Discussing gender inequality in the Middle East and North Africa is a “minefield,” according to Mona Eltahawy, the author of Headscarves and Hymens: Why The Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution . In her new book, she takes on feminism and Islam, critically examining her own culture and religion. She draws on her personal experiences living in different parts of the Middle East, including her involvement in the Egyptian revolution, as well as the lived realities of those from around the region who might otherwise be voiceless.
Eltahawy exposes hard truths about the current state of gender equality in the Arab world. She is brutally honest in her accounts of the oppression and violence that women regularly face, and she explores the ways in which they are perpetuated by culture and religion. At the same time, she tackles Islamophobia abroad and the cultural relativist approach that she finds just as harmful. Though the current situation is daunting, Eltahawy believes that culture can and will evolve.
With the Arab world in its current state of flux, she argues that women’s rights must be made a priority. Through her work, Eltahawy issues a rallying cry in hopes of ending the silence that too often surrounds women’s issues globally.
The relationship between feminism and Islam is evolving, but here's what you need to know about its current state, based on Headscarves and Hymens:
Gender Inequality Is Not Unique To Islam
Eltahawy is unflinching in her look at the oppression of women in the Middle East and North Africa, but she reminds us that women are subjugated across cultures and that it should not be used as an excuse to demonize Islam. “No country is free of misogyny … it resides on a spectrum,” she writes. Too often, “a bigoted and racist Western right wing … is all too eager to hear critiques of the region and of Islam that it can use against us,” she argues.
In fact, through the injustices against women that Eltahawy details, there are many parallels to struggles that women in the Western world also face, in spite of their relatively more equal status. For example, Eltahawy explains that street sexual harassment is rampant throughout the Arab world, but conservatives point to women’s attire as the cause. It’s reminiscent of the all-too-common question “But what was she wearing?” Americans ask when hearing stories about street harassment.
“Cultural Differences” Is Not an Excuse
Critiquing her own religion and culture is not easy. Eltahawy describes the opposition she faces from Western liberals who shy away from the issue on the principle of cultural relativism. Ultimately, their approach hurts women by ignoring their plight. In the United Kingdom, for example, it became illegal to practice female genital mutilation (FGM), often called female circumcision, in 1985. Nonetheless, the first prosecution for FGM did not come until 2014, almost three decades later. Eltahawy cites a report by the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee that states “misplaced concern for cultural sensitivities over the rights of the child” have kept authorities from tackling this issue.
“When Westerners remain silent out of ‘respect’ for foreign cultures, they show support only for the most conservative elements of those cultures,” asserts Eltahawy. “Culture evolves, but it will remain static if outsiders consistently silence criticism in a misguided attempt to save us from ourselves. Cultures evolve through dissent and robust criticism for their members.”
Feminism and Islam Aren’t Mutually Exclusive
There are different interpretations of the Qu’ran, but historically men have been the ones holding the power of interpretation. Eltahawy argues that these men have interpreted religion in ways that best suit their needs, to the detriment of women. She states, “I blame 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.”
Ultraconservatives have supported child marriage, Eltahawy explains, using Muhammad’s young wife Aisha as an example — no matter that it’s unclear whether she was 9 or 19 years old. “Slavish obedience to the clerics, who know how to squeeze every last drop of advantage out of religion, is killing our girls,” she writes.
Tension Between Islam And The West Has Influenced Women’s Rights
In recent decades, veiling has become more and more common throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Conservatives and their political opponents alike have favored the covering of women as what Eltahawy describes as “cultural extremism” has taken root.
For many Muslims living in the Arab world and the West, veiling is seen as a cultural and religious symbol. While women fight to wear their veils in European countries, Arab governments use conservative interpretations on the subject to “protect themselves against charges of being godless or faithless,” states Eltahawy. She argues that this “is a popular pattern that governments — especially those close to the United States and Europe, such as Egypt under Sadat and Mubarak,” lest they be criticized for “Westernizing.”
Progress Hasn’t Been a Straight Path
Through Headscarves and Hymens, we see how the status of women has fluctuated over time. Eltahawy describes a pendulum-like path which had seriously regressed prior to the Arab Spring. Writes Eltahaway, “The regimes that governed the Arab world before the recent revolutions were united in an utter disregard for women’s bodily integrity — a message that was not lost on the male public, who reflected back in a similar disregard.”
She recounts terrible stories of the sexual violence that women in the Middle East and North Africa suffer — sometimes at the hands of those who should be protecting them — due to the state not holding men accountable. As such, the violence has continued and worsened in some countries, like Eltahawy’s native Egypt.
Oppression Becomes Socialized
The Qu’ran, Eltahawy points out, includes a description of sex between a husband and wife as mutually enjoyable, yet women’s bodies have increasingly come to be seen as vehicles for male pleasure only. In fact, FGM continues in many areas, including those where it has been banned, as a way to “control female sexuality.” There are no health benefits to the procedure, and it often causes pain, long-term injury, and even death.
Enormous social pressure feeds the practice. Women who have undergone it themselves and know the pain subject their children to it, because without it, they would likely not find a husband to marry. “In order to survive, women police their daughters’ bodies and their own, subsuming desire for the ‘honor’ and the family’s good name,” writes Eltahawy.
Women’s Rights Must Not Be Shoved To The Wayside
Women protested alongside men in the Arab Spring, yet their rights have continued to be largely ignored. According to Eltahawy, they are criticized for focusing on gender equality and told they should instead be focusing on the “larger goal.” She describes the fight for women’s rights as a revolution of the mind, streets, and houses; it will only gain strength when people speak out and remove the separation between the public and the private.
No Rescue Is Needed
Feminism is not a recent phenomenon in the Middle East and North Africa. From Egyptian feminist Huda Shaarawi’s decision to unveil publicly in 1923 to Manal al-Sharif’s driving campaign in Saudi Arabia in 2011, there are many examples of women in the region standing up to oppression. “It is the women who connect the fight against oppressive forces outside and inside who will free our societies,” writes Eltahawy. She emphasizes that the women of the Arab world do not need rescuers; they need allies that will “listen to their demands and amplify them.”
Eltahawy writes, “Our best hope for eradicating [inequality] globally is for each of us to expose and to fight against local versions of it, in the understanding that by doing so we advance the global struggle.”
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