MONA ELTAHAWY’S red-streaked hair is a beacon, making it possible to spot her in the midst of the circle that inevitably draws around her. She was a near constant presence at THiNK: seated at a table near the stage for most presentations, in the hallways in earnest conversation, at dinner wine glass in hand and especially online, tweeting furiously. During the session featuring Javed Akhtar and Jaggi Vasudev, the sparks from which are somewhere still smouldering, Eltahawy tweeted: “Confession: I am allergic to men with big beards of all religions.”
Born in Egypt, Eltahawy is a dogged opponent of the status quo, of authoritarian government and Arab misogyny, as outlined in her now infamous Foreign Policy article. Present in Tahrir Square for much of the revolution, (she was beaten and sexually assaulted by the police and state security goons), she feels a sense of personal dismay at the direction the people’s uprising is taking. She has been a trenchant critic of the aftermath of the revolution, characterising the choices facing the Egyptian people as “the best of the worst”. Eltahawy, concerned about women’s rights in a new, Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt, calls for total revolution in Egypt — “revolutions of thought… social, sexual and cultural revolutions”. “The Arab uprisings may have been sparked by an Arab man”, she has written, “but they will be finished by Arab women.” In the kids’ slang, Eltahawy is fierce. She has the necessary qualities to be a new media superstar: energy, opinions, appetite for controversy and an indefatigable desire for online debate.
A former Reuters correspondent, Eltahawy, like all good reporters, is unafraid to say what she sees and her view is always admirably idiosyncratic, peculiar to her. You don’t have to agree with her but you cannot deny the conviction with which she makes her points. Eltahawy’s most recent confrontation, caught on film, led to her spending a night in a New York City prison cell. “The cops,” she tells me, “sympathised as they put me in handcuffs.” Her crime was to deface a belligerent, hate-mongering poster with pink spray paint. “I’m convinced” she later wrote in her defence, “that bullies need to know Muslims will give them the finger.” She’s not averse to giving some Muslims the finger either, describing Saudi Arabia, onstage at THiNK, as a place where “you either lose your mind or become a feminist”.
It takes character to not be cowed, to say what you believe regardless of the cost. Eltahawy has it in spades.
Shougat Dasgupta is an Assistant Editor with Tehelka.