Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution by Mona Eltahawy - review by Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak

Tear off the Veil

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


Weidenfeld & Nicolson 240pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

‘The Middle East’ is a hot topic that shows no signs of cooling down any time soon. Despite the myriad articles, panels, conferences, workshops and live debates on the state and fate of the region, its sociocultural complexity remains little understood. Amid the deluge of political and economic analyses, the people – ordinary people with day-to-day concerns and universal dreams – fail to draw the attention of international experts or attract proper media coverage. And if people are too often forgotten, women are twice as invisible.

Yet whether experts recognise it or not, a major social change is under way across the region and beyond. We women from the Muslim world are becoming more politicised and more vocal about the issues that matter deeply to us. We have understood that we have more to lose than ever before. We need to face fundamental questions about our faith, culture, society and identity – questions on a scale of magnitude that neither our grandmothers nor our mothers had to deal with before.

From Istanbul to Cairo, from Tehran to Islamabad, the public space in the Islamic world has turned into one vast male domain. The balance between masculine and feminine energy, the delicate balance that the Sufis used to talk about, has long been lost. Nowadays, streets and city squares belong to men. Urban space is dominated by an aggressive, overemphasised masculinity, not only at night but also during the day. Women are being systematically pushed back into the private space and reminded of their primary duties as mothers and wives. Those who do not conform are seen as indecent and are isolated.

The same sexist rhetoric can be heard again and again everywhere from Egypt to Turkey, countries in which the male elites like to think they are very different – though those elites can turn out to be surprisingly similar when it comes to gender and sexuality. Across the Islamic world sexual harassment is alarmingly widespread, yet it is difficult to talk about when the victims, instead of the perpetrators, are expected to carry the burden of shame. Domestic violence has dramatically escalated, while urgent social problems, such as female genital mutilation and child brides, are not seen as priorities by governments. Recently the Constitutional Court in Turkey allowed religious marriage to be performed without a civil marriage, a decision bound to lead to an increase in underage marriages and polygamy. When it comes to women’s rights, countries can slide backwards very easily, very fast.

Against this gloomy background, a remarkable book has made it to bookshops: Mona Eltahawy’s Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution. Eltahawy is forthright in speaking out against patriarchy in the Middle East: ‘Name me an Arab country, and I’ll recite a litany of abuses against women occurring in that country, abuses fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend.’

Eltahawy herself is not afraid to offend. She highlights how Arab women are living in a culture that is essentially hostile to them. Asking the question ‘Why do they hate us?’, she is clear and confident about the urgency of the need to start a sexual revolution. This is a significant call in a region where women have always been told, by people on both the Left and the Right, that there are more vital matters to address, such as democracy or the economy, and that women’s issues can be dealt with later on down the road. The problem is, of course, that ‘later’ never arrives. Eltahawy wants social change and she wants it now. Her experiences as an activist in Egypt infuse her writing. ‘When the revolution began, women marched alongside men, women fought police across the country and in Cairo, and women resolutely stood their ground in Tahrir Square.’ Looking back, Eltahawy calls those first eighteen days a ‘utopian vision of what Egypt could be’. The dream ended too soon, too harshly. ‘Whatever utopia existed in Tahrir, it was upended with a series of horrific sexual assaults.’ Critical of both the Muslim Brotherhood and the military regime of President Sisi, Eltahawy demonstrates how the misogyny on the streets is connected with and supported by the misogyny of the state. ‘Unless we emphasize the need for a social and sexual revolution,’ she says, ‘our political revolutions will fail.’

Eltahawy’s own background shapes her concerns as well her style. She was born in Egypt, moved to London as a child, and in her teenage years went with her family to Saudi Arabia, a country that shocked her in many ways. At a panel discussion we both participated in at the Free Word Centre in London, Eltahawy talked about how she was sexually assaulted during a visit to Mecca, and described her shock that such a thing could happen in a city regarded as the most sacred place in the world by all Muslims.

Eltahawy is brave, determined and at times deliberately provocative. It is rare to find a female activist in the Muslim world who can write and talk about sexuality, including her own sexual experiences, so unflinchingly. She is particularly critical of the ways in which women have been reduced to the symbolic headscarves and hymens of her title. This she rightly calls the erasure of women.

One aspect that weakens her narrative is the absence of an analysis of masculinity. Eltahawy is not interested in understanding how masculinity is internalised and propagated, not only by men but also by women, especially mothers, and how it can become a straitjacket for many young Muslim men, including homosexuals. Codes of masculinity are exacerbated and exploited by the state and the military in the Middle East to further their own ends. Had she added this dimension to her book, it would have prevented her thesis from being reduced by others into the rather simplistic slogan ‘Muslim men hate Muslim women.’

Eltahawy’s voice is full of energy, purposefulness and courage. Her rightful anger helps her to not shy away from difficult questions. But the same anger can also slightly compromise her argument, especially at times when she offers broad generalisations regarding the Islamic world or comes close to a kind of elitism of which she herself might otherwise have been critical. As someone who wore the hijab for many years, Eltahawy now wants governments to ban the veil everywhere, not seeing that such an authoritarian, top-down response will only make matters worse, especially in the Middle East, as history has shown again and again, and in countries such as Iran and Turkey. Eltahawy is right in her call for the dismantling of gender discrimination, and in the urgency of this call, but the question of how to go about achieving this vital goal when it comes to headscarved women is where we disagree.

Nonetheless, Headscarves and Hymens is timely, important and much needed. It should be translated into many languages, especially those spoken in the Middle East. Eltahawy encourages the girls of the Middle East and North Africa to ‘be immodest, rebel, disobey’ and know they are entitled to be free. Her book deserves to be widely read, discussed and acclaimed. This is a strange time to be a Muslim woman. We have many cognitive and cultural gaps to bridge. While too many men in the Islamic world are aiming to go backwards in time, too many clerics are trying to suppress femininity and womanhood, and Islamophobes elsewhere are tarring everyone with the same brush, more and more Muslim women are setting their eyes on the future – a future we are determined to make better for our daughters.

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