Career Profiler: Mona El Tahawy

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I joined them full time after I graduated and continued to write for them – feature stories and editing the women’s page as well as writing a column on women’s issues – during my graduate studies.

 

I joined "Reuters News Agency" in 1993 as a correspondent in their Cairo bureau, moved to the Jerusalem bureau for all of 1998 and then resigned and returned to Cairo in 1999 to report for the British newspaper "The Guardian" and to contribute articles for "U.S. News" and "World Report".

 

I moved to the US in 2000. After the September 11, 2001 attacks my career changed completely. I switched from news reporting to opinion writing because I felt that as a Muslim and an Arab in America at that time, I could contribute more by telling people my opinion. I wanted to introduce a liberal, feminist Muslim and Arab voice to the opinion pages of American papers. I was lucky that "The Washington Post" and "The International Herald Tribune" published many of my opinion pieces.

 

I wrote a weekly column for "Asharq al-Awsat" newspaper for two years – from 2004 until 2006 – and also contributed opinion pieces to other newspapers in the Arab world.

 

Today, my career combines opinion writing and public speaking. I write a column for the internet site Saudidebate.com and also for the Danish newspaper "Politiken". I travel across the US and around the world to give lectures on Arab and Muslim issues.

 

Were there any role models in your life who inspired you?

 

My mother was my first role model. She met my father in medical school and they married after they graduated. They earned their Master’s degrees together and moved our family to London so that they could both get their Ph.D’s in Medicine. My mother has always worked outside of the home and that taught me how important it was for a woman to have a career and to earn her own salary.

 

Other role models were strong women who have made an impact in their fields, such as the Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi and the Egyptian scholar of Islam Leila Ahmed who teaches at Harvard University. They both taught me the importance of asking difficult questions and the need to challenge male-dominated interpretations of Islam and of religion in general.

 

What made you travel "the road not taken" and stand out from the crowd?

 

My family moved a lot when I was a child so from an early age I developed an insider/outsider perspective that makes it impossible for me to completely fit in and has nurtured a very independent streak in me. We moved from Egypt to the UK when I was 7, then we moved to Saudi Arabia when I was 15 where I stayed till I was 21 when I returned to Egypt. I spent 1998 in Israel and then I moved to the US in 2000. All that travel has been an eye-opener and gave me a great education in different cultures but it made it impossible for me to feel completely at home anywhere.

 

You have moved to the US in 2000, one year before 9/11, please tell us about your experience as a female, Arab, Muslim journalist in the US in the aftermath of this incident that changed everything? (Especially since you are based in NYC)

 

I was in Seattle during the 9/11 attacks. They convinced me that I could no longer be a news reporter. So I switched career paths and started writing opinion pieces because it was important for me to give my opinion as an Arab, Muslim woman. It was important that American readers hear a different kind of voice than that they usually heard in the media. They usually see old, very conservative men who claim to speak on behalf of all Muslims. I wanted to speak for myself.

 

Your articles and writing are very liberal and pro-emancipation, did you face any problems or obstacles from the Muslim world?

 

I call myself a liberal, secular feminist Muslim. The words “liberal” and “secular” are sometimes considered dirty words almost but I’m determined to reclaim them and to use them as much as possible so that they are not taboo anymore. It is possible to be Muslim and secular and Muslim and liberal. It is very gratifying to hear from Muslims around the world who support me and who are relieved to hear those words being used.

 

But I also sometimes get negative feedback from conservative Muslims who are not happy with my positions. They are not obliged to agree with me of course but I will not apologize for my views. "Asharq al-Awsat" newspaper would not publish some of my columns because of the liberal positions they took on some women’s issues.

 

The newspaper stopped publishing my columns altogether in 2006. They never told me why. I believe they banned me after pressure from the Egyptian government, against which I have written some very critical pieces for the international media.

 

As an Arab and a woman in an influential position of agenda setting you have a prophet function, what do you think of that? Is it a burden or a gift to be in such a position?

 

It is very gratifying to hear from young women in particular who want to discuss issues with me or who want to know what books I’ve read that helped me reach the views I hold. It is a great responsibility of course. I wouldn’t call it a burden because I love to hear from readers. If anything, I would say it is an obligation to pass on the names of my role models such as Fatima Mernissi and Leila Ahmed to the young women who write to me so that they too can benefit from their work.

 

I hope I can provide some support and guidance to help young women find their own way and to help them make up their own minds about things. I feel very blessed to be able to help when I can – just as older women writers helped me when I was younger.

Do you feel yourself in a position of having to bridge the huge gap between East and West? Between Islam and the West?

 

I feel people like me who grew up in both the East and the West are bridges. I don’t think there is such a huge gap between East and West though because we live in such a globalized world now. The internet, satellite television and travel have brought us all closer.

 

As a Muslim in the West, I feel it is very important to embrace both the Muslim in me and the Western in me so that I can say I am both Muslim and Western. It is very important to stress that point because I don’t believe there is any contradiction or any clash between the two.

 

Do you believe that women have to work harder to prove themselves and reach higher positions in their career?

 

Sometimes women start at a disadvantage. For example, when it comes to political writing, it is sometimes assumed that men are the experts so as a woman writing about politics I have had to work harder to be taken more seriously. But sometimes being a woman can work to my advantage. For example, because some people assume as a woman I don’t know anything about politics, I can take them by surprise and shock them into acknowledging that a woman can be just as interested in politics as a man and that it has nothing to do with gender. That shock is always good because it means that stereotypes are being broken. I love to challenge stereotypes and to confuse people by confounding their expectations.

 

How does journalism in Egypt and the Middle East stand in a comparison to US/Western journalism?

 

I think the main difference is that there is a higher level of professionalism in some western media. For example, when it comes to fact checking and correcting mistakes, media in the Middle East can definitely do a better job.

 

There is still a lot of state-control in a lot of Middle East media. "Al Jazeera" and the new satellite television channels are still a minority. In the West, particularly in the US, it is corporate interests that play a greater role than state influence. So making money through advertising can sometimes influence whether a story runs or not.

 

Also, I think Middle East media should concentrate more on human interest stories and local news to create a greater sense of community. Media in the Middle East should also become more diverse by encouraging minorities and providing more room for their views. Middle East media is dominated by a Sunni Muslim Arab voice. There should be more room for the Shiaa, Christians, Jews, Kurds and other ethnic and sectarian groups.

 

Let's talk about liberating women or feminism. What do you think of the current situation of the Arab/Muslim woman?

 

Some things have improved for Arab/Muslim women but there is a lot to be desired. This generation of Arab women is the most educated, on a regional level. Some countries are better than others. But many women do not enjoy basic rights because of the mixing of cultures and religion. And also because many countries in the Muslim world have modernized their legal system with the exception of family law, or Personal Status law, which is still governed by Shariah laws that were formulated by clerics who lived hundreds of years ago. That often means that some rights that Islam gave women are denied them. For example, the Khulaa laws that Egyptian parliament passed in 2000 gave women a right that Islam gave them hundreds of years ago but that Egyptian family law had denied them.

 

I embrace the word feminist. Like “liberal” and “secular” it is a word that I use intentionally. I don’t think it is a western word and I don’t think the parameters for progress are western. I think human rights and women’s rights are universal and not just limited to the West. Those in the Arab and Muslim world who dismiss discussion of rights because they believe they are western things are actually doing a great disservice to the Arab and Muslim world because they are actually implying that as Arabs and Muslims we can’t appreciate the importance of rights.

 

I worry about the growing conservatism in the Arab world though because such attitudes can often limit themselves to the need for women to cover up by wearing hijab (veil) and that’s it. I support a woman’s right to choose to wear hijab if that’s what she wants but I worry in an environment where there are growing levels of conservatism, there is very little choice and much more peer and societal pressure at work that push a woman or a girl to wear hijab. Religion should be much more than how a woman dresses. I don’t believe that hijab is an obligation.

 

 

What do you advise the younger generation of women who have a dream and aspire a certain career? What advice do you have for young journalists?

 

I would encourage anyone who wants to become a journalist to hold onto that ambition and to know that it is possible to make a living from journalism. They might not become rich but they can live!

 

I believe passion for one’s work is very important. It is much more important in my opinion to follow a career that we’re passionate about rather than one we think will make us money but for which we care little. The more you care about a career path the better you will be at pursuing it and the more successful you will become at it.

 

What about your private life, is there room for family and friends? Many women tell me that everything has its price and a total balance is utopia, what do you think of that?

 

I don’t think anyone can have it all. For example, I have spent the past year traveling almost non-stop. I’ve been to 12 countries in the past year. That would’ve been impossible to do if I had a husband and children.

 

We often hear that a woman can or can’t have it all but I think the same applies to a man. I don’t think men or women can have it all. Because the same applies to a man. While it might look like he has everything – a wife, children, etc – if he is not there to enjoy the company of his wife and children then it is just a façade of a happy life. It is certainly easier to maintain that façade for a man if his wife devotes herself to the home and to the children. For a woman, it is harder to maintain such a façade if she has chosen a career that takes up a lot of time outside the house.

 

There are many ways to be fulfilled. Each one of us has to decide for herself where she finds fulfillment. Some women know they want children while others don’t want any. The hardest thing is to figure out what we want independently of what society tells us we should want. And with that I wish everyone the best of luck!

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