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Mona Eltahawy and sexual revolution in the Middle East

'Traumatised into feminism,' Mona Eltahawy speaks of her decision to unveil and understanding that 'Muslim women’s bodies are the medium upon which culture is engraved, be it through headscarves or cutting.'

Women in the forefront of protests in Tahrir Square. Mohammed Omer. All rights reserved. Women in the forefront of protests in Tahrir Square. Mohammed Omer. All rights reserved.She is fast. She is furious. She is a runaway train. But she is not off her rails. That is what I tweeted after hearing Mona talk about her new book, Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution at an event organised by the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit, London Metropolitan University.

Whether she was talking about her decision to veil and then, not to veil, her condemnation of sexual assaults on women in Egypt, or Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim racism in the wake of the San Bernadino killings she was articulate and angry with a breathtaking skill for crafting a clever soundbite. She was ‘traumatised into feminism’ she says when describing her political development as a young woman in Saudi Arabia.

Although hijabless now, she spoke movingly about how difficult it was to stop wearing it: it took her eight years to give it up even though she knew it was not for her within one year of adopting it at age 16 in Saudi Arabia in reaction to being groped while on hajj (pilgrimage) in Mecca. Interestingly, she was dressed from head to toe in white pilgrimage clothes like a nun when she was touched up, and yet believed that wearing a hijab permanently would protect her from the unwanted attentions of men.  When she returned to Egypt in 1988, very few women were wearing the hijab. Talk about swimming against the current: Mona gave it up just as it became ubiquitous. Her growing doubts about the hijab were resolved temporarily by convincing herself that she had ‘chosen’ to wear it and that the very act of exercising her choice was a sign of her independence of mind and her feminism.  Her wake- up call came when an Egyptian feminist asked, ‘Can’t you see you’re destroying everything we’ve worked so hard for?’

 Mona Eltahawy, the author of 'Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution'. Mona Eltahawy, the author of 'Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution'.Once she gave it up, her position against it hardened to the point of supporting the ban on the niqab (face veil) in France and Belgium. Whilst I agree with her that the niqab erases a woman’s existence, in the context of high levels of anti-Muslim racism in the West, a ban will only drive more women to wear it as a sign of pride in their communal identity and resistance to racism because those who wear it mistakenly prioritise their racial and religious identity over and above their gender identity. However that should not stop us, as feminists, from engaging Muslim women in discussions about it. I raised the problem of identity politics in Britain with Mona and how it silences debate and encourages the view that only Muslim women can debate these issues. To my complete surprise, Mona supported that position arguing that ‘All white, non-Muslims should shut up and listen’. She justified it partly on the grounds that when Muslim women argue about it, the rest of the world can see that they are not a monolithic group. We certainly got dissent that evening when a Muslim woman wearing a hijab accused Mona of being bigoted and ended a long tirade by saying she would be more comfortable in the presence of a UKIP speaker! Ouch! Mona gave her short shrift.

Surely that variety of opinion is not erased by others chipping in. The hijab has an impact on us all: by putting the onus on us for our safety when we have only just, tentatively, begun to win the argument that it is men’s actions that jeopardise our safety and not women’s. Feminist solidarity is critical to change. Whilst it is true that white feminism comes with a history of racism, that history has also made white women nervous of speaking up about the hijab.  No one would show that kind of defensiveness when it comes to FGM which is universally recognised as a harmful cultural practice today. Whilst it is organisations like FORWARD, an African Women’s group, that led on the FGM issue in Britain,  it is broad ranging international alliances that forced governments to legislate and spurred human rights NGOs to take on this issue as a violation of women’s and girls’ rights. The hijab may be at the other end of the spectrum but Mona herself underscores the connection when she says ‘Their [Muslim women] bodies are the medium upon which culture is engraved, be it through headscarves or cutting.’

When Tariq Ramadan, a Muslim scholar and grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, in a TV discussion with Mona, argued that the conversation about the niqab should remain within the community, she quite rightly (but somewhat in contradiction with her insistence on only Muslim women being involved in the discussion) found it to be disingenuous as women have little room for dissent.  This is the position that many minority women have faced in the West – the men, even many of the so-called leftwing men, in our communities decry the washing of our ‘dirty linen’ in the public. And we have dealt with the isolation of that by forging alliances with white feminists. The ‘Double Bind’ that Meredith Tax has written about and which has compromised black women’s room for manoeuvre is the same minefield which Mona ploughs – cultural relativism from Western liberals on the one hand and enthusiastic support for our critiques of our culture from rightwing bigots.

There were other parallels too: In her book, Mona goes to some lengths to emphasise that the Egyptian women’s feminist awakening was quintessentially Egyptian by referring to women writers and activists from the early 20th century who were campaigning against misogyny, some of whom spoke only Arabic and could not have been influenced by Europe. I understand the impulse to claim that history as a defence against those Indian men who see feminism as a corrupt influence imported from a decadent West and against white racism which appropriates all liberal and progressive traditions as Western.

Mona bemoans the fact that greater uproar is caused by a woman appearing naked in public as a protest than a woman raped or beaten to death by a man. She tells a funny story about a Tunisian feminist who asked a Salafist member of the constituent assembly a question. He refused to answer it because he said he did not speak to women who were ‘naked’ (she was not wearing a hijab). Angered by him, she began to undress. He was horrified and asked her what she was doing. ‘I’m showing you what a naked woman looks like.’ He pleaded with her to stop and took her question.

What I missed in the book was a discussion of the Kurdish women of Rojava, Northern Syria, only 1500 km from Saudi Arabia, where the practice of co-leadership has ensured the highest levels of gender equality to be seen anywhere in the world, transforming a community that was fairly traditional and conservative until very recently. Could this provide a template for other women?

I would have also liked some sense of how things have changed for women post the uprisings in the various countries. I came away with the view that plus ça change, plus la même chose leavened only by Mona’s assertion that the revolutions had transformed women’s consciousness of their situation and their desire to take action. Apart from these quibbles, her book certainly made the case for why the Middle East needs a sexual revolution.

Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution by Mona Eltahawy is published in paperback by W&N on 3rd March 2016.


About the author

Rahila Gupta is a freelance journalist and writer. Her work has appeared in The Guardian and New Humanist among other papers and magazines. Her books include, Enslaved: The New British Slavery; From Homebreakers to Jailbreakers: Southall Black Sisters; Provoked;  and 'Don't Wake Me: The Ballad of Nihal Armstrong (Playdead Press, 2013). She is co-authoring a book with Beatrix Campbell with the title Why Doesn’t Patriarchy Die? Follow her on twitter @ RahilaG

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