Mona Eltahawy, Egyptian-US columnist, has taken her role as an activist from the newspaper to the streets, and she isn’t afraid of controversy.
Mona Eltahawy has reached a crossroads with the social media site that she says saved her life.
The columnist and activist received the 2012 Missouri Honor Medal on Oct. 15 and spoke to a group of students with precision and vigor at a lecture titled “How Twitter Saved My Life.”
Eltahawy, 45, spoke openly about her arrest in Tahrir Square as she joined protests during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. She emphasized the importance of getting information from the ground out to the world via Twitter.
"I was tweeting this whole time… I remember the last thing my friend said to me before we both got attacked was 'Mona, you’ve got to stop tweeting or you’re gonna die,'" Eltahawy said.
The activist was attacked that day and sexually assaulted. She notes, however, that she wants to dispel the shame associated with sexual assault; she talks about the incident candidly.
Although her phone was lost during the arrest, Eltahawy borrowed another activist’s phone and managed to send out a tweet about her condition after the beating; it immediately caught the world’s attention. The hashtag #freeMona was created in minutes, and Eltahawy was released after hours in captivity.
The tweet read: “Something of me was lost when I was beaten and sexually assaulted, I don’t know what it is.”
She spoke about the importance of Twitter and her release. “I was trying to convey how surreal it was for me to be there on a street that I went to every day,” Eltahawy said.
The crossroads, she said, came about two weeks ago with advertisements posted in several New York subways that read: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” The Egyptian activist and writer spray-painted the ad pink, and said that she wanted the message to remain but also wanted to publicly make the message “unacceptable.”
It was then that Eltahawy realized that Twitter was not enough to further social change. Although it was instrumental in saving her life, social media was not the real world.
“Twitter is essentially a small room; you have to have the right people for your message to matter,” Eltahawy said. She continued, “at the end of the day you have to get out in the real world because Twitter is not enough.”
In answering questions about what drives her passion, Eltahawy said, “Anger does not always have to be destructive.”
She also urged young journalists to diversify their sources in order to depict Muslims and others accurately, rather than rely on generalizations and inaccurate portrayals of the Islam tradition that she said tend to be perpetuated in mainstream media.
In closing, Eltahawy explained that a tattoo of an Egyptian goddess on her right arm was a symbol that she chose after the beating she endured during the 2011 revolution. “Up until I was attacked, I was an optimist who didn’t understand consequence…[the tattoo] is a subconscious way of ensuring no more loss forever.”
Kevin Dubouis, Raven Maragh, Taeler De Haes and Zahra Rasool contributed to this story.