Arts Reviews


Title: Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution

Author: Mona Eltahawy

Genre: Memoir, current affairs

Publisher: Weidenfeld and Nicolson

Published: 2016

Pages: 238

In Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, Mona Eltahawy confronts the forces behind female oppression in the Arab World. Writing in the wake of the Arab Spring, Eltahawy asserts the necessity for a further revolution: one that will liberate women politically, economically and socially. Nowadays, any discussion of Islam and feminism is a political minefield, but Eltahawy thoughoughly tackles the ‘toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing to detangle lest they blaspheme or offend’ with a deft hand. She places her finger on the pulse-points of misogyny in the Middle East, female genital mutilation, domestic and state violence and child marriage, and refuses to let go.

“What also gives this book its power is its anecdotal quality”

The research Eltahawy includes, like the fact that more than 90 percent of women have had their genitals cut in Egypt, is undoubtably horrific, but what also gives this book its power is its anecdotal quality. Eltahawy is a Muslim journalist who was born in Egypt, moved to London when she was 7 and then moved to Saudi Arabia when she was 15. This move, she says, ‘traumatised’ her into feminism. As she recounts her first experience of sexual harassment, being groped by a policeman at the holy site of Mecca, it is easy to see why.

“Feminism needs to listen more to voices like Eltahawy’s”

Eltahawy also writes about her decision to start and stop wearing a headscarf. Her chapter on veiling was my favourite. Whilst liberal feminists in the west often happily subscribe to ‘choice’ feminism – a woman’s decision to wear the hijab or niqab is purely her own choice – Eltahawy reveals, that by making such assumptions, they silence the experiences of Muslim women. This book is an important reminder, that as a movement that prides itself on intersectionality, feminism needs to listen more to voices like Eltahawy’s. She speaks from experience. She doesn’t hesitate to examine just how free women in the Arab world are to remove their hijab, or to remind us that women’s progress is not linear: two Egyptian women removed their headscarves as an act of defiance against the state in 1923, and the socially-driven pendulum between wearing and not wearing the hijab has been swinging back and forth ever since.

“I don’t think I’ve ever read such a comprehensive, compelling discussion of the niqab as hers”

Moreover, I don’t think I’ve ever read such a comprehensive, compelling discussion of the niqab as hers. Or, the idea that, to oppose the ban is to ‘sacrifice women at the altar of political correctness’. Eltahawy isn’t a white man and she supports France’s ban on the niqab. Once again, she shows us that the relationship between religion, patriarchy and feminism is far more complex than the left might think, but she also stresses the difficulty of having these complex discussions when the racist, sexist right supports the niqab ban so that they can gleefully push their Islamophobia – because when do they truly care about women?

Headscarves and Hymens is, at its heart, a manifesto about the importance of women’s voices, that they are used, not censored and, most importantly, listened to. When Eltahawy talks about support groups where women share their experiences of sexual abuse, or of Americans who drew comparisons between the hymen’s status in the East and purity culture in the West, she reminds us how crucial conscious-raising groups are to make women feel that they are not alone. Whilst her book is a harrowing report of devastating violence against women, it is also a testament to women’s survival and their bravery.


Laura Stanley 

Featured image courtesy of Laura Stanley.

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