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The best books on Patriarchy

recommended by Mona Eltahawy

The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy

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The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls
by Mona Eltahawy

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If you looked up patriarchy in a dictionary, the definition probably wouldn't correspond with what most feminists and activists mean by it today. Here, Mona Eltahawy—journalist, activist and author of The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls—explains what it's all about, why its tentacles are everywhere, and what to read to understand more about it.

Interview by Eve Gerber

The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy

OUT NOW

The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls
by Mona Eltahawy

Read

Patriarchy books is our topic. Please define what patriarchy means for you.

It is hard to understand patriarchy. The textbook definition is systems of oppression that privilege male dominance. Patriarchy is like an octopus and each one of its eight tentacles is one of the oppressions that privilege male dominance. Depending on where you are and who you are, you may be squeezed between all eight of the tentacles or maybe by five or them or maybe just by one of them. The tentacles are, for example, white supremacy or racism, capitalism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, fatphobia et cetera, et cetera. These oppressions work in tandem. Each one of the octopus’s tentacles has its own brain. That gives you an idea of just how sly patriarchy is and how it can slip through cracks without detection.

Your Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls is necessary reading for women and girls. What made you pen this manifesto and what are your ambitions for it?

I wrote Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls because I was fed up with polite feminism. I’m not polite, I’m profane. And I am enraged by the harm done by patriarchy. And this book isn’t just for women or girls. It’s also for trans women, transmen, non-binary people, gender non-conforming people generally and all those who are hurt by patriarchy, including men. Some men are hurt by patriarchy and some women benefit from patriarchy.

“Patriarchy is like an octopus and each one of its eight tentacles is one of the oppressions that privilege male dominance”

I wanted to write what I call a Molotov cocktail. It’s my ambition that the book will be used as a manifesto to encourage others to start making feminism 3D. The three Ds are defiant, disobedient and disruptive of the patriarchy. I hope readers will seize the Seven Sins, my Molotov cocktail, and use it to set aflame the multi-tentacled oppression we call patriarchy.

Turning to the books you’ve recommended, I wanted to begin with a work of creative nonfiction by a feminist psychiatrist who was described as “the Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab world.” Please tell me about Firdaus or Woman At Point Zero, Nawal El Saadawi.

As I wrote in an essay eulogizing her, Nawal El Saadawi is not an Egyptian version of a white feminist. She is the Nawal El Saadawi of the world, not the Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab world. Nawal El Saadawi was one of the foremost feminists in the world, until her recent death.

I included Woman At Point Zero because it is a slim but brutal and unrelenting book. It is brutal because patriarchy is brutal and it’s unrelenting because patriarchy is unrelenting. In the book, Firdaus, a sex worker who is about to be put to death for murdering her pimp, tells the story of how a parade of patriarchal misogynists brutalized her.

In each of the books I chose, there is a quote that I like to use. In this novel, the protagonist says her accusers call her “a savage and dangerous woman.” And she says that is because “I am speaking the truth. And the truth is savage and dangerous.” This quote explains why I wrote my book. I want feminism to terrify patriarchy by telling the truth. And the truth is savage and dangerous.

El Saadawi contributed to the influential anthology Sisterhood is Global. Historically, how global is patriarchy?

Oh, patriarchy is universal. I was born in Egypt. I grew up in the UK and Saudi Arabia. I spent some time in Jerusalem, as a journalist. I moved to the US in 2008. Patriarchy is in all of those places. I say in the book that when you ask people, especially men, about patriarchy, it’s like asking a fish, what is water? The fish doesn’t know what water is because water everywhere. Patriarchy, like oxygen, is everywhere—whether you’re in China, under the Communist Party system or in Saudi Arabia, where there an absolute monarchy, or in UK with a constitutional monarchy, or in the US with a constitutional two-party system. People often like to point to another country or another part of the world and say, ‘that’s patriarchy over there’. But they forget that patriarchy is right where they are too.

This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color is now in its fourth edition. Please tell us about your second selection.

I love This Bridge Called My Back. It was edited by two iconic feminists, Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa, in the 1980s. They brought together a diverse group of radical women to create a collection about intersectional feminism. They didn’t have the word intersectional then, it was coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, but that’s effectively what it was. The essays are by Black women, women of color, indigenous women, Latinx women, disabled women, working class, women who were outside of the framework of what we now call ‘white feminism.’ This collection came out at a time when the feminist voices that people were hearing were those of iconic white feminists. The contributions, by the likes of Toni Cade Bambara and Audre Lorde, were so radical for its time.

The collection was saying, ‘listen to something broader than white feminism’. White feminism today is usually associated with just fighting misogyny. Women like me have more to fight than just misogyny. I fight all the tentacles of the octopus.

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There’s a quote I like to use from Gloria E. Anzaldúa, which really encapsulates the power of her feminism. She encourages women to speak out because we’re so often censored and she says, “Write with your eyes like painters, with your ears like musicians, with your feet like dancers. You are the truthsayer with quill and torch. Write with your tongues of fire. Don’t let the pen banish you from yourself. Don’t let the ink coagulate in your pens. Don’t let the censor snuff out the spark, nor the gags muffle your voice. Put your shit on the paper.” That’s a powerful statement and for me is was transformative. I put that quote as a preface to my first book. It really represents the spirit of This Bridge Called My Back.

One of the original contributors to this collection, Anita Valerio, is now Max Wolf Valerio. Have feminist positions about patriarchy evolved in response to shifting perceptions of gender?

It’s one of the most vital issues today. In the UK and US, there is a horrendous amount of transphobia that is now translating into hateful legislation. It’s especially important for me now, as a perimenopausal woman. Transphobes who claim to be feminists would argue, ‘don’t reduce me to my ability to have children, I’m not just a baby-making machine’. But now they’re talking about biological determinism in a really ugly and cruel way. In order to evolve and to fight that tentacle of the octopus that is transphobia, what feminism has to do is reject the binary of gender and reject the binary of sex as well—especially as we learn more about indigenous cultures and especially as we come to realize that the binaries around gender and sex were in so many cases vestiges of colonialism. That’s why I continue to insist that we reject them now.

Let’s turn to a collection by the legendary Audre Lorde. Tell me about Sister Outsider.

Sister Outsider continues to influence, which speaks to the power of Audre Lorde’s work. The fact that she was a Black lesbian poet makes her work especially resonant now. I love quoting Audre Lorde when she talks about anger and I especially appreciate her work about intersectional feminism.

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The quote that I’m going to give you from Audre Lorde really speaks to the multiple oppressions, the tentacles of the octopus, that Black indigenous and women of color contend with: “Women of Color in America have grown up within a symphony of anger at being silenced, at being unchosen, at knowing that when we survive, it is in spite of a world that takes for granted our lack of humanness, and which hates our very existence outside of its service. And I say symphony rather than cacophony because we have had to learn to orchestrate those furies so that they do not tear us apart.” I love this metaphor; I think of the symphony as like the octopus, and the varied oppressions that squeeze women from marginalized communities are like instruments they must learn to orchestrate.

Audre Lorde was attentive to how differences within the feminist movements affected feminist progress. She writes in Sister Outsider, “In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower.” Can you explain her theory of how acknowledging differences can broaden coalitions against patriarchy?

When we’re flattened under this one label—women—it is very deceptive. Audre Lorde reminds us that what women experience depends on where in the world we live and how marginalized we are. When we see who has been most affected by this pandemic, for example, in the United States, it’s Black and Latinx women who have been pushed out of the workforce. We use the word women, but we have to disaggregate. In United States, as the economy starts to bounce back a bit from the pandemic, white women have been regaining jobs at a faster rate than Black and Latinx women. It’s really important to recognize that one-size-fits-all feminism isn’t going to liberate everyone; it isn’t going to loosen all those tentacles of oppression. I think this is what Audre Lorde meant when she wrote that recognizing differences will strengthen the fight against patriarchy.

Your fourth choice is A Small Key Can Open a Large Door: The Rojava Revolution.

This book is written by Kurdish anarchist feminists who were among the group of men and women who led the Rojava revolution to liberate towns in northern Syria from the co-called Islamic State. They created this incredible social experiment that rejects the notion of the state. Anarchist feminism rejects the notion of borders and recognizes all the emergencies that the planet is going through now, including the climate crisis. These women are fighting all those tentacles of the octopus. They’re fighting not just the state, but they’re also fighting their own community and their own family. They’re fighting what I call ‘the trifecta of misogyny.’ The state and the street and the home together oppress women. This is a manifesto, an essay, a reminder of the moving revolution that is actively trying to dismantle the octopus called patriarchy.

The book seems to get to the heart of the co-dependence between patriarchy and patriotism. Can you help me understand how anarchist feminists tackle patriarchy and patriotism simultaneously?

The older I’ve become, and the more radical my feminism has become, the more I am drawn to anarchism. I want a world without borders. The nation-state has a monopoly on violence and gives an entity I reject—the police—a license to kill on its behalf. Through the so-called criminal justice system, the nation-state throws people into prison. The Rojava revolution in Northern Syria remind us that patriotism and nationalism, the military, the police and prisons uphold that octopus called patriarchy.

Finally, Some of Us Did Not Die by poet and Berkeley professor June Jordan.

June Jordan is so important to me that I have her words tattooed on my arm: “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” June Jordan was the walking embodiment of a feminist revolution against patriarchy. Whether it was through her poems or her columns for progressive magazines. Some of Us Did Not Die is a collection of her lectures and poems.

June Jordan lived her life by fighting all those tentacles of the octopus of oppression. There is a quote from remarks she made at Barnard College that really gets to the heart of this: “That confrontation with heavyweight intolerance carried me through our Civil Rights Revolution and into our resistance to the War Against Vietnam and then into the realm of gender and sexual and sexuality politics. And those strivings, in aggregate, carried me from Brooklyn to Mississippi, to South Africa, to Nicaragua, to Israel, to Palestine, to Lebanon and to Northern Ireland, and every single one of those embattled baptisms clarified pivotal connections among otherwise apparently disparate victories, or among apparently disparate events of suffering and loss.” Her ability to connect those apparently disparate victories or events of suffering is what I ask us to do by looking at the tentacles of the octopus.

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“There is a huge, known community out here working against racism and racist violence. But violence against women did not have and does not have a remotely comparable huge and known community working against that pathology that saturates popular consciousness.” Twenty years after those words were published, what Jordan calls “that pathology of perspective” seems as pervasive as ever at least in the United States, if not more so. In Latin America, Europe and Asia movements against femicide seem to be gaining steam. What do you see?

The United States lags behind in so many ways. It is not the center of the universe, when it comes to feminism and so many things. June Jordan asks, “when will we revolt against our marginalized, pseudo maverick status and assert our majority” as women? Feminists in Mexico are already doing that. They took over the headquarters of a human rights body in Mexico City last September and they invited abused women and children to shelter there. Across Latin America, in Chile, in Ecuador, in Peru, feminism is advancing by, for example, successfully pushing to decriminalize abortions in Argentina. The earliest known anarchist feminist newspaper was published in Argentina at the end of the 1800s, which speaks to the long history of radical feminism in Latin America. I hope that more feminists, from around the world, will learn from the example being set by women committing the Seven Necessary Sins in Latin America and elsewhere.

Interview by Eve Gerber

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Mona Eltahawy

Mona Eltahawy

Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian American journalist and feminist activist. Her work has been published in newspapers around the world and she is a frequent commentator on current affairs on the BBC, CNN, and Al Jazeera, amongst others, where her goal is always to disrupt patriarchy. She is the author of Headscarves and Hymens and The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls. She recently launched her newsletter Feminist Giant. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @monaeltahawy.

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Mona Eltahawy

Mona Eltahawy

Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian American journalist and feminist activist. Her work has been published in newspapers around the world and she is a frequent commentator on current affairs on the BBC, CNN, and Al Jazeera, amongst others, where her goal is always to disrupt patriarchy. She is the author of Headscarves and Hymens and The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls. She recently launched her newsletter Feminist Giant. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @monaeltahawy.