Why Mona Eltahawy is fundamentally wrong

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.

Sami Kishawi

There are 29 comments

  1. Kristin Srzemski

    Interesting column taking on the fiery Mona, but I’m afraid you fell into two of the very things you’re accusing her of.

    I’m dismayed at some of the language you used to describe Islam or Muslims because you’re forwarding the mainstream media narrative – the vocabulary they use to distinguish ‘good’ Muslims from ‘bad’ Muslims.

    First, you said you initially were heartened to see Eltawy as a “representative of Islam, a representative of women.” How could you elevate her to such a lofty position as a representative of Islam when she is ignoring one of the most basic commands given to women by Allah swt, the wearing of hijab? There are so many educated, intelligent, and articulate Muslim women who CHOOSE to wear hijab and because of this they are often overlooked or dismissed – even by fellow Muslims.

    Second, you describe Prof. Tariq Ramadan as a ‘moderate’ Muslim. This is such a slippery slope, it’s the bitter Kool-Aid that everyone from Peter King to Pamela Geller to John McCain want us to adopt.

    We should try very hard to stay away from this paradigm, the moderate vs. radical.

    Let’s not be apologists for simply wanting to practice our faith.

    1. Sami Kishawi

      You’re correct; we should never be apologists for choosing to practice our faith — or any faith, really. As for seeing her as a rep. of Islam and women, I meant in the general sense, i.e. she looks out for them. I also wasn’t aware of her politics until only recently but now that I know what she stands for, I can’t see her as a representative of anything justifiable. Thanks for your insightful comment!

  2. Marwouan Tounsi

    Assalamou alykoum

    Exelent analysis my friend, I wanted to write an article like you did but my poor english level didnt allow me to do so.
    I truly hate this women,sh’s lying all the time and fueling hatred towards real Muslims( the one who prays fasts dont drink dont go inclub and snif cocaine,etc..).

    She’s a real poison for Islam and one of the main tool for Islamophobic people all over the world.

    She’s lucky to live in the USA with her kafir husband.

  3. noniqabMuslimwoman

    I discovered Mona under the same circumstances and I find her arguments as ‘self righteous universalist- I am with all that has been right about world history’. In today’s topic for example she says Muslims are not a “monolith” and “we don’t have to agree” but of course as you pointed out above anyone who is not on her side is a villain.

    A much better argued video on niqab: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g318BzaDuUM&NR=1

  4. Alia

    I started following Mona to gain insight into the Egyptian revolution, and Egyptians, and the most insightful tweets were ones she RT’d. But the deluge of tweets devolved into all maters of social policy, the crescendo being a two day discussion of menstruation. Mona, I call her Mona now that we are so intimate, was fiercely either pro or con menstruation, I can’t recall which. I unfollowed her, and my life is calmer and my work more focused. She does seem very sincere and quite righteous and energetic, which are all good qualities, but maybe not every 90 seconds.

  5. thecynicalarab

    I’m glad you decided to pen an article about the subject; Mona aside, the case for the ban is colonialist in nature and inflammatory. I did my best to vent via Twitter.

    Great job Sami

  6. samer

    I really wanna thank u deeply for such article.I haven’t seen her views about Niqab, viel or Muslims. But I had a strong feeling& expectation about her(intentions).I followed her during Egypt’s revolution then I started noticing her “hidden msgs”& connotations of her words.I also was so outrageouse bcoz of her deciptive tweets but I haven’t time to see her all vidz tht she used 2 spam(brag) about, which btw where all on American&Western channels!!, to write somthin about her.I agree 100% on what Kristin have said.
    Although am not very convinced of Niqab(especially for teachers), I consider the new ban-law racist, Prejudice &contradicts (their)international human rights of one’s right to practice his religious rituals & beliefs.
    I hate those Arabists or new-modernized Muslims such Ammro/Omar Khaled & Moustafa Hosni.am not sure about da second.Am just saying we should be carefull, coz this z da new globlization(corrupting one)& I see many of those on twitter& FB.
    I had an idea crossed ma mind several times, which is: Mona Elthawy’s going after Egyptian elections or a prominent political position to work as a hand to America or whatver abroad”agenda” Mona serves.
    thx v.much again

  7. Maximilian Forte

    I am relieved to know that I am not by any means alone in having heard enough of El-Tahawy’s Western universalism and Eurocentrism preachingly dressed up as Arab feminism. I sincerely hope that she is not making an appeal as a representative of women in Islam, because she herself once admitted, in passing, she is a Coptic Christian and not a Muslim.

    You are right, her insistence on Ramadan daring to interrupt her (if it was so wrong, she should not have “returned the favour” as promptly as she did) adds another dimension: the highly personal, anecdotal approach she uses, in place of careful and sober analysis. She has done this with Gaddafi as well, endlessly tweeting and repeating the story of how one of his guards once twisted her nipple, to force her out of an interview she was expecting. She of course joins the chorus and calls for NATO air strikes, because this is what humanitarians like her do.

    The difficulty you face, and I appreciate it, is in disentangling the message from the messenger. I too prefer to focus on the message, but in this case the messenger has a made a mess(age) of herself, and it is therefore legitimate for you to question her personally.

    Many thanks for this post, again, what a relief.

    1. KMansfield

      “She of course joins the chorus and calls for NATO air strikes, because this is what humanitarians like her do.”
      Cruise Missile Liberals are the equivalent of neocons. They are authoritarians, think they know best for everyone, they’re not truly liberal or they would believe in civil liberties which includes respecting the rights of others. What does it matter to me what someone else does with their body or how they live their life as long as they aren’t hurting others?

      1. medleymisty

        The Libyans themselves called for the NFZ, so I suppose they are neocons. I support it, and not because I know what I think is best for the Libyans – I trust them to know what is best for them, and they asked the UN to intervene. I think denying them their voice and telling them they should not have asked for the NFZ is actually saying that you know what they need better than they do?

    2. anna

      I’m not sure that’s accurate. She’s definitely a Muslim, as is her family.

      On the other hand, she’s also totally full of shit.

  8. justicejustis

    I really respect Tariq Ramadan, im glad he got the last comment. He put both those speakers in their place, pseudo-human rights activists.

  9. Sarakenos

    I think El-Tahawy is incapable of engaging in a sophisticated debate. She’s the type that has a few memorized lines and can’t wait for an outlet to pour them out. Perhaps she should stick with Twitter, because anything longer than a tweet would require sophistication that she does not possess.

    That being said, and as a Muslim, I am against the niqab. But that doesn’t mean I want to see a non-religious authority banning it.

    And by the way, for those who are against any law that tells us what to wear in public, would you also be against the current law that denies men and women the right to walk around in the street fully naked?

  10. @Shabana_A

    Thank you for such an interesting article.

    The first time I heard of Mona Eltahawy was about a year ago at a Project Mosaic talk on Islam and Feminism; she was the guest speaker. While I agreed with her on many issues of equality and human rights, etc., I couldn’t understand her take on the niqab. Like Tariq Ramadan, personally I do not believe the niqab is an Islamic prescription but at the same time I do not agree with the notion that the niqab ‘dehumanises’ women either.

    Eltahawy claims that women that wear the niqab have been forced by a Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. This maybe the case, however I’m curious why she holds such a low opinion of women – that they are not intelligent enough to make their own judgements. Women that wear the niqab do not want to be ‘invisible’ (another Eltahawy infamous buzzword). They clearly want to be seen, whether it be in form of political or religious identity/expression. The fact is many women choose to wear the veil, (something unfortunately she vehemently cannot accept) and whether we like it or not, by imposing a ban will only encourage more women to turn to the veil.

    A crucial factor which is lacking from this debate are the thoughts and opinions of women who actually observe the niqab. As muslims, as non-muslims, as normal law abiding citizens it is imperative we work together during difficult times of mass unemployment and economic uncertainties to curb this rise of islamophobia in the west. We are living in sad times if women are to be criminalised for what they choose to wear.

  11. Driss

    Mona never claims to speak for all Muslims, however. She’s entitled to her opinion. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater – if she disagrees with you on the niqab issue, why dismiss all of her other opinions? As a public figure, at least she’s showing that Islam is not monolithic. We should have many diverse voices showing that Islam itself is diverse. Unlike other public figures like Ayman Hirsi Ali, Mona has not abandoned her religion and affirms herself as a Muslim publicly. Do the others commenting here feel so sure that they are the only ones who know the “correct” way to be a Muslim? Don’t judge. Remember the Prophet (PBUH) said, “Should you become eager to mention another’s faults, recall your own.” (Ar-Rafi)

    1. Sami Kishawi

      I think you bring up a very interesting and important point, that even if we agree with an individual, it doesn’t disqualify their opinions. There is no question that I disagree with Mona’s view, but the purpose of this article does not have to deal with this particular disagreement. Her strategy is what I have a problem with. Her opinions aren’t necessarily invalidated although I do hope more people become cognizant of her problematic methods of introducing and defending these opinions.

  12. Raouf

    I don’t see that Mona or Tariq have expressed extremist views or they are “fundamentally wrong” as this article is suggesting. They are looking at it from different point of view all of which are valid in their context.
    If you want to find fault with the arguments, I think that Tarek is wrong in claiming that there is nothing new about wearing the niqab. It IS indeed a new phenomenon, ten years ago very few Muslim women wore the niqab even in Muslim countries. We are dealing with new realities and new sensitivities.
    Why do we have to label anyone with a different opinion?

    Contrary to a number of comments here, if you listen to the clip carefully you find that neither Tarek nor Mona have labeled the other one as an extremist.
    They both have my respect.

    1. Marwouan Tounsi

      A new phenomen?Where do you live my friend? My mother told me that when she was 20 all women use to wear Niqab in TUNISIA!!!!!

      Watch this video and tell me again it s a new phenomen lol:

      http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=166324500089307&oid=110008265745156&comments

      Tunisia is the most secular Arab country!

      The woman at the time of the Prophet (saws) use to wear the Niqab until the French and the English came and bring fasaad and left, leaving behind them a corrupted elite that took the power using military force:
      In Egypt,Tunisia,Marocco,Syria Iraq,etc..

      Please dont lie.

  13. Ed

    I disagreed with Mona once and she called me a coward. The minute she loses the argument she attacks the individual. This women has no idea. She has a poiseness pen and tongue. She is as you said a self proclaimed glorified some kind of dillusional Muslim woman. She is a deep down a radical Muslim and she is unable to articulate or debate anything on any professional level.

  14. frednach

    We cannot equate ‘democracy’ to laws that seek to attack a person’s right to the freedom of expression and religion. As Professor Ramadan said in this interview, change must come from within (a person) by education, social dialogue and debate. For ‘equal concern (fate of all citizens) is the sovereign virtue of a political community.. without this a government is a tyranny’- Professor Ronald Dworkin, Sovereign Rights.

  15. Piero

    I saw Eltahawy at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney last month, and I was shocked by how pointless her talk was. She basically spoke for an hour, often with anger at how the West treats “her people” (isn’t she an American citizen btw?), and did not make one meaningful claim. She then took part in a roundtable discussion at the same event, where she ranted about the fact that the Arab Spring wasn’t a “twitter revolution”, with the other panel members quietly showing that what she was saying was plainly wrong. I followed her on twitter for a few weeks, only to unfollow her when she posted her satisfaction for blocking someone who was criticizing her on twitter. It’s shocking how someone with so little knowledge and ability to contribute to the debate can gain popularity. How pointless whatever she says is, and how irritating her tone.

  16. ridiculous2012

    I say we should all wear naqibs and our society would be so much better for it. Nobody would know who is who and I guess we’d have to sign to each other in order to work but hey, we’d have our “freedom.” In any society where women do not have equality, NO ONE can speak for women. NO ONE can say what women want. NOT EVEN women because we cannot know what is being coerced and what is being said freely. So those of you who think you can speak for women who have been indoctrinated in extreme religions, be it Muslim or ANY other, please, give me a break. Can you be so naive? What Mona is saying is that you cannot and that you are apologists for those who would oppress women. This is age old and we’re sick of it. And this naqib is a symbol of that oppression — as is the plastic surgery in the west, the objectification of women throughout the world, the hatred of women’s bodies who do conform to the “norm” whatever that may be, the corset, the high heel, etc., etc.. The naqib can stay in Muslim dominated countries. We have enough of its like, metaphorically, to stamp out in the West. I don’t see that we need to see further symbols of oppression spread. Hats off to Mona despite how irritating she may be. She’s right. You’re wrong. And perhaps men should start wearing them as well. Along with the corsets, the high heels, and on top of all that, they should have to have the surgeries, the fat sucks, the face lifts, and then let’s see how they feel about all this crap women are supposed to “like” and “want.” Otherwise, they should face ridicule, stoning, and acid in their faces.

  17. subservientword

    FINALLY! Someone who speaks for those of us who are supposedly “her people” but couldnt feel more removed from what she has to say. I personally started off with the ‘go mona banner’ and was RTing most of what she has to say. it was only when she wrote an article that i did not agree with AT ALL and i voiced my opinion to her did she say ask me to unfollow her again proving what you said above that she is either right, or she is right and those of you who try to say otherwise ‘can unfollow her.’ she disgusts me and as an arab, muslim, ‘liberated’ woman, there is nothing about her that remotely represents who i am.

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