Preaching the Virtuous Sins: A Review of Mona Eltahawy’s “The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls” – Lanre Apata

In her second book written with “enough rage to fuel a rocket,” Mona Eltahawy unburdens the seven virtuous sins that have become necessary for every woman and every girl around the globe in their fight against patriarchy. With an attractive cover that signals the unconventional, Eltahawy’s The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls is a compelling manifesto that preaches the message of anger, attention, profanity, ambition, power, violence and lust. These sins are underlined by Eltahawy as the tools to defy, disobey and disrupt patriarchy.

Mona Eltahawy lays a foundation for her properly researched narrative by building on her personal experiences as a fifteen year old teenager who was sexually assaulted twice at Islam’s holiest ground, and later assaulted as a fifty year old woman in a bar in Montreal. This puts in proper perspective the grip of patriarchy and its offshoots, its widespread consequences and normalization, and the need for feminism in today’s global conversations.

In an era that has seen to the conviction of Harvey Weinstein in the West, activism for sexual liberation in Africa, the #ChurchMeToo campaign in Nigeria, and the awakening of agency in the Middle East, these sins argue for the place of this manifesto in today’s feminism and activism. Understanding that feminism and the activism are clearly hindered by religion and social economic imbalance, especially in Africa and the Middle East, the essence of Eltahawy’s advocacy is given meaning by the succinct but powerful thought of Marie Shear, the American writer and feminist advocate,  who refers to feminism as “the radical notion that women are people.”

With no intention to pacify or entertain her readers, Eltahawy’s fierce work slams patriarchy and raises the ‘necessary’ controversy around the conversations most have avoided. Her seemingly unconventional or uncomfortable positions, as they may be perceived by men or women that have not yet come to terms with the essence of feminism and the dangers of patriarchy, highlight a practicable mode of resistance in a society where women and girls are cowed, silenced, controlled and owned. It’s therefore not surprising that ‘anger’ is the first sin prescribed. This would ensure “access to an infinite supply of rage that would terrify men.” This also serves as the premise to unfold other sins.

Knowing patriarchy is universal, Eltahawy references events from different parts of the world to strengthen her argument. The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls trounces the conventions and the norms that stultify women and girls, especially with the underrepresentation of women in economic and political spaces to influence policies and laws. As the resistance through the #MeToo Movement and other regional confrontations gain steam, the institutionalized marginalization of women and girls in the society also attracts attention. With these realities staring us in the face. again, Eltahawy successfully convinces readers that attaining equality and freedom for the oppressed should be done by resisting every form of socialization that forces women to see themselves through men. This could also be read as women taking the step to refuse the social construct of what a woman should be by centering their lives, talking about it, understanding the power of language and how it’s designed to subjugate them.

Eltahawy goes further to align with feminist scholars by agreeing to the peculiarities of feminism in different parts of the globe. Here, putting up facts and figures, Eltahawy blames privileged white women for being the foot soldiers of patriarchy. Her understanding of the peculiarities makes her position interesting. Perhaps these white women have not seen how subversive and dangerous patriarchy is, Eltahawy takes readers to Uganda to show the plight of girls through the life of Stella Nyanzi. Also sobering is how women are silenced in the Middle East. This is seen through the lives of the four Iraqi women that were murdered in 2008 because of their beauty and the attention they sought.

A recurring theme of Eltahawy’s fact and event based exposition is how and why women should leave the periphery of the society in order to be actively involved in the conversations that concern their lives and their plights. This would also help to not seek permission to live and thrive while they (women and girls) seek to own their narratives. This conceptualization of freedom, and not necessarily equality to men as some men are not free, centralizes power as a necessary sin. Power and the gains therein, are vital in distorting the institutionalized discrimination against women around the globe. Power possessed by women and girls would help in fighting the callous policies and moves that are similar, in form and purpose, to the medical school rigging in Japan which is referenced by Eltahawy.

Power also prepares readers for the radical importance of Violence and Lust. In this modern world where women still suffer violence and oppression, Mona Eltahawy comfortably argues for violence as a tool for defying and disrupting patriarchy. According to her “if violence is the language that patriarchy understands, isn’t it time more women speak it, if only for their own safety” knowing “three women are killed every day in the United States as a result of intimate-partner violence.” Taking into consideration the facts and figures of violence against women around the globe, one would see how necessary violence is.           

The necessity of violence is tied to how things haven’t really changed from the period the writer was assaulted at fifteen and how she still suffered the same at fifty in a city one would call progressive. The difference in both events is Eltahawy’s consciousness and courage as a fifty year old. Grounded with the message of feminism in which “fuck the patriarchy”,her declaration of faith, had become one of her symbols of courage and defiance, she teaches women that they own their bodies. This consciousness is one of the keys to freedom and agency. This reinforces the importance of Bell Hooks’ feminist teaching on reproductive rights, beauty, lesbianism, and marriage/partnership.

An attractive element to Eltahawy’s work is how she doesn’t stop at theorizing these sins. She breathes life into them with inspiring, sad/sober accounts/experiences of women that have drawn the center to themselves as Toni Morrison proclaimed and did. She takes her readers to Nigeria, the United States, Bosnia, India, Egypt in her attempt to show how some women are resisting oppression and additional reasons to fight patriarchy. Supported by the stories of activists and victims, Eltahawy’s important narrative is devoid of an elitist or a classist tone which helps towards incorporating the plights of racially and culturally marginalized women and girls. Hence, as Eltahawy talks to privileged and underprivileged women in the West, she factors in the peculiarities of the lives of the oppressed minorities: African women, uneducated women, LGBTs and Arab women.   

Written to destroy the normalized patriarchal hierarchies that have carpeted women and girls through social conventions and crime, Eltahawy’s explosive narrative takes the garb of abomination off the sins she prescribes as the needed call to action for women in an era that is seeing to the rise of right-wing politics across the West, institutional oppression in the Middle East, repression against liberty and sexual freedom in Africa, and a global increase in violence against women and girls. This timely narrative is important for privileged women, oppressed minorities, girls coming to terms with feminism, and the men that need to understand their roles in the fight for equality and freedom.  

The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls (2019).

Mona Eltahawy.

Beacon Press.

216 Pages.

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