Beyond Slut Shaming: Hala Mona

Mona Hala- an Egyptian actress and comedian- managed to get a lot of media attention for posting pictures of herself on Instagram wearing a bikini. Imagine that! Oh and did I forget to mention that she was on the beach? Even more shocking were the pictures she posted of her boyfriend with his hands ‘’inappropriately’’ placed on her butt. Horror of horrors! And all this at a time when the sexual harassment of women  has reached epic proportions on Egyptian streets.

The voluntary touching proved too shocking for the easily shocked and the crude insults and self-righteous critiques began pouring into Mona Hala’s Instagram account. There are now youtube videos recapturing clips of her scandalous photos. Somebody actually took the time to put those clips together, as if spreading the memes that threatened public morality were an effective strategy for protecting public morality. In effect, it was an instance of slut shaming.

Well, the strategy failed miserably. Mona Hala- far from being publicly shamed- made a mockery of the shaming process  itself and turned the tables on her would be detractors. And it failed largely because shaming depends upon the fear and duplicity of the shamed. Mona Hala’s real crime is her insistence on being open and unapologetic about the alternative values she is actively promoting on social media.

The status quo can tolerate a life loving woman who copes with the suppression of female sexuality or desire by leading a double life, by publicly bowing to social mores that are nonchalantly flouted in private.  Leading a double life, of course has its own psychic costs. The fear of gossip or kalam al nas has historically been used to regulate female sexuality and behavior. It is routinely invoked- as a form of social pressure- to render that which is objectionable invisible.

A lot of psychic energy is expended on covering up secrets that can potentially destroy a woman’s reputation and diminish her marriage prospects. The female subject, then, risks becoming shaky and easily shaken by the implicit threat of being exposed if she succumbs to her natural desires.  This gives other people a lot of power over the fearful female subject. A disgruntled boyfriend or erstwhile lover, for example, can morph into lethal gossip mongers. Photos that capture moments of spontaneous affection or human intimacy can be turned into weapons of mass distraction or personal destruction.

Mona Hala turned this logic on its head, welcoming the opportunity to have her private life exposed to public scrutiny. She appeared on various talk shows and took command of her own self-representation, repeatedly asserting her identity as a feminist, a spontaneous young woman, a highly educated actress, a serious reader, a socially aware vegetarian and a promoter of alternative values.

The talk show host interviewing her, Ramy Radwan, responded to her unabashed openness by pointing out that Mona Hala had distanced/estranged herself from the esentialized identity of the ‘’eastern woman’’ and the ‘’eastern traditions’’ that supposedly bind her. He drew attention to the fact that the young actress was currently living in the United States and had adopted ‘’western logic’’ in dealing with Egyptian society. The talk show host was in effect constructing a binary opposition, one that divides ‘’east’’ and ‘’west’’ into eternal monolithic spheres that define themselves in opposition to one another. Little or no attention was given to nuanced cultural variations or to the cultural changes that occur over time. Nothing was said about how class position  might possibly inflect the so-called identity of an ‘’eastern’’ woman. Perhaps most crucially the cultural differences and tensions within Egyptian society were never openly acknowledged.

The self-orientalizing trope of the ‘’eastern woman’’ was repeatedly invoked during the interview to delegitimize any woman who dared push back against the essentialized box. The recurring trope implicitly renders Mona a “foreigner’’ at a time of increasing xenophobia in Egyptian society. By continuously insinuating that Mona’s behavior is ‘’foreign’’ to Egyptian society, the talk show host Ramy Radian was demarcating  the boundaries of what is acceptable or unacceptable behavior for an Egyptian woman. That is to say, the essentialized east is used to police morality and regulate female sexuality.

Engy Anwar, the female talk show host, participates in this effort by drawing upon institutions such as the family. Referring directly to Mona’s absence from Egypt, she inquires about how her family and fully veiled sister ( a woman who dons the niqab or face veil) reacted to her arrival on Egyptian soil. Again, this emphasis on absence marks Mona Hala not so much as an Egyptian with differing values but as somebody ‘’foreign’’  The female talk show host presses on, adopting the discourse of ‘’advice’ or ‘’moral persuasion’’ that has historically been aimed at recalcitrant women. There is an unquestioned assumption here that the sister’s soft power can be activated to curb Mona’s excessively open behavior. It is what I call intra-communal or missionary activity that works in concert with a nanny media and nanny state to curb personal freedom.

“Didn’t your sister take you to the side and say,  balash al suwar  ya Mona?’’ ( loosely translated as not the photos or don’t do it) . The irony, of course, is that this television personality- who is herself unveiled- could arguably become the target of this missionary discourse by more conservative elements of Egyptian society given her ‘’immodest’’ attire. To acknowledge that a variety of views exist along a continuum is to call into question the essentialist discourse.

The gist of her questioning is to bring Mona Hala back to the ‘’right’’ path which is assumed to be single and unwavering. Mona Hala challenges this dominant narrative by invoking the memory of Sabah- a  legendary Lebanese actress notorious for her love of younger man. Mona Hala reminds us that Sabah was also criticized for her unconventional tastes. Undeterred, the female talk show host points out that in the end Sabah got married. That is to say, the dominant narrative remains intact.  It is permissible to err, to temporarily veer off course. But it is intolerable to question what constitutes a legitimate relationship between a man and a woman.

‘’Are you thinking of getting married’’, Engy Anwar asks with no trace of embarrassment or hint of irony. It is as if the media were assuming the role of a concerned parent, insisting that for love to be legitimate it must end in marriage. The female talk show host, then, moves on to stoking the fear of disapproval, reminding Mona Hala that her inappropriate behavior might alienate her fans and producers. Throughout the interview there is a mother/father knows best discourse that seeks to infantilize Mona and warn her of possible damage to her career should she persist in pushing the boundaries.

 

To her credit the actress responds to the narrow path scenario by representing her own family as both open and plural. She redefines the family not so much as an institution to discipline female bodies  and enforce morality but as a heterogenous entity that accommodates a wide spectrum of ideological beliefs with tolerance and respect. Within that unit, then, the adult woman is no longer seen as an object of moral guidance or a as personification of ‘’traditional’’ values but as a free subject who is perfectly capable of choosing alternative values by which to live her life.  Mona Hala alludes to the fact, for example, that she is a vegetarian who regards eating meat as a crime.

Still, the actress insists that she has no desire to judge others in what can be viewed as a public enactment of tolerance for differing values. In addition,  she insists that a relationship between a man and a woman can be sanctified by a public announcement. Being open is what makes Mona’s relationship with her boyfriend legitimate. Like any marriage it makes a personal relationship visible to the public.On some level, then, Mona is making a larger case for pluralism at a critical moment in Egypt’s history After all, the pressure to conform to the dominant narrative is overwhelming. Dissidents are being imprisoned, human rights activists are accused of being foreign agents, homosexuals are being targeted or publicly shamed and  refugees are being demonized. Difference itself is under assault.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Dh6cFonht0

Returning to the first clip one notices that Ramy Radwan’s repeated attempts to stifle any expression of difference makes him appear petty  and small-minded. What he fails to grasp throughout the interview is that female modesty has become immaterial to Mona Hala’s identity. There is a shift in priorities and values that has gone over his head. In fact, the actress finds it laughable that certain sectors of Arab society are transfixed by her immodest attire and loving relationship given that she is one of the first Egyptian women to produce a film in Hollywood.  ‘’Why aren’t people asking me about that’’, she suggests.

Having constructed her identity as a pioneering and highly educated actress, she mocks the spiteful attacks that fail to faze her. She is busy making something of her life and they are boxed in by their petty concerns. Mona Hala situates herself in the realm of the beyond. I never pretended to be something I am not. I have nothing to hide. I am not embarrassed. She has defanged the gossipmongers. There is no scandal. Only fools.  There are bigger stories to be told. Stories that require investigative reporting and intelligent conversation. Mona Hala is inviting them to go beyond.

But  perhaps it takes a comedian to expose the foolishness of the gatekeepers.

 

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “Beyond Slut Shaming: Hala Mona”

  1. افة مجتمعنا النفاق مجتمعات قائمه على الخوف والنفاق لاتبنى امم انه الشرق الذى ضربه المد الوهابى فأصبح فى طى النسيان تفتك به ألأمراض من كل حدب وصوب

  2. Well written. Great topic. I think and hope to see more courageous Egyptian women open up like Mona.

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