Essay: My Ambition is To Be Free And Awesome!

Ambition is the middle finger up to patriarchy’s insistence that we shrink ourselves. 

Mona Eltahawy on Twitter: "My new tattoo v soon. Thanks to @marwahelal who  sent me this and thanks to @JessRiz who initially posted on IG. And thank  you Kathy Acker… https://t.co/mFzWqYwI0P"

When one of my nieces was eight years old, she told me she had been looking up pictures of our family online.

“I saw one of you…” she paused. “Never mind,” 

I thought she had wanted to say she had seen a picture of me with my arms in casts after Egyptian riot police assaulted me and that she had paused mid-sentence because she was worried she would upset me with a bad memory. After a bit of cajoling by her mother, she finally told me that she meant she had seen a picture of me getting arrested in Times Square subway station in New York City after I spray painted over a racist advertisement in 2012. 

My darling niece thought I would be upset that she had seen a picture of me getting arrested for doing something I had vowed to do. I was proud of my civil disobedience, for which I was jailed overnight and charged with criminal mischief, making graffiti and possession of a graffiti instrument. A judge eventually dropped the charges in the interest of justice. 

I told my niece that I was proud of getting arrested. We had a good chat about why I spray painted over the ad and why protesting was important. And then together we looked at the pictures of me getting arrested. And our conversation continued:

Niece: I know why you got tattoos. (pointing to my forearms)

Me: Why?

Niece: Because they broke those arms and you wanted to say ‘I’m free and awesome! (Pause) Why did they break your arms?

Me: They wanted to scare me and make me go home and stop protesting.

Niece: Did you go home?

Me: No

Niece: Good!

If feminism is like a relay, that conversation with my niece was the moment I passed into her hands the Baton of Free and Awesome, as she so beautifully put it. I also call it the baton of ambition; an ambition that tells a girl she can be more than.

It is my ambition to liberate ambition from accumulation, be it wealth or the crumbs of patriarchy’s approval. It is my ambition to destroy patriarchy. 

Ambition is a sin because patriarchy wants women to be less than; having ambition means being more than. It does not mean having more. It means being more. 

You cannot be more than when patriarchy crushes you into being less than. We learn early. Bossy. Bitch. Show-off. Selfish. Pushy. The list of epithets that serve as synonyms for women who are perceived to be ambitious is a reminder of that sin of ambition. Those epithets are about being liked: patriarchy socializes women and girls to want to be liked. I do not want to be liked; I want to be free. 

We must rewrite what ambition means and what its aspirations are. We must find ways to talk about ambition that fan the flames of subversion not fuel submission to patriarchy and its oppressions. It is my ambition to liberate ambition from accumulation, be it wealth or the crumbs of patriarchy’s approval. It is my ambition to destroy patriarchy. 

Too often the story of ambition has been written by and for middle and upper class white women and then presented to the rest of us as pre-packaged ambition for our consumption. 

It was never my ambition to become a CEO, to have a corner office, or to become rich. What is ambition liberated from all of that? What is ambition when you are a woman of colour? What is ambition for a woman whose goal is not to become a CEO? What does ambition look like for a woman whose goal is not to become rich? What is ambition liberated from corporate success? What is ambition for a working class woman or a woman who is poor?

Answers to all those questions invariably lead to more questions. What is work? What is the definition of success? 

Feminism is not me and my friends making it through patriarchy’s obstacle course to live ever after in post-feminist heaven. Feminism is the destruction of those obstacles that hold back so many other women mired in the patriarchal fuckery of the here and now.

Who or what determines what women are supposed to be, want, and do? Primarily, of course, patriarchy. But remember, that patriarchy works in tandem with other forms of oppression such as racism, classism, ableism, etc. That is especially the case for women of colour and women from marginalized groups. Working in tandem, patriarchy, racism and capitalism delineate where women should be. Those three constructs squeeze women into being less than. They work so seamlessly together that ambition is rarely seen outside the borders of those constructs. 

What ambitions is a working class woman allowed to have? Is a girl of colour in a racist society allowed to have ambition? Where does ambition end and where does exploitation begin when a woman from the Philippines takes a job as a domestic worker in Kuwait where she will make 10 times what any job in her home country will pay her? 

In capitalist societies where neoliberal policies privilege a free market over working conditions that are the antithesis of freedom, is work the end result of ambition or the place where ambition goes to die? 

When workers are exploited and humiliated as they make our devices - from smartphones to tablets to laptops - and are exploited and humiliated as they prepare our purchases for delivery in the warehouses of an online retailer whose owner is the wealthiest man in human history, surely dignity and a right to a basic income should be ambitions we all strive for? 

I don’t want to do anything a man can. My ambition is much bigger than doing whatever a man can. I want to be free.

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Patriarchy, racism and capitalist exploitation cannot be solved on a per individual basis by celebrating exceptional cases who survive and thrive despite those systemic oppressions. Feminism is not me and my friends making it through patriarchy’s obstacle course to live ever after in post-feminist heaven. Feminism is not a few women hurdling over the obstacles. Feminism is the destruction of those obstacles that hold back all those other women who are very much mired in the patriarchal fuckery of the here and now.

What does ambition look like during these days of immense loss and grief, when a global pandemic has pushed so many women out of the workforce and into lockdown with abusive partners in a reminder that it was home all along and not a park or a parking lot where danger and death so often ensnared them? 

Our ambition should be to guarantee universal basic income.

Our ambition should be to guarantee housing for all.

Our ambition should be to ensure everyone has free education and healthcare.

Our ambition should be to destroy patriarchy, white supremacy, misogyny, capitalism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism and fatphobia.

Our ambition should fan the flames of subversion not fuel submission to patriarchy and its oppressions.

Ambition is defiance. Ambition is the middle finger up to patriarchy’s insistence that we shrink ourselves. 

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Until we divorce patriarchy from ambition and ambition from patriarchy we will forever force women and girls to shrink their ambition to fit that asinine phrase “women can do whatever men can.” 

I don’t want to do anything a man can. My ambition is much bigger than doing whatever a man can. Men are not my yardstick. If men themselves are not free of the ravages of racism, capitalism and other forms of oppression, it is not enough to say I want to be equal to them or to do whatever they can. As long as patriarchy remains unchallenged, men will continue to be the default and the standard against which everything is measured. My ambition is for much more. I want to be free.

Ambition is defiance. It is the middle finger up to patriarchy’s insistence that we shrink ourselves. 

Attention and ambition are cousins. The former defies patriarchy through the belief that “I deserve attention” and the latter by declaring “I am more than.” A similar arrogance fuels both attention and ambition. I am a big fan of female arrogance. The “who do you think you are” that punishes the “sin” of attention also pushes back against the “sin” of ambition. And for daring to want attention and for being ambitious we are shrunk and diminished by that lasso “Who do you think you are?” Those words are the equivalent of being forced to stand in front of a fun-house mirror that reflects us back at half our natural sizes.

My ambition is to be free and awesome!

Who do I think I am? 

I am someone I believe is more than what she is told she could be. I believe I am one of the most important feminists in the world today and that is why I wrote The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls, which is officially out in Ireland and the UK today via Tramp Press.

It has been my ambition to be an author who is read around the world and whose work is influential and a source of power for women, especially. It is my ambition to be known for work that defies, disobeys and disrupts patriarchy. It is my ambition to be a radical and relevant voice against patriarchy, racism, classism, homophobia and all forms of bigotry. 

And I believe I am succeeding. That is who I think I am. Am I arrogant in believing that? I have fucking earned it.

My ambition is to be free.

 My ambition is to be savage and dangerous (Nawal El Saadawi).

My ambition is to make revolution irresistible (Toni Cade Bambara).

My ambition is to be a menace to my enemies (June Jordan). 

My ambition is to be free and awesome!

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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 (2015) 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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