The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls By Mona Eltahawy
Reviewed by Rachel DeWoskin

What might it look like if women embraced behaviors we’ve been forever warned against, screamed from rafters, stopped agreeing to anything close to correct deportment, were no longer nice, polite, contained, “feminine,” or “civil”? What if we described in frank—even profane—ways exactly what we need, fear, and want changed before we continued to participate in society? Would that look like grabbing power instead of explaining to our young daughters over breakfast what “grab her by the pussy” means, and why someone who takes and gloats about that tack is in charge of the free world? Might such a shift mean defunding militaries and funding public schools? Buying essential food and medical supplies for all children, including feminine hygiene products for poor school girls? Abolishing prisons, borders, and ICE? Allowing for and celebrating mixed-gender and women-led prayer? Megan Rapinoe would get to dance, sing, and revel in her own and her team’s badassery without an army of trolls coming after her in furious force. In China, women wouldn’t be forced to sign employment contracts promising not to get pregnant. Women would demand liberation and attention; we would make our rage collective and productive, turn it consistently outward, never in on ourselves. What if we insisted that the voices, stories, and perspectives of women matter by default, especially those most marginalized, those used to being ignored, attacked, or made invisible by a machine that doles out praise and punishment (the patriarchy): women of color, poor women, trans women? We would welcome immigrants, and, as Representative Ilhan Omar put it at her swearing in, would “send them to Washington.” There would be plaques in places from Bosnia to Brazil to the US, commemorating female victims of violence as well as female heroes.

An imagined world of this sort is on shimmering display in Mona Eltahawy’s The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls, a book at once thoughtful and rageful enough to read like the lovechild of a primal shriek and a dissertation on the state of global women’s rights. Memoir, historical record, and manifesta, the book offers an enraged testimony of injustice and misogyny, as well as a tribute to women fighting both. It is evidence of Eltahawy’s life-long unwillingness to be silent, as well as what her activism has cost, wrought, and produced.

So contemporary it feels almost spoken, Seven Necessary Sins called to my mind an antique counterpoint, the ancient Chinese Biographies of Model Women. Compiled during the Han Dynasty (212-206 AD) by scholar Liu Xiang, Biographies was the first Chinese book devoted entirely to the subject of women. The biographies begin with illustrations of the “correct deportment of mothers,” and work their way from “chaste and obedient” wives and widows to the climactic finale, “biographies of the pernicious and depraved.” I read Biographies in college, and used its shape as an inspiration for a memoir I wrote in my late twenties, about women. Maybe predictably, it was the bad girls I found most interesting, the lessons they offered up most useful. For example, for women to bare our bodies and shout is a terrible curse. For a woman to be “like a man” is a sin almost guaranteed to bring about the sort of plummet from grace we’re used to seeing women endure after daring to attract attention, to rage, lust, or fight. In the “pernicious and depraved” section, a concubine named Mo-Shi has “the heart of a man,” not to mention a sword and cap. Her appropriation of machismo causes the fall of a kingdom. Of course, the lessons we are meant to take as readers (of the don’t-try-this-thing-at-home sort) are often casualties of the dangers of tempt-and-teach literature. Instead of being quietly schooled in how we might be winningly obedient, some readers (including me) may be compelled by disobedient models, finding in their stories permission and inspiration.

Elthaway admires Audre Lorde’s admonition that, “Your silence will not protect you,” and from that seed grows a set of radical chapters on the sins necessary to a revolution designed to dismantle the patriarchy: Anger, Attention, Profanity, Ambition, Power, Violence, and Lust. The book is a call to arms, the aim of which is clear: “I want patriarchy to know that feminism is rage unleashed against its centuries of crimes against women and girls around the world, crimes that are justified by ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ and ‘it’s just the way things are,’ all of which are euphemisms for ‘this world is run by men for the benefit of men.’”

Before Eltahawy actually imagines a world in which women are being inaugurated (in a whimsical moment set in 2050 in which Donya Zaki becomes Egypt’s first woman president; Areej Mohamed, Saudi Arabia’s first woman mufti; and Octavia Hernandez “the third consecutive woman president of the United States of America”), Seven Necessary Sins already feels fantastical in its vision of an alternate (future?) world in which women are powerful and in power, rendering the patriarchy part of an ugly history we’ve all agreed to learn from, and never to repeat.

Eltahawy is famous for refusing to be silent, for what she describes charmingly as “not wanting crumbs” of the patriarchy, but the whole cake. An Egyptian-born activist, journalist, and feminist, she reported in 2011 on the subjecting in Egypt of seventeen female activists to “virginity tests,” a form of sexual assault. Eltahawy suggested that Egypt needed a feminist revolution, and subsequently joined protests against the police and army in Tahrir Square, during which time police beat her, broke her left arm and right hand, sexually assaulted and threatened her with gang rape, detained, blindfolded, and interrogated her. She notes after telling the harrowing story of her detention and the myriad on-line attacks on her that followed it, that Abdel-Fattah el- Sisi, the head of Egyptian military intelligence during her arrest and torture, is now the president of Egypt. I could not help but wonder, and not without a certain amount of pleasure, whether he (and others Eltahawy names and holds responsible for the atrocities taking place on their watches and payrolls) might read her book. She reclaims the word “whore,” often used against her, defusing it by calling herself an “attention whore,” why not? She has something urgent to say, and wields all the words and force at her disposal to make sure she is heard. It’s a risky act, often thrilling to watch, related to the recent moment she describes in which she was groped in a nightclub and tore after her attacker, catching and punching him in the face while screaming, “Don’t ever touch a woman like that again!”

One of the take-aways from Eltahawy’s lived experience and book is that attention itself is both a reward and a punishment. If women get it in sanctioned ways, we are celebrated and protected by the patriarchy, but should we seize or use it toward fighting injustice/thwarting the patriarchy, we are punished, even murdered. After rendering her own story, Eltahawy turns her fierce attention to stories of other women fighting power, model bad-behavior biographies, in other words, sorted by sin. As Eltahawy remarks in a section on education, “It’s hard to be what you can’t see,” and she makes good by providing models of defiance, courage, and willingness to call out and battle misogyny.

Four such women, all Iraqi, were murdered or died mysteriously over a six-week period in 2018; all were the subjects and objects of attention they had gathered in the service of conveying messages important to them and threatening to the patriarchy. An especially compelling chapter is largely devoted to the work of Stella Nyanzi, an epidemiologist at Makerere University who calls herself as a “queer laughist” and defends LGBTQ rights in a country where homosexuality is illegal. Nyanzi has been arrested and put on trial for her vocal attacks on Ugandan President Museveni and a poem she wrote about him; she has been dedicated to calling him out for torture of members of the opposition (examples of which include having the skin peeled from their ears and hands), and dismissal of women, including broken promises to poor school girls of sanitary products that would allow them to stay in school. While Museveni himself has yet to be held accountable, Nyanzi’s “radical rudeness” is punishable, as is Michigan Democratic state representative Lisa Brown’s violation of the “decorum of the house,” for her use of the word “vagina” during a debate over an anti-abortion bill. As was the performance of a “punk prayer” in a Moscow’s cathedral in 2012 by female band Pussy Riot, three of whose members were sentenced to two years in a penal colony, for attacking patriarchy and condemning homophobia.

Seven Necessary Sins gives the exciting, sometimes abrupt sense of someone live-thinking, reading, percolating, and asking. It uses historical and contemporary stories of misogyny to raise and complicate questions, rather than trying to sum up or answer simply: on what systems, fuels, and foot soldiers does patriarchy rely? What forces have contributed to the perpetuation of injustices from physical violence against women to the rigging of medical school admissions in Tokyo? Why must a woman be “firmly within the accepted norms of her society in order to be considered worthy of whatever attention she garners”? How dare governments trumpet civility and police the language of women and girls when the real obscenities are rampant and ruinous: poverty; white supremacy; torture; kidnapping; an “overwhelming and suffocating” amount of violence against women and girls; the racism of lower expectations; girls dropping out of school because discussing menstruation is so taboo that they must be absent when they have their periods? Eltahawy deep dives into egregious examples of crimes against women, including some staggering official statistics on violence against women in Brazil (606 registered domestic violence cases and 164 rapes per day in 2017). Three women a day are killed in the US by intimate partners, and Eltahawy cites figures from the Femicide Census, using facts to ask: if the revolution lives “on the margins,” how might we traverse, transgress, enact wholesale, revolutionary change? She acknowledges that some of her questions are horrifying, intentionally “absurd,” or rhetorical, and doesn’t apologize: “I stand in the disturbance and discomfort caused by the questions I’ve posed.”

In a moment symbolic of the book’s graceful sweep from what’s happened to what could come of it, Eltahawy hearkens back to the time when then Republican nominee Trump made his ignorant and racist remark about Ghazala, the Muslim-American mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, implying that she had nothing to say because she wasn’t allowed to speak. Now, Eltahawy daydreams that maybe Trump’s words “conjured a hex,” and delightfully imagines “a coven of us American-Muslim women working together to bring about Trump’s worst nightmare: not one but two Muslim women—each with plenty to say—elected to the US House of Representatives in November 2018.” Then she names the model women: Palestinian American Rashida Tlaib; and Ilhan Omar, a Somali American.

Seven Necessary Sins races into intentionally provocative territory, including a chapter on what the world would look like if violence were perpetrated by women against men instead of the other way around (the reality). The section “Violence” conjures a full-throated declaration of war. It suggests that we should be screaming in a chorus, joined by those whose words and power Eltahawy amplifies, from queer Chicana poet and theorist Gloria Anzaldúa; to comedians Michelle Wolf and Mindy Kahling; punk activist Nadya Tolokonnikova; actress Helen Mirren; poet Erika L. Sanchez; artist Hilma af Klint; leaders Angela Merkel and Dilma Rousseff; Islamic Studies Professor Amina Wadud; Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman from northern Iraq who was sexually enslaved by ISIS; Rahaf Mohamed, a Saudi Arabian woman who sought asylum in Thailand, was threatened with extradition, and then galvanized a network of feminists and won freedom; and rapper/songwriter Cardi B., whom Eltahawy quotes defending herself: “Let me be free.”

Why not accept Eltahawy’s invitation to a revolutionary party? Why not imagine the fullest extent of what intersectional gender justice might look like, and keep fighting the forces that intentionally disenfranchise, discredit, and marginalize women? The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls offers a lucid distillation of collective aims and messages, as well as a jolt of bravery. Its philosophy demands that we stop yielding, conceding, apologizing, and restraining ourselves, and gives us permission to use our considerable power to free and protect ourselves. And, as Eltahawy’s signature slogan encourages, to “fuck the patriarchy.”

Rachel DeWoskin is the award-winning author of five novels, including Someday We Will Fly, Blind, and Big Girl Small. Her most recent work is Banshee, published in 2019 by Dottir Press. She is on the core fiction faculty at the University of Chicago.

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