Mona Eltahawy on the Arab Spring, feminism, and hope

'Egypt needs a feminist revolution': Mona Eltahawy ten years after the Arab Spring
7 min read
27 January, 2021
While attending the Arab Spring protests, Eltahawy was beaten and sexually assaulted. Ten years on, she reflects on violence against women and why Egypt needs a feminist revolution.
'They used women's bodies as proxy battlefields between the regime and their families'. [Getty]
The Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy paid a steep price for the freedom of her beloved Egypt: her involvement in the Arab Spring cost her two broken arms and the ownership of her body.

Even though she was living abroad, Eltahawy put everything on hold to be in Cairo, but she could not imagine what would be waiting for her on the ground.

Violence was rife: over 6,000 suffered injuries, while 846 people died throughout the pro-democracy protests against dictator Hosni Mubarak. The eye patch would even become a symbol of resistance, as the regime's snipers were allegedly targeting protesters' eyes.

While attending a protest on Mohammed Mahmoud Street, Eltahawy was beaten by security forces, who broke her arms. She was then handed over to the interior ministry for over 12 hours, where she was rough handled and sexually assaulted.

"A feminist group told me at least 12 women were also sexually assaulted in an identical manner as I was. None of these women have wanted to speak either because their families silence them, or they were too ashamed to speak," Eltahawy told The New Arab.

The trifecta of misogyny is the misogyny that connects the state, the street and the home. So unless we take the rage that the revolution directed at the state and direct it at the street and at the home, our revolution is nothing

As a picture of a shirtless woman being dragged by security forces through the streets of Cairo circulated the internet, reports surfaced of women being assaulted amidst the rowdy crowds. It became clear that women were fighting a war on multiple fronts.

A month after Mubarak's downfall, the military forcibly cleared Tahrir square, arresting resilient activists. Human rights groups reported they had been tortured, and for female activists, more abuse would follow.

"At the military prison, they subjected the unmarried women to 'virginity tests'. It's so horrendous on so many levels," Eltahawy says.

The women said they were beaten, given electric shocks, strip-searched while being photographed, and then threatened with prostitution charges if they were not found to be virgins, Amnesty International reported.

Eltahawy expected an explosion of rage to be triggered by these findings, but even the protest movement remained silent.

"The fact that this happened to female revolutionaries, less than a month after the revolution, for me was the red line. What revolution worth its salt sees its revolutionaries assaulted like this, and doesn't do anything about it? I'm still enraged when I tell you about this," she says.

'Virginity tests' in Egypt are commonplace, not just by the authorities but also by families across the country which, she says, normalised the gravity of the assault by the military.

Sexual assault in Egypt has been pervasive in its modern history. In 2008, the United Nations quoted the Interior Ministry, which cited 20,000 rapes took place annually, but Eltahawy and activist Engy Ghozlan, said figures are at least 10 times higher. A more recent 2017 poll by UN Women and Promundo, found that about two-thirds of Egyptian men surveyed admitted to having sexually harassed women or girls on the streets.

Like many of the women who later became involved in the Arab Spring protests, Eltahawy's life was marked by knowing that her cause would never be placed at the top of priorities for the revolution.

"I began to say, look, without feminism at the core, this revolution will fail. And then some of my male comrades would say, 'we'll get to you [but first] we have to release the political prisoners, we have to get rid of military rule, we have to fix the environment. We have to fix everything and then we'll come for the women,'" she says.

"As if women are some kind of special interest group and we're gonna sit here and patiently wait, despite the fact we were raped for the revolution, and we were killed for the revolution, but then we had to go home, cook, clean and be good girls, and wait for the men of the revolution to come and liberate us."

This mounting disregard for women's issues from all corners of Egypt's male-dominated society contributed to Eltahawy's theory of the "trifecta of misogyny," which she believes applies to women across the world.

"The trifecta of misogyny is the misogyny that connects the state, the street and the home. So unless we take the rage that the revolution directed at the state and direct it at the street and at the home, our revolution is nothing," she says.

"Unless we dismantle the trifecta of misogyny, our revolution will remain what it is, which is a cisgender d*ck swinging contest, in which one group of men fights another group of men. And if that's the revolution, that is not my revolution. My revolution liberates us all."

At the young age of 15, Eltahawy had an early encounter with sexual assault while on the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, which opened her eyes to the specific struggles of having been born in a female body.

She later became a journalist, covering the human rights abuses by the Mubarak regime since the early 90s, and she became aware that the regime used sexual assault to keep its stronghold over women.

This was exemplified during a string of anti-Mubarak protests in 2005, which would eventually sow the seeds for the Arab Spring. Female journalists and activists were systematically assaulted by security forced trying to quell the uprising.

"They used women's bodies as proxy battlefields between the regime and their families. They were sending a signal to women's fathers, their patriarchs, that 'if you don't keep your women at home, we're going to rape and sexually assault them,'" Eltahawy recalled.

Women revolted: they took to the streets and held up the clothes that were ripped off their bodies to publically denounce their abuse, and they posted videos and pictures of the assaults that they were subjected to online. Several of them even went on satellite television in Egypt to decry this abuse, and the movement 'The Street Is Ours' was born.

In Egypt today, women are being subjected to an even more brutal 'trifecta of misogyny' after the 2011 protests led to an even more brutal police state, under the rule of military general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

With more than 60,000 political prisoners held in al-Sisi's prisons, popular uprisings have become even more dangerous to attend, and for women, even online spaces are being increasingly policed.

An Egyptian court sentenced five female social media influencers, including Haneen Hossam and Mowada al-Adham, to two years in jail for "violating public morals" over content posted to video-sharing app TikTok.

Just two days later, another young social media influencer, Manar Samy, was sentenced to three years in prison after her videos in which she lip-syncs and dances were deemed to be "inciting debauchery".

In May, a 17-year-old survivor of gang rape, Menna Abdel-Aziz, was jailed along with her rapists, charged with "promoting debauchery."

Even though a group of women has spoken out against this crackdown, in what many have dubbed the resurgence of an Egyptian #MeToo movement, it is clear that along with the worsening of human rights violations, women too have to deal with what al-Sisi's iron fist means for them specifically. But Eltahawy believes women need to defend their space on social media as once she and her fellow protesters did to unite against Mubarak during the Arab Spring.

"My advice to Egyptian women is to recognise that you are now the vanguard of the feminist revolution that we have been waiting for. Instead of marching on the streets of Cairo, or Aswan, or Alexandria, march on the virtual streets of social media. They are just as real, they are just as powerful, and own the revolution, because Egypt needs a feminist revolution," she says.

"All revolutions, including Egypt's, will fail unless this feminist revolution is understood to be the heart of it. So my advice is to fight, fight, and fight. You will be hurt, yes. You might go to prison, yes. You might be killed, maybe. But there is no revolution that happens without a price because no one is going to come and liberate you. You have to liberate yourself."

You can listen to the full interview with Mona Eltahawy at The New Arab Voice podcast special episode on the Arab Spring.

Gaia Caramazza is a staff journalist at The New Arab. Follow her on Twitter @GaiaCaramazza