GENDER STRUGGLE Literary Review

Reduced to headscarves

Headscarves and Hymens - Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution; Mona Eltahawy, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16.99.

Headscarves and Hymens - Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution; Mona Eltahawy, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16.99.  

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A personal exploration of the subjugation and sexual oppression of Muslim women.

I’m generally wary of books that come with such a massive hype as this book does; and I must confess to another bias: I’m doubly suspicious when a Muslim writer is hailed in the West for tearing into their own community. In this case, I was also put off by its seemingly titillating title. But, I must admit to have been wrong on all three counts.

It is a book that was crying to be written and Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian journalist, has shown courage in shining light on an issue (Muslim misogyny) which though well-known is not sufficiently talked about even by liberal Muslims. She draws on her own personal experience to highlight how deep-seated and widespread misogyny is in the Muslim world.

Eltahawy starts off by recalling a story ‘Distant View of a Minaret’ by a feminist Egyptian writer Alifa Rafat about a middle-aged woman who finds her husband dead one morning. Just before he died they had gone through the motions of having sex interrupted by the morning ‘call to prayer’. She then went down to the kitchen to ‘dutifully prepare coffee’ for him. When she returned, he was dead. ‘She returned to the living room and poured out the coffee for herself. She was surprised how calm she was.’ A long loveless and joyless marriage during which she ‘dutifully’ did what he demanded was finally over. Was she quietly relieved?

That woman might have been a fictional character but her story, Eltawahy says, was straight out of the daily experience of a typical Arab woman. It summed up the ‘trifecta of sex, death and marriage that forms the pulsating heart of misogyny in the Middle East.’

Even as the region is being reshaped with people demanding more political and individual freedoms, patriarchal attitudes that regard women as lesser mortals — simply as bodies meant to do men’s bidding —remain deeply rooted in Arab culture and are sought to be justified with the help of selective and misleading interpretation of the Quran and Hadith (Prophet Mohammed’s sayings).

There are some cringing moments such as when Eltahawy recalls how she was groped by a fellow pilgrim when performing Hajj in Ka'ba — the holiest of holy Islamic sites; and then by a Saudi policemen as she bent to kiss the sacred black stone as part of Hajj rituals. Even wearing hijab or veil is no protection against Arab men’s ‘wandering fingers and hands’.

At one place she writes: “If I were to use paint to indicate the place where my body was touched or groped, or grabbed without my consent, even while wearing the hijab, my entire torso, back and front, would be covered with colour.”

Eltahawy’s biggest disappointment though was the behaviour of her fellow male ‘revolutionaries’ at Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the ‘Arab Spring’ protests. She and other women protesters were molested by their male colleagues as they tried to escape tear gas and pellets. “What goes through the mind of a protester who is dodging security forces, teargas and blows bit nonetheless pauses to grope the body of a fellow protester?” she asks. She and other women were also sexually assaulted by security forces but ‘none of them’ spoke publicly about their ordeal ‘due to shame or family pressure.’

Eltahawy, who lived in America when the ‘Arab Spring’ erupted returned to Egypt to join the ‘revolution’ and fight shoulder-to-shoulder with her fellow countrymen hoping that it would give birth to a new more equal society where women would be treated on an equal footing with men. But the experience left her deeply scarred.

The book, however, is not about the Arab Spring but explores the broader issue of subjugation and sexual oppression of women in the Muslim world including in countries such as Tunisia which have relatively progressive governments. There is a ‘systemic hatred of women that reduces us to little more than headscarves and our hymens.’

Eltahawy, who herself wore hijab for several years, questions both the theological legitimacy claimed on its behalf that it is a Quranic injunction, and the feminist appropriation of it as a symbol of women’s right to wear what they wish. She recalls a hilarious meeting with a Muslim Brotherhood leader who insisted that his group believed in pluralism and inclusion.

“And as proof, you are here meeting me and you are naked,” he said. “I am not naked,” she protested taken aback by his remark. “Your hair is naked, your arms are naked, according to God’s law you are naked.” A Tunisian feminist told her that a Salafist member of the constituent assembly refused to speak to her because he said he did not speak to women who were ‘naked’. To his horror, the woman started to undress. “I want to show you what a naked woman looks like,” she told him.

This might sound funny, but is a telling example of how deliberate misinterpretations of Quran and Hadith are routinely used to keep women in purdah. Eltahawy also challenges the secular and feminist narrative around the post-9/11 fashion for hijab, particularly among educated and independent Muslim women in the West as a response to Islamophobia.

As someone who herself started wearing hijab on her own volition — discarding it when she thought enough was enough — she acknowledges women’s right to wear it. She also acknowledges that in a climate where women are increasingly looked upon only as objects, some may feel that veiling offers an option to protect themselves from men’s prying eyes. In fact, her own decision was prompted by this until she realised the problem was a lot more complex.

But Eltahawy warns that any attempt to legitimise such practices in the name of individual freedoms will inadvertently play into the hands of mullahs who will then get a chance to say, ‘but women are doing it voluntarily’. Ultimately, the very notion of purdah in any form and for whatever reason is regressive.

It needs courage to take on both the fundamentalist and liberal establishments at the same time. Good on Eltahawy for speaking up when liberal Muslims have become strangely defensive. It will be interesting to hear some Indian voices of their experience of what it is like to be a liberal Muslim woman in India today.

Headscarves and Hymens - Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution; Mona Eltahawy, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16.99.

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