Essay: Why I Say "Fuck"

My name is Mona Eltahawy and this is my declaration of faith: Fuck the patriarchy.

Photo Robert E. Rutledge

Once while standing in line at Denver airport security, a white man — another passenger waiting to go through — demanded I “prove” I was a U.S. citizen. “Fuck you!” was my immediate response. Another white man immediately and predictably chimed in: “Language! Language!” But what is really more offensive here, the first man’s white supremacist fuckery or my language?

If you think that’s a serious question, then fuck you too.

I say “fuck” because that’s what racism deserves. I am from the “If they go low, I will fucking come for them” school of thought. I refuse to be polite or civil with anyone who does not acknowledge my full humanity. Profanity for me is political, not just personal. Profanity is politically important.

I’m an expert at upsetting white men with my proudly profane mouth. When the rules are made by white men for white men, a proudly foul mouth on anyone who is not a white man is a weapon. 

Every month or so, the Woman Has Said a Bad Word circus comes to town, with clowns, acrobats, and contortionists in every ring. This time around, bipartisan shit is being lost because a woman - President-Elect Joe Biden’s deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon - had the temerity to call congressional Republicans what they actually are: “fuckers.”  She even couched it gingerly: “I’m not saying they’re not a bunch of fuckers.” It’s a fucking double negative!

I agree with her appraisal of Republicans. I’m not such a big fan of spineless, cowardly Democrats, either. But what would all those hyperventilating over O’Malley Dillon’s language do if they knew she said “fuck” THREE times in that Glamour interview? She is clearly comfortable with profanity and being positioned to be one of the most powerful women in the country, she’ll be fine. The current occupant of the White House is foul-mouthed himself  : “shithole countries,” “grab them by the pussy” “Iran knows that they have put on notice. If you fuck around with us...we are going to do things to you that have never been done before.”

The obsession with civility in the United States is bipartisan and white, and often directed at women, especially Black women and women of colour. The less power a woman has, the less freedom she is given to curse. The more a woman is caught in the intersections of oppressions--race, class, gender, other forms of oppression--the more her language is policed, fenced, and suffocated.

I’m an expert at upsetting white men with my proudly profane mouth. When the rules are made by white men for white men, a proudly foul mouth on anyone who is not a white man is a weapon. 

Once when I was still a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times (from 2014-2018), James Bennet, the editor of the opinion pages, insisted that I stop saying “fuck,” especially “flying fuck,” as in “I don’t give a flying fuck” on social media. Not in the columns that I wrote for the paper, but on Twitter.  I was never an employee of the Times. He said the word “fuck” wasn’t conducive to conversation. 

The next day, I launched #WhyISayFuck on Twitter, published an essay--in another publication--about why I say “fuck,” and wrote a proposal for a book that called on women to practise seven “sins” I believe are necessary to destroy the patriarchy. And you’d better fucking believe that Profanity was one of those sins.

Get 7 Necessary Sins for Women and Girls

Bennet’s pearl clutching was particularly laughable considering the opinion pieces his page published. What is really more offensive: my saying “I don’t give a flying fuck” on Twitter? or opinion pieces calling for fascist violence that Bennet approved? In the pages of the Times in 2017, war criminal Erik Prince advocated the use of “contractors” aka mercenaries in Afghanistan; and earlier this year, Senator Tom Cotton called for the military to invade American streets and crush the Black Lives Matter uprising in a piece called Send in the Military. Bennet was pushed out soon after the publication of the latter.

Fascism isn’t an “idea” to be debated. White liberals, specifically cisgender men, blithely play thought exercises with our lives, even as a fascist fuck has occupied the White House. My run in with Bennet was just one example of the ways white men in power use civility to comfort the powerful and censor the rest of us. At this most uncivil of times, giving a platform to the likes of Prince and Cotton is dangerous and abominable, but to editors like Bennet, it was simply a visit to the “marketplace of ideas.” For people of colour, Muslims, LGBTQ, disabled people, it is our lives at stake. 

And we--whose lives are directly threatened by the fuckery of Erik Prince’s promotion of mercenaries and Tom Cotton’s promotion of effective martial law --are expected to behave, as if saying “flying fuck” is much more offensive than war crimes or that martial law. Fuck that.

We must recognize that the ubiquitous ways patriarchy socializes women to shrink themselves - physically and intellectually - extend also into language, into what we can and cannot say. 

At the heart of that policing, standing guard over our language like a baton ready to strike, is civility. Patriarchy reserves for itself the power to offend, the power to be obscene. And yet it wastes no time in policing women’s mouths as vehemently as it does the genitals of anyone who is not a cisgender heterosexual man.

Not that I need a reason to say “fuck” and I never pass up a chance to fling out a “flying fuck,” but that particular week I met Bennet when I was Twitter yelling “flying fucks” was the week when I launched #MosqueMeToo, to show solidarity with Muslim women who like me had been sexually assaulted either during the Muslim pilgrimage or at Muslim religious spaces. I had been bombarded with “You’re too ugly to be sexually assaulted” and a compendium of hate aimed at gaslighting and shaming me for speaking out against sexual assault.

I was stunned that I was expected to be “polite” even as I’m accused of lying about being sexually assaulted. 

Harvard Professor of Afro-American Studies Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham coined the term “politics of respectability.” It refers to ways members of marginalized groups police each other in an attempt to replicate mainstream values as a way to achieve mainstream acceptance. It is an especially sharp tool against women of marginalized groups. The politics of respectability condemns some women as warnings to other women: caution, this is not the kind of woman you should admire.

Whether we are urged to be civil to racists or polite to patriarchy, the goal is the same: to maintain the power of the racist, to maintain the power of patriarchy.

Profanity is an essential tool in disrupting patriarchy and its rules. It is the verbal equivalent of civil disobedience. In January, I recorded this in front of the White House as my act of civil disobedience against its occupant.

There is nothing polite about fascism. There is nothing civil about grabbing pussies. There is nothing polite about putting children in cages. There is nothing respectable about leaving 310,000 people to die of a pandemic. There is nothing civil about white supremacy, fuckers.

We must make patriarchy fear us. We must reject politeness; there is nothing polite about patriarchy. We must reject civility; there is nothing civil about racism or misogyny. When warnings precede profanity, to protect the sensibilities of the reader; where are the warnings that precede patriarchy to protect the lives of women and girls? Curse words are bleeped out of television and radio broadcasts; how do we bleep out patriarchy?

Image: Moudhy al-Rashid

What would the world look like if the energy spent policing women’s language, was expended instead into policing the violence of patriarchy. 

I swear because I insist that my language be as free as I want to be. I say fuck because I will own that word and use it when I want. Patriarchy insists it controls everything, including our mouths. When our mouths threaten that control, patriarchy insists we shut them.

I begin every event where I speak, in the before time when we used to be in the same hall and on webinars where we talk to each other via our Zoom or Crowdcast boxes, this way: 

My name is Mona Eltahawy and this is my declaration of faith: Fuck the patriarchy.

I could say, “Dismantle the patriarchy.” Or, “Smash the patriarchy.” Or use any number of verbs that signal urgency, but I don’t. I am a writer, and I understand how language works. I understand how audiences—and readers—react to the language I use. I know exactly what I am doing. And I say, “Fuck the patriarchy,” because I am a woman, a woman of colour, and of Muslim descent. And I’ll be fucking damned if I jump through your civility or decorum hoops any day, especially today.

Fuck the patriarchy.

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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. 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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