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Mona Eltahawy Nothing threatens the patriarchy more than a woman unafraid to demand attention

The most subversive thing a woman can do is talk about her life as if it matters.
Image: Women should be attention seekers
Today, let us split the world open with our stories. Hanna Barczyk / for NBC News
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Attention, unlike sex, is something men usually give and women usually take.

At least that’s what the patriarchy has determined. Men also take pleasure, while women give it. And so when a woman gives sex away too “easily” she’s labeled a “whore;" when she takes “too much” attention, she’s also a whore — an “attention whore.”

Like sex, attention will always be used against you: Maybe it’s because you want the “wrong” kind, or maybe its because everything you do is “just for attention.” If attention were the 24-hour news cycle, then 23 hours and 55 minutes of it would be considered the natural property of men. Women can forget about their 15 minutes of fame — that’s far too generous! Woe is the woman who demands more than her allotted five minutes.

I’m a writer. And I am a woman. My woe is on a rinse and repeat cycle. But after years of hearing the same complaints and insults and degrading remarks, I am not going to take it anymore. I am here to say I do want your attention, and just as importantly, I deserve it.

I am here to say I do want your attention, and just as importantly, I deserve it.

Simply put, to be a woman with a public opinion is perilous. Whether you are a female politician or a female model or a female novelist or a female cashier, we are too often assumed to wake up with a single thing on our minds: how can I draw attention to myself? Thus, one of the quickest and most pernicious ways to diminish a woman who is too (fill in the blank: loud, challenging, defiant, disruptive) is to accuse her of “doing it for attention.”

For example, when Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL) said last year that President Donald Trump told the widow of a soldier killed in action in Niger that "he knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt," the rinse and repeat cycle went into full swing.

Rinse: Trump accused Wilson of being a liar.

Repeat: Conservative media outlets painted Wilson as “desperately seeking attention.” Fox News even published an opinion piece by a psychologist in which the author accused Wilson repeatedly of being an attention seeker.

This treatment is meant to achieve several things. First, it aims to punish women who speak out, especially if our “attention seeking” directly challenges the patriarchy. In this case, Wilson had exposed the callousness of the president. Second, it is meant to undermine our original point, shaming us for speaking then diminishing our intellectual authority.

In early February, I started #MosqueMeToo to encourage fellow Muslim women to share experiences of sexual harassment and assault during the pilgrimage, or Hajj, and at other sacred places such as mosques. I started the hashtag to support a young Pakistani woman who had written a Facebook post about being sexually harassed at Islam’s holiest site. Her post was shared at least 2,000 times. I have spoken several times before about my own sexual assault in 1982 when I was 15 during the Hajj. Using the hashtag, I once again shared what happened to me and urged fellow Muslim women who could to speak out as well. Each voice that we collectively raise helps those who are currently silenced.

#MosqueMeToo has gone global and as painful as the stories are, it has been heartening to see so many Muslim women speak out.

Enter the patriarchy.

Rinse: You’re an ugly lying whore. Who would want to sexually assault you? You just want attention.

Repeat: You’re a nobody and you just want fame.

What a familiar refrain. Regardless of where and how a woman exposes sexual harassment and assault; regardless of who she is, what she was wearing and whether she was sexually assaulted in a sacred place or a secular one: she is more than likely going to be told she is just angling for attention.

When reality star and model Amber Rose posted a photograph on Twitter last summer of herself in sunglasses, a bikini top, a coat and nothing else to promote her annual Amber Rose Slutwalk Festival to raise awareness of gender inequality and sexual violence, British TV personality Piers Morgan was the most predictable agent of patriarchy ever:

Rinse: “‘The only way for a woman to succeed in life is to post nude photos of themselves to millions of strangers’ - said no true feminist ever.”

Repeat: “This isn’t feminism. It’s attentionseekingism.”

Of course, in mansplaining feminism to Rose while simultaneously slut-shaming her, Morgan reminded us exactly why SlutWalks began: In 2011, a Toronto police officer said that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” And yet, when I was sexually assaulted during the Hajj my entire body except for my face and hands was covered.

In mansplaining feminism to Rose, Piers Morgan reminded us exactly why SlutWalks began.

Piers Morgan’s comments echo many of the reactions directed at #MosqueMeToo. Whether the patriarchy targets you in a personal or a political setting, the goal is always the same.

In November 2011, during a protest near Tahrir Square, Egyptian riot police beat me, broke my left arm and right hand, sexually assaulted me and threatened me with gang rape. A feminist organization in Cairo told me at least 12 other women were sexually assaulted in an almost identical manner. I had also been detained for six hours by the Interior Ministry and another six hours by military intelligence, during which I was blindfolded, interrogated and denied medical care.

After my release, a friend took me to a hospital for treatment. Soon after, I appeared — with both arms in casts and along with x-rays of my injuries — on one of the most popular television shows in Egypt to expose what the police were doing to protestors. I also spoke to media from around the world. I emphasized being a well-known writer had likely saved me from the even worse fate meted out to protesters who are not well known.

Enter the patriarchy.

Rinse: You threw yourself at the police so that they could beat you so that you could appear on television.

Repeat: You are monopolizing your injuries for fame.

For so many years — too many years — I have ignored these taunts. I knew they were meant to diminish and demean.

In September 2012, I was arrested in the New York City subway and jailed overnight after I spray painted over an advertisement I considered racist. My protest was a form of civil disobedience that I believe is necessary to make racism socially unacceptable. I was charged with criminal mischief, making graffiti and possession of a graffiti instrument. After I rejected a plea deal, I argued my case before a judge who eventually dropped the charges in the interest of justice.

Enter the patriarchy.

Rinse: You wanted to get arrested for attention.

Repeat: You staged that protest for publicity.

How predictable.

For so many years — too many years — I have ignored these taunts. I knew they were meant to diminish and demean. But when the same thing started happening after #MosqueMeToo, I decided it was time to change strategies.

“Yes, I want attention,” I replied. “I have important things to say and they deserve attention. I write about important things and they deserve attention.”

You heard me: I will take more than my allotted five minutes.

You heard me: I will take more than my allotted five minutes. Attention does not sully my message — it enables it. Attention is in fact necessary for my message to reach as big an audience as possible. As a writer and activist, I need attention for my words and the causes that I fight for. Attention helped save my life in Cairo — how about that for irony, patriarchy?

And how ironic that the denizens of the “you just want attention” rinse and repeat chorus are themselves demanding attention for what they’re saying. Of course, being men, they are just fulfilling their destiny. Men aren’t attention seekers because you can’t seek what you own.

The most subversive thing a woman can do is talk about her life as if it matters. As if the world should know about it. Because it does, and the world does. And it deserves all our attention.

As one of my favorite poets, Muriel Rukeyser, wrote:

What would happen if a woman told the truth

about her life?

The world would split open.

Today, let us split the world open.

Mona Eltahawy is a feminist writer and public speaker based in New York City and Cairo. She is the author of "Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution."

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