? But I hope we have a chance to do it again.
I would love to.
And where can people find you online?
So online I’m on Twitter, @monaeltahawy, on Instagram, @monaeltahawy. I just started a newsletter, Feminist Giant Newsletter on Substack, and I’m Mona Eltahawy on Patreon. So those are the four places where I live.
Myriam Gurba is the editor-in-chief of Tasteful Rude. She is also the author of the memoir Mean, a New York Times editors’ choice. O, the Oprah Magazine, ranked Mean as one of the best LGBTQ books of all time and Publishers’ Weekly describes Gurba as having a voice like no other. Her essays and criticism have appeared in the Paris Review, TIME.com, and the Believer. Gurba has been known to call shitty writers pendejas and has no qualms about it. Along with Roberto Lovato and David Bowles, she co-founded Dignidad Literaria, a grassroots literary organization that seeks to revolutionize publishing.