Feminism, revisited: Gloria Steinem meets Mona Eltahawy

When an e-mail arrived in my inbox recently announcing a public conversation between Gloria Steinem and Mona Eltahawy, I knew I had to be there, even though it was scheduled for midday on a Thursday across town at UCLA’s Hammer Museum. The juxtaposition of these two women was irresistible — the iconic Steinem, who at 76 has become a seasoned philosopher while remaining as vital as when she helped launch the feminist movement some 40 years ago, and the much younger but equally brave Egyptian-born Eltahawy, whose daring in challenging the Muslim Brotherhood got her ousted from the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat.

Eltahawy, 44, lives in New York and continues to write for many esteemed publications worldwide; her work has also appeared on this newspaper’s op-ed pages as a voice for progressive feminism in the Arab world.

Two generations, two worlds, both persevering in a fight for women’s rights that, despite some progress, seems never-ending.

An overflow crowd greeted the pair like rock stars as they walked onto the Hammer’s stage. And for 90 minutes the two conducted a wide-ranging conversation about work, life, sexuality and oppression that was filled with equal parts optimism, humor and anger. Steinem’s advocacy began in the 1970s, notably when, as a journalist, she went undercover to expose the life of Playboy Bunnies. She went on, among her many accomplishments, to co-found Ms. Magazine, which was initially widely dismissed, including by TV anchor Harry Reasoner, who predicted it wouldn’t last for five issues. Ms. is now nearing its 40th anniversary.

“I’m in feminist heaven,” Eltahawy proclaimed at the start, as she questioned Steinem on how she remains optimistic over the long run. “Optimism is not associated enough with feminism,” Eltahawy said.

“I’m a hope-aholic,” Steinem responded. “Hope is very precious because it leads to action.”

In Steinem’s long career, action has meant standing at the front lines of protests, acting as a spokeswoman and standing up to insults from men and women alike who don’t agree with her, even those abroad who call feminism an “American export.” For Eltahawy, action has meant promoting the notion that one can be both Muslim and a feminist, including by publicly leading Muslim prayers, an act traditionally forbidden to women.

They talked about the changing world, how the success of the revolution in Cairo’s Tahrir Square has inspired similar protests around the world, from Libya to Wall Street, and now in cities and towns throughout the United States.

Eltahawy, who identifies as a progressive Muslim, said Egypt’s revolution went beyond what was visible to all. “It wasn’t just a revolution in Tahrir Square,” she said. “It was a revolution in all homes, against the patriarchal system.” She told a story of a young Nubian woman whose parents tried to forbid her from going to the protests: “You are not a man,” they told their daughter. “But she went anyway,” Eltahawy said.

“As progressive Muslims, at the core of our beliefs is equality,” she said, describing how she is baffled by Muslim women who support fundamentalist Islamic laws. “I believe the face veil should be banned,” she said. “They don’t believe in women’s rights, except the right to cover their faces.”

Steinem responded with moderation: “It’s possible,” she said, “that without the veil, the women couldn’t go to school at all.”

Eltahawy’s family lived in England for most of her childhood, until her parents moved to Saudi Arabia when she was a teenager. She said she was raised Muslim, but not strictly traditionally, adding that she is now much more liberal than her parents and that her feminism was formed, in large part, in response to the restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia. Steinem’s father was Jewish, her mother was not, and she was raised without religion. She now calls herself a “pagan,” inspired by a trip down the Nile, where she witnessed how the ancient Egyptians incorporated nature into their worship.

The pair enthused over the Occupy Wall Street movement, dismissing pundits who say it has no center and applauding the members’ efforts to give voice to the disenfranchised. Steinem spoke of her admiration for the method the New York protesters have developed to get around rules against amplified sound by repeating, as a group, anything a single speaker says. “It’s poetry,” Steinem said. “It brings tears to my eyes.”

Added Eltahawy: “As an Egyptian, I just wanted to say, ‘Here’s pizza for everyone, on me.’ ”

Both women’s message is of assuming one’s own power, and that can come from many sources: “The power to make people laugh is power,” said Steinem, who once was the only female writer on the news-comedy show “That Was the Week That Was.” “Laughter is the only free emotion,” she added. “You can compel fear, but you can’t compel laughter.”

Eltahawy’s strongest message came when she remarked, “Challenging the traditional notion of masculinity and femininity is better for both genders,” explaining her belief that feminism can also be liberating for men, freeing them from stereotyping along with women.

Steinem’s profound grace and stature came through when, in response to a young woman in the audience, she said, “My really big advice for a young feminist is not to listen to me, but to listen to yourself. Do what you love. I’m just here to support you and not to dictate in any way.

“Just make sure you have company,” she added. “Human beings are communal creatures; you need people around you who make you feel smart, not dumb, and who support you.”

So what does all this mean for the Jewish community? Well, despite Jewish women’s progress over the past 40 years, along with the rest of the Western world, a recent study by The Forward showed that among Jews, women are still underrepresented at the top level of communal leadership and those who are heading large organizations tend to be less well-paid than their male counterparts.

Next weekend, on Oct. 30, the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles (NCJW/LA), along with Hadassah Southern California and NA’AMAT USA/Western Area, will present the first of what is hoped will be an annual Jewish Women’s Conference for Southern California, at the NCJW/LA offices on Fairfax Avenue. The day’s events will include workshops and panels, and I’ve been invited to moderate one of them. I hope you’ll join in this effort to evaluate and learn about how today’s women are leading and aspiring within our community, both here and in Israel.

Jewish Women’s Conference, Southern California, Oct. 30, 8:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., NCJA/LA Council House, 543 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. Tickets: $36, students $18. For more information or to become a sponsor, call (855) 592-7218 or e-mail info@jwcsc.org.