Arab voices in Western media are relatively few and far between. Many who do get an outlet through international media espouse extremist or particularly conservative beliefs that fuel negative impressions of Muslims, Arabs and the Middle East in general. Egyptian-born, US-based syndicated columnist Mona Eltahawy, however, stands in her own spotlight, one that often draws heat from readers in her home country.
Covering Islam, women's issues and the region in general, Eltahawy's columns appear regularly in major publications such as The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune, Canada-based papers The Globe and Mail and Metro Canada, news website The Huffington Post, Denmark's Politiken and several others. She also appears as a guest analyst on multiple radio and television programs including BBC, CNN, Fox News, Al-Arabeya and MSNBC, among others.
That hasn't stopped her critics from accusing the columnist — who often criticizes the Middle East for misinterpretation of religion, dictatorship and misogyny — of siding with the West. Supporters counter that she offers an honest perspective of a controversial part of the world.
Her words have a wide reach, and Eltahawy is very conscious of the weight that comes with that influence. "I have never and will never say I am a representative of anyone but myself," she says. "It's impossible for one woman to represent a region consisting of more than 300 million people, and it would be unfair to Arab women who are as diverse as women from any other part of the world."
Old School Journalist
Born in Port Said in 1967, Eltahawy has always focused on journalism as a career. She graduated from the American University in Cairo (AUC) in 1990 with a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in mass communication with a concentration in journalism in 1992. Even before starting her master's, she hit the streets as a freelancer in 1990, contributing to local offices of The Middle East Times, Reuters News Agency and The Guardian. Over the next seven years, she built her credentials reporting on topics such as the anti-terrorism campaign in Egypt and the Middle East peace talks.
In 1997, Eltahawy moved to Israel to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict firsthand for Reuters. Two years later, she moved back to Egypt, only to move to Seattle in the United States in 2000 shortly after she married.
When she first moved to the US, Eltahawy spent almost two years trying to land a position as a straight news reporter, with little luck. She says it was her now ex-husband who gave her the advice that shaped her current career path. If she couldn't find the job she wanted, he told her, she should create one.
So in 2002, she moved to New York City and started writing opinion columns blending insight from her background with current events. "Ever since I switched from news reporting to opinion writing, I have gained the most satisfaction from writing from my personal experience," explains Eltahawy. "It's important to me because that's the kind of writing I find the most attractive: the kind of writing that speaks from the heart and personal experience rather than through theory and dry facts."
Her first column was published in the Washington Post eight years ago, and she has been a freelance columnist for Western publications ever since. She also reaches Middle Eastern audiences directly as a columnist for Bahrain's Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Qatar's Al-Arab, and The Jerusalem Report, and as a guest columnist for Egypt's Al-Masry Al-Youm.
On Nobody's 'Side'
While shunning the role of representing the Arab or Muslim worlds, Eltahawy does attempt to break the Western stereotypical image of what she refers to as "violent men and silent women."
"I am a big fan of confusion as a way to smash stereotypes," she says. "I try, through my writing and lectures, to give examples of real people I know or my own personal experiences that put a human face to the 'Arab' and make the reader or audience question their assumptions about Arabs."
She notes that as an educated, liberal Muslim and Arab woman, she does not fit the stereotype painted by some in the West. "That, I hope, is the beginning of a confusion that will encourage them to question the shallow and harmful stereotypes of Arabs in too much of the media."
Despite fighting for the image of Arab men and women, Eltahawy's liberal views often contradict views widely held in the Middle East. The self-proclaimed feminist has spoken out against the full-body veil known as the burqa, writing in response to the backlash against French President Nicolas Sarkozy when he said the burqa was not welcome in France.
"As a Muslim woman and a feminist I would ban the burqa," Eltahawy said in her July 2 New York Times column, arguing that "it erases women from society and has nothing to do with Islam, but everything to do with the hatred for women at the heart of the extremist ideology that preaches it."
The columnist focuses much of her writing on women's issues. Eltahawy's family moved to the United Kingdom when she was seven years old, and for nine years she was raised in the West. When she was 15, the family relocated to Saudi Arabia, a move Eltahawy says turned her world upside down. "As difficult as my time there was, it made me the woman I am today because it drove me to question everything there and to ask if it was really Islam that dictated how that country lives or tradition and customs."
Eltahawy left Saudi Arabia to attend AUC. By then, her years in the kingdom had turned her into a feminist. She came to the realization that the Islam she grew up with was the not the same public religion being practiced on the streets. "Public Islam in Saudi Arabia often discriminated against women, and I became a feminist in reaction to that," she says. "I hated the idea that religion could be used to justify discrimination against women."
Eltahawy often writes of her decision to take off the hijab after wearing it for nine years. "I share my experience because as a young woman who struggled for years with the hijab until I took it off, I would've loved to have read of other women's honest and even difficult experiences," she says. "I share my experience with the hijab in the hope of creating camaraderie with Muslim women."
As a columnist, Eltahawy also addresses democracy and reform in the Arab world, freedom of expression, human rights and issues faced by Muslims living abroad. Recently she came down strongly against Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni's nomination as a director for UNESCO, pointing to books and movies banned in Egypt under Hosni's watch, including The Da Vinci Code. In her September 14 Washington Post column, she wrote, "During his lengthy tenure, Hosni has alienated many Egyptians by suffocating cultural and intellectual freedom while giving a leg up to religious zealotry."
A Dubious Honor
Given her strong and blunt opinions, Eltahawy is accustomed to sparking controversy with her columns. Recently however, criticism intensified when she received a death threat from an angry reader. In an August 29 column in The Washington Post, Eltahawy expressed her personal view against the omission of the infamous Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) from a book being published by Yale University Press. Yale decided to remove the images from The Cartoons that Shook the World in fear of the outrage it might cause in the Muslim world. Calling herself a "Muslim who supported the Danish newspaper," Eltahawy called Yale's decision "a victory to extremists."
News website America in Arabic translated the column into Arabic, and it was published in several regional newspapers under the headline "Egyptian journalist accuses an American university of being cowardly for not publishing cartoons that offend Islam."
Soon after, online readers began bombarding Eltahawy with threats, including one particularly violent email that stated, in both Arabic and English, that its author would kill her. Authorities traced the email back to Giza, Egypt.
Despite the criticism and threats from the region, Eltahawy maintains that her columns do not always contradict Middle Eastern views, mainly because she does not believe that there is such a thing as a fixed set of Middle Eastern views.
"Another reason I disagree with that characterization of my articles is that it presumes that they are knee-jerk reactions that will always take an opposing view to anything that comes from the Middle East," she says. Her columns, she explains, are usually a reaction to current events covered in the media; she does not start with a default position against a particular side.
"I am happy to say that I've been attacked by people from all sides, all ethnic, religious, political and social backgrounds," says Eltahawy. "I hope the fact that I'm attacked by so many different groups means I'm doing something right."
Several international organizations evidently feel Eltahawy is doing something right, bestowing a number of honors upon her. Among her accolades are the Next Century Foundation's 2006 Cutting Edge Award and the European Commission's Samir Kassir Award for Freedom of the Press for columns written in 2008. She has also been selected for the 2010 Anvil of Freedom Award, given by the Edward W. and Charlotte A. Estlow International Center for Journalism and New Media.
Depending on her schedule, Eltahawy writes five to 10 columns a month. Aside from being a columnist, Eltahawy is also an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues. She admits her column writing and the lecture circuit prevent her from fulfilling her ambition of writing a book. "With a schedule like that it's often difficult to have the mental as well as physical space to look inward and focus on a book that I would like to write about how I became the woman I am today."