on April 21st 2015
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The journalist Mona Eltahawy is no stranger to controversy. Through her articles and actions she has fought for the autonomy, security, and dignity of Muslim women, drawing vocal supporters and detractors. Now, in her first book, Headscarves and Hymens, Eltahawy has prepared a definitive condemnation of the repressive forces-political, cultural, and religious-that reduce millions of women to second-class citizens.Drawing on her years as a campaigner for and commentator on women's issues in the Middle East, she explains that since the Arab Spring began in 2010, women in the Arab world have had two revolutions to undertake: one fought alongside men against oppressive regimes, and another fought against an entire political and economic system that represses women in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and other nations.Eltahawy has traveled across the Middle East and North Africa, meeting with women and listening to their stories. Her book is a plea for outrage and action, confronting a "toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend." A manifesto motivated by hope and fury in equal measure, Headscarves and Hymens is as illuminating as it is incendiary.
Mona Eltahawy was born in Egypt and moved to Saudi Arabia as a teenager. She knows firsthand the restrictions on women in that part of the world.
“My own feminist revolution evolved slowly, and traveled the world with me. To this day I have no idea what dissident professor or librarian placed feminist tests on the bookshelves at the university library in Jeddah, but I found them there. They filled me with terror. I understood they were pulling at a thread that would unravel everything. Now that I am older, I can see that feeling terrified is how you recognize what you need. Terror encourages you to jump, even when you don’t know if you will ever land.”
If you are reasonably well informed about the struggles of women in Islamic countries, nothing in this book is going to come as a shock. That’s a shame. It would be nice to be surprised to hear that women can’t drive or go out without a male relative to play sports. I didn’t know that Saudi Arabia had been forced to allow female athletes to participate in the Olympics by the International Olympic Committee. I also did not know that Saudi clerics started publicly calling these athletes whores and used the hashtag #prostitutesoftheOlympics. I wasn’t surprised though and that is sad. Even though incidents like this aren’t surprising it is important to read about them to be reminded of what is happening.
The author’s own stories about deciding whether or not to wear a hijab and her disappointment about the treatment of women during the Arab Spring give these issues a personal immediacy. I liked her comparison of Muslim attitudes to women to Christianity’s purity culture. I don’t have any experience with Islam but I know about extreme Christian attitudes towards women. Knowing how hard people in that subculture fight for the right to keep women at home and in their place makes me feel like the possibility of any real change in religious treatment of women is low.
At the same time I was reading this book, Richard Dawkins tweeted about needing a feminine revolution in Islam and was widely attacked for saying it because he is a white man. This book looks at the need for everyone to be involved so it was disheartening to see the controversy. This article seems to get it.
What do you think? Can non-Muslims speak out about how women are treated? Will it help?