The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls
(Beacon Press, 2019)
Mona Eltahawy’s feminist manifesto, The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls (2019), is written, Eltahawy says, “with enough rage to fuel a rocket.” Eltahawy is an Egyptian feminist activist and journalist whose experiences and writings have been hugely important in our current time. The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls is her second book, broken up into seven sections: Anger, Attention, Profanity, Ambition, Power, Violence, and Lust—the traits, or “sins,” she argues are necessary to take down the patriarchy. The book is a mix of personal anecdotes, cultural criticism, history, and current events all meant to strengthen the idea that women need to fight back against the patriarchal structures that make up our society.
Eltahawy’s writing is urgent and angry—rightfully so. On the very first page, she tells us of her own sexual assaults at age 15, occurring in Mecca, Saudia Arabia while on a religious pilgrimage. Later in life, Eltahawy shares the story with a group of women in Cairo, and she writes, “An Egyptian Muslim woman took me aside and warned me to stop sharing what had happened in front of foreigners because it would ‘make Muslims look bad.’ I told her it was not I but the men who assaulted me who ‘make Muslims look bad.’” Eltahawy goes on to describe her treatment by the media, by the Egyptian government, and by the men who have harassed or assaulted her, showing the reader through personal anecdotes the urgency of her words and the need to empower women as much as possible.
The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls is a brave and passionate call to action. Outside of personal anecdote, Eltahawy shows readers that she has done her research, taking us through the history of various authoritarian regimes and human rights violations against women. She also speaks on current events such as the nominations of Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib and the racist and sexist treatment they’ve endured from Donald Trump. Eltahawy says that women are angry, and they should be angry. Anger, she says, can be used as a tool. In the section on attention, she says, “Attention is power. When you command attention, you command power,” encouraging women to take the attention they deserve.
In the controversial violence chapter, Eltahawy invokes the need for physical violence as a form of retaliation against the violence of men. She says we need to teach girls to fight so that they can hurt their abusers and harassers right back. She writes, “We must make patriarchy fear us. Until and unless women are ready and able to use violence as a form of defense, as a deterrence, as a weapon, patriarchy will never fear us. And patriarchal violence will continue unabated, every day, week, month, year.” Eltahawy calls her book “a manifesto for destroying patriarchy and ending its crimes.” With each sentence, readers can feel Eltahawy’s unapologetic fury, encouraging women to fight back and demand equality.
Going back and forth between personal and researched narrative, Eltahawy manages to keep me engaged throughout, though at times, the text gets somewhat repetitive, the same stories retold multiple times, and the ideas invoked don’t necessarily say anything entirely new. Eltahawy’s writing is certainly persuasive, impactful, and extremely well researched, but as a whole, it also reads as somewhat simplistic at times, reiterating talking points that have been made time and again for years. Yes, women are angry, yes the patriarchy is to blame, yes we have every right to be profane, demand attention, and seek power, but beyond that, it’s difficult to say what has been added to the cultural consciousness through this manifesto.
That said, this is an important text and an excellent introduction to feminist thought. Eltahawy is clearly a significant figure in our time, whose activism and journalism has helped and is currently helping to create positive change in the world. As an Egyptian, Muslim woman, she is a vital voice in today’s society. Eltahawy’s argument is an important one, and this is a good book to read, or even possibly give as a gift, for anyone who needs to understand the dangers of our patriarchal societies and the ways that women can and should rise up.