Books

Mona Eltahawy
Headscarves and Hymens

In 2012 Mona Eltahawy, a New York-based Muslim Egyptian journalist and commentator on Arab issues, achieved international notoriety with an emotional article written for Foreign Policy magazine about the abuse of female Arab Spring protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Her article, entitled “Why Do They Hate Us?”, concluded on a note reminiscent of the Elephant Man protesting his humanity. Women, she wrote, “are more than our headscarves and our hymens”.

 In Headscarves and Hymens, Eltahawy makes her case for a sexual revolution in the Arabic-speaking countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). In the first chapter she makes it plain that her critique of misogyny will not be softened by a cultural relativism she despises as racist. She scans the horizons of various MENA countries and plunges fearlessly into the fraught territory of religion, culture and women’s rights. Eltahawy’s approach to her material is uncompromising: there is none of the nuance of Geraldine Brooks’s magisterial Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women. Sadly, in the two decades since Brooks’s book was published, nothing much seems to have changed for the region’s women.  

The unrelenting negativity of Eltahawy’s depiction of male bastardry and governmental complicity is leavened by accounts of ad hoc resistance to, for example, Saudi Arabia’s prohibitions on female driving. Women are prepared to poke male gropers with the pins that hold down their headscarves, even at the hajj (pilgrimage) in Mecca. 

Eltahawy herself discovered feminist literature in a library in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, of all places. She donned the veil at 16 and removed it at 25, after nine years of struggling with her religion, her feminism, her femininity and her sexuality. She hung on to her virginity until she was 29. She had her arms broken by the police at Tahrir Square.

“There is nothing more subversive,” she writes, “than a woman writing about her own life as though it matters.” Indeed, the snippets of memoir offered up by Eltahawy are the most compelling parts of the book. They sparkle with authenticity and a refreshing sense of agency that almost compensates for the polemic comprising most of the book. I would have liked to read more about the brave woman of the barricades who was named by Newsweek magazine as one of its 150 Fearless Women of 2012.  MG

Hachette, 320pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 18, 2015 as "Mona Eltahawy, Headscarves and Hymens". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: MG