Tag Archives: booksbywomen

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

By Mona Eltahawy

A fascinating and shocking call to end misogyny in the Arab world.

“Why do these men hate us?”

Mona Eltahawy was shocked into feminism and she shares her experience living in Saudi Arabia and in Egypt. This book is an essential read that zooms into the brutal injustices against women in the Middle East and North Africa. Mona dismantles religion, belief, Western involvement, politics, and many aspects that tie into the misogyny that prevails in these places.

Headscarves and Hymens

On veiling, she points out how many girls and women, just like she did, go through a personal struggle with their hijab. She shows how they can defend it even when in private it’s a burden or a struggle. In some places, even though women will claim their covering is a choice, they do not have much of a choice, and in other places, women are aggressively pressured to cover up.

The violation of women in these regions goes way deeper than one can even begin to imagine. It spreads and pours into so many facets of the girls’ and women’s daily lives. Eltahawy shows how these violated women and girls have no platform to share their experiences and nowhere to find solutions.

Headscarves and Hymens

There are many examples and stories she gives to highlight the daily traumas that women go through and the forces used to keep the treatment of women as second-class citizens in place, as well as aggravating the problems they face.

The veiling of women is used as a way to tell women to cover up for their own safety against harassment and assault in the street. The onus is on the women to protect themselves instead of men being told not to commit these crimes. However, in some cases, not even a hijab can stand between the victim and the perpetrator.

There are so many heartbreaking and horrendous concerns that she shares, such as rape in its many forms and how it is handled. For example, where a girl or woman is raped, the punishment for the rapist is to marry her. This also serves to “save” the victim from committing a crime of honour. The few outcomes from reporting a crime of assault do not include true justice for the victim. They could be killed by their own family for bringing shame to the family. They could be sexually assaulted by the very police they run to.

Then there’s the purity culture. She discusses the obsession with virginity as well as the use of female genital mutilation to keep girls sexually in control and make them suitable for marriage. It’s so saddening how the mothers or the figures that these girls could run to are the same figures who are right there when it happens, accomplices to this crime.

I absolutely fell in love with all the feminists and figures that inspired her and the ones she mentions throughout the book, who protest and stand up against this overpowering and dangerous hand that is so determined to squash women, to silence and control them. I also love how she advocates sexual freedom. Eltahawy shows the importance of sexual liberation and how suppression through violence, through language and through practice creates a negative experience for women and problems when they need to voice these negative experiences.

Read the It’s Not About the Burqa review here.

This book is packed! It’s heavy but every bit of it is necessary and deserving to be said. There’s a whole lot more to discover, to learn, and to help rethink some of the ideas we have about female oppression and the role of feminism. I admire her level of bad-assery and her determination to speak up – loud and clear.

She does not limit such treatment of women to the Arab world and does state that it happens in many societies and cultures, but this is her focus, experience, and knowledge, and she does it incredibly well.

It’s a powerful read. It’s a must-have and worth revisiting.

Mona Eltahawy: Twitter

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

“Mrs Dalloway is always giving parties to cover the silence”

Mrs Dalloway

Mrs Dalloway is a novel set in a single day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, an upper-class housewife married to Richard, a Conservative Party politician. It’s the middle of June in London, after World War I. She is preparing for her party in the evening and begins with buying flowers in the morning for the event. A former suitor and old friend, Peter Walsh pays her an unexpected visit, a visit flooded with heavy emotion and related thoughts of each other.

The story shifts to a number of both related and unrelated characters, but the most prominent of these is shell-shocked War veteran Septimus Warren Smith. We see him waiting for his appointment, and later the visit to psychiatrist Sir William Bradshaw. Sir Bradshaw’s solution for the suicidal Septimus is to have him in a mental institution in the country. Later that day Septimus jumps out the window and kills himself.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

The party guests include people from Clarissa’s past; Peter himself and the once-notorious friend from her youth, Sally, who arrives unexpectedly. Sir Bradshaw arrives late and his wife explains that it was due to a patient’s (Septimus) suicide earlier. Clarissa is not pleased with the news of the suicide being told at her party, but when she finds herself alone thinking about the suicide and her own life, she understands why the young man killed himself.

There are a number of issues explored in this novel, including the political air following the war and the British social system, but what stood out for me was the mental illness and internal struggles of the characters. In this single day of preparing for her party, we learn about who Mrs Dalloway is, through bits that are knitted from her past to the present, and the person she is when she’s with different people. There’s a tussle for balance between what goes on inside her and the reality in the external world, and the result is trouble with communicating what she truly feels. She makes up for this with, for example, giving a good party and being the perfect hostess.

Insanity

We also catch parts where she appears to be dissatisfied with her own appearance and qualities, where she compares herself to a woman she greatly admires a lot, whose qualities she considers ideal. Clarissa also goes through moments of travelling back to the past with questions and sometimes wishing to have a second chance to live her life again, differently.

Woolf’s writing is not linear and she connects all the dots that paint the whole picture of this particular day through minor characters and the atmosphere in London on that day, but the most distinctive (apart from Clarissa) is Septimus, a foil character. Septimus also gives a deep depiction of mental illness and a struggle with communication and inner turmoil. His mental state shows his internal disintegration as a result of the residues from the war, and his show of protest to being confined is through death, Mrs Dalloway understands how where she struggles to communicate, Septimus’s protest through suicide was his form of communication. She’s left feeling that, unlike him, she lives with this internal confinement and accepts it as her lot, her life as is.

Mrs Dalloway shows why Virginia Woolf was known as a ‘fine stylist’. This one day is neatly laid out into a full, satisfying, absorbing, and intelligent novel. It’s long enough to fill you up and short enough to maintain interest until the end.

Image: Britannica

I Am So into Women

Exploring Women in Literature

I recently visited one of my favourite bookstores (where they’re a quarter-to giving me a mattress and a blanket), looking for non-fiction books by women. Bookstores are usually therapeutic for me, but this time I left frustrated and disappointed. In 2020, a lot of books I find by women are mostly fiction books. I don’t know how the stats stand but I later went to a bigger store, that has way more titles and I had the same experience.

I was looking for female non-fiction because I wanted to hear the voice of someone whose experiences I can relate to. We know that historically women have been kept out of everything and have had to fight to break down walls and burn gates. We’ve been misled to believe that men are the ones who created and shaped the arts, and well, everything in this world. It’s not that women never had anything to contribute, they were just not allowed to do it, they were not allowed to even dream of doing anything but stand and watch.

I spent a little time in the Classics section and was surrounded by Plato, Aurelius, Homer, Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, Twain, Salinger, Orwell, Achebe, Mphahlele and many others. Yes, there was Shelley, Woolf, the Brontës, Rand, Dickinson, and a few more, but the gap was still big. Male authors still dominate bookshelves. Even when I moved to business and self-help, the highly praised books are from names like Kiyosaki, Carnegie, Hill, Gladwell, and a million others. This is also frustrating because as great as these books are, when we women read them we often have to find ways to alter the message to make it apply to us, and sometimes, given the challenges we have, it is close to impossible.   

So all this frustration led me to think about what it is I want to read, what kind of messages I want to collect, what kind of solutions I’m looking for, and who I should get them from. I do not disregard men’s work, not at all. I have read many books by men that have helped me improve my life in tremendous ways.

However, I love the voice of women. I want to hear women and I want to hear about them. I want to read women. Give me women, please! I have read so many books by men with families whose success stories show that they were able to do things, have the time and energy to do them because their partners were taking care of everything else. I want to read about that woman, with kids and a home to run, and how she did or does it.

It’s not just in self-development books or classics. Across genres, the same problem exists. And so, on my quest to find these intelligent, brave, successful women, I’m going on a quest to read more women’s books.

“Women and fiction remain, so far as I am concerned, unsolved problems.”
― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

I want to read their biographies, their poetry, their tragedies and achievements, their struggles, and their successes. But I will not limit myself to only those stories, I do believe that there are male writers who have supported the voice of women in literature and there are men who have portrayed powerful and positive images of women. I am for that.

I don’t want any of that damsel-in-distress bullshit. I want to see women characters who show real women who don’t need to be saved. I want to dissect this vexatious yet interesting area of literature. The world should be seen through the eyes of the very people who live in it. Women, as members of society, should be able to express their existence in the same way as men do. In this open and inclusive manner, we can fully understand the world and understand each other.

When I made this decision, I went through my own shelf and saw how male-dominated it is. I’m ashamed. Honestly.

So I don’t think I’ll be able to read or write about women in literature following historical timeline. It will be challenging to find relevant books if I do it that way and it will be boring. Instead, I’m starting where I am, and from the unread books I have, what better way to start with women from cultures, traditions, and religions that are known or said to be oppressive? We’ll figure it out through the readings. So my first part will be on Muslim Women in Literature.

I have, on my shelf:

  • It’s Not About the Burqa edited by Mariam Khan
  • Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
  • The Chibok Girls by Helon Habila (I said I’ll include a few men who do justice to women’s voices
  • Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution by Mona Eltahawy
I have no idea how that book ended up upside-down 🤦🏿‍♀️

I’m starting with Muslim women because, I already have these books so it was an obvious choice, and also, because it’s so easy for the rest of us to look at Muslim women and conclude that they’re oppressed and miserable. I’d rather find out first, preferably, from them.

So, here we go.

I’ll repost the review of Infidel. I had already started The Chibok Girls and stopped because it was depressing, but it’s short and I’m almost done. And I don’t think there’s time to be depressed, if you go into something that talks about injustice, oppression, prejudice, discrimination, abuse…it will be depressing. It’s inevitable.

So let’s do this.

To women!