Mona Eltahawy’s sexual revolution manifesto for Arab women

By Lou Heinrich
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Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution | Hachette

“There is no sugarcoating it,” Mona Eltahawy writes in her book, Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution. “We Arab women live in a culture that is fundamentally hostile to us, enforced by men’s contempt.” Her depictions of male hatred towards women in the Arab world is aggressive, rage-inducing, and personal.

Egyptian-born Eltahawy’s main purpose in this book is to demonstrate to the West how Islamic culture permits the control and abuse of women.

With hard-hitting statistics – 90 per cent of Egyptian woman have endured female genital mutilation – and anecdotal evidence, Eltahawy includes tales from her personal life to shine light on the treatment of Arab women. From describing how she was “traumatised” into feminism when living in Saudi Arabia as an adolescent, to explaining her struggle with the veil, she makes the political personal.

These tales from her life are also used as a technique to begin the revolution: “In the fight against injustice, it helps to hear truths about women’s personal lives,” she writes. “This book is my contribution to breaking that space separating the public and the private.”

To speak up is to allow other women to find their voices. Religious and cultural taboos typically silence women, rendering their abuse invisible. One of the greatest evidence of gendered violence is the abhorrent rate of sexual assault. To be a woman in the public eye in the Middle East is to be subjected to groping, harassment, and worse.

“Attitudes towards rape across the Arab world are abysmal,” writes Eltahawy. “The stigma (and often the law) is much harsher on the woman than on the rapist. Women often keep quiet rather than risk arousing blame or humiliation, or being raped again at a police station. In some cases, they risk being killed by a relative to rid the family of shame.”

When she was a teenager, Eltahawy’s family went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Walking through the Ka’aba is meant to be a profound and spiritual experience; instead, the teenager Eltahawy was groped by a stranger behind her in the crowd. Then, when taking part in the ritual of kissing the black stone, the policeman controlling the segregation of the crowd groped her breast as she bent towards the idol with pursed lips. Eltahawy’s experienced underlines how violations of the female body are silenced by a culture of shame, propelled by the reverence of virginity and the “pure” women.

Furthermore, Eltahawy argues, the perpetrators’ authority legitimises the abuse, and signifies societal approval.

This is reinforced by governments across the Arab world who are backward in legislation against assault. In Morocco, a law that allowed a rapist to be released without sentence if he married his victim was only repealed last year.

Eltahawy goes on to demonstrate that authorities don’t just approve of assault; they are the helm. In Egypt’s democratic protests in 2005, male police officers and hired thugs “contained female activists and journalists in a confined area, then groped and sexually assaulted those women”.

She continues to debunk the idealised conception of Arab women as sexless and without desire by referring to Quran passages on foreplay, and quoting classic Arabic poetry written by women in the 11th century.

In 2009, Eltahawy flew home from New York to take part in the Egyptian revolution in Cairo. In the chaos of Tahrir Square, her left arm and right hand were broken when she was beaten, and she was sexually assaulted while she was detained by security forces.

Sexual assault occurs in many forms. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is the removal of a girl’s clitoris or labia, and occurs across Northern Africa and throughout the Arab world. “It is believed to reduce a girl’s sex drive,” writes Eltahawy, “thereby helping to maintain her virginity and, later, her marital fidelity.” Her rage is undeniable when writing about this widespread act that is designed to steal part of a woman’s self.

She continues to debunk the idealised conception of Arab women as sexless and without desire by referring to Quran passages on foreplay, and quoting classic Arabic poetry written by women in the 11th century. She makes it clear that FGM is a method of controlling women.

Another act of control, Eltahawy claims, is the enforcement of the veil. Her most controversial argument is her clear support of the niqab ban in parts of Europe (read more about why Right Now columnist Zoya Patel thinks such hard-line stances are problematic). Eltahawy wore a veil from 16 to shield herself from the eyes and hands of men, and to live up to the cultural idea of purity. But she took it off at 25 when she recognised it as an instrument of oppression, symbolic of women’s lack of rights.

Defending her position, she writes: “I implore [Muslim women living in the West] to recognise the privilege that allows them to make vocal and impassioned defenses of the hijab. It is easy to forget that there are women with less privilege than they who have no true choice in veiling.”

Eltahawy’s language is sometimes shocking, revealing the true horror of injustices: “Rawan, an eight-year-old Yemeni girl who was killed by her ‘husband’ died of internal bleeding after a man five times her age fucked her to death on their ‘wedding night’.”

The book is directed at a non-Islamic West, but also seems designed to encourage and ignite Muslim women in the Arab world; this dual purpose lessens the impact of the overall argument. Despite this, it fulfils its other aim: to educate and empower.

Headscarves and Hymens is teeming with outrage, citing examples from Lebanon to Tunisia that demonstrate the localised misogyny of Muslim societies. Yet, Eltahawy fervently trusts the courage of her sisters; women have the power, she believes, to enact radical change.

Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution is available from Hachette. 

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