Essay: Dear Graduating Mona

Dear Mona sitting on a bus driving through the desert in Saudi Arabia taking teenage girls to a market to buy ugly matching graduation outfits in 1984.

First: I want you to know that my hair is now, in 2021, even shorter than yours was, and that’s saying something! 

You are on my mind because high school graduations are taking place in person again. Can you fucking believe we’re in the middle of a global pandemic? The first in a hundred years.

I’m writing to you, Mona of 1984,  at the end of a week that has been especially moving because our niece--the oldest nibling (a gender-neutral word for nieces and nephews similar to siblings)--graduated high school as valedictorian. Like you, she spoke at her graduation—and not in an ugly matching outfit!—which I watched on YouTube Live  because of the fucking pandemic. She was so confident and poised and I cried.

This week, another girl, who was also valedictorian, gloriously told the patriarchy in Texas--the American equivalent of Saudi Arabia--to fuck off.

How, with all those “you should” and “you must” were you supposed to figure out “I want” and “I desire”?  

Graduation season inspires grown ups to write the high school graduation speech they wish they had thought of decades ago. I’m writing a letter to you that has been decades in the making to tell you that even though you wore ugly matching outfits at your graduation, joy and liberation were on the other side of the horizon. One day, Future Mona will wear sequins as she stands at other podiums to address halls full of people who have come to hear her speak and she will conclude by conducting them in a chorus of FUCK THE PATRIARCHY! 

I am writing to you a week into Pride Month. In 1984, you had no idea what that was. You were 16, in love with a girl and a boy at the same time and thought everyone else was as well.

Ha!  The things you didn't know!

On that bus, a song called Holiday by someone called Madonna came on the radio and you wanted to hijack the vehicle and drive it into oncoming traffic because the song’s saccharine happiness hurt.

It's time for the good times

Forget about the bad times, oh yeah

One day to come together to release the pressure

We need a holiday

The Mona on that bus taking teenage girls to a market to get ugly matching graduation outfits is our fake self - Stand-in Mona. You moved to Jeddah two years earlier and felt like a prisoner of the “bad times.” Your happy self—Real Mona—was back in London, wandering the streets waiting for you to return and reclaim her and the “good times.”

Giving the graduation speech in my ugly matching outfit, 1984

I wonder what a therapist would have said had you had the wherewithal to tell our parents that you sometimes imagined jumping off the balcony to end your misery, to press pause on the pain in your mind. 

Would the therapist have said "Of course you want to kill yourself. Girls are not designed to thrive under patriarchy!" Or would they have drugged you into oblivion and acquiescence?

What is the price of patriarchy for a girl? I have known several girls who, around the age of 16, step onto a minefield called depression. Nothing prepares you. Is it the realization of how little power we have? The pain of absorbing how long it would take until we could look the world in the eye and say "Fuck you, I do not consent!'?

I made a vow to you, sixteen-year-old Mona on the bus: I promised you I would never allow us to be stuck--that we would never be in a situation that we could not walk away from. Marriage. Children. Anything that would’ve required a life-time commitment: we did not consent. 

I want you to know that although we veered slightly off course into a disastrous marriage, I got us out after two years, and since then, we have lived, fucked, and danced our life to the fullest for decades.

This week, another girl, who was also valedictorian, gloriously told the patriarchy in Texas--the American equivalent of Saudi Arabia--to fuck off.

I want you to know that 42 years before you gave that graduation speech, when you were in love with a girl and a boy at the same time, celebrated Urdu author Ismat Chaugtai wrote a short story called Lihaaf about a sexual relationship between two women that landed her on trial on obscenity charges. Four years before you gave that graduation speech, when you were in love with a girl and a boy at the same time, Adrienne Rich had written an essay about what she called “compulsory heterosexuality.” You did not know that in 1984. Just as you did not know “queer, or “bisexual” or “pansexual.” You did not have a word for it and you could not explore it beyond feeling it. 

You just knew that you were expected to grow up to marry a man; most definitely a Muslim man; preferably an Egyptian man. And that until then, you were not supposed to have sex until you married that Muslim, Egyptian man. How, with all those “you should” and “you must” were you supposed to figure out “I want” and “I desire”?  

You waited years until you had sex; I should say sex with a person other than yourself because your masturbation habit was prodigious, girl! I’m proud of you. 

Then I--the Mona of your future--stepped in. I got fed up wondering if I really was going to wait to get married to have sex and if it had to always be with a man. I want you to know the answer was no, and no. 

I want you to know that the more honest appraisal would be: I got fed up wondering if I’d ever have the courage to have sex with whomever I wanted, whenever I wanted (with their consent obviously). And the answer is an enthusiastic yes! and yes!

I channeled you when I got on a stage in a Brooklyn club and said the revolution was my cunt.

You might not have had the words, or the bandwidth of liberation to explore what being in love with a girl and a boy at the same time meant, but there you were smuggling copies of Tales of the City into Saudi Arabia that you bought on summer holidays in London. You told Armistead Maupin that when you met at a literary festival in 2016 and he chuckled to know of your act of subversion. 

Back then, customs in Saudi airports would open all suitcases looking for “contraband,” such as the book about The Spice Girls you once bought for your little sister and which they confiscated. Watching them be untroubled by copies of Tales of the City in your suitcase was thrilling.  Did they know what it was, and did they share the vicarious life it offered you?  

I want you to know that 15 years after you were in love with a girl and a boy at the same time, you read Koolaids by Rabih Alameddine and it blew your fucking mind because here was an openly gay author from Lebanon, not too far from Egypt where you were born. You told him that when you met at a literary festival in 2011, when you insisted that you become friends because his novel had been a gift from a friend in the future.

World Pride, June 27, 2019, NYC. Photo: Robert E. Rutledge

I want you to know that in June 2019, I channeled you, Mona of 1984, when I marched in Pride in NYC with a queer authors group and it blew my fucking mind because it was the first time I was not on the sidelines cheering, as in previous Pride’s. People who came in groups reached their hands out to touch--joy!-- and high five--liberation; some wanted to hug and take selfies. 

But it was in the eyes of those who came alone that I saw you. It was like making eye contact with 1984 Mona. I did not know if they were out; if they were terrified to be seen there; or if they even had the words. I knew how long it had taken me to wade through the muck of what I had been taught I should want to get to the muscle of what I desired. That is what I saw in their eyes.

Sarajevo Pride, September 8, 2019

I want you to know that three months later, I channeled you when I marched in the first Pride in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and it blew my fucking mind because there I was in a small sea of people who like me were also of Muslim descent waving rainbow and trans pride flags. In some buildings that overlooked our route, people would blow kisses from windows and balconies. Snipers stood on the roof of a shopping mall along that route, on the lookout for acts of anticipated violence against us (none came). 

I want you to know that in March 2020, in what would become my last public gathering before pandemic lockdown, I channeled you when I got on a stage in a Brooklyn club and said the revolution was my cunt. My dear friend the Egyptian drag queen Ana Masreya had invited me to speak at her event called Nefertitties, which has become a haven for queer Arabs. That night they were from Iraq, Palestine, Qatar, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia.

I want you to know that it was you and me who stood on that stage and yelled into a microphone, “My revolution is with the queers.”

Get 7 Necessary Sins for Women and Girls

And look at the literature from across your region of birth that you could now be smuggling into Saudi Arabia!

I want you to know that hearing “Holiday” on that bus driving teenage girls to a market to get ugly matching graduation outfits in 1984 might have lacerated you with its saccharine, hollow happiness, but that you grew up to know that happiness is to joy what freedom is to liberation. My niece’s confidence and poise and that girl in Texas’ fuck you to the patriarchy were echoes back to the ears of 1984 Mona, promising that joy and liberation.

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Mona Eltahawy is a feminist author, commentator and disruptor of patriarchy. Her first book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution (2105) targeted patriarchy in the Middle East and North Africa and her second The Seven Necessary Sins For Women and Girls (2019) took her disruption worldwide. It is now available in Ireland and the UK. Her commentary has appeared in media around the world and she makes video essays and writes a newsletter as FEMINIST GIANT.  

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