Review: Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution by Mona Eltahawy

By Abeer Hoque

“Revolutions are long in the making.”

headscarvesIn 2012, Egyptian American writer and journalist Mona Eltahawy published her sensationally titled article, “Why Do They Hate Us” in Foreign Policy’s “Sex” issue. “They” referred to Arab men and “us” to Arab women. The answer, according to Eltahawy, is “a toxic mix of culture and religion.” The article instigated a firestorm of comments, interviews, articles and blog posts. These responses included responses from many angry Arab feminists (veiled and otherwise) who distanced themselves from Eltahawy’s claims.  In her 2015 book, Headscarves and Hymens – Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, Eltahawy tried to address many of the sticking points of her original article, including the implication that Arab men (and/or Islam) are predisposed to hating women.

The book retains a diatribe against Islam and Islamists, but Eltahawy also uses her own personal journey and experience to explain how she thinks misogyny works in Middle Eastern cultures. An Egyptian national growing up in Saudi Arabia, she was “traumatised into feminism” at a young age, and describes numerous graphic horrors such as getting groped by a policeman at the Ka’aba as a teenager, and being sexually assaulted and having her arms broken by the Egyptian police as an adult activist.

Eltahawy divides the problem of violence against women into three sectors – the state (meaning the police, the legal system, and other institutional spaces), the street (meaning the general public and the male gaze and the problems of moving around in society as a female), and the home (meaning patriarchal and misogynist family structures, and traditionalist gender roles and expectations).

I think her divisions form a useful construct for identifying some of the myriad ways we need to fix the world before violence against women can be stemmed in any way. But I’m unconvinced this is an Islamic problem, as many issues as I have with Islamic practices and indeed, any orthodox religious practices. That said, I am in full agreement with the following statement of hers:

“Unless we draw a connection between the misogyny of the State and of the street, and unless we emphasize the need for a social and sexual revolution, our political revolutions will fail.”

It dovetails with a December 2015 lightning rod of a statement by Gloria Steinem, who said that the single biggest determinant of whether a country is violent, within itself or against another country, is not poverty, religion, democracy, or access to natural resources, but violence against women. Fully half the world’s population is under the continual threat of violence (if as a man you don’t see this, please poll your nearest and dearest female family and friends.)

The difference between Steinem’s statement (which generalized to the world, and mentioned the States where the domestic violence is one of the major threats to women, affecting a third of all women) and Eltahawy’s is that the latter focuses on Arab and Muslim cultures in Africa and the Middle East. I’m not sure if Eltahawy believes that violence against women is a bigger problem in Muslim countries. It isn’t – objectively or subjectively. Violence against women is ubiquitous, timeless, and perhaps the same as it ever was. It doesn’t matter what class, what culture, what religion, what age, what country. If you’re female, you live in a different, more dangerous world than men. As she herself notes, “Home is where the hurt is.”

Eltahawy problematically lumps Middle Eastern countries with Somalia and Sudan (despite paying lip service to their diversity) and focuses a significant section of her book on the insanely barbaric practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM.) Eltahawy’s descriptions of Clitoridectomy, Excision, and Infibulation (the most extreme case where much of the inner and outer labia and the clitoris is removed and in some cases, the vaginal opening is sewed smaller) left me nauseous and horrified. I grew up in a country that practices FGM (Nigeria) and recently banned it (December 2015), but I had no idea what it was (or that it even existed) until well into my 20s.

I made myself read the descriptions of FGM twice. If 90% of Egyptian women have had their genitals cut, 88% in Sudan, 96% in Guinea, and it is prevalent in Djibouti, Mauritania, Somalia, and Yemen, then the very tiniest least I can do is witness. As should we all. FGM is now designated a violation of the human rights of girls and women, but its practice will continue until society recognizes and internalizes this violation.

Eltahawy acknowledges that FGM is not a singularly Muslim issue. Christians practice it, and pre-Islamic cultures practiced it. Nor is it a Middle Eastern or African issue – the UK and the US also practiced FGM. The former practiced it into the 19th century, and the latter into the 1960s.

I support Eltahawy’s battle to make Egypt rethink patriarchy and misogyny, even if she may be conflating those with Islamist practices. And certainly a religion that takes on previously existing prejudices and gives them credence opens itself to criticism. Just because FGM was a pre-Islamic practice doesn’t excuse those Muslims who continue these ways.   

Eltahawy has been accused of playing into Islamophobic and Western prejudices, but I didn’t find most of the tenets in her book problematic. I think it takes all kinds of people, all along the feminist spectrum to create change. The idea of not saying something because it will alienate people feels too close to censorship.

“It is the job of a revolution to shock, to provoke, and to upset, not to behave or be polite.”

She does continually rail against the hijab and veil as contributing towards a disappearing of women. I believe that this disappearing is a real and dangerous phenomenon. It is happening in Bangladesh as we speak, and the more women cover up, the more conspicuous and endangered the uncovered become. This is not the direction we should be going, where a form of covering is the only way to supposedly stay safe. And in any case, I don’t believe the statistics show that incidences of violence against women are fewer in those countries where veiling is predominant.

But I also don’t agree with legislation that bans the veil. I think figuring out how women, and Middle Eastern Muslim women in Eltahawy’s case, can engage fully in society and not be continually in fear of violence or sexualization is going to take much more than laws about veils.

Headscarves and Hymens is well worth a read. The text is peppered with the names of brave and eloquent women activists and revolutionaries in the Middle East and north Africa. I copied them all down. It seemed a small honor for all of those women who have taken a stand. The book is chockfull of statistics about violence against women, and mild to horrible facts about personal status laws in various Arab countries. Again, I don’t think any of this is “genetically” Islamic, and if you can keep that in mind, then it’s easier to read on and weep. We have a long way to go, and the Middle East’s Islamist practices is only one small part of the bloody jigsaw. Eltahawy’s work and words might be controversial but I find her incredibly courageous and a force in the world. Her ethos is one any feminist could stand behind: 

“The most subversive thing a woman can do is talk about her life as if it really matters. It does.”

Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution
By Mona Eltahawy
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN 978-0865478039