Interview: Mona Eltahawy on iMuslim

Rachel Kohn
Publication Date: 
February, 2010
Mona Eltahawy

Radio Show: The Spirit of Things - February 14, 2010

An Egyptian-born Muslim journalist living in New York is one of the new wave of iMuslims who are using the internet to push reform in Islam. Like the "Men in Headscarves" campaign by Iranian men who've posted pictures of themselves on the internet, Mona protests the covering of women as a human rights issue. She was recently awarded the Anvil of Freedom Award from the University of Denver for outstanding contributions to the field of journalism. Rachael Kohn interviews her at home in New York.

Full Transcript

Rachael Kohn: She's called The Muslim Madonna. Deeyah, the Norwegian-born singer, is being persecuted because she's anything but covered up.


Deeyah: I have tried everything. I've considered quitting music, I have tried to compromise in every possible way that I could think of, I've tried to find a middle ground. Every single thing that I seem to do, it seems to get worse. Every single time.

Rachael Kohn: Hello, I'm Rachael Kohn, welcome to iMuslim on the Spirit of Things, Muslim women who use the internet to say they won't cover up.

You're listening to Radio National,

For a couple of years now, I've been reading Mona Eltahawy, an award-winning, Egyptian-born journalist who's been promoting feminism for Muslim women. In her columns in the International Herald Tribune, The Washington Post and on her blog. First and foremost, Mona is committed to unwrapping Muslim women and girls, especially since an incident in Saudi Arabia in 2002 caught her attention.

Mona Eltahawy: At the time I lived in Seattle. When I first moved to the US I lived in Seattle, and my morning routine was, and still is, that you know, I turn on the computer and check through my email, and I'm on Human Rights Watch's Newsletter or Listserv, so I got the alert that they sent out, and I read that 15 schoolgirls had burnt to death because the morality police would not let them out of their school, their burning school building , because they weren't wearing headscarves or the cloaks that women have to wear in public in Saudi. The same morality police officers wouldn't let fire-fighters go in and rescue the girls from a burning building, their job, because they did not want men to be there alone with these girls who weren't dressed properly, according to this perverted vision of the morality police.

And I burst into tears. My heart smashed you know, just splintered into tiny pieces, because those girls, locked into their school building, were me when my family lived in Saudi Arabia, and I went to an all girls school, and all girl schools there are locked and there's a male guard outside to make sure no man goes in. And at the time my parents and still lived in Saudi, and my sister, who was in her early teens, was also those girls behind that locked school gate. And you know, God forbid, a school fire breaks out there would the morality police have also stood there and allowed her and her friends to burn to death? I couldn't believe it. I was outraged and I wrote an opinion piece at the time for The Washington Post saying 'This morality police that represent the committee to promote virtue and prevent vice, where is the virtue in allowing girls to die because they're not wearing headscarves?' That is not my Islam.

As a Muslim, I believe in justice, and I believe in compassion and mercy, and all those values are represented in what those fire-fighters were trying to do, not what these guardians of so-called religion are trying to do. And as long as I live, my Islam will be on the side of the fire-fighters and my Islam will see those morality police are the most immoral people on earth, because as a Muslim I believe in justice, I don't believe in what those morality police officers represent.

Rachael Kohn: Today, Mona Eltahawy is based in New York, and when I was there recently I sought her out. Of all the Muslim women who've taken up feminism, she's the only one I know who consistently expresses her views in the press and fearlessly cuts through the kind of cultural relativism that she believes sacrifices Muslim women's human rights on the altar of political correctness.

Mona, welcome to The Spirit of Things.

Mona Eltahawy: Thanks for having me on, Rachael.

Rachael Kohn: You're a Muslim woman who is also a feminist, but for some Muslims that's an oxymoron. What does it mean to you?

Mona Eltahawy: I would say actually - I'm a Muslim woman and a feminist, but not the Muslim feminist, because I started off as a Muslim feminist but I think there's a big difference between being a Muslim woman and a feminist rather than a Muslim feminist. And the difference for me is that as a feminist I believe that women can do whatever they want, and that their sexuality, their gender, must not be used against them. And as a Muslim woman, my identity is derived from my spiritual and faith background. But I do not make the arguments for my feminism based on religion or faith, and the reason I don't is because I hate to get into those 'my verse' versus 'your verse' arguments, or 'my scholar 'versus 'your scholar 'arguments, because there's always going to be someone else who'll come up with an opposing opinion. So I'm very happy to make my arguments, especially regarding feminism, in a very secular way, and base it on things like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and women's rights generally. But also say that as a Muslim woman, I do not believe Islam is designed or meant to hold me back in any way.

That's as far as I'll take the argument, because I used to engage in these arguments a lot and there are several movements out there that are trying to synthesise the two, but the older I get the more adamant I am that they must be kept separate, because I don't want to get into this arm-wrestling match over the Qur'an.

Rachael Kohn: Well my impression is that Muslim women today are in fact more drawn to Islamist movements, and even Islamist feminist movements, if those two words go together, than they are to the kind of feminism that you are trying to articulate.

Mona Eltahawy: Well you know, this reminds me of an incident in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia last year. I attended the launch of a new movement called Musawah which is the Arabic word for 'equality', and it's a movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family, a global movement. And they brought together more than 200 people from more than 47 countries across the world. And one of my favourite scholars, a woman called Ziba Mir-Hosseini, who is Iranian, but who teaches in the UK and in the US, said on a panel, 'The time for secular feminism is over' or not the time for secular feminism is over, much more 'Secular feminism has brought us as far as it can; we must now use religiously-based arguments to continue.'

And there were a group of women from North Africa who are very, very staunch secular feminists who were outraged to hear this. And I don't think they understood where she was coming from because I have been following Ziba's work for years, and she's fantastic. What she was saying is the point that you're making, in that many, many women today who want to make the argument that Islam doesn't hold women back, want to make it based on the Qur'an and the Prophet's sayings, so that they feel fully Muslim feminist, not Muslim and feminist like me. And that's one of the goals of Musawah.

Now in many Muslim majority countries, there's no opposition to usually the dictator, other than the Islamist opposition. So you're talking about environments where the only way to articulate opposition of any kind is usually using religion. But in other places where Muslim women live in minority communities, it's become important for them because I think generally there's been a wave of in some cases conservatism, in other cases kind of a religious revivalism among many Muslims, where the need to make argument based on the religion is very important. So I think a combination of all of those is what drives this need, and a movement like Musawah has recognised that.

And one of the four objectives of the movement is to change Muslim family law and the parts of the law that determines marriage, inheritance, child custody, divorce, all of that, and use the religious teaching to show that at the heart of Islam is this very important message of equality and justice. And that being a Muslim woman does not mean that you have to give up your rights or to be No.2 to a man or any of that. So I think if they're successful in making that argument, let them do the 'my verse' versus 'your verse'. I recognise and I support Musawah as a movement and that's why I went to the launch, but I still prefer to make my argument in more secular terms.

Rachael Kohn: Do you think that feminism has much of a chance in the Muslim world? I know you've written about women in Khartoum who have been arrested for wearing baggy pants or others who have been flogged for alleged indecencies. Do you think that in the Muslim world feminism will take hold, either secular or religiously-based feminism?

Mona Eltahawy: I became a feminist when I was 19 and living in Saudi Arabia, simply because I despaired of what I could see as men copyrighting religion because this is not the Islam that I was taught. So I became a feminist basically to keep my mind, keep my wits together, but also because I became familiar with many Muslim women who were writing about religion, and Muslim women scholars. So this was when I was19 back in the late '80s.

Since then, I have come across many more Muslim women who are reinterpreting their religion, who are rolling up their sleeves and saying 'This is our fight, and we're no longer going to give in to the male interpretations of the religion.' And as a Muslim woman, I fully believe that all those awful violations that are committed against women, supposedly in the name of religion and in the name of Islam, are committed and justified because of the male domination in the fields of interpretation and religious scholarship generally.

The future I think for Islam, belongs to women because quite simply, we have nothing to lose. For too long men have controlled the interpretation of the religion and men have told us what God wants from us, and for me as a Muslim the whole point of Islam and what makes it special for me and why I remain a Muslim is that it's my direct relationship with God. Nobody, especially a man, should be there between me and God.

So whether you're talking about Sudan or whether you're talking about here in the US where we as Muslims live as a minority, it's women who are leading the way, and here in the US especially, I think of Amina Wadud who is a scholar of Islam with tremendous academic credentials and scholarship behind her, who led us in the first public Friday prayer led by a woman of a mixed-gender congregation. This was here in New York in 2005. There were 50 men and 50 women praying side by side, and to this day, everywhere I travel people either ask me about it or remember something I wrote about it, and are still stunned and for many, still inspired by this woman who basically said, 'I am going to be an imam. I want to be an imam and I'm no longer going to wait for anyone's permission.'

It has since inspired so many other women to lead prayers, has inspired other congregations to ask women to lead prayers, and you know, if you look at my bookshelves here, I have books by women like Asma Balas, Leila Ahmed, Fatima Mernissi, you know, show me the others who are doing exactly the kind of work that secular feminists and Muslim feminists need so that we can argue back and say, 'Islam does not belong to men. Islam belongs to human beings.'

Rachael Kohn: And is that mixed congregation still going?

Mona Eltahawy: In many places it is. It depends. You know, after Amina led the prayer, it was co-sponsored by a movement I belonged to at the time which is no longer in place, but has inspired others. So there's one group for example called Muslims for Progressive Values that was a spin-off of that, women in the movement still lead mixed-gender prayers. I know many congregations in Canada have asked women to lead their prayers. Amina herself has led mixed-gender prayers in the UK and at a feminist conference in Barcelona. I don't know of other places where this has happened but I know that it has taken off since the 2005 prayer.

Rachael Kohn: Well that seems to be a very courageous step, and I wonder how risky it is. For example, when you wrote in one of your articles that you agreed with the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy when he says the burqa is not a religious sign but a sign of the subjugation of women. How risky is it for you to make those kind of statements, particularly when for many Muslims, Islam means submission and therefore women should submit?

Mona Eltahawy: I think for the majority of Muslims, Islam should be in submission to God, not submission to a man. And my argument on the burqa I recognise has been very controversial, but I think that it is one of these things that has fallen into many traps.

One is cultural relativism, another is political correctness, another is what has happened to Muslims who have emigrated to various parts of the West, and the discrimination and bigotry they face from the growing right-wing in those countries. As far as I'm concerned, the burqa and the niqab, face veils of any kind, do not belong to Islam, they're much more a tribal expression that is very specific to the Arabian Peninsula, specifically Saudi Arabia and its very ultra Orthodox interpretation of Islam, commonly known as Wahabi or Salafi Islam. This is where the face veil comes from.

I want to ban the niqab and the burqa everywhere, including in Saudi Arabia. But when it comes to Europe especially and when it comes to Sarkozy's comment, I think what happened there is that because Muslims in France, you know the largest Muslim community in Western Europe, have faced a lot of discrimination, and the right-wing in Europe have become very vocal, many people who are horrified by the burqa and the niqab refused to say anything because they worry they're going to arm and fuel the political right-wing. But my point is that in order to defend women, I will not sacrifice women and women's rights for political correctness, because my enemy is not just the political right-wing in Europe, but what I call the Muslim Right Wing, and that is Salafi-Wahabi Islam.

So I position myself very much in the middle between people like Le Pen in France, the British National Party in the UK, all the other right-wing expressions of politics in Europe, but also all those men who for me represent the Muslim right-wing, who are very happy to tell women how they should look and how they should dress, and are specially obsessed with women's appearance. So I'm not going to defend Salafi-Wahabi Islam which you know in France anyway you know, a tiny minority of women cover their face, that I recognise, but it represents something, it represents the erasure of women and it represents a hateful ideology because when you unpack Salafi-Wahabi Islam it is hateful towards women, and there is no way I'm going to defend that just so that I can speak out against the right wing. We must speak out against both right-wings.

So that might be controversial but for me it's also controversial that Saudi Arabia treats women as children; that is very hateful that a woman needs a man's signature to go to the hospital or to travel, so I'm not going to shut up about that, I think that is the real danger to women, not what Sarkozy is saying or what I'm writing.

Rachael Kohn: That's the syndicated journalist Mona Eltahawy, a Muslim, a feminist, and an inveterate human rights watcher in countries such as The Maldives, where as The Independent reported in July 2009, the sharia court handed out 150 sentences of flogging to women accused of extramarital sex. Only 50 men were sentenced to flogging in the same period.

You're with The Spirit of Things on Radio National and I'm in conversation with Mona Eltahawy in new York

Why have liberal feminists in the West not stood up for their Muslim sisters and spoken out against this? I mean, for example, in Australia the Anti-Defamation Commission, which is a kind of sister organisation to the Anti-Defamation League, it issued a statement [Correction - Rachael's attribution was incorrect. The statement actually was part of an Editorial from the Sydney Morning Herald, 25/06/09] on the veil and civil liberty, and it said, 'Like the headscarf, or hijab, worn by a much larger number of Muslim women, the burqa is a statement, albeit an uncompromising one. But it is also an issue of personal choice and freedom, and in this, it is a dilemma of liberalism. Mr Sarkozy was 'wrong' to describe these women as prisoners. They have not been cut off from their identity; their faith is part of their identity. Some may be compelled by family or community pressure to wear the burqa, and would be prisoners of intolerance, but this is a separate issue.'

Now as I was reading this statement, I had a sense that it was trying to have a bet each way; it was slipping and sliding all over the argument.

Mona Eltahawy: You know, that W.B. Yeats, 'The Second Coming', the poem, the best lack all conviction. This is why when my friends ask me how as a liberal can you argue against the burqa? I tell them that as a liberal, if I argued or supported or defended the niqab or the burqa, it would signal the death of liberalism. You cannot use liberal arguments to justify the erasure of women from society. I'm outraged by this statement that you just read to me. I'm sitting here shaking my head; I cannot believe that they actually used the word 'freedom' to support or defend the niqab or burqa. It's absolutely outrageous, I cannot believe it.

I think what's happened Western feminism, and I understand where it comes from. We reached a stage of feminism generally where women of whatever you want to call it, the Developing World, the Imagined World, the Third World, whatever, the non-West for lack of a better term, many feminists coming from those parts of the world started telling basically white feminists, you cannot speak for us and stop making it seem like your issues are our issues because our issues are often very different from your issues and have to do with economics and racism and many other things. And so out of a very well-meaning stand a lot of white feminists said, OK, yes, we will stop speaking for you.

But I think what has happened is it's started to eat its own tail, and it's turned into this ugly kind of cultural relativism where everything is justified by that it's a culture I must support and must defend it, and it's not my place to attack it.

But you have to ask who determined that this was culture, and who determined this was religion for you to say that I must support it? Men have. So look at the position that you are in now. You know, as a white Western feminist you are supporting something that a man has imposed on a woman, because believe me, no woman has designed the niqab or burqa and said, you know ... I lived in Saudi Arabia for many years and the Saudi women I knew there who covered their face made it very clear it was the male head of the tribe who determined if the women of the tribe would cover their face or not. This is a very male decision that has very little to do with what the women want. And while I appreciate that very well-meaning stand that keeps many Western feminists, or white, because you know, I'm a feminist who lives in the West and I'm not white, but for lack of a better term, let's be crude, white feminists silent. What I would ask them to do is to listen to our voices, the Muslim women who are feminist, who are saying, We oppose the burqa and listen to why we oppose the burqa. We oppose the burqa because it erases women.

I think also at the heart of this argument is this idea that conservative equals authentic, and that the more conservative you are, the better of whatever religion you are. And I oppose this idea vigorously because I'm a liberal Muslim and I'm also an authentic Muslim. But the kind of Muslim you see in the media is always the conservative Muslim who wants to speak for me. So it's always the man who has a long beard and very, very severe and very strict, and the more covered up the woman is, the more authentic she must be. Well I am not covered up and I am a Muslim, and I demand to be taken seriously as a Muslim.

So I think the more you hear from people like me and there's a woman in France called Fadela Amara, she's a junior minister for Urban Affairs, she's the founder of a feminist movement in France specifically aimed at women from North Africa called Neither Whores Nor Submissives [Ni Putes, Ni Soumises ]. She's taken on this virgin/ whore dichotomy, and she is a strong supporter of the ban on the niqab and burqa because she says it is absolutely a prison, it has nothing to do with freedom, and it is definitely imposed by men on women. But you know, a lot of people make the argument against the burqa on security grounds. I could probably get much further by making an argument on the burqa on security grounds, but I want to make the argument against the burqa on philosophical grounds. It erases women; women are no longer part of society and identity is the face. If I can't see you, who are you?

And even more dangerous than all of that, it has equated piety with the disappearance of women. The more pious you are, the less of you I see. This is an extremely dangerous idea, because I want to be close to God, but I'm not going to disappear to be close to God, so how dare these men mostly, tell me that the more pious I am the less of me they should see. I find that outrageous, and it's especially outrageous to me that liberals defend it based on a liberal argument.

Rachael Kohn: Then how do you feel about the many young Muslim students who want to be very visible with their veil, with their hijab, they may indeed wear make-up, even wear tight pants, but they want to make a very strong statement about wearing a veil.

Mona Eltahawy: I make a big distinction between covering the face and covering the hair. Covering the face for me is the point of no return. I will not cross that line, ever. Covering the hair however is very different because I still see the face. I used to wear a headscarf for nine years, I chose to wear it and I chose to take it off. With a headscarf the context, it's all about the context because you have countries like Turkey and Tunisia where women cannot wear headscarfs to go to university and state-run institutions, and countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran where they must cover their hair. So for me it's ultimately about choice and the kind of veiled women you're talking about, those who want to engage in identity politics, in a very Western context, where Muslim has become a dirty word, especially after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in 2001.

So I understand what these women are doing. I mean you can compare it to being punk. You know, you want to do something very visible to show people that I am against whatever you think a young person is. Hence the punk movement. This is something very visible to show that you know, I am Muslim, I am proud to be Muslim, and I will not be cowed into the corner.

I'm all for that, as long as she has chosen to dress that way because for a long time after I took off my headscarf I defended the right of women to cover the hair if they wanted. My mother does, my sister does, most of my female relatives do. But again, back to context: in a country like Egypt, my country of birth, the majority of women cover their hair now; it's beyond choice now, it's social pressure, it's peer pressure. I ride the subway in Cairo now and there are stickers. It's a picture of a woman with her hair covered and underneath it says 'This is what a good Muslim woman looks like'. I ride the elevator in the building where my parents live, and the same sticker, 'This is what a good Muslim woman looks like'. In the face of that, where is choice?

In the face of growing horrific numbers of sexual harassment and groping and verbal assaults on women in the street, where is choice, and yet at the end of the day women are blamed for being groped on the street because they're not dressed well. Well they're all covered up, what more do you want them to do, you know? So in that kind of context, the choice has really gone out the window. In the more Western context where women want to do that, if the woman has chosen to dress that way I support her, but at the end of the day I want to sit down and discuss with her, are there other ways to be Muslim, because I am Muslim, even though I might not be recognised as such when I walk down the street, people can never forget what I am. I'm very proud to be Muslim.

I like to think I confuse people because Islam is not just about surface or appearance, Islam is much more. So when I have a conversation with someone and I tell them I am Muslim, they'll say, 'Oh, I would never have guessed', you know, 'you don't look like a Muslim'. I love that 'You don't look like a Muslim'. There is no look to a Muslim. A Muslim can be like my sister with a headscarf tight behind the ear so you can see her earrings. A Muslim can be like my mother who doesn't show her earrings. A Muslim can be like me, where you can see my hair. There isn't one way to be a Muslim.

Rachael Kohn: What do you think then of one of the most popular and influential spokesmen now for a new kind of Muslim feminism, and that's Tariq Ramadan. A lot of people look to him as their new exponent, their new saviour, and yet he puts the veil or covering of women as pretty central to his idea of what a new modern Muslim woman should look like. Is he making the veil something like a sixth pillar of Islam?

Mona Eltahawy: I like that. I think many people, Rachael, make the veil the sixth pillar of Islam. I think for Muslims and non-Muslims the veil is everything. It's the end-all, be-all of everything, that's all they want to talk about. I often say the kind of the paradigm that determines everything for Muslim women is headscarfs and hymens. It's always about what's on our heads and what's in between our legs. Especially what's on our heads because again it's this conservative equals authentic and this very, very visible way of expressing yourself.

First of all there are only two verses in the Qur'an that have to do with the way a woman should look in public. Scholars have interpreted those verses differently. But it's all Muslims want to talk about and it's all non-Muslims want to talk about. And I'm often asked when I give public talks, you know, why is the headscarf such an important issue? Shouldn't we be talking about women's legal rights, shouldn't we be talking about poverty, shouldn't we be talking about education and access to free health care? And I say, 'Absolutely'. But the reason that the veil is so central to all the arguments is because that's all everyone ever wants to talk about, because it symbolises how so many of the arguments especially over Muslim women, are carried on over their bodies, or rather over their heads.

In very few cases, a Muslim woman actually asked, What do you think of this? And this is a primary case. Tariq Ramadan. What do I care what a man tells me how I should look? Who cares what Tariq Ramadan says about Muslim women. Surely it should be that Muslim woman and her relationship to God that determines how she lives out what she thinks the Qur'an or the Prophet's example tells her. Why should Tariq Ramadan be the one? And why is it about my hair?

You know, in the Qur'an every chapter and every time we pray, we use in the name of God, the most merciful the most beneficent. So the word 'mercy' appears more times in the Qur'an than those two verses that have to do with the way I cover up. So I want Tariq Ramadan to be out there and to talk about mercy much more. I want Tariq Ramadan to say, and others like him, that the modern Muslim woman is a merciful woman; the modern Muslim woman is a compassionate woman; the modern Muslim woman is a woman who believes in justice and equality, and goes out there and helps those who need help. Why this obsession over my hair? I just cannot understand it, and it's always from the men.

You know, when I talk like this in public, and I did it just in Colorado at two different places I spoke, there'll be women in the audience, Muslim and non-Muslim in the audience, some of the Muslim women wear headscarfs, and they will hear of my story about where covering my hair and then taking off my headscarf. Invariably, there'll two or three Muslim men at the end of the talk who'll come up to me and say, By the way, there is no argument about those verses in the Qur'an, you know.It's definite that God wanted to cover your hair and you must just accept that and just say you choose not to do it. And I tell them, No, I absolutely disagree with you. I do not believe this is what God wants, and in the end I tell them, 'Look, you're a man, and you're trying to tell me how to dress. Why aren't the women in the audience coming up to me to have this argument with me, some of them covered, they don't come up to me and say, I'm the right, you're the wrong. It's always the men. What is it with the men and my hair? So to Tariq Ramadan and every other man out there, leave my hair alone is my message!

SONG: 'Hair'

Rachael Kohn: That unforgettable 60s musical, Hair. Who would've thought it would be such a contentious issue 40 years later.

In fact I learned from Mona's recent online video that Iranian men have been mounting a protest against the hijab by photographing themselves in the headgear and posting it on the web. You can find a link to it on our website.

In coming weeks we'll hear from the Swiss-born Islamist scholar, Tariq Ramadan who thinks it's essential for Muslim women to cover up.

I'm Rachael Kohn and I'm in conversation with the award-winning journalist Mona Eltahawy, who is a Muslim, a feminist, and proud of it.

Mona, what made you take off the veil? Was it an event or was it a slow kind of realisation that you did not want to live with your hair covered?

Mona Eltahawy: Let me answer that by first explaining why I covered my hair. I covered my hair when I was 16 years old and it was a year after my family moved from the UK to Saudi Arabia. And the reason I decided to wear a headscarf was because I at the time thought that this was what my religion required of me, that this was the way a Muslim woman should look. But in reading more about my religion, in coming across a lot of these Muslim women scholars that were, and continue to be, my role models and heroes, of Muslim women who engage with the religion, and the more uncomfortable I was wearing a headscarf and realising that the external me and the internal me were moving further and further away, the more I realised that I couldn't remain true to myself the way I wanted to be a Muslim woman, and continue to wear a headscarf.

It was a very difficult decision to make. I wore it for nine years. So my experience with the headscarf was not a very positive one. Because of that struggle of the external versus the internal one, until I finally was able to kind of pluck up the courage and take it off, and I had to deal with a lot of guilt afterwards, and fallout from reaction from Muslim friends, and non-Muslim friends. But I recognised that many of my relatives and friends who wear the headscarf have a much more positive experience with the headscarf, so in that sense I do check myself and say, just because I had a negative experience with it and I didn't feel comfortable wearing it, that is not the case for many Muslim women. But having gone for that, what it has done is it has immunised me against these men who make it their life's work to guilt-trip Muslim women into covering their hair.

You know, I gave a keynote speech on women and new media that opened a conference on Islam and the Media. And one of the questions I got was from a Muslim man who stood up. This is how he started his question: 'My wife and I often argue, because she doesn't cover her hair and I tell her the Qur'an does'. And then he turns to me and he says, 'And judging by the way you dress - ' and I said, 'OK, you've got to stop right there.' And he said, 'But you won't let me finish my question'. I said to him, 'Yes, because no-one wants to hear you lecture me'. I would not let him lecture me about - here I am, I am a very accomplished, I like to think intellectual woman, giving the keynote lecture at the beginning of a conference on Islam and the Media, presenting positive examples of how Muslim women today are using new and social media to express themselves, and all this man wants to talk about is how I'm dressed.

And so because I've gone through this experience, and I'm done with the guilt now, what he though I was going to do, and what often sadly happens is, I would say to him, 'Well you know, I'm just not ready to wear the headscarf yet. When God shows grace, and when God blesses me and guides me to the light' and all this blah-blah, 'I will hopefully, you know, I'll go on pilgrimage and have my sins forgiven and then ...' I don't play that game, I just stop him right there and say, 'You're not going to lecture me about the way I dress'. And this is what I know is very difficult because the religion is flung in so many women's faces.

I could have turned around to him and asked him, 'How many times have you been merciful today? Judging by how rude you have been to me this is not the kind of role model that the Prophet was.' It's amazing how they will just throw these religious verses around and totally forget the glasshouse they live in. And because I speak about it, and try to be as honest about my experience as possible, I've been very fortunate in that a lot of women have shared their experience with me.

And I recently got an email from a woman who's 34. She wrote to me two years ago as she was struggling with it. I honestly can't remember what I wrote back to her, but something must have resonated because she wrote back and she said, 'Thank you for what you said because I've finally been able to take off my headscarf. I wore it for 14 years, I finally feel that I'm the kind of Muslim woman I want to be, and if anything I feel much closer to God now without my headscarf than I did all those years struggling with the headscarf.'

I'm not going out there making it my life's work to de-scarf women, not at all. I want to support their choice, but I want men to keep their nose out of that choice.

Rachael Kohn: Well they haven't been able to keep their nose out of it particularly in responding to you on the web. You've published some of the very ugly things they have said, truly gut-wrenching things that are very personal, they all you an Arab-hater, or a man-hater, or a Muslim-hater. I mean you know it runs the gamut, and I suppose what is so sad about those sorts of comments is they simply dismiss you and therefore refuse to engage.

Mona Eltahawy: Those kind of men have never been my audience. What always amazes me about them is they seek me out, and they continue to post messages on my blog. They will want to be my friends on Facebook which makes me wonder what is the dynamic, what's happening here. You know, because as you say, they dismiss me; they don't want to accept anything I say. They don't believe I have the scholarship, they don't believe I have the grounding, none of that. And as I say, I never make these arguments on religious terms, I make them mostly on secular terms. And yet these men continue to seek me out.

So what is going on here? They're not my audience. My audience are women out there who like me, truly, completely and utterly identify as Muslim. I'm very proud to be Muslim. I do not want to give up my faith, but yet struggle with this constant obsession with the headscarf and this constant desire by men, mostly, to tell them what a good Muslim woman should be. Myself, and those other women, just want to figure out for ourselves what the good Muslim woman is. Those women are my audience, and those men who want to be our supporters and friends and allies in that struggle, are my audience.

But these men who, you know, don't want to hear a word I say and basically just sexualise me, they're not my audience, and yet they continue to seek me out. Many of these men are the kind of men who will refuse to shake your hand or refuse to look you in the eye or refuse to engage with you on any kind of intimate casual conversation because they believe it's a sin. And yet they don't hesitate to leave messages on my blog in which one of them said he doesn't believe I represent the Prophet in any way, but he wishes he could see the day when I am gang-raped. And I actually wrote back and asked him you know, 'How can you use the word 'rape', 'gang-rape' and the Prophet in the same sentence? And continue to identify as a Muslim?' and from that day on I started to moderate my blog. So you know this sexual violence, the sexualisation of me, and at the same time dismissal of me, just makes me wonder what is going on with these men. They're very, very deeply troubled individuals who are absolutely not my audience and yet they continue to seek me out. Why? That is for them to determine.

Rachael Kohn: I would imagine that when Barack Obama was elected President, and you're here living in Harlem, you would have had a pretty strong optimistic response to that. How have you felt now that a year has passed, more than a year has passed? He visited Egypt where you were born, he addressed a university crowd in Cairo, but again he spoke about the need for women to feel free to wear the hijab. How do you assess him on those issues today?

Mona Eltahawy: I still really like Barack Obama. I am thrilled that the President of the country that I live in, the United States, is much more intelligent than me because my biggest beef with George Bush was that I did not feel the President was more intelligent than me. So I'm thrilled that we have an intellectual, a man of the world, a cosmopolitan, global soul who is running the United States.

But I was disappointed with his Cairo speech for two reasons. One is that he chose Cairo to address the Muslim world and I think that was a big mistake, because many people often mix up the Arab world with Islam and 'Being Arab is Muslim, being Muslim is Arab'. I would have been much happier had he gone to Istanbul or Ankara in Turkey. I think Turkey would have been a much better place, or even better would have been Jakarta, Indonesia. He spent several years in Indonesia, Indonesia is the largest Muslim country. That for me would have done it.

But the other disappointment I found in his speech to the Muslim world was that the only time he mentioned Muslim women was when, I think it was five or six times and most of those times were in reference to headscarves, and one or two times to education. And you know, I was sitting there shaking my head going, Is that all you can talk about when it comes to Muslim women, their right to wear a headscarf, again with the headscarf Barack? Come on! Surely there's more to a Muslim again with this headscarf-hymen thing you know. So I did find that very disappointing.

I was happy that he was reaching out to the Muslim world, I was happy that he wanted to start Islam dialogue, but don't go back to the old broken record of Muslim women and headscarves. And so a part of me worries that Barack Obama and the advisers around him were talking to him about ways to heal the Muslim world. When it comes to women, we'll kind of fall to that default of conservative equals authentic equals women in headscarf equals everything is happy with Muslim women.

That's not the beginning and the end of the conversation. Let's move beyond headscarves and talk about other things that concern Muslim women. You know he has Muslim relatives in Kenya, and I'm sure not all his Muslim relatives wear headscarves. Can we celebrate their diversity? Can we celebrate the Muslim men out there who support women? You ask me about Muslim men who write me hateful messages. There are thousands of Muslim men out there that I hear from, who are friends, who are friends of friends, who support what I say. Can we celebrate them and their support of Muslim women like me? So we can see the diversity of Muslim views out there, and not just talk about headscarves? I'm really tired of headscarves.

Rachael Kohn: You've been pretty hard hitting in your criticism recently of Yale University in its publication of a book on controversial cartoons of Mohammad that sparked an international reaction. You were critical because Yale University decided against publishing the actual cartoons. What do you see as the danger of that decision?

Mona Eltahawy: I think the danger behind what Yale University did by pulling those cartoons, and not just the cartoons but also images of the Prophet from both Islamic and non-Islamic heritage or cultural heritage is that it has told people who want to express opposition of any kind in violent terms, 'You will always win'. They've capitulated totally and absolutely to people who use violence to make their point. For me as a Muslim, who often takes controversial stands, that is a very dangerous signal to send out there, and it also tells me that Yale University Press engages in what I think is a huge problem of many in the so-called Left Wing and Liberal camp, and that is what one of my friends - and he's given me this term now - calls 'the racism of lower expectations'. And this racism of lower expectations is the belief that whenever Muslims get upset they will behave violently so we'd better not upset the Muslims.

I find this extremely frightening. Frightening for me as well as world at large because I want to upset Muslims, because there are a lot of things I say that upset Muslims. So what? This is how you have a meaningful conversation, to say what you mean and if some people are offended it's their right to be offended, but answer me in words and not with violence. And Yale University Press has said that it doesn't expect Muslims to behave any better than what we saw those mobs do. But when it comes to the cartoons, I took a very, very strong position in supporting the Danish newspaper's right to publish those cartoons and in supporting the right to offend. I'm a big fan of offence. I think everyone should be offended all the time, or everyone should offend others rather, all the time. But it's also the right of anyone who wants to be offended, to be offended. My own mother was extremely offended by those cartoons; we reached the point where we just could not discuss them without arguing.

But you can express that offence peacefully and many Muslims I know express that offence very peacefully. The ugly violence that we saw was I think, a manipulation of genuine hurt used by politicians and dictators and political Islamists to make a point of their own. So they took the kind of the love a lot of Muslims wanted to express towards the Prophet and used it as a political statement, and not just the Muslim Brotherhood or radical groups but the various dictators in different Muslim countries around the world who wanted again to arm-wrestle over the religion. So they pushed, and they pushed and they pushed until they couldn't control the mob any more. And in some countries like Syria, I mean you cannot convince me that the regime in Syria doesn't know everything that is happening on the street. They have agents everywhere, and they knew the mob would have burnt down the Norwegian and the Danish consulates. They knew what was going to happen you know, and this was all again to make a political statement against Denmark, to show the Islamists that we too care about Islam, because in many cases the Islamists say These regions are godless and they are in the case of Egypt for example, best friends with the United States, you know, the infidel. So they wanted to make a point of saying No, we too love the Prophet, and we're going to defend him.

Noam Chomsky co-authored a book called Manufactured Consent. This was manufactured outrage. Unfortunately, dozens of people were killed because of the mob violence, and all Muslims. So it was Muslims going crazy over cartoons killing fellow Muslims.

I wanted Yale University Press to say, As a University press we believe in intellectual freedom, we believe in vigorous debate, we believe in the right to offend and the right to be offended but in expressing the offence both ways peacefully, using words and in an academic setting, whatever setting you want. And ironically the woman who wrote this book, the academic who wrote this book, a Dane, made the point that the right-wing in Europe use those cartoons for their own campaign. I made the argument about the right-wing you know in the Muslim camp and in the non-Muslim camp. Yale University Press basically gave a victory to both right-wings. It showed the right-wing in Europe that love to say Muslims are crazy that they were right, and it gave the Muslim right-wing that likes to threaten people into silence, you know, a free card basically, it gave them the green light to continue to threaten, to silence us all. And I don't want Yale University Press to tell them they're right. I want Yale to take my side, to say that offence is right.

Rachael Kohn: And Mona, have they responded to you? Because you essentially had said 'Look, Yale, you allied yourself with the extremists'.

Mona Eltahawy: I haven't heard anything from Yale University Press, no.

Rachael Kohn: Journalist Mona Eltahawy taking on Yale University Press. She's my guest on The Spirit of Things, here on ABC Radio National.

In coming weeks we'll hear from Sakeena Yacoobi, the courageous Afghan woman who's responsible for establishing schools for girls in Afghanistan. And from Professor Marnia Lazreg who went from defending the veil to questioning it.

Now back to Mona Eltahawy.

Well Mona, you have just been awarded the Anvil of Freedom Prize. What was it for? I mean I think I can guess, but tell me about that prize.

Mona Eltahawy: Sounds quite imposing doesn't it, The Anvil of Freedom. They give the award, they've been giving it for years now, to journalists who support democracy, who speak out on issues such as freedom of expression. In my case they wanted to take a focus on my work kind of crossing cultures.

I like to think I'm either, well I say bumble bee, some people say bridge, but I like to consider myself a bumble bee, that moves from place to place and takes pollen from one place and kind of deposits it in another hoping that it's going to blossom and then take more pollen and be on my way. So I like to think I got the Anvil of Freedom for being a bumble bee. But they focused on my cross-cultural work kind of between the Muslim worlds and the West, and the way I try to kind of explain the two to each other. And I was very happy to get this award because a previous recipient was Helen Thomas, a veteran Arab-American journalist who, you know, she sits in the front row at the White House and she always asks the first question of the President during up until now his news conferences. So I'm very honoured to get an award that Helen Thomas once got.

She is of Lebanese descent. Her parents moved here many, many years ago, she was born in this country. I had the great honour to interview her very soon after I moved to this country and she I think was one of the earliest and most visible Arab-American journalists in this country.

Rachael Kohn: Well speaking of being a bumble-bee and going from place to place in your inter-cultural, cross-cultural experience, you actually spent some time in Copenhagen after the debacle of the cartoons. What did you pick up on the street there? From Muslims, for example, who lived in Copenhagen. Did they view the issues in a black and white manner?

Mona Eltahawy: I was very happy to spend 2-1/2 months in Denmark right after the cartoon crisis because it opened my eyes to a lot of what is troubling Europe when it comes to the so-called Muslim issue, and it's not what you usually hear, you know, a kind of inner-city violence, and disenfranchised disillusioned young men who constantly want to burn cars in the ghettoes of Paris. What I learned was that, as I know here in the US, the Muslim community in Europe is very diverse. The Muslim community in Europe by and large is very well-integrated. The majority of Muslims are very happy to be European and Muslim, but they are not seen.

Up until the cartoon crisis, what many in the Danish government and the Danish media, and this is a problem across Europe, did was they went to the Imam and they want to the mosque to speak for all Muslims. The imam became the interlocutor between the Danish government and the Muslim community. Whenever the Danish media wanted to interview someone, go talk to someone after Friday prayers, go talk to the imam. Only 20% of Muslims in Denmark go to the mosque. So you are asking only 20% of the community to speak for the whole community, and again it's the most conservative community speaking for everyone. This house of cards came tumbling down, especially in Denmark because it was three or four of those imams who took a dossier with those cartoons but added two or three others that never appeared in Jyllands-Posten's cartoon, but appeared on very racist rightwing websites that actually portrayed the Prophet as a pig. And they took those cartoons around different countries in the Middle East, to say, 'Look what the Danes are saying about the Prophet', and really inflamed sentiments.

So the Danes, you know, Muslims and non-Muslims began to recognise what those imams were doing. Some of those imams themselves took part in conferences, I took part, and recognised that they were used both by their fellow imams but also by leaders and groups in the Middle East who wanted fuel against the Danes and against the Europeans, and you know, to fuel this whole Islamophobia thing.

So what happened in Denmark was the Danish media finally began to think, Well surely there are other Muslims we can speak to, other than the imams. And a Danish Muslim called Naser Khader of Syrian-Palestinian descent who was the first Muslim in the Danish parliament, launched a group called Democratic Muslims. The cartoons were the impetus but luckily they were launched right around the cartoon crisis. So here was a group of Muslims who looked very different than the usual Muslims you saw in the media. The majority of women didn't wear headscarves, but some of them did. The majority of them looked like any other Dane. If you walked past them in the street, they would look like me. You wouldn't think they looked like Muslims, but they were very vocal about their being Muslim, presenting themselves as alternative views for the media, and the government, to speak to.

So it was finally a realisation that while Muslims speak with many voices, hello, and for the Muslim community to recognise that some of my Danish friends were very offended by those cartoons, but they were about expressing their offence very differently than what happened that he we saw on the TV. They wrote Op Eds in the Danish newspapers, they took part in very peaceful demonstrations, some of them wanted to raise a case against the Danish newspaper, but they failed, and some of them were not offended in the least. That rainbow of views is what Muslims are, but we're never seen in this diversity, and I will finish my answer to you with this great anecdote that a British friend of mine gave me.

He's an attorney in the UK and he once went to Friday prayer with a doctor friend. And he finished Friday prayer and he's standing outside the mosque, they were just chatting, there's the doctor in his white coat, there's the lawyer in his suit, and there's a TV crew from British television, waiting. The two of them could see each other and the TV crew could see that my friends had just come out of the mosque but the TV crew pounced only when they saw a man with a big beard and a turban on, and they wanted the 'Muslim'. So this is what I recognised in Denmark, this was the biggest lesson for me and the Danes, Muslim and non-Muslim, that it's one very specific kind of Muslim that is seen, that's why Muslims are always seen as problems, but when you diversify the view, it's not that you're about to burn down the country, but why aren't we listening to these diverse views that are out there?

Rachael Kohn: Mona, you were recently at the University of Peace in Costa Rica. What were you teaching there?

Mona Eltahawy: I was teaching a course on women and new and social media in the Middle East, so that is the Arabic-speaking Middle East but also importantly, Iran, and how women in those countries have been using blogs and social networking sites like Facebook and micro-blogging sites like Twitter, and the video sharings like YouTube to express themselves in unprecedented ways, and to challenge authority, be it religious, political or social; to speak as feminists, to speak as Islamists, to speak as lesbian and bisexual women and to express themselves in ways that the mainstream media have rarely given them the ability to do. So basically my argument for the class was women have been the most marginalised in the mainstream media in the Middle East, and thanks to you and social media now they have embraced it the most, and they are making the most of it to basically just take on head-on, all the kinds of social restrictions and cultural and religious restrictions to express themselves and create this amazingly vibrant virtual world that is having a very real impact on the so-called real world.

Rachael Kohn: Well Mona, where can people in Australia read you?

Mona Eltahawy: In the virtual world I am at, my website where I post my own writing and interviews with me. So I will be posting the link to this interview, hopefully. On my blog, where I post my columns and people can leave comments. And they can my friends on Facebook and they can follow me on Twitter.

Rachael Kohn: And your columns are published in the International Herald Tribune?

Mona Eltahawy: In the International Herald Tribune, in The Washington Post as a freelance contributor, and in Israel's The Jerusalem Report, in a newspaper in Canada called Metro Canada, in Denmark in Politiken, and in the Arab World in Qatar's Al Arab.

Rachael Kohn: Well Mona Eltahawy, it's been wonderful talking to you. Thank you so much for allowing me into your very busy life to talk to me about women in Islam. It's been a great pleasure.

Mona Eltahawy: Rachael, thank you very much. I might have been a bee, but I have not buzzed along to Australia yet, so thank you very much for taking my views to your Australian audience.

Rachael Kohn: Mona Eltahawy is an American Muslim journalist, lecturer, and international speaker who is promoting the cause of women's freedom not to wear the veil and still be counted as a good Muslim. She's easily found on the web and we'll have a link to her website on our website.

I recorded that interview recently in New York City and the program was produced by me and Geoff Wood.

The sound engineer this week is John Jacobs.

I'm Rachael Kohn, join me again for another adventure into The Spirit of Things at the same time next week.