Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution

Posted by nliakos on March 20, 2016

by Mona Eltahawy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2015; ISBN 978-0-86547-803-9)

This book is a manifesto, a declaration of independence, and an exhortation. It brought back memories of reading feminist writings in the 1970s, only the situation in which women and girls find themselves in the Middle East today is so much worse than the one in the U. S. back then. Eltahawy, an Egyptian journalist, graphically describes the groping, beating, rape, harassment, genital mutilation, and legal infantilization endured by most girls and women in the Middle East, regardless of their level of education or their economic class.

The first chapter, “Why They Hate Us,” originally published separately as an essay in Foreign Policy in 2012, focuses on the hatred of women by men in the Middle East, where culture and religion combine to deprive female citizens of their most basic rights. This is followed by “Black Veil, White Flag,” which focuses on the issue of “dressing modestly” and wearing a hijab, niqab, or burqa. Eltahawy recounts her personal journey with veiling–why she first put on the veil while living with her parents in Saudi Arabia as a teenager, and why she shed it later–as well as delving into the history and geography of veiling in the Middle East and in Islam. She explains why she supports hijab or niqab bans, because the “choice” to cover up is not really a choice for the majority of women who veil; it is imposed on them by their society or community.

Chapter 3, “One Hand Against Women,” deals with sexual harassment (experienced by 99.3% of Egyptian women and girls, according to a 2013 U.N. Report–this removed any desire I ever had to visit Egypt), ranging from verbal assaults and groping to state-sanctioned rape in the guise of “virginity examinations” and gang-rapes during Arab Spring demonstrations in full view of the police. Again, Eltahawy includes her personal experience as well as reporting what has happened to other women in various countries.

Chapter 4, “The God of Virginity,” is focused on the “purity culture” of the Middle East and how many girls and women are made to suffer female genital mutilation (FGM) to achieve it. Chapter 5, “Home,” is about domestic abuse of wives and daughters, as well as the legal inequality found in most Middle Eastern countries. It’s about survivors of rape who are forced to marry their rapists to uphold their family’s honor and the forced marriages of little girls to grown men.

“Roads through the Desert” is about how many women in the region are prevented from playing sports, driving, and working outside the home. The final chapter, “Speak for Yourself,” is about sexuality: how it is repressed and getting in touch with it despite the overwhelming pressure not to. It includes some surprising examples of sexually explicit poetry written by Arab women many hundreds of years ago. And again, Eltahawy reveals her own personal journey, choosing to go public about very private matters because she is reaching out to other young women as a role model, showing them a way forward.

Mona Eltahawy is angry; her anger spills out of the pages of this book and infects the reader. I was sickened and horrified by what she has written. I hope that her words will reach many people around the world and that we will support Middle Eastern girls and women in their quest for freedoms–the freedom from sexist laws and domestic abuse and the freedom to pursue their dreams.


One Response to “Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution”

  1. Freak House said

    keep the good stuff coming, love the posts 🙂

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