I was 23 years old and I was interviewing an Egyptian feminist who had just taken over as editor-in-chief of a women’s magazine of the cooking-and-fashion variety, which she had vowed to turn into the go-to magazine for women’s rights. I was excited to meet her because she was one of the real-life feminists that my recently returned-to-Egypt self loved to meet to help me turn theory into action. Ever since I’d discovered feminist journals on the bookshelves at my university in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, at the age of 19, I’d devoured all I could of the theory.
I had returned to Egypt at 21 hungry to put it into action. My first encounter with those essays was nothing short of terrifying. That’s how you know what you need – it scares the hell out of you because it encourages you to jump but you don’t know if you’ll ever land. Religious conservatism was suffocating me in Saudi Arabia and I was losing my mind. I didn’t care about landing. I was overdue for a jump.
So returning to Egypt at 21 after 14 years away was a chance to water that seed of feminism with the sustenance of real-life women who embodied it. I looked for them everywhere I could. Many of the older women practically adopted me, inviting me to their meetings, sending me their latest reports and alerting me ahead of important conferences they were holding.
And there I was interviewing a fellow, albeit veteran, journalist. “Why are you covering your hair?” she asked me.
Did I mention I wore a headscarf? I’d started to wear it at the age of 16 in Saudi Arabia. I wore it for a total of nine years, eight of which were spent trying to take it off. Every year was a struggle.
So the editor-in-chief had hit on a raw nerve that I had kept well hidden. She’d totally blindsided me. I wasn’t there to talk about me but I became Exhibit A as she explained the conservative forces at work against Egyptian women.
“Can’t you see you’re destroying everything we’ve worked so hard for?” she asked me.
I was such an enthusiastic self-identified feminist and the thought that I was letting the sisters down horrified me.
“But I’ve chosen to dress like this,” I replied.
Two years later I chose to take off the headscarf. It represented a conservatism I was walking away from. But when a year later, I was interviewing another Egyptian feminist icon who said in passing that women who wore the headscarf were brainwashed, the interview was derailed for about 20 minutes as I argued with her.
My younger self’s interviews with the two older icons of Egyptian feminism keep coming back to me as I keep coming across the older vs. younger variation but also as more religiously conservative women call themselves “feminist.” Sarah Palin et al. here in the US, for example.
When did “feminist” start to hold such cachet, you have to wonder. My experience with religious conservatism across Christianity, Islam and Judaism in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and now the US has convinced me that it invariably benefits men more.
A younger Egyptian friend and co-founder of a new feminist group recently shared with me her own struggles with older feminists, including one who chided her for wearing a skirt that was “too short.” So my icons chided me for dressing too conservatively and now they’re after “racy” clothes?
And here at a panel in New York, feminist writer Naomi Wolf explained to younger feminists about the anxiety shared by feminists of her generation and older: “If we hand it [feminism] over to you, you’ll fritter it away on blogging and high heels.”
Wolf is another icon shattered. While I loved her first book “The Beauty Myth,” a stinging rebuke of the ways women’s bodies are controlled and manipulated in the West, I detested a column she wrote last year on Muslim women and covering:
“I put on a shalwar kameez pants/dress and a headscarf in Morocco for a trip to the bazaar. Yes, some of the warmth I encountered was probably from the novelty of seeing a Westerner so clothed; but, as I moved about the market – the curve of my breasts covered, the shape of my legs obscured, my long hair not flying about me – I felt a novel sense of calm and serenity. I felt, yes, in certain ways, free,” Wolf wrote.
Why is another culture’s conservatism always so much more attractive? I know Wolf was trying to counter the anti-Muslim reflex to paint all us Muslim women as voiceless apparitions. But, please – is the only alternative the sexy hijab?
Now, after I give public lectures, I count the minutes before a Muslim man – it’s rarely a woman – ignores all that I’ve just said and demands to know where my headscarf is.
And I make a distinction between a headscarf and a face veil, regardless of “choice.” I support a ban on the face veil everywhere and I curse the xenophobic and bigoted European right wing pushing for it. But I will not allow my feminism to be used to defend something that I believe represents the antithesis of that feminism: the erasure of women in the name of religion.
To be a Muslim and a feminist is to stand in the crossfire and yell “Shut the f**k up!” to everyone around you because you know that anything you say can and will be used against you by everyone.
(Photo credit: Brian Wisconsin, shirt by HijabMan)
Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning syndicated columnist and an international public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues. She is based in New York. This article was originally published in the Jerusalem Report.