Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Headscarves and Hymens by Mona Eltahawy (Book Review #37 of 2016)

Headscarves and Hymens - Mona Eltahawy (4 stars)

Eltahawy writes on the subject of women's rights in Islamic cultures from having lived in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and now America. Opinions of the veil, of course, vary around the world. I lived in Turkey where opinions among best friends vary, and in Azerbaijan where the veil tends to be found in rural villages but less in larger towns and villages. But, as the author notes, the veil is becoming more common and, disturbingly to Eltahawy, necessary to be accepted in many Middle Eastern and Central Asian cultures. She wore the hijab for years before deciding it to be a "white flag to extremism." If the purpose of covering is to keep from bringing a woman to a man's attention, it does the opposite in Western countries where the veil is rare and invites stares. If the purpose in the East is to show proper respect and submission, Eltahawy writes that it takes away the last bit of courage and self-respect that women have, and besides does not protect them from sexual harrassment and discrimination.

She notes that while many people (like John Esposito) may claim the Middle East is modernizing in its attidues toward women, and more women are educated there now than ever before, the use of the veil and laws pertaining to it have grown since the early 20th century. Pictures of uncovered women in Egypt, for example, were more common in the early 20th century than today. The author traces the spread of headscarf use from working people in Saudi Arabia. Perhaps the education and economic empowerment of women has resulted in a backlash. "(Men) hate us because they need us and they fear us...Women have been reduced to headscarves and hymens."

She begins by telling of her frustration with the Egyptian Arab Spring, where women fought along side men in the protests, but were also raped and molested in large numbers and ultimately betrayed. She returned to Egypt to cover the story as a journalist, having already moved to America. She was targeted for rape and later criticized by a nurse treating her. "The revolution is not complete" unless and until women overturn exploitation in public as well as the bedroom.

99.3% of women polled in the Middle East experience sexual harassment, and it is her goal to expose this evil as both a violation of what is accepted as human rights and the treatment of women by Muhammad. **** The Muslim Brotherhood, which is often hailed as a somewhat moderate political pan-Islamic group, supports the traumatic practice of female circumcision (read Hirsi Ali's Infidel or Kristof's Half the Sky for the gruesome details about what this is like for a woman). While interviewing a high-ranking Muslim Brotherhood official, she is told that she is "naked, according to the Quran" for not wearing a niqab. She examines the context and intepretation of the Arabic in the verse that he cited, which is very limited in its scope anyway. (See this site for a more conservative interpretation: )
She recounts a story about a Tunisian feminist who asked a Salafist member of parliament a question. He refused to answer it because she was not wearing a hijab. When she begins to disrobe completely, he is terrified. "I’m showing you what a naked woman looks like." He pleaded with her to stop and took her question.

Eltahawy agrees with the French ban on the hijab, and the EU's Human Rights court ruling in support. She identifies other disturbing trends in Islamic countries such as Qaddafi's weaponization of rape in Libya, the exploitating of Syrian refugees, and various polls from Tunisia, Lebanon, and elsewhere where wives frequently report physical or sexual abuse in their marriages. She highlights some initiatives to record and prevent domestic violence.

When Eltahawy's family lived in Saudi Arabia, she saw even further abuse of women. Eltahawy is even groped while walking during the Hajj, harassed right at the Kabaa, while fully covered and wearing a hijab. Qanta Ahmed (The Land of Invisible Women) also chronicles this poor treatment of women during the Hajj, and the attempts by the Saudi government to segregate what has for centuries not been segregated. All this aside from the ban on women driving, running for office, etc.

The author writes that both the Quran and accepted hadiths speak of sexual pleasure, and of one hadith saying that preventing foreplay is cruel. Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood reject these texts or interpretations. If sexual pleasure is to be desired, why do they favor female circumcision in the name of Islam? I had thought female circumcision was relatively isolated to Africa, but she notes surveys showing it is fairly common around both the Arabian Peninsula as well as among European immigrants. Eltahawy eventually found herself a 29 year old virgin filled with guilt and unable to trust men. But she notes that men also feel guilt and deep insecurity, which probably relates to domestic violence.

Unlike Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Eltahawy seems to want to remain a Muslim. She quotes modern interpretations of the Quran from progressive groups. Ponders why Aisha is always held up as the example and not Khadisha, Muhammad's first wife who was an educated business owner. She mentions the plight of the transgender and LGBT as well.

In all, I give this book 4 stars out of 5. It took an amazing amount of courage to write this book. But it does not appear that Eltahawy has done a complete introspection; one senses a sequal along the lines of Hirsi Ali. One wonders if she's become bitter based on the tone, and it seems incomplete. How can she stay in a religion that promotes misogyny, and which in her estimation the majority disagree with her views? I imagine she has weighed that family and cultural cost but it is not completely present in this book.

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