tv Maria Hinojosa One-on- One PBS February 13, 2016 4:00pm-4:31pm PST
>> hinojosa: she's the go-to woman on middle east issues, from the banning of the veil to the arab spring revolutions. she's a feminist and a progressive muslim whose strong opinions never fail to create controversy. award-winning syndicated columnist, tv commentator and blogger mona eltahawy. i'm maria hinojosa. this is one on one. mona eltahawy, it's great to have you on our program. >> thanks for having me, maria, it's a pleasure. >> hinojosa: so you know, i actually, when i was writing my description of you, i said, "hmm, i would actually call you an in-your-face moderate muslim feminist." and it's like, wait a second, how can you be an in-your-face moderate muslim?
but that's what you are, really. >> if i had to identify with a label, i would use liberal or progressive, because i find moderate doesn't really mean anything and it ends up being used against the muslim community. so how about in-your-face liberal muslim feminist? >> hinojosa: in-your-face muslim liberal feminist, which is... the feminist part is, you get a lot of followers and you get a lot of attention around that. so for our audience, just, you know, describe what a muslim feminist is, because some people might say, "i don't understand that." >> well, you know, as a muslim and a feminist and an egyptian woman, i have a long history to draw on. i mean, when i look at the roots of islam... prophet muhammad's first wife khadija was a businesswoman who was 15 years older than him, who employed him and who proposed to him. so i'm thinking, "you know what? i have a feminist role model right there." >> hinojosa: how come we don't hear about this, though? >> great question, maria. i'm glad i'm on your show to say it. >> hinojosa: as a young muslim growing up, did you know about this?
>> of course, yeah. these are women who are given to us as these great role models and women that we look up to, and we're very proud to have in our history. so she's there, you know, back in seventh-century arabia, and then in 1923 in egypt, a woman called hoda shaarawi launched egypt's first wave of feminism, which was around the same time that you had first-wave feminism, you know, in the so-called west. so i have a woman back in the 20th century who removed her face veil and said, "this is a thing of the past," in 1923. and then in, you know, a few... >> hinojosa: was she attacked? was she publicly scorned? was she... >> i'm sure she faced a lot of criticism, but what helped her was her social status, again. she came from a privileged background that she was able to use to say these very controversial things. but you know, i use her as a great example. when people ask me, you know, "do you even have a feminist movement in the middle east?" i say, "are you kidding me?" 1923, this woman removes her face veil, and then back, you know, just a few decades ago, we have women like nawal el saadawi in egypt in the 1970s and '80s,
another kick-ass feminist. fatima mernissi from morocco, a sociologist who's written a lot about women's issues. so i have a long and rich and proud history of feminism in my culture and in my religion, so for me, being a feminist is natural. >> hinojosa: so you actually grew up in many different places. let's just take it back a little bit. you were born in egypt, you spent time in egypt, and then you left egypt and you went to london, if i'm not mistaken, and then you left london and you went to saudi arabia. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: you were being raised in a family that was teaching you your belief in islam, which was that men and women are equal. >> yeah, because i saw that in the life that my parents led. my parents met in medical school in cairo, so they were both physicians, they both did their graduate studies together, and the reason that we moved to london was so that both my parents could do their ph.d.s in medicine. so i grew up in a house where the role models were a man and a woman, professional equals and partners in a marriage that they had to kind of mold along the way, because when we moved to
london, my mom would tell my dad, "you know what? the dishwashing, the bed-making, the taking the kids to school, we've got to do it together here, because we have no help, no extended family, no nannies. we're in this together." >> hinojosa: and your dad, a devout muslim, was saying what to your mom? "it's okay, i get it, i've got to clean up after the kids, it's fine"? >> yeah, he would say. i mean, at the beginning he might have been reluctant, but in our last year in the uk, in our last year in glasgow, scotland, my dad was out of work and my mom was supporting the family, and he's a doctor with a ph.d. and it was very difficult, but he understood this was what was needed, and he'd come and pick us up from school, and he'd cook dinner so that when my mom came home, dinner was ready. >> hinojosa: okay. so then you leave london, progressive, open, you know, you're having this new... not new, but a very egalitarian experience of islam in your home, and you move to saudi and you're about... what, you're a teenager? >> fifteen. >> hinojosa: what happens then, when you move to saudi arabia as a 15-year-old? >> my world turned upside down, because the islam that we were
living, this very egalitarian islam at home... outside in saudi arabia, i was seeing the complete opposite. and so i learned at that age, at 15, that there were many different types of islam, because the islam i was taught was, "you and your brother are equal, you and your brother must go to university, you and your brother have to perform at this very high level that we expect of you." but outside, on the streets of saudi arabia, women were absent, and it was a very misogynistic interpretation of islam. so it was a real culture shock for me. >> hinojosa: and actually, you write about, at that point, going into a depression. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: what was the source of that depression, and what did you do as a, you know, muslim teenager depressed in saudi arabia? >> i think the source of the depression now, when i look at it, you know, with much introspection and reflection and time, you know, between then and now, was this great culture shock that i experienced because, you know, teenage girls anywhere have a hard time-- teenagers anywhere, you know, raging hormones, you're moving from childhood to adulthood-- but i think the added thing for me was just trying to figure out who i was in the middle of all
of this, because we leave the uk to saudi arabia, and it's like the complete opposite end of the cultural spectrum, basically. and here i am in saudi arabia and i felt suffocated by so many things, by this very ultra-conservative interpretation of religion. it really was suffocating me, and i just had no outlet for it. >> hinojosa: you also chose, at that point, to wear the veil. how did that... what was that process in your mind, and why did you decide to do that? >> well, it took a year. i mean, very soon after we moved to saudi arabia, my family went on pilgrimage, which is, you know, one of the five pillars of islam, and soon after that... muslims are taught that when you go on pilgrimage, you're born again and all your sins are cleansed, and so many women begin to wear the headscarf after that, because many interpretations of islam say women should cover their hair. so i saw my mother wear it, and then because of this discomfort i felt about my body and my burgeoning sexuality and as a young woman, i hated the way men looked at me and i thought, "okay, one way to get over this is to wear a headscarf." so i... "i want men to stop
looking at me." so i told my parents, "i'm going to wear a headscarf, seeing as everyone tells me this is what i should do." >> hinojosa: at that time, your mom was wearing... was covering her head at all times? >> yeah, she started to wear it after the pilgrimage, yes. and my parents said to me, at the age of 15, "you're too young. this is too much responsibility for you. think about it." so i thought about it and i waited and i waited and we went back on pilgrimage again, a year later, and at 16 i told them, "okay, i think i'm ready to wear it now." but i think when i look back, i think what i was doing was i struck a deal between me and god. i basically told god, "look, i'm having a really hard time here. i'm losing my mind. they tell me i should wear a headscarf. i'll do it if you preserve my sanity." i see that now with hindsight, but back then, it was like... something like a lifeguard, i was holding on to something. >> hinojosa: was the source of your discomfort the fact that... was it generated by men? >> yes. i felt very uncomfortable and i didn't... i couldn't synthesize this, you know, my body changing
and being in a country where women are basically invisible from the public space and the way men look at women who are in the public space. and i realize now, looking back at what i did, was... you know, this is a fight that women across the world fight. when you talk to young women in new york who face sexual harassment-- and i see those ads on the subway in new york-- when you talk to women in india who face what they call eve teasing, when you talk to women in egypt who fight sexual harassment, it's the same everywhere. and women come up... they devise these ways of fighting back, and i realize what i was doing back then was hiding, and when i took off my headscarf it was my way to fight it, but in another way. >> hinojosa: so fast-forward from you as a teenager dealing with all of these issues about your body and covering your hair and wearing the veil to what happened in the united states in the year 2010, which is that we have the first muslim miss usa. and here she is walking around in a bathing suit for all to see
and she prays to allah. take us into that. >> see, that's the thing: it wasn't an affront. that's the thing, because i think what we have to do is unpack the stereotypes that there's kind of... you know, there's the veil and there's the stereotypical veil. and the way we see muslim women is through this very, very narrow, monolithic view that says, "all muslim women are in headscarves, and if they're not, they're somehow bad." because that's been my life struggle as well. when i took off the headscarf, i was really, really... i felt a huge amount of guilt because i'm fighting a stereotype, and the stereotype is, "the more conservative you are, the more authentic you are." what miss usa did, and i think that's why many of us welcomed her-- i hate beauty pageants, i hate them with a passion as a feminist, i hate the objectification of women-- but what miss usa did was that she showed you that there isn't just one way to be a muslim. you know, during ramadan last year, she would say, "look, i'm fasting, and i'm running for," what is it, miss world, miss universe, whatever it was.
"after i break my fast, i'm going to be out there competing with other women," and i welcome that because it breaks the stereotype. i'd never compete in a beauty pageant, but there isn't one way to be a muslim woman, just as there isn't one way to be a latina, there isn't one way to be an african american. there's a multitude of ways. but unfortunately, in most mainstream media depictions of muslim women, it's the headscarf or you're a bad muslim woman. and not just here, in the u.s., but across the world. >> hinojosa: you know what? i'm not sure if you've been called a bad muslim woman... >> many times. >> hinojosa: you have, but the fact is that you... in a lot of ways, what you want us to do is you want us to get a broader sense of what's really going on, the conversation of this community. and so you do reveal things that are not talked about a lot, and you do take a position that is not talked about a lot, and you take a lot of criticism because of that. one of the things that has been fascinating for me to watch as you talk about it is this statistic that i learned, which is that 86% of egyptian women
say that they have been groped or somehow sexually assaulted just by being out. >> see, that statistic that you mention speaks to the hypocrisy of tying religion to the way a person looks, because it has nothing to do with the way a woman dresses. the fact that every two minutes in the u.s., a rape is reported... and that has nothing to do with religion, it has nothing to do with being american. it has to do with men and women and sexual violence. and so in egypt, that statistic of 86% of women face being groped in public has nothing to do with religion. and the other way that i answer that, and the problem of that is that in egypt over the past few years, more and more women have taken to dressing in one form of veil or another, and yet those statistics of being groped have been on the rise, which says to me it has nothing to do with the way a woman dresses. and yet, when you talk to those women and men who grope and they
are asked, "what do you think is the reason?" they will tell you, "the way a woman dresses." just as here in the u.s. a few years ago, you know, during rape trials, they would say, "how was she dressed?" it's ridiculous. we have to end this hatred. it's basically a hatred of women that is, "you're damned if you do and damned if you don't." and the way that myself and many other egyptian women-- because there were many women fighting these awful statistics-- the way that we address this is we say, "men have to be responsible for their behavior. it has nothing to do with the way that i'm dressed. shame on you for even thinking it has to do with the way i'm dressed." and the conversation in egypt now, especially after the revolution... and from tahrir square, because i follow people who tweet from tahrir square live, i'm seeing tweets of... one woman a few days ago said, "i just punched a guy twice in the face because he groped me, and my friends kicked him out of tahrir." i'm saying, "this is it. this is the future of egypt." >> hinojosa: wow. well, those women may have read some of the things that you wrote about, because what you've done, mona, is you've put it out there. >> not just me, maria, not just
me. many other women have. >> hinojosa: many other women. but there is a movement because, frankly, when you hear what was so shocking to me, that your experience of being groped happened when you were on the hajj. >> yes, yes. >> hinojosa: so this is a pilgrimage of holy people. >> absolutely. >> hinojosa: and you're a teenage muslim girl and you're getting groped at the hajj. >> and it was horrifying. it was the first time in my life i had ever been touched in that way, and again, it is a reminder that this has nothing to do with religion, it has nothing to do with culture, it has to do with men and women and sexual violence against women. you know, there was a time where i joked that i would be on american television as a "sexual assault correspondent" because i was on cnn and other networks talking about how a bodyguard of gaddafi's twisted my nipple during a news conference. and you're sitting there going, "what is this? this is a news conference. how can you do this?" because they wanted to kick me out of this new conference, and so the quickest way to intimidate a woman is to sexually assault her.
and the quickest way for women to fight back, besides punching them in the face, as that woman in tahrir square did-- and i kicked him in the shins in that news conference-- is to shame them, is to say, "this happened to me, but i'm speaking out because the shame belongs to you, not to me." and as i said, it's not just me. there are so many women in egypt who for years have... in 2005, the mubarak regime began a systematic assault of women in demonstrations. you had women who staged a demonstration the next day showing their skirts ripped into two, saying, "this happened to me," and showing photographs of how they were pushed on the ground and rape was simulated on their bodies and saying, "this happened to me," because when you do that, you break that silence that they use to shame you. so it's not just me. i'm proud to be part of a huge group of egyptian women saying, "we will not be silenced," in the way that the libyan woman who was gang-raped came out and said-- iman al-obeidi-- "i will not be silenced," because that's how you break shame. >> hinojosa: one of the other things that you've broken shame is something also very deeply
personal, which is the issue of female genital cutting. some people call it female genital mutilation. you have an aunt who almost died when she was seven when she was cut. i can't imagine what that's like for you and what it's like for you to speak out publicly about this and to be part of a group of women who are leading the charge to stop female genital cutting in egypt and around the world. what's been the push back? >> well, you know, this started for me when i was a teenager in saudi arabia and i had been reading... i was reading something in the library, in the university library, and my parents came to pick me up and in the car, i said, "you'll never believe what i read today. it was just horrific. did you know that this happens to women?" and my mom said, "that happened to me when i was a child." and, you know, you could have heard a pin drop, i mean, it was worse than that. and it took me years to be able to talk about this because i could not synthesize the fact that it happened to my own mother, and to understand how my
grandparents, who i know loved my mother, i have no doubt whatsoever that my grandparents loved my mother, i know that my mother was her father's favorite, so how do parents who love their children do this and what role does culture-- this has nothing to do with religion; muslims and christians do this in egypt-- so i had to take this in. but it became an obsession of mine, and so i began to write about it. this is how the process for me... i began to write about it, began to seek out experts, this one woman in particular, called dr. nahid toubia, who was sudan's first female surgeon. i began to seek her, i stalked her at conferences. i would just sit down and talk to her without even telling her it happened to my mother. she would tell me how she negotiated that with her own mother, how she was able to talk about it without making her female relatives feel like freaks because of what happened to them. and so i was kind of building up the strength, building up the strength, but writing about it with rage because i couldn't believe that this happened to my mother as a child. it just... it hurt me, but i mean, how did it hurt her, both physically and emotionally?
and so when i think of my grandparents, i think the reason they did this is because they understood what was required of their daughters in order to be accepted in society. so imagine being a parent, seeing your child go through this awful, awful pain. so i know now that my grandparents, i'm sure, they stopped this when their daughter almost died, the one who almost died at the age of seven, because the daughter after her is the aunt who's just four years older than me, my generation. so we're basically the first generation that ended it. >> hinojosa: the other side of that is, you know, you fast-forward to your life now and the fact that you have a sister-in-law who is a practicing ob/gyn in the midwest of the united states. and she's an ob/gyn who's a muslim. talk about that experience of, you know, kind of the modern muslim women who we are seeing who may or may not choose to cover their heads, and how you see them really influencing who we are as a country.
>> absolutely. my sister-in-law was hired in this tiny town called bellevue, ohio, population 8,200, because they needed a female ob/gyn physician. and she arrives and she becomes this local celebrity. her picture is everywhere, she's delivered half the kids in one of her daughter's kindergarten classes, you know, everybody loves her, and she has this long, long waiting list. and yet... her family now, my brother's family, and my brother and her family are the only muslim family in this tiny town. they've since left bellevue, but when they were there, their story was amazing. it's really the story of america, because they moved there and they're the only muslim family there, and so her patients-- she's the first and only muslim woman they meet-- they love her because they want a female doctor and then, you know, when they get to know her a bit more they say, you know, "dr. ahmed, can i ask you something? why do you cover your hair?" and they'll start this conversation which, again, this is what america is about: you get new people who come here who are accepted into this country and then they pass on their culture to this country, and
this great... it's not even a melting pot, it's like all the colors mixing outside of the lines. >> hinojosa: it's kind of like democracy in action, right? >> yes. >> hinojosa: but you actually take a very controversial opinion. you know what i'm talking about. i mean, you basically say that you believe that the wearing of the veil, of the full covering, the face veil, you believe that should be banned outright. >> yes. >> hinojosa: and there are a lot of people who say, "you know what? we follow you on all these progressive issues, we get that you're a feminist, but when you side with governments that will now be telling women what they can or can't wear, you've become a problem." so how do you stand by this idea that the government has a right to tell women, devout muslim women, "you cannot cover your face"? >> i take that position by placing myself firmly in the middle, between what i call two right wings, because one right wing is those governments like sarkozy's government-- and i detest sarkozy and i know he's a xenophobe and he's a bigot, and i don't support him on
anything-- but on the other side is the right wing, the muslim right wing, that claims that the face veil has a role in islam. and i mentioned that feminist in 1923, hoda shaarawi. as far back as 1923, she removed her face veil and said, "this is a thing of the past." and yet here we are, almost 100 years later, still arguing over the face veil. so for me, what the face veil does is... well, i'm against those two right wings, so i'm firmly in the middle. but if a woman chooses to cover her hair, fine, as long as it's her choice. i chose to wear it, i chose to take it off. the human face, to me, is central to human communication. if i was sitting here in front of you, maria, with my face covered, our dynamic would be very different. and i believe what the face veil does is it equates, dangerously, piety with the disappearance of women. it tells women, "the closer you want to get to god, the more you must disappear," and i don't believe this is what islam is. >> hinojosa: well, what about women who say, "i wanted to feel safe," and now you're going to take away that right of them to choose to use that as a... maybe not out of piety, but out of
safety? >> i've argued on television with women who say that they covered their face because they were sexually harassed at work. i think what happens then is that you basically put a woman in a prison and you make it the woman's responsibility to control the way a man behaves. if men make us feel unsafe, we have to tell the men, "you're in the wrong. i'm not going to cover so that you feel safe... or so i feel safe, so that you know how to control yourself. you have to control yourself." and i think also, with the face veil, you know, i can argue against the face veil because of security and all this stuff-- that would be an easy argument, actually, saying that we need to be able to identify each other, if you have a car accident, i don't want to have to wait for the police to come-- that's an easy argument. i want to make the philosophical argument that a woman must exist in her full being, and her face is a part of that full being, and to erase a woman's identity... i don't know who you are when your face is gone. you become this... who are you when your face is gone? the human face is central to human communication. >> hinojosa: but if she... but if you're saying, "you are a
full being," and she's saying, "and you're giving me the power to be a full being, and therefore, as a full being, i'm making this decision. i want to cover." >> what about the social contract? i believe when you leave your home, you leave your house, you enter into a social contract with society at large. part of that social contract is this communication, and nonverbal communication is very important. it's not just about the words we say to each other. it's the way we react to each other. and i believe that when you cover your face... you know, the government does actually tell us how we can and can't dress. in new york state, for example, you cannot have three or more people in public with their face covered. this is the government telling us. why aren't people saying, "hey, you can't interfere in the way i dress"? people then step out and say it's because of religion. i'm saying, "well, you know, let's talk about religion, because i don't believe it's a part of islam." the majority of muslim scholars, if you want to argue on islamic grounds, the majority say it's not a part of islam. >> hinojosa: so for americans who are not muslim, what do you want them to do in terms of their curiosity? what do you want us to do? >> first of all, i want you to
be confused. i want you to be utterly confused, even about words or meanings of words like "devout," because there isn't one way to be devout, because again, the stereotype is, "the more conservative you are in the way you dress, the more authentic you are." i want to debunk that altogether. there is no one way to be a devout muslim. women who cover their face aren't devout and i'm not devout. there is no one way to be devout. so i want to confuse you, first of all, because i think when you're confused, your stereotypes are dismantled and then you're open for a new kind of message. and i want to create the kind of conversations we had outside of park51, that islamic community center that's being built close to ground zero, because i joined some activists there last year. i went for labor day weekend, but they were there for a few weeks. that really was the intersection of america because, you know, some tourists who just visit... were visiting new york for the weekend said, "this is the first place we wanted to come to in new york," because they were watching jon stewart's show and he was making fun of all these crazy things that were being said about park51, so they wanted to come.
and at that place, on that sidewalk, we were having this kind of conversation where people were allowed to ask whatever crazy questions they wanted to ask. but at the same time, you know, i welcome you to ask anything, but i also warn you that if you're going to yell at me, if you're going to provoke me, i'm going to provoke you right back. if you want to have a conversation with me, i will converse with you right back, but at the end of all of this, i want you to remember i'm a human being. so don't push me in ways that you don't want me to push you, but be open to whatever i say in response to your questions." >> hinojosa: and in fact, if you look at the number of people who you have following you on twitter... what's it up to today? >> i think it's 57,500, something like that. >> hinojosa: 57,500. people want to hear what you have to say. so you believe that you represent a vision that people are hungering for, that women are hungering for? is that what keeps you going, where you're just like, "i can't be silenced now"? >> i think what i represent is
myself, and i think this is what everybody wants to hear. people want to hear various voices, they don't want to hear this one person who claims to represent anyone, because i've never claimed to represent muslim women, islam, egypt, none of that. i represent only myself, and what compels me to speak out besides or beyond the inspiration that comes from the courage of activists on the front line, is because i've lived in so many different countries and have been through all these different upheavals. at the end of the day, it's about what i am, who i am. so it's a way... i'm trying to find out my own identity, and figuring out through all these various processes that i've lived through, and so i speak as the "i." and i think this is what attracts people, that we're in a stage now where, because of social media, we're able to connect many "i's" together. and so i hope that the more i speak in my "i," the more people are able to recognize, identify, and hopefully share their "i" back. this is what i want. >> hinojosa: well, for all the work that you do, mona, for the fact that you put yourself
>> funding for "overheard" with evan smith is provided in part by mfi foundation, improving the quality of life within our community. and from the texas board of legal specialization, board certified attorneys in your community. experienced, respected, and tested. also by hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy. and by the alice kleberg reynolds foundation. and viewers like you. thank you. >> i'm evan smith. he's a veteran standup comedian whose ifc series "maron" is now in its third season and whose twice-weekly podcast "wtf" has made him one of the internet age's household names. he's marc maron. this is "overheard." [applause]. >> actually, there are not two sides to every issue. >> so i guess we can't fire him now. >> i guess we can't fire him now. the night that i win the emmy.