A Veiled Threat

On the occasion of France enforcing its ban on the niqab:



In Which Mona Eltahawy Moderates a Muslim Feminist Revolution

(Warning: I’m spending the next few mini-paragraphs talking about the “Twitter angle” of all this because of an ongoing fascination I have with social media as a site for minority protest. If you’d rather fast-forward to the important stuff, skip ahead to the Tweets.)

Dear CF,

What follows is more or less a transcript of a conversation happening on Twitter between several Muslim women (and some men) on feminist Islam. It covers a lot of things on its extraordinary way—the condition of women in Saudi Arabia, the fact that Khadija (the first wife of Muhammed) rode her own camel without his permission, how the mutawa (religious police) stopped seventeen schoolgirls from escaping a fire, and later, the fact that Saudi journalists (female) Amal Zahid and Amira Kashgari were recently banned from writing for an Arab newspaper after signing a petition for reform.

It’s a series of anecdotes, laments and frustrations (Eltahawy calls her contributions rants) that slowly build from the impotency the word “rant” suggests into something a lot more defined, targeted, and, well, revolutionary.

There’s by definition nothing I can add to this discussion, but because Twitter is a transient medium, I thought it was essential to archive at least some of what’s happening there tonight. This is one of the most important conversations I’ve ever witnessed. It is an intense and humbling privilege to see it happening in real time. As with the #MooreandMe campaign, there’s a plurality of voices building something. I’ve never seen a revolution gather force in real time from the layering of voices; it’s the kind of thing you think about, dream about, but never really hope to see. But that might be what’s happening here.

Egypt has proven that a collective and headless revolution is possible. For all the talk about social media and how it’s a tool-not-agent (all of which is right and true), one of its most astounding effects is that it democratizes a revolutionary platform that would ordinarily demand a leader who crafts and delivers a message. In other words, Twitter does away—to a tremendous extent—with the need for leadership as representation. The medium allows people to represent themselves.

That’s not to say that this movement is leaderless—Eltahawy is a leader; no one could doubt that, and I’m sure there are others. But Twitter makes it possible for her to also be a conduit. There isn’t much repackaging she does here; not much shaping of a message or campaign. What one sees instead is a discussion that’s giving rise—organically, if that can responsibly be said of something computer-driven—to something. I don’t know what, but it’s BIG.

(I’d suggest, by the way, that what Eltahawy does here—listening, reproducing and amplifying other voices, and building momentum into the discussion from time to time as if she were tending a fire—is “real” leadership, or perhaps the “New Leadership,” as opposed to the grandstanding we’ve come to think of as the sine qua non of, for example, politicians. Eltahawy might be one of the first true leaders of the Internet age. Others include Asmaa Mahfouz and Wael Ghonim.)

After all we’ve written and thought about “selfish” and “unselfish” feminism, about the problems posed by Qaddafi’s female guards and the uneasy relationship between Middle East and West, it’s an honor to witness how Muslim women are talking not to the West (that’s a fraught interaction) but to each other about their vision for the future and—maybe as importantly—their vision of the past.

Almost all of the Tweets that follow are from the formidable and tireless Mona Eltahawy’s Twitter Feed. Please bear with the choppiness of the conversation and retweets; the story that’s told here and dwelling in the gaps is a hell of a lot more powerful than the one I could tell by smoothing and explaining (to the limited extent I even could).

It was hard to know where to start and end, but I’m choosing this Tweet as the opening salvo that opened up a remarkable exchange across the Twitterverse:

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