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Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution by Mona Eltahawy
“Just because a woman has chosen to do something does not oblige me as a woman to support that choice. Unless that choice is a feminist choice, this is where we part ways…So these young women who go and join Daesh (ISIS/ISIL) in my opinion are not making feminist choices; I do not support that choice and I think it is an internalization of a very dangerous kind of misogyny.”
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.
Arab Spring chants like, chants like “Bread, freedom, social justice, and human dignity” had men and women marching together in various countries where the uprisings and revolutions took place. In Headscarves and Hymens, Mona addresses some very difficult issues highlighting the egregious record of women’s rights in the Middle East by ideologues, civil society actors, governments, and international organizations: unspeakable sexism, limitations on women’s movements, child marriage, genital mutilation, and women being used as political pawns. What rarely happens is an airing of women’s opinions, especially on any mainstream media or on a widespread scale. Mona is succeeding in bringing their views to our attention.
“Too often when we look at the Middle East and North Africa, the only options that we see available for people are either military rule or Islamic rule, as if in a country like Egypt of 85-to-90 million people, that’s the only thing we could come up with.”
In Headscarves and Hymens, I mention Daesh (ISIS/ISEL) as one of the many groups that are killing and maiming people in Syria and Iraq, and they specifically target women. But most of my focus is on the Salafi groups and the Muslim Brotherhood in the region. I think that we have to place Daesh along the spectrum of that political Islam that I am also fighting. I am fighting military rule and political Islam because I think they are two sides of the same coin, authoritarianism, paternalistic rule, and this very misogynistic approach to life and religion. I think that Daesh belongs to the far right extreme.
If I were to take my arguments and extend them to the UK, the U.S. and parts of Europe, I think there are women who represent the more extreme version of the women of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi groups. Women, who in my opinion, have internalized misogyny, and have understood that to survive in the kind of culture that we live in, there are certain things that you have to learn and regurgitate back, and in that case be protected and comforted by that group.
“What I try to do in this book, is mention and name drop as often as I can, a lot of feminists who belong to my heritage whom I can turn to. As much as I admire and love Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer until she went culturally relativist on me and I had to part ways with her, Western feminists are not the only ones that have informed my own feminism.”
The book is catalogues many difficult issues that need to be addressed quickly to raise awareness about the problems. I’m not a policymaker, but my quickest answer to “What can we do?” is destroy the patriarchy. How can we destroy the patriarchy takes many levels. ISBN 9780865478039.
Whenever I am asked, “What can I do to help you and women from your background?” I say, “Nothing. You as individuals can do nothing to help me and women in Arab countries because only we can help ourselves.” I didn’t write this book because I want anyone to come and rescue us. Only we can save ourselves and only we can have this fight. But what you as individuals can do at your local level is fight misogyny.
“In every country I’ve traveled there are obviously examples of misogyny. So I say fight the misogyny in your country.”
When the Muslim Brotherhood or the state or anybody in my country finds out women in the United States don’t get equal pay or you haven’t had a woman president yet, the first thing they say to me is, “Don’t you know that a rape happens every four minutes in America as well?” Their excuse is always that “There’s misogyny over there.” So I say, fight the misogyny in your own community because that lifts up feminism on a global level. So fight it wherever you are and don’t accept it.
I think in a lot of the Western contexts I speak in, people have gotten to this place of complacency, which is incredibly dangerous. A lot of my second-wave feminist friends, like Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem will tell you that the fights that they were having on the barricades in the 1960s and the 1970s have come back. How have they come back?
The 1995 Beijing platform was one of the most progressive platforms on reproductive rights. We have not been able, as a global community, to have another women’s conference because all these religious fundamentalists in concert with the Vatican will destroy what we were able to produce in Beijing because of the religious fundamentalists and the regimes who support them. So fight it in your own community and fight complacency.
On the political level, ask your politicians why they are silent when they buy billions of dollars’ worth of oil from Saudi Arabia, sell Saudi Arabia billions of dollars’ worth of weapons, and they know what Saudi Arabia does to women. The Swedish foreign minister tried to say something about this and she was banned from speaking at the Arab League. But worse, in Sweden, this paragon of feminism, she was attacked by the business community because they didn’t want to lose money, she was attacked by politicians for being “too emotional”! This is the Swedish foreign minister. So on a political level ask your politicians why they are shamefully silent.
I am not asking for anyone to invade, because most Western countries have terrible records when it comes to colonialism and imperialism in my part of the world, and hypocrisy when it comes to using women’s issues. So don’t come invading us for our sake. But talk to your politicians about why they are hypocritical when it comes to women’s issues and why they are so easily able to strike these deals.
At the international level, I want to know why the U.N. allows so many countries from my part of the world to place asterisks that allow them to get away with violating exactly the kind of provisions in something like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women if according to their religion and culture, it somehow violates it? All it does is it gives them the ability to say, “We signed this convention.”
Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning columnist and international public speaker on Global Feminism and Arab and Muslim issues. Her commentaries have appeared in several other publications and she is a regular guest analyst on various television and radio shows. Mona was born in Port Said, Egypt. She has lived in the U.K, Saudi Arabia and Israel. She calls herself a proud liberal Muslim.
During the 18-day revolution that toppled Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, she appeared on most major media outlets, leading the feminist website Jezebel to describe her as “The Woman Explaining Egypt to the West”.
In November 2011, the Egyptian riot police beat and sexually assaulted her. Newsweek magazine named Ms Eltahawy one of its “150 Fearless Women of 2012”, Time magazine featured her along with other activists from around the world as its People of the Year, and Arabian Business magazine named her one of the 100 Most Powerful Arab Women.
Before she moved to the U.S. in 2000, Ms Eltahawy was a news reporter in the Middle East for many years, including almost six years as a Reuters correspondent and she reported for various media from Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Libya, Syria, Saudi Arabia and China. In 2005, she was named a Muslim Leader of Tomorrow by the American Society for Muslim Advancement and she is a member of the Communications Advisory Group for Musawah, the global movement for justice and equality in the Muslim family. Mona is currently based in Cairo and New York City.