Essay: Falling Apart Like a Feminist

cw: sexual assault.
This past week was utter shit. And then I remembered that November is the anniversary of my death. A metaphorical one, albeit, but when you’re a middle-aged feminist falling apart, metaphor is a sequin jacket you wear when you write because the sparkles are like stars that brighten your dark night. 

Photo (L): Peter Hapek for Time magazine; (R) Robert E. Rutledge

Most of last week, my mind felt like a car that was trying to drive with the hand brake on. And there was nothing to do but sit with it, screeching and all.

I think twice, thrice, and often more before I share moments of vulnerability on social media. When you’re a feminist accustomed to having the dogs of patriarchy let loose on you, you become more comfortable with vowing to bring pain to your enemies than to admitting to your own. But I have learned to do both: be on the lookout for the dogs of patriarchy, ready to kick their teeth in, and also keep my pain soft. Unfailingly, and surprisingly, when I do share my pain, it is held with such care and love by my community of total strangers and comrades online that I have to remind myself that softness drives the revolution as much as rage. 

I didn’t know what it was about last week in particular. Perhaps it was the post U.S. Election adrenaline crash. Perhaps it was just the general fuckery of this year of pandemic and immense, unimaginable grief. Perhaps it’s my perimenopause.

When you’re a middle-aged feminist falling apart during a global pandemic, it can be useful to think of your perimenopause as a metaphor. 

Learning to sit in the fear and chaos and learning to be friends, or at least to make eye contact, with that fear and chaos is terrifying and awesome

I wasn’t paying attention at first, to be honest: to either my perimenopause or the pandemic. Once they both started, there was no going back and it was unclear what lay ahead. You’re in an in-between that can take years so you’d better learn to acclimate. Perimenopause? Or Pandemic? It’s like a fucking TV quiz show. Jeopardy but for hormones. 

And even now, I’ll be so fucking bone-tired-exhausted that I’m in bed all day: periemnopause or pandemic?

And another question jangles like a bell around my neck as I move through both pandemic and perimenopause: how do I want to emerge? How do I want to stand in this in-between, this forever now, in such a way that honours how scared I am but also how alive I am to the potential that is born from emerging? How do I best feel this time, fear it, and accept my fear so that I can expend my energy not in denying I’m scared - it’s fucking exhausting denying your’re scared - but instead use it to emerge, wiser, into my new reality?

Transformation is hard.

Learning to sit in the fear and chaos and learning to be friends, or at least to make eye contact, with that fear and chaos is terrifying and awesome; awesome as in 

adjective

  1. extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear.
    "the awesome power of the atomic bomb"

Except instead of “the awesome power of the atomic bomb,” it is instead the awesome power of the changing body, evolving from what was into what will become.

Understanding the macrocosm of the pandemic through the microcosm of perimenopause: not as a way to demonize the natural process of change that is perimenopause, but to honour the lessons it is teaching me. I’m learning to sit with the fear and chaos, submit to the change from which there is no going back, prepare to emerge, and applying them to a global upheaval that I have very little control over but after which there will be “no going back to normal.” There is no going back. We must emerge, not regress.

I refuse to emerge as if unscathed. I insist that we all be scathed, that we refuse to be the people we were at the start of the pandemic. A pandemic, like revolution, does not happen overnight. 

But then I remembered why I feel like shit in November: I died in November 2011 on a street in Cairo, near Tahrir Square, the name of which is now indelibly connected to the Egyptian revolution that year, and also tattooed on my inner left arm in Arabic calligraphy. The Arabic word for FREEDOM is right next to it, in bigger letters. 

Grief and trauma are sneaky shits. They know our subconscious is full of holes. They know where to kick and where it will hurt. And they return every November to remind me that the Mona that I once was died in November 2011 so that the Mona I became could survive. 

I promised myself that once my bones healed, I would dye my hair red - a bright flaming red. A red that yelled "Fuck you, you didn't kill me, I survived!" A red that said "I am here, I am not hiding!" A red that turbocharged a femininity that said "I am here. Don't fuck with me." 

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In November 2011, when I was 44, Egyptian riot police beat me during a protest near Tahrir Square. They broke my left arm and my right hand. I can't remember anymore if it was three or four of them. They then dragged me to a no-man's land between the barricades at the front line of the protest I had been a part of and the barricades that were the police front line, on the street leading to the Interior Ministry. In this no man's land, they sexually assaulted me and then dragged me to their supervising officer who promised to "protect me" from his men - as they continued to sexually assault me - and also threatened to have another group of his men gang rape me. 

After a while of this pretend good cop/bad cop game, I was held incommunicado for six hours at the Interior Ministry and then held another six hours by Military Intelligence where I was blindfolded and interrogated. 

When I was finally released, a woman who had been following me on Twitter but who I had never met before came to my hotel and drove me to a hospital —you see what I mean about the online tribe of strangers and comrades— where X-rays showed my left arm was broken as well as my right hand, and both of my arms were put in casts.

I had never in my life broken any bones. I could do very little for myself. Reckoning with three months in which both my arms would be in casts, I made a vow to myself: once my bones healed, I would dye my hair red - a bright flaming red. A red that yelled "Fuck you, you didn't kill me, I survived!" A red that said "I am here, I am not hiding!" And I would get tattoos, one on each of my inner arms to make beautiful what had emerged after the casts were removed.

It had taken me years to get here. This was the volcano that Ursula K. Le Guin had talked of when she told graduating students at Bryn Mawr to erupt!

I did not - could not - cry after my assault. I went on every TV network known to the world to expose what the Egyptian regime had done to me and to remind the world that had I been an anonymous, working class woman, I would probably have been gang raped and possibly dead. I found out several months later, that at least 12 other women at the protest where I was assaulted were assaulted in an almost identical manner but were unable to speak about what they had been subjected to - silenced either by shame or by their families.

About two weeks after my assault, Egyptian soldiers stripped a female protester and stomped on her chest in Tahrir Square. The photograph of that assault has become indelibly linked with the Egyptian revolution.

Egyptian army soldiers arrest a female protester during clashes at Tahrir Square in Cairo December 17, 2011. REUTERS/Stringer

To this day we do not know her name because her family will not let her speak because they are ashamed that the world saw her blue bra and her exposed upper torso. Thousands of Egyptian women marched in protest. One of them wrote to me and said "I hope you know that we marched for you too." 

And that is when I cried.

I wrote this for The Guardian on Christmas Eve, 2011, with one finger on an iPad because both my arms were in casts. I wanted to remember.

Forty people were killed by police and soldiers during the five days of protest on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in November 2011 and at least 300, including me, were injured. I had to learn to emerge from my assault. I had surgery on my left arm during which a titanium plate and five screws were inserted around the fracture. My bones took about eight weeks to heal. My heart: longer. 

Every year, I wonder whether I should share my grief anniversary. I’m alive, I tell myself. So many others aren’t. I’m free, I tell myself. So many others aren’t. And then the screeching of my mind like a car trying to drive with the brakes on is an insistence that I share because 12 other women could not share. 

We will emerge, our hearts unhealed and scarred but awesome.

In the way that perimenopause has taught me to focus on emerging, my assault nine years ago this month taught me to let go—of the Mona I once was— and to emerge, scathed.

I dyed my hair red to set fire to my rage, to mould it into what I needed in order to get to the core of my being. And then, to refuse a return/regress to “normal,” I shaved all my hair off soon after the pandemic started. It was my way of preparing to emerge, again, scathed and in recognition of the immensity of this time. 

Photo: Robert E. Rutledge

And now in this year of pandemic and perimenopause, this grief anniversary is the hand brake to the car in my mind, screeching in its insistence that I remember to sit with the fear and chaos. We cannot reverse. We will emerge, our hearts unhealed and scarred but awesome.

The way you fall apart as a feminist is to say FUCK YOU I SURVIVED, and release the hand brake, finally, and move into the fear and chaos.


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. 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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