This is not meant to be an academic thesis or an insightful analysis, nor is this meant to serve as a public display of rage. This article does not serve to debase Mona Eltahawy as an individual nor should it be read as an attack against the fundamental human rights she claims to defend. Rather, this article will hopefully encourage you to think, consider, question, and critique the ideas you are introduced to and the strategies by which these ideas propagate. The air needs to be cleared up.
I will admit, I was skeptical of the glorious Tunisian revolution at first. In complete ignorance, I viewed the uprising as another ill-fated attempt to remove a dictator destined to preside over Tunisia for however long he pleases. Then came the news that Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his regime had fallen. In utter disbelief, I watched as the Egyptian people seized the moment, capitalized on the momentum, and brought Hosni Mubarak and his brutal regime down as well. But the only question I could ask during this peaceful revolution was, “Who is this Mona Eltahawy and why is she flooding my Twitter newsfeed?”
As it turns out, Eltahawy is the self-proclaimed voice of the Egyptian people. She’s also the voice for women, laborers, children, Africans, Palestinians, the poor, the needy, the hungry, the sad, and virtually everyone else who happens to experience some sort of negative social pressure. In all honesty, defending the dignity and rights of anyone and everyone really is an admirable and righteous endeavor – but only if done for the right reasons. And while Eltahawy carries a big heart and focuses on relevant social issues that need to be addressed and corrected, I can’t find it within me to look favorably upon the work that she does and the way she goes about doing it.
Eltahawy is literally one of Twitter’s most unfortunate success stories. One day I signed in to catch up on the situation in Tahrir Square. The next day, her name appeared up to two times in almost every tweet! Her constant use of the retweet button quite possibly forced Twitter to upgrade its servers and the topics she discussed definitely sparked discussion. I was impressed – inspired, even – that a representative of Islam, a representative of women, a representative of democratization in the Middle East had finally broken through the ranks. But as I followed her message, I slowly became less confident in her ability to promote the change she preached and to subsequently shed a positive light on Islam and all of humanity.
Nevertheless, I continued to keep tabs on what she had to say. Amidst all the commotion surrounding her controversial view that Muslim women should be totally banned from wearing the niqab, I did my best to avoid passing judgment. It wasn’t until today that I realized how much damage she does. Her politics are opportunist at best and, unfortunately, her lack of professionalism only gives neoconservatives another opportunity to bash Muslims, women, and whoever else she fights for.
It turns out, however, that this time, she’d been the one labeled a neoconservative. After a Newsnight debate with Tariq Ramadan about the niqab ban, she tweeted that Ramadan had accused her of being a neocon. In and of itself, this would’ve made for an interesting tweet. But the remainder of her tweet sparked deep revulsion. “Ramadan accused me of being a neocon! Proving my point of what happens to those of us who speak out vs Muslim right wing.”
Undeservedly acting as a self-proclaimed representative of Islam, she definitely appears to instigate the tension between liberal and conservative Muslims. She is quick to label those who disagree with her as radical, conservative, Muslim right-wingers. Her dialogue, past and present, is rife with this sort of distinction. Either you agree with her politics and get retweeted or you don’t and expect her to publicly call you an oppressive, savage beast.
So I took the liberty of perusing the rest of her commentary about her debate with Ramadan. Mind you, I’m not all that familiar with Ramadan but I am aware of the fact that he’s a well-respected moderate academic. This is where the difference lies. Mona appeals to emotion; Tariq appeals to intellect. Expectedly, Eltahawy was angry:
“Amazing Newsnight just now. Tariq Ramadan – for the sake of defending women’s rights – wouldn’t stop interrupting me during niqab ban debate”
“Will post Newsnight link when I hve. Never been Tariq Ramadan fan but tonight as he tried best 2 interrupt me, stunned by inabity to listen”
“Great summary of Tariq Ramadan tonight RT @aliates: feminist patriarch: “shut up & let me defend ur rights, silly woman!” – all too common.”
And this is the true essence of her political strategy. Eltahawy unknowingly sacrifices her professionalism and credibility and paves the way for intellectual deconstructionism. Her emotional attacks against those who happen to hold a different view scare me.
I already held my own opinion of the discussion surrounding the niqab and its role in the realm of both women’s rights and Islam. I believe in total equality and freedom, as I’m sure Eltahawy does, and this includes the freedom to practice one’s religion and the freedom to wear whatever one wants. This means that if a woman wants to wear a niqab, she should be allowed to. If a woman does not want to wear a niqab, she shouldn’t have to. Believe it or not, if a woman is spotted wearing a niqab, it doesn’t necessarily mean that her husband oppressively forced her to wear it. It could be a personal choice, and oftentimes it is.
As it turns out, Ramadan and I hold similar views. (Does this mean I’m a radical extremist bred by the so-called Muslim right wing?) I also learned that in July 2010, Eltahawy and Ramadan debated the very same issue on the very same show. It’s as if today’s debate served as a rematch.
In both interviews, Ramadan made it clear that banning the niqab fundamentally contradicts Eltahawy’s ambitions to promote freedom and equal rights. Outlawing the niqab in Europe moves the continent as a whole one step further down the road of Islamophobia. And again, there exist women who make the personal and conscious decision to wear the niqab. If the niqab and similar religious-wear were to be banned outright, where do their rights go? What happens to the freedom of expression? What happens to sovereignty in the form of absolute women’s rights since, yet again, they would be restricted by another set of laws and norms – the same ones that Eltahawy seeks to abolish?
What’s more interesting is that she complains about how Ramadan continued to interrupt her throughout the duration of the debate. This, apparently, leads her to conclude that Ramadan is unfit to stand for women’s rights. But I invite you to watch the 2010 interview posted at the bottom of this article. In particular, watch the final minute. Her numerous interruptions are expected; it’s a tense debate after all. But by her same logic, has she made herself also unfit to stand for women’s rights?
“Everyone has a right to an opinion” is an old adage we hear almost every time we engage in dialogue, discussion, and debate. Keeping this in mind, I see nothing wrong with Eltahawy promoting her opinions. Whether or not I agree with them is a tale for another day, but the true problem arises in her strategy.
Remember, she boldly claims to represent entire groups of people. Her strategy is noticeably opportunistic. She used her “Egyptianness” to elevate her agenda during the revolution and to push her ideas through mainstream media searching for that supremely rare “liberated Muslim woman”. Naturally, she insists that she’s right and that everyone else is more than just wrong – they’re radicals. Her work instigates the divisions within our communities, both Muslim and non-Muslim, in a blind attempt to rectify the wrongs of society. She says she stands for the Egyptian people who, by the way, support an end to the siege on Gaza, but soon after gives the opening speech for the J Street conference which doesn’t necessarily advocate for an end to the military occupation of the Palestinian territories. Her overall arguments are laced with apologeticism. She uses the most informal social media outlets like Twitter to debase and discredit other academics who don’t align with her ideologies. And she retweets anything that promotes her name. All of this and more indicates a lack of professionalism that I just can’t ignore.
Her basic intentions may be noble but her actions certainly aren’t. If she ever does read this, I can imagine her calling me an anti-Semite, a woman-beater, a lousy activist, a traitor, etc. Out of respect, I refuse to criticize her personality. As for her methods and strategies, I am not critiquing out of spite. See, I happen to fall under more than forty categories of people she claims to stand for. Therefore, this critique should be read as a message from ‘her people’. That said, let it be known that I’m humbled to see someone with such passion lead the charge for justice, equality, and complete human rights. I just wish it wasn’t someone so fundamentally wrong.