A Woman of Substance: Mona Eltahawy

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Walking the talk is Mona Eltahawy, award-winning columnist and international public speaker on Muslim issues. By fellow journalist and activist, Raquel Evita Saraswati.


TODAY, COMMENTING on Islam is everyone’s business. Following September 11th, 2001, bookshelves were stacked high and news stations were saturated with commentaries on Islam and Muslims.  The question, ‘Why do they hate us?’ seemed to be on the minds of most non-Muslims from the United States to Europe and Asia. Ready to answer that question were numerous Islam and Muslim community critics, each eager to paint us all as stealth terrorists, woman-haters and anti-Semites. Responding to them were apologists from both within and beyond the Muslim community who, more often than not, clouded the conversation with well-intentioned but misleading political correctness.

So, who was really speaking for us?

Long before 9/11, and well before commenting on Islam was trendy or lucrative, former news reporter Mona Eltahawy was already reporting on issues relevant to Islam and Muslims for different media throughout the Middle East. For years, Mona has given a voice to critical issues facing the Muslim world. She is a relentless advocate for women’s rights, religious minorities and dissidents, and stands in staunch opposition to practices like female genital mutilation and child marriage. As a researcher and lecturer on social networking and new media in the Muslim world, Mona educates both Muslim and non-Muslim audiences everywhere about the challenges facing young dissidents in the Middle East and elsewhere, and about how these youth are using the Internet to transform their societies.

As Muslims, and especially as Muslim women, we are often spoken about. Our rights, our choices and our bodies are discussed, debated, pitied or hated. Depending on who the commentator is, women are used to illustrate how wretched or glorious our religion is. Mona’s approach is frank, honest and often unapologetic: being merely the subject of someone else’s discussion is not good enough for her. Muslims, and Muslim women, have things to say. We are speaking, and we must be heard above those who claim to speak for us. Neither the far left nor far right of the political spectrum has our best interests at heart. We must articulate what our own interests are, and demand their full realisation.

I often say that the kind of paradigm that determines everything for Muslim women are headscarves and hymens. It’s always about what’s on our heads and what’s between our legs.
– Mona Eltahawy, February 2010

While Mona is relentless about making Muslim women be seen for more than what is ‘on our heads and between our legs,’ she doesn’t deny that conversations about these things – the veil, sexuality and other related issues – are necessary.  She says that she ‘lives to confuse,’ and from her accent to her dress, some are indeed baffled that she doesn’t live up to their image of what a ‘real’ Muslim woman should look and sound like. She is not what she calls the ‘covered-in-black Muslim woman’ so often portrayed on television. In fact, her work boldly challenges this image, as well as any other stereotypes that may prevent Muslim women from reaching their fullest potential.

Awards

  • 2010: The Estlow International Center for Journalism and New Media at the University of Denver named her recipient of the Anvil of Freedom Award
  • 2009: The European Union awarded her its Samir Kassir Prize for Freedom of the Press for her opinion writing
  • 2009: Search for Common Ground named her a winner of its Eliav-    Sartawi Award for Middle Eastern Journalism

Mona is undoubtedly an accomplished woman, and few would disagree that her work pushes boundaries in many parts of the world. However, for anyone who knows her, she is a Fabulous Muslimah not just for the work that she does, but also for how she lives her message of empowerment.

As a young Muslim feminist, I have had the blessing and challenge of navigating an often difficult community of activists, bloggers and journalists. With Mona’s sincere approach – and my young but meaningful friendship with her – my hope and fighting spirit are salvaged.

Mona doesn’t just talk about empowering Muslim women and dissidents. She also takes direct action on behalf of those who have been victimised by extremists. When Sudanese journalist Lubna Hussein and 12 other women were arrested in Khartoum for the ‘indecent’ act of wearing trousers in public – and later sentenced to a brutal flogging – Mona campaigned vigorously to create awareness about Hussein’s case.

Mona has also spoken out about the ill treatment of the Uighur Muslim community in China, as well as the insufficient response of the Muslim community on behalf of their fellow Muslims.

If the West seems deaf to Uighur complaints, then where are their fellow Muslims? The Uighurs are no Palestinians and the Chinese are not Israel… Palestine followed by Iraq always takes precedence, leaving little room for other Muslim grievances.
– Mona in the Huffington Post, 2009

While in some cases Mona exposes the ills within the Muslim community, in others she actively supports the work and development of those who do speak out. She seeks out their viewpoints, highlights their work in her talks and articles, and engages them on social networks as well as in person. Her sincere personal investment drives home the point that many activists forget: a movement can only be successful when we are all truly invested in one another.

Whether she’s in Costa Rica teaching at the UN-mandated University for Peace; in Singapore working with Musawah (an organisation dedicated to gender equality); or writing from China, Egypt or New York; Mona is a bold, brave and Fabulous Muslimah who speaks the truth to power in the way our own faith commands: with a commitment to uncompromising justice, compassion and integrity.

‘God enjoins justice, kindness and charity… and forbids oppression’
– Qur’an 16:90

Who’s that Girl?
Based in New York, Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning columnist and an international public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues. She is also a prominent lecturer and researcher on the blogging and social networking movement in the Arab world. Mona was born on August 1, 1967 in Egypt and she has lived in the UK, Saudi Arabia and Israel. She calls herself a proud liberal Muslim. In 2005, she was named a Muslim Leader of Tomorrow by the American Society for Muslim Advancement. She is a member of the Communications Advisory Group for Musawah, the global movement for justice and equality in the Muslim family.
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