Book Reviews

Lifting the Veil

In her recipe for how Arab women can attain sexual freedom, Mona Eltahawy sidelines a key ingredient: men.

By Kim Ghattas

Tagged IslamMiddle EastWomen

Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution By Mona Eltahawy • Farrar, Straus and Giroux • 2015 • 256 pages • $25

Why do they hate us?” That is the question that Mona Eltahawy asked in a much-discussed 2012 article for Foreign Policy. “They” were the men of the Arab world; “us” were the Arab women who, as she writes in a new book that grew out of that essay, “live in a culture that is fundamentally hostile to [them], enforced by men’s contempt.”

The question, as you may remember, is the same one that President George W. Bush asked in a speech in Congress in September 2001 about the men who flew planes into towers. The lack of nuance in Bush’s proclamation framed a debate that amplified stereotypes and “otherness.” Eltahawy’s book, Headscarves and Hymens, a radical feminist manifesto, risks doing the same for the battle over Arab women’s rights.

While Eltahawy rightly rejects the patriarchal system that tramples on women’s rights, she reduces men to a monolithic bloc with which women are at war, instead of seeing them as potential partners for change. She ignores the historical, political, and economic context that has produced the current darkness in the Arab world for women and men alike. Instead, she focuses mostly on issues that are in essence just the façade of the problem, like the veil that many women wear, and overlooks the systemic changes needed to truly improve women’s lives. By doing so, she reduces Arab women to a downtrodden mass, awaiting liberation from a piece of cloth.

For years, Eltahawy has been a courageous and outspoken voice on women’s rights and feminism in the Arab world. She grew up in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and is now based mostly in New York. She has won well-deserved praise for her role as a provocateur, stirring debate when many would prefer silence. In 2012, Newsweek named her one of its “150 Fearless Women.”

True to her style as a self-described radical Muslim feminist, her book title will shock, enthuse, and enrage. It opens with a slightly revised version of her Foreign Policy essay, as Eltahawy makes her case for why the region needs a sexual revolution in the wake of the Arab uprisings. “[U]ntil the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors on our streets and in our homes—unless we topple the Mubaraks in our mind, in our bedrooms, and on our street corners—our revolution has not even begun,” she writes.

As Eltahawy catalogs some of the abuses that Arab women face, she focuses on hot-button issues that generate headlines in the West, from the veil to the rampant and growing trend of sexual harassment—particularly in Egypt, where, in November 2011, Eltahawy was herself a victim of a horrific sexual assault that left her with a broken arm and hand. She details the despicable practice of “virginity tests” conducted by the military on female protestors and warns that “[w]hen the state sexually assaults you—when the hands of its police force and paid thugs grope you, and the state denies any legal redress—it sends a message to all that women’s bodies are fair game.” (Eltahawy does well to remind the reader that it was Egypt’s current president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who authorized these “tests” when he was army chief.)

Eltahawy also tackles the practice of female genital mutilation, a medically unnecessary procedure that partially or totally removes the external female genitalia and which, according to UNICEF, has been carried out on 130 million women alive today, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. The practice is not religiously mandated and is also practiced by non-Muslims, including, for example, an overwhelming majority of Christians in Eritrea. The goal is ostensibly to make sure women stay “under control,” and the effect is to curb their sexual pleasure.

The practices of hymen protection and reconstruction are common because the “god of virginity is popular in the Arab world,” whether you’re a Christian or a Muslim. But as Eltahawy finds out from her students while teaching a short-term course at the University of Oklahoma, virginity is also still prized in the United States: One of the girls attending her course had signed a purity pledge with her father.

That observation is one of the few comparisons Eltahawy makes with the state of women’s rights in other parts of the world. That comparison underscores what’s missing from much of Headscarves and Hymens: context. As an Arab woman, Eltahawy understandably focuses on her region. And she rejects cultural relativism, the attempt to dilute the problem either by saying it’s part of the local culture or by pointing to data about sexual harassment in Western countries to pretend it’s the same everywhere. But her approach fails to offer the broader picture the subject deserves, and leaves her open to criticism herself—particularly of feeding stereotypes about the Arab world, when it’s amply clear that women’s rights abuses are not exclusive to that region. Sadly, the examples abound, from widespread rape as a weapon of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to forced marriages in India, to the little-discussed but shockingly unequal status of women in Japan. Only by understanding the wider global context can the problem of women’s subjection really be addressed.

It is this shortcoming that makes Headscarves and Hymens a frustrating read. Beyond the data collection organized into chapters sprinkled with outrage, the occasional shocking statement, and a repeated call to arms, it connects few dots, brings few new insights, and breaks no new ground—not for Middle East watchers and probably not even for casual observers. In many places, it reads like a well-researched report by a women’s rights organization, relying mostly on widely covered news stories and containing little original research apart from occasional references to conversations the author had with women, including for a documentary she produced in the wake of the Arab uprisings. A champion of the cause, Eltahawy misses a real opportunity to deliver a more thoughtful and considered reflection on the current state of the Arab woman.

We do find out more about why Eltahawy has come to be who she is—and those sections are the best parts of Headscarves and Hymens. She writes about moving to Saudi Arabia as a teenager with her parents, university teachers in Jeddah: “When I encountered this country at age fifteen, I was traumatized into feminism—there’s no other way to describe it—because to be a female in Saudi Arabia is to be the walking embodiment of sin.” At the university library, she found feminist texts on a bookshelf. Reading them tugged at a need to overcome the suffocation of life in Saudi Arabia and set her off on her journey.

Yet it was also while in the conservative kingdom that she decided to don the veil, a reaction to being groped by men during the holiest of times: the pilgrimage to Mecca. She wanted to become invisible and to be what she understood then to be the definition of a good Muslim. Her “deal with God” was that she would cover her hair as a good Muslim if he saved her from the depression she was sliding into, brought on by the stresses of living as a woman in the kingdom. In the end, she found that the veil did not protect her from wandering hands.

Nine years later, in Cairo, Eltahawy finally removed the oppressive hijab. The guilt she felt for baring her hair again meant she never told new acquaintances that she had once worn the veil—an interesting insight into how a piece of cloth can shape a woman’s sense of self and the seemingly inexplicable feeling of nakedness that can come from removing it. The reader will be left wanting more of those powerful insights into the mind of a woman who has been on both sides of Islam, the conservative and the liberal.

But as the central argument in her case for a sexual revolution, Eltahawy’s personal journey also becomes its weakness. Her rage stemming from her personal experiences fuels her writing, but she never really digs deep to answer the initial question she poses. Instead, she issues a sweeping statement that men “hate us because they need us, they fear us, they understand how much control it takes to keep us in line, to keep us good girls with our hymens intact until it’s time for them to fuck us into mothers who raise future generations of misogynists to forever fuel their patriarchy.”

To be sure, there are no easy solutions to any of the Middle East’s problems. But when she reduces the issue of women’s rights to men’s hatred, Eltahawy fails to advance the conversation. Specifically, the book falters on three fronts. First, Eltahawy makes only passing references to the long and fascinating history of Arab feminism, which has been mostly forgotten, including in the West, but should serve as an inspiration for women on the front line of that battle across the region. The book features a paragraph from the biography of Huda Shaarawi, one of the pioneers of Arab feminism, which recounts the moment in 1923 when, upon returning to Cairo from an international feminist meeting in Rome, Shaarawi drew back the veil from her face, a daring act that launched her as the leader of the feminist movement in Egypt. But missing is a fuller picture of Shaarawi, an educator, an activist, and a political organizer. She protested against British rule, founded the Egyptian Feminist Union, and started a school for girls and a newspaper to publicize the cause.

That myopia recurs throughout. Eltahawy shortchanges the work of people like Malak Hifni Nasif, an Egyptian woman who advocated for a combination of feminism and traditional values as the best way forward, and lobbied the Egyptian legislative assembly for improved conditions for women in 1911. Also in Egypt, Qasim Amin was known as the father of Arab feminism (if ever there was an oxymoron), who advocated for the liberation of women, although he saw it as a way of emulating the more advanced West.

Another avant-garde Arab feminist with no apparent connection to the Western feminist movement was Nazira Zayn al-Din, who was upset by the sight of women being harassed for not wearing the veil in Damascus. Her father, a judge in Lebanon’s high court of appeals in Beirut, encouraged her to seek her own answers. A Druze, Zayn al-Din read the Quran and the hadith and wrote two books in the late 1920s that became references in the debate about gender equality in the Arab world, Al Sufur wa al-Hijab (Veiling and Unveiling) and Al Fatat wa al-Shuyukh (The Young Woman and the Sheikhs). She concluded that it was not Islam but the biased interpretation of its religious texts by men that imposed veiling and seclusion on women.

Feminism got a lot of pushback in the region, assailed as a product of the colonial West. But would feminism have progressed in the Arab world at the same tempo it did in the West had the region not been marred by wars and dictatorship? After all, Huda Shaarawi’s name today comes up in the same breath as Gloria Steinem among feminist scholars. And yet these names and the influence they have had on the development of social thought in the Middle East do not get the attention they deserve in Eltahawy’s narrative.

Which brings us to the book’s second weakness: Eltahawy pays too little attention to the political and economic context in which women’s rights—along with every aspect of life in the Arab world—were allowed to deteriorate to this point. It’s easy to think it was always thus and this is certainly the impression the West has. But clearly it wasn’t, and context matters.

Eltahawy does briefly list the factors that came together from the 1960s onwards and led to the current state of the Arab world: the humiliating defeat of the Arabs by Israel in 1967; the emergence of political Islam following the demise of Arab nationalism; the 1979 revolution in Iran, which “tantalized the region with the vision of an Islamic state”; and Saudi Arabia’s wealth, which helped the kingdom spread its more austere brand of Islam by attracting hundreds of thousands of Arab workers, who then returned home with new standards regarding piety and female modesty.

Fast-forward a few decades, and the descent to hell means that while the debate in the West about Arab women’s rights is still often dominated by the superficial, like the veil, the violence women face in the streets or at home is now compounded by the violence of war in countries like Syria, Yemen, and Libya. What women need most to thrive and push for their rights is what everybody needs in the Arab world: a better economy, security, and stability. Saving lives through improved maternal health care would be another good start.

On a recent trip, when I asked prominent women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia what their top priority was, they replied: a constitution inspired by Islam, an elected parliament, and a transparent national budget. Their own specific demands for the right to drive or work without permission from a male guardian would flow from there, they told me. But they were fighting to advance the political and human rights of all in the kingdom, women and men alike.

A Gallup poll conducted in 2005 found that a majority of Muslim women, when asked what they resented most in their lives, cited violent extremism and economic corruption. The veil did not come up as an issue; there were more pressing concerns, like high unemployment. And this was before the upheaval of the Arab uprisings.

Certainly, the fight for gender equality cannot be postponed to some hypothetical stable future, and as Eltahawy writes, “It is the women who connect the fight against oppressive forces outside and inside who will free our societies.” But sexual revolutions don’t happen in a vacuum, and they don’t usually happen in bomb shelters—though the influx of women into the workforce in Europe and the United States during World War II while the men were at war provides a telling example of how societies do transform and women start pushing for their rights and economic empowerment. The Syrian women who are working and raising their children on their own inside Syria or in refugee camps while the men are fighting or missing will not want to be confined in the home again when the conflict ends. Nowhere does Eltahawy bring up economic empowerment as an essential component of the way forward.

Sex and the Citadel, the illuminating 2014 book on intimacy in the Arab world by Shereen El Feki, digs much deeper into the connection between sexual repression and oppression. El Feki spoke to Moroccan sociologist Abdessamad Dialmy, whose writing and thinking were inspired by Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, author of the landmark 1936 work The Sexual Revolution. El Feki writes that Reich “considered sexual suppression to be the hallmark of any dictatorship,” and she quotes from Reich, who wrote that “the authoritarian state has a representative in every family, the father. . . . He in turn reproduces submissiveness in his children, especially his sons.” He added that “[n]o freedom program has any chance of success without an alteration of human sexual structure.” So Eltahawy is right when she calls for a sexual revolution—but her revolution seems to apply only to women.

And this is the third front where Headscarves and Hymens disappoints. Only at the very end of the book does Eltahawy finally address the role of men, when she makes what seems to be for her a startling discovery that there were men “whose gentler sides mitigated the violence women faced in public space” and who “were willing to be comrades in our sexual revolution.” The rage that many Arab women feel at how they’re treated, silenced, and violated is real. But if it’s all just about visceral hate, is there a solution? How do you make the men love and respect the women?

When Bush asked his question of those behind the 9/11 attacks, it became a convenient way to lump the whole Arab and Muslim world into a monolithic bloc, and the question, “Why do they hate us?” was repeated ad nauseam. This set the stage for a decade of increased misunderstandings and antagonism, to say nothing of the wars and invasions. Reducing Arab men to a single bloc of women-haters can hardly be more productive.

If Arab women are to have a better future, it will require changing the attitudes of men and trying to understand the repression they too are trying to cope with, sexual and otherwise, without justifying any of their degrading behavior toward women.

In Sex and the Citadel, we read about men who run safe abortion clinics for single women, sex-education call centers for clueless young Egyptians, husbands who openly discuss their sexual desires, fathers who accept their daughters’ children born out of wedlock. Clearly there are good Arab men, too.

The women I spoke to in Saudi Arabia looked puzzled when I asked them if their fight was against men. They told me that without the support of their husbands, fathers, brothers, and even total strangers, they wouldn’t be able to stage driving protests or demand to appear in court in person. Men and women, they told me, were fighting together against the more conservative elements of the society and the establishment, which also includes women.

At the end of Headscarves and Hymens, Eltahawy describes the book as her “contribution to breaking [the] space separating the public and the private.” She deserves much credit for keeping the conversation alive, but it is unclear how she hopes this will bring about real change and where she is hoping that debate will take place. If the intended audience is the West, the book serves as a useful catalog of the challenges women face in the Middle East. It will also reinforce the stereotype of Arab women as powerless and voiceless—and guarantee Eltahawy a spot on TV talk shows.

If Headscarves and Hymens was meant for an Arab audience, it’s a depressing reminder of what Arab women already know only too well. Eltahawy fails to inspire, and beyond a few cursory suggestions, like promoting sexual education in schools, she doesn’t provide a path forward at a time when the counterrevolution is in full swing. She doesn’t even really define what a sexual revolution actually entails. Arab women will not settle for a ban on female genital mutilation and an end to sexual harassment or the right to drive a car in Saudi Arabia.

When it comes to sex, the revolution is well underway in bedrooms across the Arab world. What Arab women want and are fighting hard for are gender equality and political and social rights for all—worthy causes, but a much less sexy title for a book.

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Kim Ghattas is a Washington-based BBC correspondent covering international affairs. She was born and raised in Beirut and is the author of the New York Times best-seller The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power.

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