Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls

The tone for the evening is set when Mona Eltahawy opens with a declaration of her statement of faith: “f**k the patriarchy.” She explains the concept of patriarchy as an ideology with the body of an octopus: its head is misogyny, and its tentacles are systems of oppression and institutions that privilege male dominance. Despite the name, these are not systems that benefit men. According to Eltahawy, patriarchy is not about men, nor is it for them.


Eltahawy’s book, Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls, is a how-to guide for anyone who identifies as female to recover the power of the ‘sins’ they are so frequently taught to avoid.  Eltahawy identifies these ‘sins’ as anger, attention, profanity, ambition, power, violence and lust. Gender binaries are constructs we’re socialized into and these binaries benefit the patriarchy. If you don’t fall into gender norms, you’re punished accordingly. Women, Eltahawy states, often struggle to identify what they want because they are taught that it exists within parameters. “We’re not raised to be, or to do,” she observes. Similarly, the revolution of owning your body and your sexuality frees you from the patriarchy.


As Eltahawy talks her audience through each sin, the depth of its repression becomes clearer. Anger for white American women, she claims, began with the election of Trump. Anger is the fuel for the engine that will destroy the patriarchy. Yet anger is often misdirected: it is turned inwards, where it becomes depression and self-hatred. Only rarely is anger expressed outwardly, towards those who have provoked it.


As someone who has had the mouth of a sailor since an early age, I must say I rather enjoyed Eltahawy’s liberal use of the word f**k. Her use of profanity derives from her exploration into profanity itself. Politeness is used against women, she reminds the audience: we’re taught to shrink ourselves, to be quiet and invisible. Cursing, she says, is verbal disobedience against patriarchy. (All this time I was a warrior with my words, and I had no idea!)


Indeed, the question of identity, - of ‘who do you think you are?’ - ties in with the book’s commentary on ambition and attention. These questions are frequently used against women, who are taught to believe that we should be modest and unassuming. To declare that your ideas are worthy of attention, and to have the chutzpah to forge a path in realizing or sharing those ideas is often not encouraged. Eltahawy rephrases her logic: “Am I arrogant? Who cares? I f**king earned it!”


Earning one’s place in the world is personal power, and not something the patriarchy wants unless it exists in a certain paradigm. Power is subjective; not everyone wants to be a millionaire or a CEO. Power that dismantles the patriarchy is important.


Nothing seems to foster community like shared trauma. As Eltahawy delved into her evidence, it was as though the collective female audience bristled, recalling with and through her injustices we have all suffered on our own journeys. Inevitably it would seem, the conversation turned to men. How can we teach boys to fuck the patriarchy? Eltahawy has an answer:


“My mission is to emancipate women and girls. Fuck the boys! My mission is greater than equality. Men aren’t free, I don’t want to be them. Men should raise boys to fuck the patriarchy. Mothers raise boys in the eco system of patriarchy. If we’re saving ourselves, and also men, boys and girls…we’d need to be like Kali, the goddess with multiple arms!”


It was an image that embodied the way in which women are often left to carry the emotional labour for everyone. We must somehow save ourselves, and everyone else. In the spirit of Mona Eltahawy herself: “f**ck that.”