The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls

Mona Eltahawy

Tramp Press, £11.99

On Violence and On Violence Against Women

Jacqueline Rose

Faber, £20

Review by Dani Garavelli

Mona Eltahawy knows how to grab our attention. “I wrote this book with enough rage to fuel a rocket,” she writes at the start of her latest polemic, The Seven Necessary Sins For Women And Girls. “I knew I had to write it while I was still high on the glory of beating up a man who had sexually assaulted me.”

It is a clever, shocking opener, designed to make us feel uneasy. Most feminists will share Eltahawy’s rage; many will be glad she fought off the man who – it transpires – grabbed her bum in a club. But to be “high on the glory of beating up a man” – to take pleasure in meting out punishment, however great the provocation – runs counter to everything society tells us about what it means to be a woman. Such aggression is generally said to be “testosterone-fuelled”; it is the prerogative of the patriarchy.

This is, of course, the point. The Seven Necessary Sins is a call to arms; a provocation to women to think about how they are taught to behave and why. At what age are anger and ambition replaced by shame? Cui bono? Because it isn’t us.

The premise of Eltahawy’s book is straightforward. Women need to reclaim those “sins” appropriated by men in order to smash the patriarchy. She writes a chapter on each “sin” – anger, attention, profanity, ambition, power, violence and lust – suggesting that, used constructively, they can be forces of female liberation.

Stitching these chapters together is Eltahawy's own story: how she changed from a 15-year-old cowed by a sexual assault she endured on a pilgrimage to Mecca to a woman who “looks men in the eye, seizing their gaze with my fury until their fear tells me they understand not to f*** with me”.

Her analysis of the "sins" is compelling and exposes how traits lauded in men are derided in women, keeping them compliant. In Attention, she relates what happened when she had her arm broken by police officers during a protest in Cairo in November 2011. Back then, she had a Twitter following of several thousand. Detained at the Interior Ministry, she managed to post one tweet. Within 15 minutes, the hashtag #FreeMona was trending globally. After her release, she appeared on Egyptian TV to highlight how protesters had been treated.

Was she hailed a hero? By some. But others accused her of using her injuries to increase her fame. When she launched #MosqueMeToo, a campaign which encouraged women to speak up about sexual assault committed on the hajj, it happened again. Sometimes she was called an attention-seeker, sometimes an attention whore. “Attention is a reward, a burden, a taunt, a taint, an accusation,” she writes. “Attention is a bone that patriarchy dangles in front of women: if we want it too much, we’re whores; if we don’t want attention when it determines we should have it, it stalks and beats us with it.”

Eltahawy roots out double standards everywhere. The most chilling involves victims of the Bosnian War. Five years ago, I visited Potcari cemetery where thousands of men and boys massacred in the 1995 genocide are buried, their names etched into a memorial wall. But no-one told me about Vilina Vlas, less than 40km to the south. Vilina Vlas was a hotel turned detention camp where, in 1992, 200 women were tied down and raped, some murdered. It is now a spa hotel. There is no plaque to the victims. In some rooms, they haven’t bothered to change the furniture.

One of the strengths of The Seven Necessary Sins is its intersectionality. As you would expect of an Egyptian-American former journalist who has reported from across the world, Eltahawy’s perspective is truly global. She is as interested in Indian feminist Trupti Desai, who campaigned for women to gain access to the innermost chamber of Hindu temples, as she is in Greta Thunberg. And she consistently acknowledges the multiple discrimination suffered by those who are BAME, LGBT+ and economically disadvantaged.

Its weakness is its lack of nuance. In her desire to jolt us out of our complacency, Eltahawy can come across as facile. She begins her chapter on violence by imagining an underground movement called F** the Patriarchy which would cull men until the patriarchy agreed to dismantle itself. “How many men do you think must be killed before [that would happen]?” she asks. “One thousand? Ten thousand? One million?”

And OK, she has a point. Women are killed as a result of the patriarchy every day and men start wars in the service of less noble causes – but, still, it’s a blunt instrument to wield. I found myself craving less proselytising and more rumination. In Eltahawy’s description of her beating the man who groped her, she almost gloats about repeatedly punching his face. There is not a flicker of self-doubt; not the briefest of hat-tips to the possibility that meeting violence with violence leaves everyone diminished.

Nor does she consider in any depth the ways in which the patriarchy damages men. Aren’t they forced to embrace the very “sins” women are denied, often to equally devastating effect? The book assumes the way forward is for women to become more like men, not the other way round.

On Violence and On Violence Against Women, a series of essays by feminist literary and cultural critic, Jacqueline Rose, is a more difficult read because the author explores her subject from multiple and sometimes conflicting angles. Her book takes the position that to end male violence we have to understand it. To this end, she puts a series of notorious offenders, including Harvey Weinstein and Oscar Pistorius, under the microscope.

Entitlement breeds violence, Rose argues, but so too does the inability to live up to the ideals of masculinity presented to men. She says the revulsion Weinstein provoked was a key component of his pleasure; and she points out that Pistorius’s sporting triumphs created an image of male physical supremacy, while his defence depended on a perception of him as “crippled and vulnerable”.

Rose rejects the radical feminism of Andrea Dworkin which sees violence as “the unadulterated and never-failing expression of male sexuality and power”, insisting that, if this is true, it means men will rule the world forever. Instead, she says, it is crucial that we “allow to individual men the potential gap between maleness and the infinite complexity of the human mind.”

Rose’s book is less seductive than Eltahawy’s. While Eltahawy’s is a call to action, hers is a call to greater reflection. If we do not make time for thought, “which must include the equivocations of our inner lives”, she writes, “we will do nothing to end violence in the world”. On Violence offers no manifesto, no route map to smashing the patriarchy, but it does provide plenty for us to ponder.

Mona Eltahawy is in conversation with Koa Beck at Aye Write, Glasgow’s Book Festival Online on Sunday 16 May, 7.15pm

All-access Festival Passes (£50), Individual Tickets (£5) available at