The Demented Goddess [DG]: Mona, today we’re going to talk about rage – justified female rage – but it wouldn’t be a Demented Goddess interview if I didn’t first ask you about your very own goddess, tattooed somewhere on your body?
Let me see if I can take up the sleeve so you can see. This is the ancient Egyptian goddess Sekhmet, the goddess of retribution and sex. And to both I say, “yes, please!”
Sekhmet was my first tattoo. I got her in 2012 as a gift to myself for surviving the targeted violence by Egyptian riot police in November of 2011. They broke both my arms and sexually assaulted me. Their supervising officer threatened to have me gang-raped. I’m very lucky and privileged to have survived. Had I been an unknown, working class Egyptian woman, I’d probably be dead if not at least gang-raped. I wanted to reclaim ownership of my body.
But even more importantly, I wanted to become the walking embodiment of: fuck you, you didn’t kill me. Both of my arms were in casts. And I’m a writer. So to not be able to write, you know… I turned my body instead into the medium through which I communicate rather than just my words. My heart would take longer.
DG: It’s interesting that you did something creatively to articulate your position. A lot of us find it challenging to express rage meaningfully. How can we mobilise our rage in a way that is creative? How do we create a product that is unignorable?
In your book, The Seven Deadly Sins and your newsletter, Feminist Giant, you talk about inculcating a curriculum of rage for girls.
Justifying rage feels paradoxical. We associate justice with reason. We tend, on the other hand, to associate rage with instinct. We fear the mob. And as a child whose family fled post-colonial murders between Hindus and Muslims, I get why we fear the mob. But why do many women find it difficult to imagine ourselves as one embodied, raging mass?
The points you raise are incredibly important. You know, in my public talks, before Covid, when I’d be speaking at a podium, I would begin with, “My name is Mona Eltahawy and my pronouns are she, her, hers. This is my declaration of faith. Fuck the patriarchy”. And, you know, usually people laugh, because who gets on a podium and starts everything with “fuck the patriarchy”!
But I do it for a reason. I want to discombobulate this enforced politeness, civility, decorum. We’ll give women the permission to imagine being part of a mob.
Mobs are very male, identified as cis-gender, heterosexual, orthodox, very conservative – often wealthy, powerful men. They hurt us yet insist that only they can give us justice, after they hurt us.
The legal system is designed to protect men from the superior power of the state, but not to protect women and children from the superior power of men. Now, depending on where you are, like in the United States, for example, where I live most of the time, black men would not be so protected from the state as white men. We have to introduce intersectionality into all of this.
As Audre Lord says, when we direct anger and think of it as a fuel and use it in a very precise way against the patriarchy, it opens up that door to begin to answer the questions that you just asked me.
Why can’t women be a mob? Because if we were part of that mob, we would take the power and the terror that patriarchy uses against us and we would reverse it against patriarchy. So we always imagined ourselves as alone.
We imagined ourselves as the victims of that mob, which is what happened to me. I was surrounded by three or four riot police in Egypt in November of 2011, beating me with nightsticks. Why does it take four men to beat me with nightsticks? It’s just me. Why, after I was held by police for six hours, was I then taken to military intelligence – one of the most feared entities in Egypt – who blindfolded and interrogated me?
I asked the military intelligence officer, why is this necessary? My arms are broken. What am I going to do to you? What is this one woman going to do? So, this is an indication that even when patriarchy has sexually assaulted us, has effectively rendered us incapable of physically fighting back, it still feels our rage. I want people to imagine what I’m talking about and feel what I felt, viscerally. And I want to turn that visceral feeling into tools that women and girls, cis and trans and non binary, can turn against patriarchy, because of that image of me alone in military intelligence headquarters, blindfolded while both of my arms are broken. It doesn’t matter how many of us there are, patriarchy will still insist on breaking and controlling us.
So, they’re threatened.
At the same time, I believe that there is a deliberate attempt to terrorise us into feeling horror. As if sexual assault is the worst thing that could happen to us. Do you know what I mean? I’m extremely angry that this happened to you. It is profoundly wrong. But a lot of the time we don’t speak out is because we fear the repercussions. Here in the UK, where I’m speaking from, more than fifty eight thousand allegations of rape were made to the police in 2018-2019 – the estimate that includes unreported cases is higher – but fewer than two thousand cases actually made it to court and less to conviction. It’s difficult just to raise a prosecution.
Then there’s the whole stigma and shame that you can feel during the police process. That’s if you would ever consider going to the police. When it comes to the reality of facing an attack on your own, you want retribution. However, unsupported by the state and prevailing norms of society, any intelligent woman – brown, black, cis, trans, queer – is also going to think, how can I stay safe after the attack? Sometimes we instinctively lash out. I’ve done that. You too – you’ve shared how great it felt for you to punch out a guy who groped you in a Toronto nightclub (#Ibeatmyassaulter). But why do we feel like we have to stop, before we take the law into our own hands?
I think we understand on a visceral level that the system is rigged. For so many women and queer people, the police are often the rapists and the abusers. I say it’s like asking patriarchy with a with a big P to save us from patriarchy with a small P. They are all in this together.
In both of my books, I talk about what I call the trifecta of misogyny. The state is often the only entity that we see oppressing everyone, men and women. But we also have to hold accountable the street and the home. That’s the trifecta of misogyny: the state, the street and the home. Men become involved in the oppression when we bring this to the streets and the home. Especially heterosexual men.
In the United States, the largest segment of incarcerated women are disproportionately black and Latino. Men who kill partners get something on average of about two years, whereas women who kill their partners in self-defence get around fifteen years. The source of that is patriarchy. That is why Black feminist abolitionists talk about dismantling patriarchy. In order to do so, we must dismantle the prison industrial complex. So that would be prisons. The police. The military. The border police who detain people in concentration camps along the border, et cetera. And that would be global, obviously, because the police are not our friends.
This is a very long fight, but that’s what revolutions are. Revolutions don’t happen overnight. I know from my own experience, when a feminist group in Egypt asked me if I would raise a lawsuit against the Egyptian state for what it did to me. The attorney general, the prosecutor general in Egypt, just put my complaint in the drawer and refused to look at it. That hurt me. But I’m asking the system to give me justice from the people they sent to help me. It’s nonsensical. It’s ridiculous. And it’s a reminder of how we are always fucked. So we have to find ways to defy, disobey and disrupt. That’s where I bring in anger and rage and violence.
DG: So you’ve given us a picture of big patriarchy and you’ve also that violence against women is committed in our streets and homes by ordinary men. Within that, there’s racial, tribal, social and economic factors. Some rapes of women in India have been made into a media spectacle. There’s been a trend in the last few years of men who feel frustrated, socio economically, raping to death women who seem to be doing well for themselves. With no police, no prisons, et cetera, a lot of people will be concerned that in the future you outline then there will be mob anarchy. And it’s not necessarily going to be a mob of intellectuals versed in feminism, a liberal mob where we get together and make harissa.
It’s going to be all kinds of people who have experienced oppression and violence. For some people, this has been done to them, so they give it out on it on a daily basis, to women, children, queers, anybody whom they perceive as being vulnerable and not being able to fight back. In what situations does a person think it’s acceptable to dominate another person by hurting them?
Men who feel that they didn’t get what they want or what they deserve from the state, who feel hurt by the state -t hey don’t stop to think and digest that they are being hurt by patriarchy. That’s not how they think about it. They think that I didn’t get what I’m owed.
So they then go and enact that violence on someone they perceive is weaker than them. And that’s exactly what a mob is, even if it doesn’t involve 20 people. And, you know, in addition to the kind of rapes that you talked about in India, we’ve been hearing about increasing numbers of rape in Uttar Pradesh where upper caste men are raping with impunity, lower caste women. The police refused to do anything about it.
I’ve been posting some articles about how feminists and activists in India have complained about how the police do nothing unless there’s international media attention. And by just by tweeting that, me, Mona, who lives thousands of miles away, I got a tweet from the police in that very town where these rapes have been happening, telling me basically, ma’am, we have been responding and, you know, pleading their case. I’m like, are you fucking kidding me? I don’t live in India. I’m not Indian. All I’m doing is I’m amplifying the voices of feminists in India who say the police are not our friends. But the police take the side of the powerful: wealthy, upper caste men. In the United States, it’s white supremacy. In India, it’s Hindu supremacy. In Egypt, it would be Islamic supremacy. These men who are hurting us as a mob are being allowed to act with impunity.
And so when we talk about this revolutionary future – it’s already happening! People want to portray it as mob anarchy. My response to that would be we’re already living under a mob anarchy. But because this situation is patriarchal, it’s given to us as, “No, this is organised. This is this is how it is. This is how the world is.
If I call that mob anarchy, I am called insane and I am an anarchist, violent feminist. So this is how I would like go head to head with this idea that it would be chaos
And when I talk about patriarchy, I’m not talking about men because there are men who are hurt by patriarchy, except they don’t see that. And those are the men that you mention who then take that rage out on women.
Yes, it’s chaos in the name of civilisation.
And in this name of being civilised women are often taught that, if we want to be a leader, then be dignified, be a leader who is gracious.
This seems to me to particularly be directed at those who are different. The more ‘different’ you are to the accepted model of a white hetero cis leader, the more almost-white you have to be. Of course, ingrained in that is the notion that somehow, grace and intelligence isn’t endemic to non-white cultures, but has to be learnt. So in many ways, there’s a great big fat lie of ‘civilisation’ that is masking everything that’s happening. But still we’re very hesitant about puncturing that.
Let’s talk then about the idea of consent.
Is consent important? I’m privileged, I can give my consent. So I can’t really imagine a sexual act where the people involved are not consenting. But how is consent constructed in different parts of our society?
Well, I love taking this discussion about consent and expanding it beyond just sex.
I’m thinking especially of a feminist, a Ugandan feminist called Dr. Stella Nyanzi, who I write about in the chapter on profanity in The Seven Necessary Sins For Women and Girls. The Ugandan dictator, who’s been in power for more than three decades now, has sent her to prison several times because she uses profane and vulgar language when talking about him. And she says, you know, I do this because he has all the weapons and he has all the money. I only have my words and swearing. She comes from a history of resistance that has been described as a form of radical rudeness.
I like to talk about radical rudeness and the state when it comes to consent. When we take it on that macro level, we can then move into the micro level of human interaction and consent. This idea of radical rudeness and refusing to be polite and refusing to follow the rules of decorum in Uganda was very useful when Uganda was colonised by white British Christian conservatives. These white Christian conservative Englishmen, essentially, went to Uganda and started to lecture the locals, the “natives”, about being polite as they were fighting them with colonization. As if there’s anything polite about the violence of occupation and robbing and stealing people’s resources and wealth!
Anti-colonisers are effectively saying, fuck you, we’re not going to be polite. I like to think of consent as those people who are asked to succumb to a form of power that they know if they are polite is basically going to continue to uphold that authority, patriarchy, racism. All those things are forms of power. This, I think, is what we’re talking about when we’re talking about consent. The activists who were fighting British colonisation said, fuck you, we will not be polite. They refused to consent and Nyanzi’s doing it today, when she says, fuck you to the dictatorship in Uganda.
Now I want us to consider patriarchy as a form of occupation. Patriarchy for me is the oldest form of occupation. People have the right to resist occupation. People have the right to resist colonisation. I do not consent against colonisation. And I’m saying, fuck you. I do not consent against patriarchy.
So how does this translate on an interpersonal level? We have to look at it as power. Who has the power? Who has the power to say, I want sex. I give sex. I take sex. Look at the language that we use to talk about sex. I’m of Muslim descent. I was raised with the belief that I must wait until I get married because I’m going to “give” sex to my husband who will “take” sex from me. This was back when I obeyed, when I was a good girl. When I identified solely as straight. Now I’m queer and I don’t give a flying fuck about any of these things. But more recently I’ve also been asking why did I not think that when I began to masturbate at the age of eleven and I was giving myself fucking incredible orgasms – why is it that not sex? Why was I not socialised into believing that is not sex? I was consenting and pleasuring myself, giving myself pleasure. But patriarchy does not want us to know that we own power. Patriarchy wants to control that power and then kind of divvy it out to those who it wants to have it. So this is how I want to complicate the discussion about sex.
When we truly have autonomy over our bodies, then we can begin to dislodge this discussion about consent and having it in strictly heterosexual cis-gender terms that do not leave room for these complications. I don’t know how I answered your question, but I wanted to complicate it.
DG: Yes, let’s complicate things. Masturbation doesn’t count as sex, because it doesn’t serve the heterosexual dyad – the holy couple, family bags of crisps, family seats at the cinema: the commercial benefits of patriarchy. Sex is supposed to be part of this contract, deeply embedded in capitalism.
As a woman, I’m supposed to withhold sex and then give it to a man. Virginity is about being penetrated by somebody’s penis. But I wonder about this horror around rape and this question of consent. This is not in any way to deny that rape is used to destroy, terrify and suppress its victims… but what would happen if we ‘t make rape to be the worst thing that could happen to women?
Because the reality is that when you’re in a battle, you will use whatever you’ve got at your fingertips or at the end of your cock or stick or whatever, to decimate your enemy. And they’re going to do the same to you. So if we go out and fight, it is very likely that we will be groped, we will sexually assaulted. We are going to be terrorised with this spectre of rape. So this is why I ask, is consent important? How important should it be?
Right. So I love everything you just said about how imagine a world in which rape isn’t the worst thing that could happen to a woman. I want that world so much. Because of the terror of this rape is the worst thing that could happen to you, we are constricted in everything. So if anything, I would make the discussion about sex, pleasure and ownership of our bodies rather than consent, because I think my discomfort with making it about consent rather than all those other things would be that you would get some piece of shit misogynist who would come in and say, oh, yeah, consent can just go out the window. Now I’m just going to do whatever I want and fuck you. I don’t care if you want it or not.
I much prefer entering that discussion or that complication by saying, you know what? what if rape isn’t the worst thing in the world? Absolutely, women and girls are taught to fear rape so much that it is used as a form of terrorism to keep us quiet, to keep us good, to keep us at home, to keep us compliant, et cetera. And every now and then, patriarchy will also use it against this men as a form of humiliation. So it’s a weapon. What if we disarm patriarchy and make it a crime? Yes, a crime – but a crime like any other. Like, no one is stigmatised for being robbed. No one is stigmatised when someone breaks into their home. No one is stigmatised if their car is stolen. And yet, because these things happen to our genitalia – it’s all got to do with genitalia and the shame and dirtiness that we must erase in our discussions of sex for everyone.
This is why I talk so openly about what Egyptian police did to me. What if we took the conversation about sexual violence and we suggest, you know what? It’s not so great. But let’s not stop at the conversation about sexual violence. Let’s extend it into pleasure and ownership of over our bodies. Yes, I was sexually assaulted by Egyptian police and by many other men throughout my life. But, yes, I’ve also really enjoyed my body with people of various genders. I’m polyamorous. I’m queer. And I insist on being childfree by choice. And being sexually assaulted has not stopped that from happening. It didn’t end my life.
And can we have this conversation about rape without it being the worst thing in the world, because it’s really important to define that form of terrorism? Terrorism is an act of political violence that intends to change our behaviour. And that’s what rape does. Don’t go out after 10 o’clock. Make sure you don’t wear X, Y and Z. You were looking at him too much. Were you drunk? What? Did you go back home with him? You know, all of those questions. So, I’m totally with you in defanging, for lack of a better term, rape as the worst thing that could happen to anyone. I would make it a conversation about power and pleasure and who has the right to power and pleasure.
DG: I feel torn, I must say, over the expectation for women’s sexuality to ruled by notions of dignity. Sometimes you have to find a shelter of strength within yourself because you’ve got nothing. Dignity and grace are your last stand. They say to your abuser: you might be hurting me in physical ways. You might be hurting me socially or economically, but you are not hurting me on the inside. Yet we know that the system is unequal.
So my last question is, in a system that is rigged against us, are peaceful means more likely to succeed, because violence won’t win?
We can’t win in any circumstances. So, you know, we have to get to a stage where we say, fuck this shit, you know, nothing is working. In the United States, what you’re talking about is called respectability politics, where black people, indigenous people, people of colour are expected to be respectable to be considered worthy of the equality that white supremacy denies them. You’re constantly going through hoops. It doesn’t matter how respectable you are. It doesn’t matter how well you speak. It doesn’t matter how posh your English is. It doesn’t matter what university you went to because you will still become a hashtag, like those hashtags that you’d protest for, against police brutality against black people, women. And trans women are remembered even less than trans men – there’s even a hierarchy in who gets remembered. So we have to ask, this decorum, stability and respectability, who does it serve?
If it serves us in the way that you were saying, in that it gives us this inner strength in that, “you will not rob me of my humanity”? Yes, definitely. It belongs to us and we own it. But otherwise, being polite to the racists just upholds the authority of the racist. Fuck that shit. People often bring up Dr. Martin Luther King Junior and compare him to Malcolm X. White people are utterly ignorant about what MLK represented. It’s aconvenient to ignore that he was assassinated. So here is the man that they use to tell us, stop this violence. They do this every day:
“He called for love. He called for peace. He was against violence.”
And then you tell them, you still assassinated him! Malcolm X was assassinated, Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated. So nothing fucking works. They will assassinate you. Gandhi himself said non-violence can only take you so far. What if you continue to be non-violent against a state or a power that has no conscience? It’s a form of stupidity.
A professor of law called Mary Anne Franks is calling for women to engage in more justifiable violence against men’s unjustifiable violence that gets justified by patriarchy.
Often one of the examples she gives is that she says when a man is walking down the street, he thinks ten times before he just picks a fight with another man because he’s like, you know what? You might be able to take me on. Whereas men don’t think that, when it comes to women. So, again, we have to ask, when we’re constantly told to be polite, who does it serve? Non-violence is a form of privilege that many of us cannot afford because the system is rigged.
Mona Eltahawy is a feminist commentator and author of Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution & The Seven Necessary Sins For Women and Girls & her newsletter FEMINIST GIANT.
She was in conversation with Soma Ghosh, editor of The Demented Goddess.
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