Book of the Week: Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, by Mona Eltahawy

Headscarves and Hymens (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015) is the first book from Egyptian-American feminist journalist and commentator Mona Eltahawy. And it is an impressive, challenging, and insightful offering. In it she discusses the “twin” political revolutions needed to truly free both Arab women and their region from systematic oppression—a populist one fought alongside men, and a sexual and cultural one. Sadly, until now, the latter revolution has mostly been fought against them. That both movements are equally important not only politically, but also economically is the crux of Eltahawy’s thesis.

Intersectionality—a current buzz word in North America as well—is the key to Eltahawy’s analysis and her proffered solution. She eloquently (and correctly, it would seem) argues that in order to achieve both goals—that is to achieve both revolutions that Middle Eastern women need–society must begin to listen to the voices of the only people who truly experience both forms of oppression: Islamic women, and other women of color. That so-called women’s issues, and thus women’s real perspectives and demands, are often pushed to the side or de-emphasized in favor of more male-oriented populist goals in such political movements is part of what dooms those movements to fail to achieve true democratic success, almost from their outset.

Through a series of well-chosen and blended anecdotes, poems, and essays presented from the point of view of Middle Eastern women from various eras and walks of life, but peppered with her own experience and commentary, Eltahawy paints a vivid picture of the challenges these women face(d) in dealing simultaneously with racism and religious-bigotry from Western cultures, as well as gender-based oppression and violence from within their own communities. To speak out against such gender-based violence and oppression publicly is to give the Western racists more fuel for their anti-Islamic fire. To remain silent, or to keep it among themselves as Arab men would wish them to do, is to accept the underlying hatred of women that flows through both conservative Islamic and secular Middle Eastern societies. Her argument is that much of the structures and practices which form the bounds of societal oppression of Arab women, such as veiling, child-marriage, and F.G.M., actually pre-date the Islamic religion, and can be severed from it via more modern interpretations of the Koran. More, the totalitarian military regimes which dominate the region, even when more secular in nature, still tend to oppress women as a form of social control, and only partially to appease the religious zealots, according to Eltahawy.

The true culprit of this oppression is the patriarchal need for men to dominate the public square and their willingness to use sexual violence and control to silence women’s voices should they dare to be in it. These behaviors transcend religion; they are about power. To combat this self-defeating trend, women must be welcomed to the table, heard, and heeded from day one of any so-called populist uprising. For Eltahawy, the failure of the so-called Arab Spring (which began in 2010) to do so is what has heretofore doomed it from succeeding in its goal of spreading democracy across the region.

Although challenging, frustrating, and painful to read at times, I would recommend Headscarves and Hymens to feminists of any gender, creed, or race. More, while the precise challenges facing Middle Eastern women are often specific to their region and culture, I do not think Eltahawy’s point regarding women’s voices and so-called women’s issues being central to any successful populist revolution need be at all limited to the Arab Spring, nor the Middle East.  Any 21st century populist revolution without oppressed women’s voices front and center is doomed to fail, and until men see that there really is no such thing as a “women’s issue” most cultures are doomed to repeat their mistakes.