Review: Headscarves and Hymens

March 10, 2016

From the March-April 2016 issue of News & Letters

Review of: Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, by Mona Eltahawy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015).

Mona Eltahawy, an award-winning journalist and speaker, grew up in the Middle East and the West and travels between the two. She participated in the Arab Spring demonstrations and convinced CNN to change their tag line from “Chaos in the Middle East” to “Revolution in the Middle East.” She became a feminist as a teen when exposed to patriarchal men’s horrific treatment of women in the Middle East and women’s complicity in it.

headscarvesandhymensmonaEltahawy demolishes both Middle Eastern and Western excuses for not recognizing these atrocities towards women as oppression. Indeed, violations of women’s human rights must be fought in order to establish a just society. While Western liberals often turn to cultural relativism to ignore the violations of the human rights of women (and only women) in other countries, Eltahawy shows how women in the West have fought and continue to fight similar oppressions.


She says that while religion should never be used as an excuse for sexism, these same religions, including Islam, have been interpreted in feminist ways. While misogynists in the Middle East claim that feminism and sexual liberation are Western imports, she describes how Arab women have been fighting sexism and writing erotic poetry for centuries.

As a teen, Eltahawy wore the hijab, or headscarf, but later rejected it along with the notion that her agency in choosing something she saw as reactionary could be a feminist choice. Her agency in expressing Muslim pride was invisible to sexists who approved condescendingly because it made her “chaste” and “marriageable.”

Women everywhere are told it is our responsibility to “cover up” to control men’s sexual desires. However, Eltahawy found that even being completely covered never protected any woman from the vicious sexual harassment and violence on the street. That these behaviors are not caused by patriarchal men’s sexual desires but by their desire to completely control women became obvious. A man even groped Eltahawy when she was covered up in a segregated female group worshipping at Mecca and observed by a policeman.

In order to keep women from participating in public life, patriarchy requires harassment along with infantilizing laws like those mandating women to be accompanied by a male relative, segregated, and restricted from driving. Propaganda claims that women are most suited to the “feminine” private life of the home which they supposedly “rule.” The reality that women are not even safe at home is shown by the prevalence of domestic violence, marital rape, child marriage, and “honor” killings of women who have sex or are raped outside of marriage. Private violence is as rarely punished as public violence.


Eltahawy explains how the constant quest for safety can lead women to oppress their own daughters, even going so far as female genital mutilation (FGM), which causes severe pain and health issues. FGM and the insistence on virginity, symbolized by the presence of a hymen, are supposed to make a woman marriageable but lead to sexual frustration and relationship problems. Eltahawy reclaims the rights to sexual pleasure and to make one’s own sexual decisions as a vital part of being human.

To Eltahawy, consciousness-raising through sharing of personal stories is important to helping women understand oppression. She describes telling a class in the U.S. about her stress caused by the obsession with virginity in the Middle East and hearing students make the connection with their experiences with Christian fundamentalist purity culture. She started consciousness-raising groups in the Middle East and urges the importance of letting the survivors of violence, including FGM, not feel like victims. She states, “women—our rage, our tenacity, our daring, and our audacity—will free our countries.”

In order to succeed, a revolution needs to be a radical one of self-determination for all in both public and private relationships.


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