Ake Stories

Countdown to Ake Festival 2016: Meeting the Unapologetic Feminist, Mona Eltahawy

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By Socrates Mbamalu

Mona Eltahawy’s appearances as part of a panel discussing ‘Writing Our Way Out: Social Inequality in Africa’, and a Book Chat with Pius Adesanmi moderated by Kadaria Ahmed were surely some of the most talked about at the 2015 Ake Arts and Books Festival.

The opening panel of a literary festival is probably not where you expect to hear, ‘if I don’t want you in my vagina stay out of it!’ The ripples of her bold calling out of religion and misogyny reverberated across the festival and social media for the next few days.

Prior to her festival sessions, I had run into Mona Eltahawy on several occasions at the Ake bookshop, or just outside, discussing with other writers. She was conspicuous. Her red hair. Her tattoos. Her glasses. Her laugh. And her friendliness. But it was seeing another side of Eltahawy as a panellist that drew me to this beautiful soul. Her palpable anger against the oppression women face and her unequivocal stance for feminism won nearly everyone in the hall to her, especially when she quipped that the only angry Muslims shown in the media are the angry bearded men.I felt she would leave the town of Abeokuta with a brewing revolution in place.

Eltahawy, who introduced herself to me as Mona with a smile, became one of my closest companions during the festival period.  I have happy memories of my last moments with her as she danced herself out to Nigerian hip hop music during the after party.  Her book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution(2015) has been described as a ‘roar-to-arms’ against misogyny in the Middle East, powerfully setting her own experiences alongside those of other women. In both of her Ake festival conversations, she powerfully reinforced that the vagina and hymen are used as political tools of suppression by men, not just in Arab nations, but also in America, where girls in the South are encouraged by their fathers to wear purity rings.

Eltahawy analytically broke down how the world system revolves around men and also questioned how the Bible and other religious books would have been different if written by women.  She also drew attention to the ‘brotherhoods’ that exist in positions of power across the world,

In Egypt and the Arab world we have the Muslim brotherhood, in America the Christian brotherhood and in Israel the Zion brotherhood,” Eltahawy said

Meeting Mona Eltahawy at Ake 2015When it came to the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) this was one of the points where I could tangibly feel the lividness of Eltahawy and the intensity of her passion on the issues that women face. When a member of the audience preferred to call FGM ‘circumcision’, Eltahawy swiftly rejected this: “circumcision is symbolic for the men, it shows a transition, which isn’t the case in FGM.”

I could not help wonder how Eltahawy has coped with the opposition she faces in the different countries she lives in: in America as a Muslim and in Egypt as a feminist.  While these are in reality mutually self-constitutive, in the different countries she finds herself they are responded to differently and so inevitably a shifting of roles takes place.  On many levels hearing her speak reminded me of the power of literature to evoke empathy, understanding and action – not least because it was my reading and being touched by the book, My Feudal Lord by Tehmina Durrani that enabled me to connect so immediately with Mona’s call for a sexual revolution.

Mona Eltahawy is an unapologetic feminist –  the kind of person that would tell you, ‘go fuck yourself,’ without batting an eyelid. It will be hard for anyone who encountered her at the Ake Arts and Book Festival to forget this woman who was part of the Egyptian revolution. Listening to Mona, and holding conversations with her were undoubtedly some of the highlights of my festival and of 2015 as a whole.


Socrates Mbamalu


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