As part of our January Conversation Issue, Itumeleng Molefi reflects on Mona Eltahawy’s keynote address and conversation with Pumla Dineo Gqola at the Abantu Book Festival, which took place in December 2019.
Header image: Mona Eltahawy at Abantu, by Rémy Ngamije
1. Defy, Disobey, Disrupt
It is a Thursday night: 4 December, 2019. Johannesburg is cold and overcast. The city’s lights pollute the night sky so much that I can see the dark and heavy rain clouds overhead. There is a light drizzle and I’m perplexed at this weather. Only a week before I had been in the Karoo, and it seemed like the rest of the country was enjoying summer heat while we received cold winds from the Cape. I had been looking forward to showing off my legs in my controversially short shorts, abandoning my performance of respectability as a high school teacher and letting loose in Johannesburg.
I am outside the magnificently colourful Soweto Theatre waiting to be picked up. That is when I see the two of you. Two young men—you look young enough to have sat in my classroom within the last two years—walking towards the gate of the parking lot. One of you wears a long Matrix-style leather jacket and glasses and the other is in a denim jacket and a beanie. Like many of my learners, you are filled with a certainty about the world around you, which can only come with the naivety of youth. Maybe you live in the area, or perhaps you are going to the taxi rank on the other side of the Caltex petrol station in front of Jabulani Mall.
Just a few minutes before this we had been sitting inside the theatre’s red-box confines, where the force of nature that is Egyptian–American writer and journalist Mona Eltahawy was giving the keynote address at the electrifying opening of the fourth instalment of the Abantu Book Festival. Eltahawy takes the stage after South African singer-songwriter Zonke’s musical performance and Jamaican-born storyteller, Dub poet, dramatist and educator d’bi.young anitafrika’s exhilarating and affirming poetry performance.
‘Good evening, Soweto,’ she says to the packed theatre. ‘My name is Mona Eltahawy … and this is my declaration of faith: Fuck the patriarchy!’ She is greeted with loud applause.
Later, I wonder about your impressions of this introduction.
‘I could say, “Dismantle the patriarchy”—’ Eltahawy continues.
The audience responds with a resounding ‘NO!’
‘—I could say, “Shove the patriarchy”—’
‘—I could say, “Pee on the patriarchy”—’
‘—But no, “Fuck the patriarchy!”’ The audience says this last declaration with her. ‘I am a profane womxn. I am a politically profane womxn … because I am not supposed to be.’
From there, Eltahawy tells us about the patriarchal oppression of womxn across the world, while weaving in personal stories about how she has become the womxn she is today. She sums up the argument she makes in her latest book, The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls—the importance of using profanity, violence, anger, attention seeking and lust to end patriarchy—and then outlines what she calls ‘feminism in 3D’, a strategy she has come up with to ‘make patriarchy fear feminism’.
‘I am often asked,’ she says during the course of the evening, ‘especially by younger people, especially by younger womxn, “How do I make patriarchy fear me? How did you become this loud womxn with the red hair who is, ‘fuck this and fuck that’?” And I say to them, “Sisters and comrades, I did not come out of my mother’s womb screaming, ‘Fuck the patriarchy!’” As much as I love this image—baby Mona, ‘fuck the patriarchy’—it did not happen. It would be revisionism if I said that it happened. Maybe in my memoir I will practice revisionist history. But it did not happen. It took years for me to become the womxn I am.
‘I tell them it took many years. I tell them [to use] feminism in 3D. And the three Ds are: Defy, Disobey and Disrupt. Every day, find ways, no matter how small, to defy, disobey and disrupt the patriarchy. It’s like weightlifting. When you first start to lift weights, you start with the smallest weights and then you get heavier and heavier. This is what happens to your feminist muscles. You begin—you defy, disobey, disrupt—every day, in no matter how small a way, but you build your feminist muscles. You build those muscles to terrify patriarchy.’
By the end of the night, Eltahawy has inspired us, her audience, to do just that. We are up for the fight, prepared to take on the patriarchy. But as I wait in the parking lot for my ride, enjoying the light drizzle that South African poet, performer, actress and producer Lebo Mashile told us is a blessing from the ancestors, I see the two of you and what I hear one of you say transports me back in time.
‘Imagine saying, “Fuck yourself,” bra,’ one of you says. Your companion releases a jeering laugh. ‘No, man. That’s nonsense.’
With these words I’m suddenly back on Wits University campus, more than a year ago. I’m with two or three Black womxn student friends and one of them is lamenting to us how tired she is of talking to men and explaining to them how harmful their behaviour is to them. I, in turn, make the argument that it took me—a Black, gay man who continues to experience patriarchal racism and homophobia from adults and children alike—a long time to understand my relative privilege, and how my own complacency contributed to the abuse, rape and killing of womxn, and that cisgender hextrosexual men—who, even though they are more privileged than I, also experience all kinds of damage from the patriarchy they so vehemently defend—also need the kind of education that I sought and found, which conscientised me to the plight of womxn across the world.
‘But Tumi,’ my friend says to me in frustration, ‘men are not stupid. They know exactly what they are doing. They know their behaviour is killing us!’
As I watch you two young men walk out of the gate, my friend’s words come back, haunting me.
2. Motherhood, mothering and radical rudeness
It is two days later, Saturday afternoon: 6 December, 2019. The light drizzle from Thursday night is now a downpour. It is strange weather for this time of the year: wet and cold, like Cape Town in winter, instead of the usual late-afternoon Johannesburg showers that cool down the day and cleanse the air of city smog.
The Toni Morrison marquee outside Eyethu Lifestyle Centre in Soweto will soon be about half full for an event titled ‘Mona Eltahawy in conversation with Pumla Dineo Gqola’. Gqola accompanies her elderly mother to the front. They walk slowly: Gqola’s mother walks with the aid of a walker frame.
I wonder to myself if you two young men have read Gqola’s 2015 book Rape: A South African Nightmare. For me, it has been one of the texts most conducive to opening my eyes to how harmful patriarchal power is.
One of my learners sees me finishing off the book more than a year after it was published and laughs at me. ‘Meneer,’ she says. ‘Haven’t you finished reading that?’
‘No, I haven’t. But I’m almost at the end.’
‘You were reading it back in May,’ she says. ‘Are you taking breaks in between?’
‘It’s a difficult book to read.’ I show her the cover, which is black with the word ‘RAPE’ written across it in bright red letters, and her smile fades.
In the marquee, there are two lush white couches on a platform about the height of a school ruler that serves as a stage. Just off to the side of this, book lovers and fans mob Eltahawy to take pictures with her and to record short videos of themselves shouting her declaration of faith. At this point, copies of Eltahawy’s books at the Abantu Bookstore are sold out, so she is not able to do any signing.
I look around to see if you are here. I can only pray that Eltahawy’s indictment of all of us men (and boys) did not scare you away from this very important discussion.
‘This is the feminist that all the African leaders are scared of,’ I overhear Gqola say, introducing Eltahawy to her mother just before they go on stage.
‘Thank you for bringing her up the way that she is,’ Eltahawy tells Gqola’s mother.
Later, Gqola tells us she chose to be a mother and Eltahawy tells us that she chose not to be. Gqola also tells us that she refuses to mother people who refer to her as their ‘mother’.
‘People like to conflate mothering and motherhood,’ Gqola says. ‘Motherhood is this mythologised institution that patriarchy uses to exercise control over womxn. Very few people want to talk about the actual work that goes into mothering. Instead, womxn are vilified for not living up to the ridiculous standards of motherhood.’
Until this moment, this is something I have never thought about: I have been mothered by numerous womxn, and men, at crucial stages of my life. I think of my mother and all my grandmothers, my teachers and mentors, my close friends and cousins. There has always been someone there to help me to develop and grow.
At university, I majored in mathematics and science and did not have the vocabulary and conceptual framework necessary to understand Gqola’s book. And so I think of a very close friend who argues, compassionately, with me about the book in 2016. I naively tell her that I find it problematic that in her book Gqola does not discuss the womxn who falsely accuse men of rape, and how these false accusations remain a stain on the reputation of these men. My friend does not respond, justifiably, with anger. Instead, she opens my eyes to the point that Gqola makes, that the overwhelming majority of men who are accused of rape (whether it is a false accusation or not) lose absolutely nothing. These men are able to keep living their lives as if nothing happened: their work lives are hardly ever disrupted; they don’t lose any personal relationships; and they are emboldened to continue their sexual assault of other womxn. False rape accusations are so few and far between because womxn who accuse men of rape gain nothing and almost always lose everything.
‘I don’t take kindly to being called “mother” by anyone who isn’t my child. I’m not your mother and I don’t want to be your mother!’ Gqola insists.
And so, not for the first time, I consider how it is not the responsibility of womxn to educate men on our destructive behaviour, and when we are lucky enough to get help from them in contributing to that education, we should be eternally grateful. I find it ironic, however, that when Eltahawy talks about Stella Nyanzi, there is an audience member who keeps shouting: ‘Preach, mama! Preach!’
Stella Nyanzi is a Ugandan medical anthropologist, feminist, queer rights activist and scholar. Nyanzi is also an activist against Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni’s three-decade-plus dictatorship. In 2017 she was arrested for referring to Museveni as a ‘pair of buttocks’, and she is currently serving a prison sentence for a poem in which she wrote ‘I wish the lice-filled bush of dirty pubic hair overgrown all over Esiteri’s [Museveni’s mother] unwashed chuchu had strangled you at birth’ and ‘I wish the acidic pus flooding Esiteri’s cursed vaginal canal had burnt up your unborn fetus’. The poem was published on her Facebook page for all to see, and she was arrested and charged with ‘the misuse of a computer, cyber harassment, and abusing the president’ under Uganda’s Computer Misuse Act. During her sentencing, she bared her breasts and shouted, ‘Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!’
‘Stella is a revolutionary hero,’ Eltahawy says. ‘You’re watching a revolution happening via Stella right now. I honour Bobi Wine and I honour the other men fighting in Uganda, but watch Stella because not enough people are watching Stella … Stella is a practitioner, she is the descendant of radical rudeness. Radical rudeness in Uganda was a movement by anticolonialist activists who were intentionally disrupting the politeness and the respectability of the white man, who came from England to teach them civility. Are you fucking kidding me? What is less civilised than colonisation? And you’re telling me to be civilised? Fuck you and your civilisation.’
Eltahawy raises her middle finger.
The imperialism of the Muslim empire is something that Eltahawy does not shy away from either. During her keynote, she says: ‘I … acknowledge with embarrassment and shame, the racism, the anti-Black racism, the colourism of my country of birth. And I come here as an Egyptian and as a fellow African to offer you my love and solidarity. And to say, “Fuck racism”. We have an indigenous Black population in Egypt—the Nubian people—and they suffer multiple oppressions. And I fight that, I fight that as part of my fight against patriarchy because the patriarchy is not just white. The patriarchy is not just men.’
Eltahawy stresses that we must acknowledge the violent brutality of the Islamic empire that invaded North Africa from the seventh to the sixteenth century. She also acknowledges that many Muslims hold up the positive achievements of this empire while ignoring everything else about it because of the Islamaphobic sentiments that are a staple of Western media.
‘So, these activists in Uganda,’ Eltahawy continues in her conversation with Gqola, ‘they saw the local allies—because there were always bootlickers and foot soldiers—they saw the local allies of the English colonisers wanting them to be polite and to come to events. And they said, “No, we’re not coming to events.” And they began to use vulgarity and they began to use profanity. Radical rudeness as an anticolonial means of resistance. And this is what Stella does. And this is why, because I have a stage, I am intentionally and politically vulgar and profane. Because I am supposed to be polite, and I won’t be polite, because there’s nothing polite about patriarchy.’
The first time I realise that there is nothing polite about patriarchy, I am ten or eleven. We are on a train travelling from Pretoria to Kimberley. I’m with my mother, my grandmother, her youngest sister and my grand-aunt’s young daughter. She must be five or six. We are all sitting in a compartment together, but my grand-aunt’s daughter is a curious girl who wants to get out of the compartment and explore the rest of the train. No one wants to go with her. My mother voices the dangers they are all thinking of.
‘Little girl,’ my mother says, ‘if you leave this compartment, you are going to encounter men out there with penises this big—’ she holds her forefingers the length of a school ruler apart ‘—and they are going to put it deep inside your vagina.’
I laugh because to me it seems like a ridiculous scenario. Many years later, as I read Gqola’s Rape, I see how this way of talking to girls and womxn is part of what she calls the ‘female fear factory’: a theatrical manufacturing of female fear of patiarchal violence. What my mother describes so graphically is a danger that three womxn travelling alone with two young children have a real chance of encountering. It is a language that must ‘transfer meaning quickly and effectively’—a language so many are fluent in.
My grand-aunt’s daughter continues to be curious as she grows up. She is labelled rude, and much of her behaviour is demonised because it is not how ‘girls are supposed to behave’. It is behaviour that is tolerated and often celebrated in boys. She grows up to be a defiant womxn. The kind of womxn that Eltahawy is advocating we raise: the kind of womxn that patriarchy fears and would think twice about harming.
3. The wrong idea
Early on in Rape, Gqola discusses the origins of the stereotype of the hypersexualised Black womxn. She writes that this stereotype was used to justify the rape of enslaved people, as it was believed that enslaved womxn were overly sexual, impossible to satisfy, and therefore impossible to rape. Gqola also says that this belief held true even once the enslaved were freed, and continued to flourish long after.
‘Throughout South Africa’s colonial and apartheid history,’ Gqola tells us in her conversation with Eltahawy, ‘no one was ever convicted of raping a Black womxn. It almost happened once. There was a womxn who was raped and the perpetrator was sentenced to death. But a month later the sentence was overturned.’
It is a case that Gqola mentions briefly in Rape, and which Pamela Scully writes extensively about in her book Liberating the Family?: Gender and British Slave Emancipation in the Rural Western Cape, South Africa, 1823–1853. The womxn’s name was Anna Simpson and she lived in George with her husband. Simpson could pass for white, and she was raped by Damon Booysen, an eighteen-year-old white man who was working for her husband. Upon hearing about Booyen’s sentence, some white community leaders went to see the judge who made the ruling and informed him that ‘the woman and her husband are Bastard coloured persons, and that instead of her being a respectable woman, her character for chastity was very indifferent and that it was strongly suspected that she had on several occasions previously voluntarily had connection with the Prisoner’.
How many times have you two young men heard people blame survivors of sexual assault for giving their perpetrators ‘the wrong idea’? ‘What were you wearing?’ they ask. ‘What did you think was going to happen?’ I’m sure that, at your age, you are familiar with this language; maybe you have even participated in it. I know that I used to. It is language that we use on a daily basis.
Gqola tells Eltahawy about Angela Makholwa’s 2014 novel, Black Widow Society.
‘Angela Makholwa—who is a novelist and a journalist in South Africa—wrote a fantastic novel many years ago, the Black Widow Society, which I love. For me, it’s like a feminist fantasy! It is about this group of womxn who just take out men who beat womxn and they get away with it. And they’re able to pretend to be these very sophisticated, disciplined, polite womxn who sit around—they’re very fancy, upper-middle-class women in Joburg—but they’re sitting there organising who’s going to kill which man for [assaulting] which womxn.’
4. Revolution and risk
The first time I come across Mona Eltahawy, it is just a few weeks before the Abantu Book Festival. I see a video of her on Twitter: a clip of her appearance on the Australian television show Q&A.
‘How long must we wait, for men and boys, to stop murdering us, to stop beating us and to stop raping us?’ she says, in response to a question from a white male audience member. ‘How many rapists must we kill—not the state, because I disagree with the death penalty and I want to get rid of incarceration … As a womxn, I am asking, how many rapists must we kill until men stop raping us?’
During her keynote address at the Soweto Theatre, Eltahawy follows on from this, saying: ‘I went to Australia, and I said “fuck” ten times, and I asked how many rapists must we kill before men stop raping womxn.’ (During the show, Eltahawy is asked a number of times by the show’s host to stop swearing, but she disregards the request.) ‘These white Australian men who got so upset, they loved my first book just fine. My first book, Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, looked at my community, took apart my community … My first book asked, “Has the revolution gone home? Who was the revolution for?” They loved that book! “Oh, tell us, Mona. Speak, Mona!”
‘If you’ve ever wondered how many white men it takes to have a TV show banned, it’s two hundred, in a country of twenty million. This episode I appeared on has now been banned, the network is investigating its own show, the minister of communications issued a statement about the show and there’s going to be a parliamentary enquiry.’
Half the room applauds the power that Eltahawy’s words had in Australia and the other half expresses outrage that white Australians were so offended.
I wonder what your response is, you two young men strolling away after the event. Perhaps your response is like that of the many Black straight men I have seen: they can clearly identify injustices based on race, and are eager to make much noise about it. But they refuse to see gender-based injustices, because they know the power they will be exposing to scrutiny if they do is their own.
This is something that Eltahawy speaks about as well: ‘I know when you had #RhodesMustFall, there were womxn who were in there among you, fighting for what you all wanted. How many men from the Fallists were with the womxn when they were fighting against sexual violence on campus?’
You are so young, and yet somehow you are already invested in protecting patriarchal power. As I watch the two of you cross the road, my thoughts wander back to a conversation with two of my learners, still in grade nine at the time. Today, these boys must be your age. It is like a dream: my memory of this encounter starts at the most relevant part of the reverie, like there was no prelude.
‘No, meneer,’ one of these boys says to me. ‘When we grow up, we don’t want any girl children. We only want boys.’ One of these boys is fifteen and the other is sixteen.
‘But why?’ I ask.
‘No, meneer,’ they respond in unison, perplexed that I would ask this.
‘Hawu! But why? You guys are not answering the question,’ I push back.
They look at each other and laugh.
‘I’ll tell you why,’ I say, looking to challenge their thinking. ‘It is because you both see how our society treats girls. It is because you probably treat them that way too—’
As soon as I indict them, their laughter becomes more nervous and they start walking away, probably convinced that this effeminate man with a high-pitched voice does not understand that the world has always been this way and that challenging the status quo always results in punishment. Back then, I did not understand this as well as I do now.
‘A revolution needs risk,’ Eltahawy says to us. ‘Revolutions are dangerous. Revolutions have consequences. You cannot put a revolution on and then take it off.’
Now you are out of sight. Who, I wonder, will be the first womxn you encounter after Eltahawy’s address? How, I wonder, will you tell them the story of your attendance at the fourth Abantu Book Festival’s opening night?
- Itumeleng Molefi is a science educator, part-time freelance writer and moonlighting YouTuber. When not performing for his learners in his classroom, he writes and produces video-essays on African literature with his team for the YouTube channel BOTLHALE. Molefi’s nonfiction has appeared in Business Day, Mail & Guardian and Sunday Times, and his fiction has appeared in Botsoto and Kalahari review. Follow him on Twitter.