Writer/Activist Mona Eltahawy Speaks about Sexual Violence and Healing

Egyptian-American writer, activist and public speaker Mona Eltahawy — a strong, inspiring, fearless women who became known for her work bridging the hermeneutic divide between Egypt and the West — gave a TED Talk yesterday on the topic of healing. Specifically, she discusses the process through which she physically, mentally and emotionally healed after being sexually assaulted, beaten and detained for twelve hours by Egyptian riot police. Because this is Mona Eltahaway, this opened up into a discussion of how to go about dismantling patriarchy.


Because both of her arms were in casts (with only one finger free for Twitter!), Eltahawy decided that her body should become her canvas: "I determined that while my arms were still in a cast I would celebrate the healing of my bones — because the healing of my heart would take much longer — that I would celebrate the healing of my bones by getting tattoos."

Here first tattoo is of Sekhmet, the ancient Egyptian goddess of retribution and sex ("She will kick your ass and then fuck your brains out," as Eltahawy puts it). Eltahawy likes that the two concepts are joined in one ferocious symbol because it ties into "the obsession of the religious right of my country of birth and my new country." She connects the use of sexual violence meant to keep Egyptian women off the streets with the American right wing's obsession with exerting control over women's reproductive choices. Simply put, "They're obsessed with our vaginas."

She goes on:

"How women are fighting back — and how Sekhmet helps me fight back — is that we speak when we're not supposed to speak. There's a lot of shame associated with sexual violence, especially in my country of birth. And so, myself and many other women who have survived sexual violence, we speak because we say that there is no shame in what happened to us. The shame lies with the men who attacked us."

The story of Sekhmet is a valuable symbol, as Elthawy sees it: according to myth, Sekhmet went on a violent rampage and wanted to kill every human being alive in order to avenge her father. Priestesses managed to trick her into drinking opium, and then everyone had an orgy and all was right. "Now, I wish we could have an orgy as a solution to our revolution," she jokes, "but we're not there yet." Later, she adds, "Without that social and sexual revolution, the political revolution will fail. We'll just keep replacing Mubarak with another form of Mubarak." You cannot overthrow a government in the name of social justice if half of your population is oppressed.

Her other tattoo is the name of the street where she was attacked, along with the Arabic word for freedom. Says Eltahawy, "I did not choose this scar [from surgery on my broken arm]... but I do choose these tattoos. These are marks that I choose to say 'This body is mine. I reclaim my body. I reclaim power over my body, and I will not be silenced.'"


The talk is wonderful, poignant, both devastating and witty, and generally enlightening. If you're not already watching, you should do so now.



I'm Egyptian and all I can say is that Mona Eltahawy does not speak for me. Long before all what happened to her during the revolution, myself and many other Egyptians looked at her with disdain. She does not represent how most Egyptian women feel or think. For a while she wasn't even living in Egypt, but instead in New York. Some even dismissed her as a professional "troll" who simply said things to get herself on TV and in the press.

Its terrible what has happened to Mona and the many women who have experienced the same thing, but feel Mona has taken on these things to use them for her own personal and professional advantage, much akin to how she has handled her professional career. We should be instead listening to regular people like my cousin who were sexually assaulted during the revolution but don't have all this priviledge and world-wide exposure and simply go back to New York or Amsterdam and are stuck in Egypt with both the effects the assaults and the effects of the revolution.