Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, by Mona Eltahawy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015, ISBN 978-0-86547-803-9). 256 pp. Softcover, $23.00.
Mona Eltahawy’s article in Foreign Policy in 2012, “Why Do They Hate Us?,” was a bombshell. I was relieved to see it: I’d been following Eltahawy’s reporting on the revolution in Egypt and largely taking my cue from her on how to think about it. “Mona Eltahawy thinks it’s a great thing, and she should know,” was my heuristic. But at the same time I kept worrying. “But what about the Islamists? What about the Muslim Brotherhood? Mubarak is awful, but are you sure if he goes the Islamists won’t take his place? What about the women?” The Foreign Policy article made it very clear that Eltahawy was not ignoring that issue, nor was she prettying it up, even for the glory of the revolution.
We’re so often expected to put aside our goals, you know—women are. We’re so often expected, and told, to put the other struggle first for now, and move on to striving for equal rights for women after it’s taken care of . . . as if it’s just self-evident that women’s rights are somehow more trivial and expendable than everyone else’s. I’ve never understood why that should be. Eltahawy’s book, Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, demonstrates that neither has she.
She’s also uncompromising about what’s at the root of unequal rights: hatred. The title of the first chapter is a development of the Foreign Policy article’s question, “Why Do They Hate Us?”; it’s now “Why They Hate Us.” The loathing comes first, and the bad, unequal treatment grows out of that. “There is no sugarcoating it,” she writes on the second page. “We Arab women live in a culture that is fundamentally hostile to us, enforced by men’s contempt.” She learned about this early, via a drastic culture shock at age fifteen when her family moved from London to Saudi Arabia. “It felt as though we’d moved to another planet whose inhabitants fervently wished that women did not exist.”
How would hatred of a significant proportion of humanity manifest itself? Well first of all, you would want to be able to ignore those people as much as possible—you would want them to be away from the places where you spend time and as close as possible to invisible when they have to be in your space. How to do that? Black bags. Put them all in identical black bags, and that way they’ll just be part of the background, like walls and lampposts. That’s the ideal, but you might have to settle for a much-reduced bag that covers only the hair and neck.
That’s only for the rare occasions when the problem people venture outside though. For the most part, you keep them confined, and that works well. But they’re bothersome, rebellious creatures, as slaves always are. The trouble the Spartans had with the helots! What a nightmare! Discipline and punishment are a never-ending job: pinching and taunting them on the street and beating them at their places of confinement. But there is one compensation: access to sex on demand. Often that doubles as a punishment, which is a win-win.
That sounds like an exaggeration, but it isn’t: it’s the world Eltahawy walks us through. She made a serious effort to do the disappearing act herself for a time, deciding to wear the hijab as a teenager in Saudi Arabia. It was not a willing act of piety or even resigned conformity; it was a desperate bargain. “It felt as if everything were haram (prohibited) in Saudi Arabia. I was descending into my first of several depressions; I felt I was losing my mind. So I struck a deal with God: They keep saying a good Muslim woman covers her hair, so I’ll cover my hair if you save my mind.” What a cruel god, that won’t let a teenage girl keep both her mind and her uncovered hair. Eltahawy wore the hijab for nine years.
From an outsider’s point of view, there’s a division between treatment with a veneer of legality, such as dress codes and curfews, and what seems obviously just plain criminality or at the very least boorish uninvited aggression. From the inside though, they are just different branches of the same basic system. Women are precious pearls that must be concealed, delicate flowers that must be protected, and if they fail to be sufficiently concealed and protected, they are fair game. It’s ironic or entirely predictable, depending on how you look at it, that all this “modesty” and covering and downright obliteration does not protect women and girls from street harassment and rape. On the contrary: Eltahawy points out that harassment is near-universal in Egypt, at a time when the hijab has become near-universal too. “Almost 100 percent of Egyptian girls and women report being sexually harassed. A 2013 United Nations report cites the actual figure at 99.3 percent, but my friends joke that the remaining 0.7 percent had their phones turned off when the researchers tried to contact them.”
Dressing according to the strictest rules is no protection; the only way to avoid street harassment is to stay home entirely. At home, of course, there is domestic violence to deal with, which is widely viewed as the prerogative of men. Nowhere is safe for women and girls. Eltahawy underlines the catch-22 in which “regimes and mobs try hard to push women out of public spaces and back into the home for their own ‘safety,’ knowing full well that, for many women, home can be an even more dangerous place.”
Saudi Arabia gets a chapter to itself, in honor of the harshness and pettiness of its restrictions (no driving, no sport, no Olympics) and the pass it gets from the rest of the world. Eltahawy says, truthfully, that it’s “cowardly and shameful” to ignore the fight of the women campaigning against the ban on women driving, as John Kerry did on a trip to Saudi Arabia in 2013. He was asked about the campaign, and he responded by saying Saudi Arabia has the right to have whatever social order it chooses. “If any ethnic or religious group were being treated the way Saudi women are treated,” Eltahawy comments, “such an apartheid would long ago have been condemned, and Saudi Arabia boycotted, by the United States and other Western nations.”
It would have been hard to come up with a more ideal author for this book, even if you sat down and wrote a list of possible candidates. Eltahawy has lived in Egypt, Britain, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. She is a Muslim and a feminist, a liberal who decided to wear the hijab and then decided to stop wearing it. She reported on the revolution from Tahrir Square, and she had her arms broken by Mubarak’s police. The story she tells is heartbreaking and enraging, but the fact that she is the one telling it leaves you with hope.
Ophelia Benson is a columnist for Free Inquiry and the editor of the website Butterflies & Wheels.