Essay: The King Herself

Learning to Disobey

For eight years, my hair was a bright, flaming red.  I dyed it red to set fire to my rage, to mould it into what I needed in order to get to the core of my being. There, I found power. 

When the pandemic started, the power that my crown of flames had once given me became moot. I had dyed my hair red to signal FUCK YOU I SURVIVED and I moved back to Cairo from New York City to further signal to the regime whose riot police had broken my arms and sexually assaulted me that I would not hide. I went home not to roost, but rage. 

Seven years later, what good was the power of a crown of flames, during a pandemic, when I am at home all the time, effectively hiding from a virus? What was my power without that fire? How do I signal power now?

From a very early age, my hair has been the site of a dance - more robust tango than delicate waltz - between disobedience and independence. And now, in the limited confines of lockdown, the dance took on a more urgent tempo as I learned to liberate myself from what had once given me power so that I could fashion anew my strength.

I had to shave my hair off. 

The longer the lockdown became, the shorter my hair had to be. I knew that, every time I looked into the mirror. But I was terrified. I hate being scared of anything. I hate just admitting to being scared. What was I scared of? Fuck that shit. I refuse to be scared! Always, always, whatever scares me the most, in just the thinking about doing it, is what I need to do the most.

Quietly, when I slipped under the din of my denial, I knew. I had to do the opposite of what I did to signal FUCK YOU I SURVIVED. To survive now, I had to whittle all that hair of fire away and start with a blank canvas. To get to that canvas, to shave off my hair, would - and here is where the terror came in - force me into a reckoning with being ugly. Underneath the layers of my 53 years, past all that sediment of rage upon rage, was a girl who was told - and she believed - she was ugly. She was waiting for me. And to find her, I had to take off my crown of fire and embrace instead the nakedness of a buzzed head

Ugly. Such an arcane word. A word I never use. Its power could slice through whatever feminist armour of titanium I naively thought bolstered my strut. Impenetrable does not stand a chance when confronted with the wounds of a teenage girl.

Any reckoning with ugly had to involve a face-off between disobedience and independence. To be ugly is to disobey. To be ugly is to be independent. The latter I cherished. The former I had to learn. It was a dance rooted in my hair and which began in my childhood.

I was not a disobedient child. But I cherished independence before I knew what it meant.

On the first day of kindergarten, my parents tell me, I (too easily?) let go of their hand and excitedly headed to a desk where I took my place and waved goodbye to them, surrounded by a sea of children in various stages of “don’t leave me!” meltdown.

Independence and disobedience are not the same thing. I was a very obedient child. I listened. I learned. I behaved. Do we learn to obey or must we learn to disobey? I know I had to learn disobedience. 

Crying and fighting my mother when she tried to detangle my hair when I was about 3 years old; fighting the anesthesiologist when he tried to make me go under for a tooth extraction when I was about 8 years old: those were unusual and organic acts of disobedience. My norm was otherwise.

And yet, every meeting between my parents and teachers resembled the other: Mona is an excellent pupil, but she talks too much. Too much? Learning to disobey invariably involves “too much.”

To disobey I had to collide headlong into the systems and structures of patriarchy that ensure girls obey: religion, law, teachers, norms, beauty standards that sit atop the three-legged stool of capitalism and racism and misogyny. In the name of the tentacles of patriarchy, women, girls, and femmes are to be contained and controlled; suffocated by the tentacles of the octopus called patriarchy into obedience. Contained, controlled, suffocated, or else.

Or else what? 

The thought of shaving my hair off tantalized me. It promised an answer to that “or else what?” but only if I stopped running away from ugliness. 

There is a scene in Abbas Kiarostami’s film Ten when a woman sitting in a car in Tehran traffic gingerly removes her hijab to reveal a shaved head. When I first saw that film in New York City in 2003 I started to cry. It had been 11 years since I stopped wearing hijab and it would be another 17 years until I shaved off my own hair.

I rewatched the film soon after I shaved off my hair and that scene still seized me.

What does the revolution have to do with hair? During the Irish Revolution, both sides would forcibly shave or cut off women’s hair as punishment as well as a way to control women’s bodies. The Iranian Revolution was co-opted by the clerics who then claimed as an achievement the mass covering of an entire nation’s women’s hair. The revolution, like ugly, is a dance-off between disobedience and independence.

I prepared myself to shave my hair off by posting endlessly on Twitter. I was daring myself; publicly throwing down a gauntlet to myself so that I wouldn’t chicken out. Several women wrote to complain that hair stylists in their respective locales would ask them “Does your husband know you’re doing this?” before they agreed to buzz their hair. Or else.

I learned recently from an article about intimate partner abuse that while training hair stylists to be on the lookout for such abuse, activists advised the stylists to be on the lookout for men who would accompany women to the salon and dictate what their wife/girlfriend could do to her own hair.

And how is it possible that California became only the first state in the United States as late as 2019 to ban employers and school officials from discriminating against people based on their natural hair? How did it take so long? The CROWN Act has made it illegal to enforce dress code or grooming policies against hairstyles such as afros, braids, twists, and locks.

Who owns my hair, let alone my body, when a revolution in which women fought alongside men soon after declaring victory enforced hijab? When you shave the hair under that enforced hijab, are you then the revolution of one, defying, disobeying, and disrupting?

When you cannot cut your own hair the way you want to without assuring the stylist that your husband approves, how quickly does public Patriarchy become private patriarchy?

And when white supremacist patriarchy could punish you for being a Black woman who had an Afro how brave is your home or free your land?

How do I signal FUCK YOU, I OWN MY BODY in a way that both Patriarchy and patriarchy understand? And why must I give a fuck?

Every time I publicly dared myself to shave my hair off, I was privately daring myself to look ugly in the eye and see who would blink first. I practiced in the mirror. Days and days of looking at myself and conjuring up the 13 year old girl that I used to be, on her first trip back to Egypt since my family left in 1975 when I was 7. There in Cairo, a boy walking behind me and my aunt said to his friend, loudly enough for me to hear “That girl used to be a boy and they gave her a sex change.”

I had returned to Cairo from London with my brother and mother. My grandmother had died suddenly and my mother needed to be with her siblings to grieve. My parents were on student stipends in London and we could not afford tickets back to Egypt which meant my mother had not seen her mother in five years before she died.

One of my mother’s sisters who came to Cairo airport to meet us later told me that upon first seeing me she had told other aunts that she pitied her sister - my mother - because I was so ugly that my parents would have to pay a man a dowry to marry me.

That was the ugly that I prepared myself for. I braced for it. I wanted to tap into it and unwrap it. For years I have not been able to look at pictures of myself from that trip to Egypt or my teen years because I believed I was indeed ugly. And so I abandoned myself. I left that girl waiting for me to claim her. 

The pandemic surrounded us with so much ugliness. Find her, it yelled at me. Claim her, it challenged me. Stop running away from her.

I was ready.

I was also ready to ask what possessed my aunt to think I was ugly and moreover to share with me that she thought that?

It was a painful time for her and her siblings. She was the unmarried aunt who had been looking after my grandmother. She was mourning and perhaps unable to access an empathy that should know better than to dig into that well of ugly. Her grief was not gentle and it tunneled into nasty instead. And here and now, during a global pandemic, as we mourn, how will we ensure empathy, how do we ensure our grief remains gentle and does not tunnel into nasty? 

I looked up pictures from that trip to Egypt. I had to meet 13 year old me again. I would look into her eyes ready to set on fire once again my rage - not at the regime that had sent its riot police to break my arms and sexually assault me but at that Footsoldier of Patriarchy, my aunt, who slipped me what felt like a poison contaminating my soul.

I see you, bright-eyed girl. I see your fire, before it became the kindle for rage; I see it, flickering in your gaze. I am looking for ugly and all I see is a girl preparing for the violence of patriarchy and its footsoldiers. I see you bright-eyed girl. I see you brace for the lessons in disobedience that would save you. 

I am told that when I was a few weeks old, my paternal grandmother had my ears pierced. This is a very common practice in Egypt where a popular gift for baby girls is gold stud earrings. 

That same grandmother was a teacher and a smoker - in a society where smoking is considered a male privilege - and supported Zamalek, the other Cairo football team, to spite her husband and eight children who in their majority supported Ahly (much like I support Manchester United and the majority of my family support Liverpool). 

When my mother complained to her that I cried every time she tried to detangle my hair after washing it, my grandmother advised “Just cut her hair short.”

And so from the age of three or so, my mother kept my hair very short. When I moved to London in 1975 at the age of 7, the first time I went downstairs to play with the other children, they asked me if I was a boy or a girl. My English wasn’t so good and I ran back home.

What does a girl look like?

“What’s your name? Do you speak English? Are you a boy or a girl?”

None of the questions were asked with malice but the last one was indicative of an expectation they had for markers of “boy” and “girl.” They didn’t see those markers in my appearance and they were confused.

It was said with malice in Cairo when I was 13 years old by the guy who told his friend “That girl used to be a boy and they gave her a sex change.”

What does a girl look like? Who taught me to be a girl? If pretty is the root of obedience, then ugly surely equals disobedience and independence squared. And at the heart of that equation sits femininity, on a three-legged stool of capitalism, racism, and misogyny.

Femininity had taunted me for decades and in return I scoffed at it. It knew that I did not want it and that I could not ignore it.

When I was 15 years old, I wanted to hide. From men. Their hands. Their eyes.

When I write about my years wearing hijab, I recognize I am wading into a minefield. This is my experience of wearing it. I do not speak for Muslim women. It is preposterous and the worst form of reductionism and silencing to think that anyone can speak for the array of Muslim female experience.

Soon after I turned 15, my family - recently relocated to Saudi Arabia - went on Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Makkah, which is the fifth pillar of Islam. While performing the rituals, I was sexually assaulted twice - once by a man performing the rituals and again by a Saudi police officer. I have written and spoken about this in essays and interviews about how those sexual assaults and my determination to create a space for Muslim women to expose sexual assault during Hajj were the reason I launched #MosqueMeToo in February 2018.

But, back then in 1982 as that 15-year-old, being sexually assaulted twice during Hajj shattered my world in ways it took me years to understand. It heightened my awareness of the danger of men and the weakness and powerlessness and vulnerability of my body. And every time I was sexually assaulted again - at the marketplace, in the mall, anywhere - I wanted to hide, disappear, place a barrier between my body and the world.

Some girls take to wearing baggy clothes, some girls disappear into eating disorders, and I was pushed into a deep depression in which I negotiated with God: I hear a good Muslim girl wears hijab. So I’ll make a deal with you, I told Her. I’ll wear hijab, you save my rapidly deteriorating mind, and we’re even. And at 16, I began to wear hijab.

Headscarves and Hymens

Never mind that the hijab I wore during Hajj - the first time I’d ever worn hijab - did not save my body from assault. But I was thinking of my body less, and of my mind more. And God did not keep Her side of our deal. Therapy - many years later - was the help I needed for my depression, not hijab.

And then a year after I began to wear hijab, I missed the wind in my hair and could not stand the growing gap between the external Me and the internal Me. But it would take me eight more years before I finally mustered all my courage, took off my hijab and left the house bareheaded.

Semi-bareheaded if I’m being accurate. And I made sure to go to a woman hair stylist because I wanted an ugly haircut. In Egypt back in 1992, hairstyling was considered a job of ill repute for women and so was dominated by men. With the rise in the numbers of women who wear hijab who can only see a woman stylist, that has since changed.

Back on that 1992 day, when I was 25, the owner of the salon asked me if I was sure I wanted a woman stylist. I did. And she gave me the ugly haircut I needed. I did not want to be beautiful. I did not want my de-hijabing to be ascribed to a need for the male gaze’s approval. I wanted nothing to do with that gaze.

I was unsure if I really liked not just the gaze - that infamous eye of the beholder, the power of that gaze, the power of its beholder - but the beholder himself.

I still had that short hair that I had since I was a child. From the age of 16-25, that short hair hid under a hijab. I had not, during those years, experimented with the power over the male gaze that some girls begin to figure out in their teens. I associated femininity with weakness and the need for the male gaze’s approval. And I was hiding in plain sight, under that hijab. Besides, I believed I was indeed ugly.

I realize now, too, that back then I was not sure I was heterosexual. It would take a while - and a lot of sex - for that reckoning . 

I once interviewed an architect in Egypt about a building project that had been suspended because archaeologists believed ancient Egyptian artifacts lay underneath. “Every inch of Egyptian land contains artifacts from ancient Egyptian times. We have to balance the needs of the living versus the treasures of the dead,” he told me.

We build atop the monuments and treasures of our ancestors. Sekhmet, the most revered and feared of my ancestors’ deities, found me at my most vulnerable and helped me to weaponize femininity and render my hair the site of excavation and reinvention. 

 “In this hall, there are 16 statues of Sekhmet, the ancient Egyptian goddess of retribution and sex.”

You had me at retribution and sex! Yes. Please. I want both.

7 Necessary Sins for Women and Girls

I was 44 years old, in a hall lined by those 16 statues, looking into the eyes of Sekhmet while listening to the director of the Egyptian Museum in Turin, who was giving me and US diplomats a private tour in March 2012. 

I was on a speaking tour of Italy that was organized by the State Department and Italian universities and cultural centres that wanted me to talk about the Egyptian revolution of January 25, 2011, and feminism and social media. It was the first overseas trip for me after the casts on my broken arms had been removed.

High on Vicodin, I had promised myself bright red hair as a gift for surviving. And also tattoos as a way of reclaiming my body. I had a scar on my left arm from surgery. I was proud of that scar but had not chosen it. The tattoos would be a marking - permanent - of my choosing. But of what?

And then Sekhmet found me.

There are more statues built of Sekhmet than any other ancient Egyptian god or goddess because she was the most feared and revered. So I am sure I had encountered her before. But there is encountering and there is being found and she found me in March 2012 when I needed power.

And so my first ever tattoo - in 2012 - was of Sekhmet as rendered for me by the artist Molly Crabapple - all tits and hips. Here was weaponized femininity in the shape of the goddess of retribution and sex. First she’d kick your head in, then she’d fuck your brains out.

The second tattoo in 2013 was of Arabic calligraphy of the name of the street of that now iconic 5-day protest on Mohamed Mahmoud Street during which police killed at least 40 people and I was among 300 wounded.

I wrote a poem about Sekhmet. I am not a poet but my assault and my broken heart needed the embrace of poetry, and I am proud that some have called Sekhmet’s Tits pornographic. 

Sekhmet - first she’d kick your head in - filled me with the fire of a weaponized femininity - then she’d fuck your brains out - and then she turned it all upside down by directing that fire to burn a path to Hatshepsut - Egypt’s woman-god-king and the pharaoh who commissioned many of those Sekhmet statues as well as instituted a Festival of Drunkenness in the goddess’ honour - who is now being seen through a gender-bending lens that holds out the promise of power of a different kind. 

She/he/they. Sometimes you need to revisit places to force yourself to revisit what you thought was you. I've been to Hatshepsut's temple. It is wondrous. But I had not met the King Herself. 

(L) A stone statue of Hatshepsut (Wikimedia Commons). (R) Pharaoh #Hatshepsut pictured shirtless with chiseled pecs. Statue of Hatshepsut from The Metropolitan Museum of Art || ca. 1479–1458 B.C

Why was a history that should be mine denied to me for so long. Why did it take me so long to be found by Sekhmet? Why did it take me so long to learn that Hatshepsut - who for more than 20 years was the most powerful person in the ancient world - alternated pronouns? She/he/they. Are you a girl? Are you a boy? 

I had to brace myself for a buzzed head because I thought I had to reckon with being ugly. Instead, I had to prepare for a face-off with power. There was a time when I thought femininity was weak. And then I learned to stand in the power of my femininity. I can flex the feminine and the masculine. And the more I learn about Hatshepsut, especially from queer historians and more popular engagement with that pharaoh, the greater the power available to me.

Was Hatshepsut a boy or a girl? It depends on who was doing the digging, because as Kim Armstrong writes in Making Queer History, “the social biases of historians shape history.”

Where does power lie? With the eye of the beholder of ugly or with she/he/they who says FUCK YOUR EYE AND WHAT IT SEES? Are you a boy? Are you a girl? Who the fuck cares. Are you ugly? Fuck the beholder and the eye of the beholder. 

Sekhmet said “Fuck your eye, beholder!” and Hatshepsut completed the sentence “And what it sees!” One was disobedience, the other independence. Their tango was a gift that took gender and its performance and shifted its axis in ways I still don't fully understand. 

Hatshepsut, for whom as Noor Sullivan writes in Making Queer History "Pronouns, apparently, were just too far out of her jurisdiction,” had not been anywhere on the horizon of my words, but writing about how Sekhmet found me nudged and nudged me towards the King Herself. 

It is a distinctly cissexist imagination that collects all the documentation and representations of Hatshepsut and contorts itself like this in a search for her ‘real’ womanhood - Noor Sullivan

Sekhmet found me in the Egyptian Museum in Turin in 2012. Ever since, I look for her at every museum I visit, among the stolen treasures of my people on display so far away from home. I find Sekhmet and I stand before her and I look into her eyes and she tells me "Stand in your power." For 20 years, Hatshepsut, she/he/they, was the most powerful person in the ancient world 

Those words are words I know. I wrote a chapter on the "sin" of Power in my second book The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls. But really standing in the power of those words took shaving my hair off and seeing myself, no longer with a crown that for eight years had given me fire. I was scared of losing that fire when I shaved it off. Instead, I found my power. I found myself. I found it in all her/his/their aspects: Hatshepsut. And the goddess Sekhmet led me there. “Stand in your power,” she told me. And her words echoed those with which Ntozake Shange ends her choreopoem forcoloredgirlswho have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf,

“i found god in myself

and i loved her

i loved her fiercely”

One day in Cairo in the 1990somethings, I was on my knees in the rubble of what used to be my childhood home, torn down to make room for a high rise in the increasingly popular neighborhood, digging frantically in the dirt. Digging for me. 

I was looking for pictures of myself as a child that I had been told had not been retrieved before the demolition of the two-storey building where my parents had once rented an apartment.

I don’t know what I thought I could achieve, digging with my bare hands. But I needed to find myself. I needed to see who I had been. To hold onto that girl so that I could become the woman she wanted me to be.

“Every inch of Egyptian land contains artifacts from ancient Egyptian times. We have to balance the needs of the living versus the treasures of the dead.”

Once upon a time there was a girl who was told she was ugly and she believed it. And she could not free herself from that yoke until she understood that “ugly” was the “too much”: those who talked too much, those who would not hide, those who were asked “Are you a boy or a girl?” 

Ugly is not about aesthetics but about power. I might have been in lockdown but I was going to walk away from the confinement of ugly. I was going to own it. I was going to disarm and dismantle that weapon of ugly and refurbish it into shoes for tango.

Sekhmet told me “Stand in your power” - she is the warrior and the healer; she is Disobedience - and Hatshepsut showed me how - she is the King Herself who walked away from gender; she is Independence.

I shaved all my hair off to shed what I once had needed, thankful that my crown of fire brought me here. I have turned my body - including my hair - into a canvas upon which I paint my own hieroglyphics because if I don’t, patriarchy will. It always has. And now it was time to draw my new me into being.

To work on my draft for what is to come, I stood in the lightness and liberation of my scalp, running my hand across it, soft and tough at once, like the new skin after a scab peels away. 

And then I started to build. I wanted brightness.

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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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