book review, Opinion

Review of Headscarves and Hymens – Why the Middle East needs a sexual revolution by Mona Eltahawy

Mona Eltahaway is an Egyptian American feminist writer, and I came across her book when I started my research on feminism in the Middle East. I was captivated by the title. A sexual revolution is needed to free half of the populations in the Middle East! I agree there 100%, so it resonated with me instantly. And I couldn’t wait to dig in!

The book is a mix of personal experience and angry rants about the abuse that women are subjected to in the Middle East and Africa. “Virginity tests”, female genital mutilation, domestic violence, male guardianship, child marriage, (marital) rape are a few that she names. Mona says, “the hate is fuelled by a toxic mix of religion and culture”. She describes how clerics use religion to oppress women, but choose to ignore other aspects of their religion where it doesn’t serve their intention. Her message is that they hate women, because they fear them. “We Arab women live in a culture that is fundamentally hostile to us, enforced by men’s contempt,” she writes.

Mona gets very personal when she opens up about her own struggle with the headscarf – for 9 years she had worn it herself. It took 8 of those years to finally take it off. How free is the choice to unveil compared to the choice to veil? And how free does that make the choice to veil then? She felt ashamed for years about taking the hijab off and finally realised that her way of trying to hide from men, had only hid her body from herself. The hijab is not one of the five pillars of Islam – and arguably not even meant to cover a woman’s hair, but is being abused by male clericals to make Muslim women invisible. Mona initially tried to unite the hijab with her feminist ambitions, but in the end, she realised that being pro-choice in this case, meant to fail to support less privileged women who have no true choice in veiling.

Next, she addresses how the culture of purity and victim blaming that you can also find in the Middle East, lets men off the hook. All the pressure is put on women. Even states assault women to punish them for political dissent and terrorise other protestors (“Virginity tests” in Egypt). Therefore, unless the connection between misogyny of the state and of the street is disclosed, the political revolution can only fail. To complete the “trifecta of misogyny” Mona tells us to look at the family or home. Arab hymens belong to their families. Everybody in the Arab world worships the God of Virginity. An awful tradition, which is linked to this, is FGM (Female Genital Mutilation). It is still widely spread in the Middle East and Africa and another means of violation to make sure women stay virgins and don’t enjoy sex. And of course, domestic violence and its acceptance by the state and clericals makes home even more dangerous. Reporting rape in Saudi Arabia e.g. can lead to counteraccusations of fornication which makes it almost impossible for women to come forward and speak up.

Her ultimate conclusion is that strong, and extreme women who fight misogyny in the Middle East need to be supported by us – living outside of the region. We shouldn’t silence them because of false respect of a different culture, as some liberals tend to do. We need to call out human rights violations and be firm about it. Even when it means calling out “friends” like Saudi Arabia. Ultimately, the revolution has to be a local one, and local forces have to be therefore strengthened. And a political revolution can only succeed, if it’s followed up by a social and a sexual one as well.

The book is a must read and very relevant to understanding what it means to be a woman in the Arab world. A sexual revolution would change the family ties in those regions and make sure that daughters and sons gain autonomy and privacy. Of course, as we know from “Western” countries, this is not enough to achieve equality between females and males. But it is where it needs to start. Ultimately, I think that alpha males all over the world have a lot of contempt for women. To me it seems to be rooted in the fear of the different. And maybe more so in the fear of losing your own privilege. Of course, religion plays a big role in the conservative Middle East and in keeping misogyny alive. But so does it in the United States for example, as we can see today. The revolution really needs to go beyond religion. Religion should have no space in politics. And freedom of speech needs to be extended to questioning and criticizing Islam as well. The Middle East is half female after all. What power could it claim, if it stopped oppressing half of the population?

As Middle Easterns we also need to start to understand how those in power benefit from patriarchy. Different systems of domination keep each other alive. We need to dismantle all of these systems to achieve freedom. And this is, where the revolutions in the Middle East failed. We can’t postpone addressing issues, because we perceive them as less urgent. If your sister is oppressed and you do nothing about it, then you’re complicit and part of the system. Is that what you want?

Excellent book, Mona, I absolutely loved reading it.

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