Mona Eltahawy was just 15 years old when she was sexually assaulted while performing one of Islam's most sacred rituals. She and her family had recently moved to Saudi Arabia, and they were taking part in their first hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.
It took Eltahawy — now 50, a journalist and a well-known feminist commentator — years to feel comfortable enough to share that difficult story. When she finally did, it turned out that many other Muslim women had endured strikingly similar assaults. Eltahawy has been connecting with them and collecting their stories for years.
Last month, inspired by the #MeToo movement and another first-person account of sexual harassment on the hajj, Eltahawy started #MosqueMeToo. “We must make sure #MeToo breaks the race, class, gender and faith lines that make it so hard for marginalized people to be heard,” she wrote in an opinion piece for The Washington Post.
Since then, many Muslim women have shared their own painful stories online. Eltahawy sees this as a difficult and necessary step in bringing about equality for women in Islam. Ahead of International Women's Day, she spoke with The Post about changes taking place for Muslim women, what has caused them and where they are headed. (The interview below has been edited and condensed.)
WorldViews: Are women in Islam experiencing a moment that could change the way religious leaders deal with gender issues?
Mona Eltahawy: I’m now 50, and this is the most exciting time to be a Muslim for me. When I look across the Muslim world and the various Muslim communities around the world, this is the most exciting time to be a Muslim woman for many reasons, but primarily because of social media, which has given a platform and a voice to women we would have never heard from before.
Men always controlled the message, the interpretation. They controlled everything. But in recent years, we’ve seen an erosion of that through satellite television, which opened up the world and connected people in ways that were unheard of before. Through the Internet. Our ability to connect is unprecedented, but through social media I’ve seen things I never imagined.
WV: Is it now too late for patriarchal powers to turn back and put a lid back on these movements?
ME: We’re way beyond putting the lid back on. I’ve been speaking about my assault in Mecca for many years now. But the reason I started #MosqueMeToo was that I read a Facebook post by a young Pakistani woman. She is a woman I’ve never met and will probably never meet, but now we communicate. When I read about her experience, I felt that it sounded painfully familiar, so I shared my experience again and it went global.
A few hours after I wrote my own thread about my sexual assault at the hajj, Indonesia woke up. People picked up my thread and started tweeting in Indonesian. And then India and Pakistan wake up, and they’re tweeting in Urdu. And then Turkish, then Arabic, then French, then German. So when I see that people are able to talk in this global way, there is no way you can put the lid back on.
WV: Can Islam be compatible with gender equality?
ME: I’m a feminist and I’m a Muslim and I don’t always connect the two. But there is a growing movement called Islamic feminism, and one of its main proponents is someone I consider a mentor: the black American Muslim scholar Amina Wadud, who in 2005 led the first public mixed-gender Friday prayer. I took part in it, and it was one of the most moving moments in my life. She led 100 of us, 50 men and 50 women. I prayed without my headscarf, I prayed next to a man and I prayed while I was on my period, which for a lot of Muslims are three huge taboos. But it was very important for me to do that, because it was this very moving historical moment.
WV: Some say the Koran is very clear on how people are meant to practice the religion and its rituals, and there is a right and a wrong way for men and women. How do you reconcile that?
ME: I don’t need a verse from the Koran or a hadith [the teachings of Muhammad] to tell me I can pray without a headscarf. I know it’s the right thing to do. I think that is the most effective way to fight for gender equality. To have the Islamic feminists for those who want the religious approach and to have the secular approach, which is what I use, for those who don’t need to be told “the verse says you can do this.”
WV: What has to happen for that change to come about in these societies?
ME: We have to give women consent and agency. A woman has to be able to say, “I want to be able to have sex with whoever, but if this person assaults me and forces sex upon me without consent, that is rape.” It has to be a discussion that breaks down the taboos about sex.
WV: How is sex defined in these societies?
ME: Islam is a religion that is considered sex-positive when the sex is happening between a husband and a wife. So in that regard, it is more sex-positive than many forms of Christianity and some forms of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. And it’s not just about procreation. It’s also about pleasure, but pleasure that is very specific to a heterosexual married context.
I want to expand sex-positivity as a Muslim to all kinds of contexts as long as they have consent and agency at their heart. We have to be realistic: People are having sex. And it is sex that is outside of marriage and not just heterosexual. I insist on talking about sex and sexuality.
WV: What are the responsibilities of religious authorities in these societies and at the holy sites?
ME: This all has to do with the way the Saudis have wrapped Islam up in their own warped gender inequality. Saudi Arabia practices gender apartheid, and part of that is the guardianship system. Ultimately, we have to connect what is happening in the sacred places in Saudi Arabia to what is happening in secular places in Saudi Arabia to the guardianship system. Because when you treat women like children their entire lives, you are giving the green light to men that says, “These women belong to you.”