Shoshana Devora reviews Mona Eltahawy’s book, Headscarves and Hymens, and finds it a brave and important insight into the injustice and oppression still experienced by many women in the Middle East
A 2013 United Nations survey reported that 99.3% of Egyptian women experience street sexual harassment. There is no minimum legal age for marriage in Yemen, where an eight-year-old girl died from internal bleeding on her wedding night after being married to a 40-year-old man. 47% of women in Tunisia have suffered from domestic violence. Human Rights Watch reported that thousands of Iraqi women have been detained, beaten and sexually assaulted by state authorities. Sexual violence is used as a weapon of war in Syria. In Jordan rapists can escape punishment if they marry their victims. In Egypt the state will forcibly examine women’s hymens. Fifteen Saudi Arabian schoolgirls died when a fire broke out at their school, because firefighters were prevented from helping the girls, who were forced to remain inside the burning building rather than come out unveiled.
These are just some of the statistics and stories that Mona Eltahawy recounts in Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution. The book is a depressing one, and entirely necessary. Eltahawy considers the position of women across the Middle East. This includes women who were integral to the protests which swept through the region during the Arab Spring. Women fought against tyrannical regimes, and helped to topple corrupt governments, yet remain oppressed on account of their gender.
Eltahawy is at pains to show that this abuse of women is neither unique to Islam, nor essential to it. The obsession with a woman’s virginity in the Middle East mirrors the ‘purity’ culture we see in the United States, where teenage girls sign pledges promising not to have sex before marriage. Eltahawy also introduces us to academics and clerics whose interpretations of religious texts do not lead to the subjugation of women, demonstrating that the subordination of women is not naturally inherent to Islam. She writes: “Those countries that have managed to reduce their levels of misogyny were not created more respectful of women’s rights. Rather, women in these countries have fought hard to expose systemic violations and to liberate women from them.”
So where does Eltahawy locate the misogyny of Middle Eastern cultures? This is one of the less clear aspects of the book. We see that the laws, cultures and governments of many Middle Eastern countries are deeply conservative when it comes to women, but this is not necessarily because of religion. Eltahawy points out that Sharia law is not widely practised in the Middle East, as countries have mostly moved away from religious law and towards secular laws. For instance, Sharia law advocates the amputation of hands as a punishment for theft, but very few countries actually implement this severe penalty. However, harmful laws relating to women and family life continue to be based on Sharia law in many countries. It seems that religion is used as a justification to control female bodies and sexuality, even though this is inconsistently applied.
Eltahawy’s response to this is to reject the cultural and religious demands that society places upon women, including wearing the hijab. In her essay ‘Why they hate us’, Eltahawy writes that “Arab women live in a culture that is fundamentally hostile to us, enforced by men’s contempt.” She identifies abuses against women as being fuelled by a “toxic mix of culture and religion”, and calls for women to openly blaspheme, if doing so means challenging the oppression of women.
Eltahawy’s own journey saw her begin to wear the hijab aged sixteen, and then choose to stop wearing it aged twenty-five. She recognises that women wear the hijab for a variety of reasons, and that the act of doing so “is far from simple. It is burdened with meanings: oppressed woman, pure woman, conservative woman, strong woman, asexual woman, uptight woman, liberated woman.” Despite recognising that the headscarf can mean many different things to many different women, and that she herself struggled intensely with the decision to stop wearing the hijab, Eltahawy has come to believe that there should be an outright ban on the niqab – the full veil which covers a woman’s face. She writes: “Many people say that they support a woman’s right to choose to wear the niqab because it’s her natural right. But what they’re doing is supporting an ideology that does not believe in a woman’s right to do anything except cover her face.”
In discussing her feelings about the niqab, Eltahawy makes a passionate case against the cultural relativism endorsed by liberal Europeans. She is disappointed that the debate over the veil has been co-opted by xenophobic right-wingers, while the left have remained silent, failing to criticise the veil as it is seen as a religious right. She writes: “When Westerners remain silent out of ‘respect’ for foreign cultures, they show support only for the most conservative elements of those cultures. Cultural relativism is as much my enemy as the oppression I fight within my culture and faith.” Eltahawy argues that it is all very well to insist upon freedom of choice, but that the majority of women living in the Middle East are not privileged enough to have any true choice when it comes to the question of veiling.
Although the reasons for Eltahawy’s contempt for the niqab come across clearly, I was left uncertain as to her position on the hijab, which is the headscarf she wore for nine years. She often seems to conflate the hijab and niqab, which can be confusing for the reader.
In the epilogue, Eltahawy writes: “We must connect domestic violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation, and street sexual violence, and clearly call them all crimes against women.” I was left wondering where the veil fits in among these other seemingly more straightforwardly abhorrent crimes. It seems that Eltahawy believes that the veiling of women is symbolic of the way in which misogynists perceive and treat women’s bodies – they are both a result of the view that women’s bodies are dangerous and need to be concealed and controlled, and also a contributing factor towards this view. She therefore seems to position the headscarf as being equally as bad as indisputably reprehensible violations such as FGM. Yet I wasn’t sure Eltahawy had done enough to convince me that the hijab belongs in the same sphere.
As a whole, the book was informative and engaging, a brave and much needed insight into suffering which is rarely talked about openly. Eltahawy was perhaps at her strongest when recounting her personal experiences, both of the violence and sexual assault she has survived, and of her positive attempts to take ownership of her own sexual life. It’s a justifiably angry book – Eltahawy is rightly furious at the brutality visited upon women and girls across the Middle East. Hearing stories of individual women challenging oppression was uplifting, but I was left wondering what can be done to combat such entrenched misogyny on a societal level?
Eltahawy’s answer for women living in comparatively liberal societies is to “help your own community’s women fight misogyny. By doing so, you help the global struggle against the hatred of women.” Meanwhile, she urges women in the Middle East to speak out, to blaspheme, to protest, to disobey: “Women – our rage, our tenacity, our daring and audacity – will free our countries.” I certainly hope that Mona Eltahawy’s sexual revolution takes place, led and owned by the impacted women, but I worry that those facing the level of oppression Eltahawy recounts will find the struggle against a cultural misogyny which kills women even harder than the revolution against tyrannical governments.
Headscarves and Hymens is published by Orion and available to purchase HERE.
Orion have kindly supplied The F-Word with paperback copies of Headscarves and Hymens to give away to THREE lucky readers. If you like the sound of the book, simply email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject heading ‘Headscarves competition’ to enter. Winners will be selected at random and informed via email. The closing date is 11th March 2016. Please note that this competition is only open to those living in the UK.
The image is the cover of Headscarves and Hymens and is used with permission. The title and author’s name are picked out in purple block-capital lettering on a white background. Underneath the title is the sub-title ‘Why the Middle East needs a sexual revolution’ picked out in black capitals. On the left-hand side of the cover there is a length of, what appears to be, purple fabric flowing onto the cover. This could be seen to represent the ‘headscarves’ of the book’s title.