Saturday, February 6, 2016

Book review - Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East needs a sexual revolution

This book opens with a chapter that’s called “Why they hate us” and Eltahawy straight away argues that ‘We Arab women live in a culture that is fundamentally hostile to us, enforced by men’s contempt’. She proceeds to describe the sexual abuse that she has experienced during her Hajj pilgrimage as well as during the political unrest in Egypt.
Mona Elthahwy was born in Egypt to parents with PhDs in medicine and grew up in Saudi Arabia after spending time in the UK. Her experience in these countries shaped her outlook. Her time in Britain must have given her a critical eye to which to analyse the Saudi culture and attitude towards women.

She states ‘when I encountered this country aged fifteen, I was traumatized into feminism – there is no other way to describe it - because to be a female in Saudi Arabia is to be the walking embodiment of sin…The obsession with controlling women and our bodies often stem from the suspicion that, without restraints, women are a few degrees short of sexual instability.’ Women seem to be at the root of all problems. Women get raped or groped it is because ‘we were in the wrong place at the wrong time, wearing the wrong thing’.

In many ways, this book is about the Arab Spring from a woman’s perspective. She writes about life as a woman in the Middle East during this period and, from a western perspective, it seems incredibly unfair. Women treated badly then accused of having asking for it.

She blames ‘a toxic mix of culture and religion. Whether our politics are tinged with religion or military rule, the common denominator is the oppression of women’.  While she is critical of this nexus between religion and culture, she does discuss the conundrum that she faced in speaking about this subject. It is hard to separate the culture and the religion which makes discussions around this subject difficult and especially sensitive.

What next?

She argues that this era of political turmoil would provide an ideal opportunity to create a shift in how women are treated and hand control back to women, not only in regards to their own lives and bodies but also allow them greater participation in society.

But this would be hard and it could take decades. As she says ‘men also struggled against a sexual guilt and a socialization that produced a warped and unhealthy attitude against women’. Such deep and ingrained attitudes  could not change overnight.  

This book is an interesting look at the body, religion and how culture influences how we view who we are in society. It’s powerful reading of the contemporary challenges in the middle east where women are no longer happy to be objects of sin by the cultural norms of their region or objects of pity by those in the west. 

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