Headscarves and Hymens: Book Review


By David Michael Newstead.

Mona Eltahawy’s book, Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, is part biography, part history, and it reflects on what’s happened since the Arab Spring in 2010. The book describes a double revolution taking place during that time, the revolution we know and the one for women’s rights across the region.

This includes examinations focused on sexual harassment, violence against women, misogyny, the complexities of the hijab, and wide-ranging systems of control against women as well as the guilt-inducing socialization of girls. The author resists the notion that these issues should be sidelined by the term “identity politics”. And throughout her own personal journey, she is both deeply connected to and sometimes separated from events going on in the Middle East as she moves between countries and cultures.

Most notably, Eltahawy recites numerous examples of homegrown advocates of women’s rights in the Middle East over the last century that defy attempts to label these activities as Western. Along those same lines, the book doesn’t request outside assistance, only that people pay attention. In light of that, below I include some passages from the book that were especially interesting to me.

  • I insist on the right to critique both my culture and my faith in ways that I would reject from an outsider.
  • When I write or give lectures about gender inequality in the Middle East and North Africa, I understand I am walking into a minefield. On one side stands a bigoted and racist Western right wing that is all too eager to hear critiques of the region and of Islam that it can use against us. I would like to remind these conservatives that no country is free of misogyny, and that their efforts to reverse hard-earned women’s reproductive rights makes them brothers-in-hatred to our Islamists. On the other side stand those Western liberals who rightly condemn imperialism and yet are blind to the cultural imperialism they are performing when they silence critiques of misogyny. They behave as if they want to save my culture and faith from me, and forget that they are immune to the violations about which I speak. Blind to the privilege and the paternalism that drive them, they give themselves the right to determine what is “authentic” to my culture and faith. If the right wing is driven by a covert racism, the left sometimes suffers an implicit racism through which it usurps my right to determine what I can and cannot say.
  • When I travel and give lectures abroad and I’m asked how best to help women in my part of the world, I say, help your own community’s women fight misogyny. By doing so, you help the global struggle against the hatred of women.
  • Some men were still struggling with the chains it had taken me so long to unclasp, and I found myself moved by their personal revolutions. I would remind myself that men also struggled against sexual guilt and a socialization that produced a warped and unhealthy attitude toward women and sex. I believe – and my experience reaffirmed that belief – that girls and women bear the greater burden of this socialization. But in getting to know Egyptian men better, and in sharing my frustrations with the way our culture and practice of religion had filled us with guilt and stripped us of understanding for each other, I learned that our best allies are those men determined to free themselves of sexual guilt and refuse the false ease of gender double standards.

Read Headscarves and Hymens