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

It’s Not About the Burqa

Mariam Khan, freelance writer, editor and feminist, has compiled essays from seventeen Muslim women in the UK, who challenge some of the stereotypical views we have about Muslim women and their communities.

How many of us look at Muslim women and think of oppression, silence, abuse and misogyny? I read this book because I wanted to hear from the Muslim woman herself, and It’s Not About the Burqa, though not representing ALL Muslim women, shed light on many issues I had never thought about. Issues that a lot of us do not care to consider. The women in this collection speak about feminism, racism, sex, sexuality, faith and other issues that concern Muslim women in the West.

Some of them take us through a journey of how they found their voice, and how they shed identities that were given to them by the communities they came from and the ones stamped on them by the rest of society. Sufiya Ahmed shares her experience of discovering Prophet Mohammed’s first wife, Khadija bint Khuwalid, who was not a silenced and oppressed housewife, but rather a successful businesswoman and the wealthiest merchant in Mecca at the time. Not only do you find such stories in the history of Islam women, but the essayists share how the Quran, contrary to the spread laws or rules of tyrannising women, supports and empowers women.

What I found the most interesting is how these Muslim women discuss the balance between identities, and how they’re expected to only be one thing, get rid of one to become the other. Things such as being queer and Muslim, being feminist and Muslim or being black and Muslim. I had never thought about it that much but it made me realise how mainstream feminism can be so damaging instead of freeing. For example, one essayist discussss how feminism talks about equality and liberation of all women, and yet will expect a Muslim woman to choose between her faith and being a feminist, which becomes pointless because it is doing the very thing it claims to fight against.

There’s also so much about how representation of Muslim women has gone wrong, in the way that it’s done by fashion designers, or on magazine covers, where what they are doing is representing a Western model and ideal of a hijabi. There is also the idea of representing only what Muslim women look like but when they have to speak for themselves, their vocal representation is not given a platform.

It’s Not About the Burqa also challenges members of their communities themselves, to stop doing things that give the rest of the world the wrong perception of the religion, giving them even more armour to attack their identities and their faith. They do not deny the existence of things such as misogyny, as they do exist in so many other cultures and religious communities.

I appreciate the honesty of the essayists in admitting their inability to speak for all Muslim women, because it’s impossible. They’re all different, from different communities and with different experiences and cultures. However, as Muslim women they should be able to create a platform where Muslim women are not spoken for. We cannot say Muslim women are silenced by their religion yet not give them a platform to speak.

This is a well written, edifying, enlightening and empowering book. It’s also light, you can breeze through it, it doesn’t burden you with complaints and noise. No, it’s bold and it challenges the narrative about Muslim women.

I want to say feminists will love this, which they’ll do, but I think anyone with good sense and who wants to see all people given a chance to be fairly represented, seen and heard will enjoy this.

It’s really not about the burqa, or the hijab, abaya or dupatta. It’s so much more.

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