Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism

A Q&A with Mona Eltahawy

Eltahawy spoke with Global Journalist about her perspectives on objectivity in journalism, her role as a columnist and cyber activist, and how she hopes her work impacts the world.

Mona Eltahawy was born in Egypt on Aug. 1, 1967. When she was seven years old, her family settled in London. Eltahawy also lived in Saudi Arabia before she moved back to Cairo where she built most of her journalism career. She has lived in the U.S. for more than 10 years and gained American citizenship in 2009. Currently based in New York City, her work has appeared in the The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Washington Post, among others. After the events of 9/11, which she deems the end of objectivity in American journalism, she became an opinion writer. Eltahawy is currently working on her book about women’s rights in the Middle East.

Eltahawy spoke with Global Journalist about her perspectives on objectivity in journalism, her role as a columnist and cyber activist, and how she hopes her work impacts the world.

Global Journalist: You say objectivity died after 9/11. Why do you say that and what do you mean by that statement?

Mona Eltahawy: Until 9/11, I was a traditional news reporter. I was a foreign correspondent in the Middle East for 10 years where you’re very much detached from the story; you present other people’s opinions, and you try to be objective. But when the attacks happened on Sept. 11, 2001, Americans killed objectivity for me. I couldn’t do traditional journalism anymore. I wanted to hear alternative opinions I wasn’t hearing in the mainstream U.S. media.

Whenever I saw Muslims or heard Muslim issues discussed in the news, usually very conservative voices were speaking, usually older conservative Muslim men. Hardly any Muslim women were represented, and if there were Muslim women speaking, then it was usually conservative women. So I was very put off to this idea that the only authentic Muslim was the conservative type. The opposite of that was the non-Muslim voice that said, “Muslims have to apologize; Muslims have to condemn.” There were very few voices who, for a very long time, had been speaking out against violence in the name of the faith.

I covered a terrorist campaign in Egypt in the ’90s before I came to the U.S. Many of us knew what it was like to experience or to witness violence in the name of religion. Because of 9/11, suddenly Muslims were to blame for everything. I didn’t like what I was seeing in the media at all. I wanted to hear a bit more voices, more progressive voices, and so I took to opinion writing just as a way of expressing that difference of opinion, to offer people a different view, to say basically there isn’t just one way to be a Muslim.

GJ: With this critical approach of objectivity, how would you describe the profession of journalism?

Eltahawy: I think the definition is changing a lot today, especially in the U.S. In Europe, you have media outlets with a very clearly aligned political position. For example, The Guardian — which I reported for frequently and for which I now write opinion pieces — is known as a left-wing newspaper in the U.K. The Times of London is known as being more right wing. When you pick up one of those two newspapers, you know where the opinion is coming from, and it’s not just on the opinion pages.

Here in the U.S., there is this pretense of objectivity. But for example, when you turn on Fox News, you know very well that’s on the right, and you know that MSNBC is on the left of the political debate. I think we should hear about that. Because of social media, we’re going to see over the next few years a real change in the definition of what it means to be a journalist.

I hope media outlets will be much more forthcoming about their political points of view, and they will treat their consumers, readers or viewers as adults and say to them this is our point of view, this is our political meaning.

I think journalists in that sense can start expressing themselves more and stop pretending that there is this objectivity. There is no such thing as 100 percent objectivity, and people have been pretending too long that it exists.

GJ: With that said, then how would you describe your role?

Eltahawy: I no longer identify myself as a journalist.

Once I began writing opinion pieces, I began to identify as an opinion writer or as a columnist. It was very important to me to make that change from journalist to opinion writer, because I wanted to convey that I am very biased. I am not objective, and I am not trying to be objective.

I was very active last year in the protests against the Mubarak regime. And I know that I was right about that. I know that even for opinion writers it is a big, “No.” An opinion writer is not supposed to march in demonstrations, but that was the whole point of me being an opinion writer. I demanded an opinion, and I like to have an opinion. So it is very important that I don’t describe myself or identify as a journalist. I call myself an opinion writer.

I never called myself an activist until last year where I hit a turning point. The 9/11 attacks were a turning point where I turned from journalist to opinion writer. A year ago, I was attacked and the Egyptian riot police broke my arms, sexually assaulted me, and detained me for 12 hours. That was the point for me when I added activist, because at that point, with my arms broken, I couldn’t do what I usually do — write.

My body basically became the instrument, rather than my words, to get my point of view across. And that is the exact thing. I would appear on media with my arms in a cast to shame and expose the ministry of the police for what they did to me. What I was doing with my body was just as important as words that I was writing. It also became magnified by the fact that I would march in as many demonstrations as possible. I stayed in Egypt and said, “You will not take me away from my country of birth.”

Most recently, I protested against racism and bigotry in the subway in New York where I spray-painted my freedom of expression. That was also my protest and my spray-painting and not my words against racism and bigotry. So I identify now as a columnist or opinion writer and an activist.

GJ: Based on your experiences, could you describe the role of women in the Egyptian revolution?

Eltahawy: I think women have taken a pivotal role in the Egyptian revolution and in many revolutions across the region. You could see that women were there, and the media did show that they were there. A lot of people forget that we have a long history of feminism in Egypt.

We think of feminism as a Western import in the Middle East, or that we don’t have feminism in the Middle East, but that is just not true. Women were very active in the 1919 Revolution against the Occupation. They were also very active in promoting women’s right to vote. The military is not a big fan of either individual rights or women’s rights, but I think we need to remind everyone that we, women, were very central to the Egyptian Revolution.

But because of the family pressure, the shame associated with assault, women paid a big price to be part of this revolution and not be marginalized or pushed aside. We will fight tooth and nail for our rights.

GJ: What does it mean to be a Muslim, a female, an Arab in the profession of journalism?

Eltahawy: Whenever I am asked about being a woman and a journalist who practices in a Muslim country, I always tell people that it’s more of an advantage actually to be a woman than to be a man. It depends on the kinds of stories you want to write.

Generally, I found that when I interview officials for example, whether they are from a political background or military background, many don’t take women seriously. They see you coming to interview them, and you’re a woman, and they don’t anticipate you challenging them in any way. When they see that a female journalist challenges them exactly the same way as a male journalist, it often takes them by surprise, disarms them and can turn the interview around. I have often found that to work to my advantage.

In other cultures being a woman gives you access to other women who male journalists don’t have access to, so you can get female voice out. You can write about women’s issues. You can focus on components of the community that men don’t have access to.

The only time I realized that it could be used against me was last year when I was attacked and sexually assaulted. Even though so many people in the revolution were sexually assaulted, it was for a different reason. The Mubarak regime sent the message that we can do this to Mona who people know as a well-known journalist.

You might have also heard about other female journalists who were horrendously assaulted. There was Natasha Smith. There was a French journalist who was attacked near the same place where I was. Recently, a correspondent for France 24 was 'savagely' attacked, as her news organization called it, near Tahrir Square.

GJ: You mentioned what it means for you to be a female journalist in the Middle East. What does it mean to be a Muslim Arab journalist in the West?

Eltahawy: What matters the most to me is to challenge, provoke and to break down stereotypes. In Egypt, the challenge for me is to push the opinions of a secular person who has an opinion in politics, who is a feminist and who works for sexual freedom and individual freedom.

In the United States or in Europe, or the so-called West, the challenge is to break down stereotypes. Most people associate Muslims with very angry men who want to jump out of your television and strangle you. That’s all you see when you talk about demonstrations, but it doesn’t represent me and doesn’t represent the majority of Muslims. But people think that represents all Muslims, so my role here is to be sure that they don’t.

When I go to protest against racism and bigotry, and I look the way I do, people see a very different Muslim. I’m not an angry man. I’m wearing a pink coat that matches the spray-paint I use. I hope that changes opinions.

GJ: If both sides, the non Muslim right-wing and the Muslim right-wing, criticize your work, how do you navigate the middle ground? Where do you say, “This is where I want to be, this is the work I want to do based on the criticism that you receive”?

Eltahawy: I think what I try to do is create my own middle ground between the two right wings. But generally, I am not a fan of moderation or the middle or any standing in the middle of things. I don’t like the word “moderate.”

When I wrote that essay about women’s rights titled, "Why Do They Hate Us?," I was intentionally provocative. When I spray-painted the ad, I was intentionally provocative. What I want to do with my work is use the media persona that I have, push things as far as I can and in doing so, open a space that will give others more room to push in whatever direction they want.

I don’t want to work in the middle ground. A lot of people say to me, “Don’t you think if you were less provocative more people would listen to you?” That’s not how I operate. I don’t want more people to listen to me. I want to express my conscience and my principles.

By Kevin Dubouis and Zahra Rasool.

Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism.
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