Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution by Mona Eltahawy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pp, $25)
Some of the most vocal critics of Islam today are women, including Muslim women. With her provocatively titled, Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, Egyptian American journalist Mona Eltahawy has secured her place in these ranks.
Eltahawy is perhaps best known in the United States for her fairly frequent New York Times op-eds and especially her Foreign Policy cover article, “Why Do They Hate Us? The Real War on Women Is in the Middle East”, in the May/June 2012 issue of that magazine. This specially designated “Sex Issue” of the magazine featured a demure but nevertheless provocative image of an Arab woman whose nude body is painted in black, covering her completely except for her eyes—Hugh Hefner’s version of a niqab, if you will. And in the spirit of Playboy, the issue featured a similarly “demure” centerfold.
Such is the tenor of much commentary in the West about gender and sex in the Arab and Muslim world: bemused, mocking condescension. But as Eltahawy also illustrates in lurid detail, the status of women in Arab societies is a depressing topic. Unfortunately, her account is all the more depressing because of her uncritical embrace of American-style feminism. Indeed, her obscenity-laced, confessional narrative is reminiscent of what one encountered among educated American women in the high 1960s and the swinging 1970s.
Yet how such a “sexual revolution” would benefit the mass of ordinary women in economically backward Arab societies Eltahawy fails to make clear; much less does she instruct us as to how any such revolution could come about.
Indeed, while calling for “consciousness raising” to secure “women’s liberation” in the spirit of Gloria Steinem (whose friendship and support she cites in her acknowledgments), Eltahawy reminds us what a deeply conservative society her native Egypt is. One important indicator of that conservatism was the controversy over men and women protesters camping out together in Tahrir Square for eighteen historic days beginning in January 2011, a protest that was part of the so-called “Arab Spring” thought to be sweeping the region. As Eltahawy explains, those females were “violating the family-imposed curfews that controlled their daily lives” and engaging in “an unprecedented break with a code very few had challenged until then.” Not surprisingly, regime-controlled media took advantage of the situation to characterize the events as “young men and women doing drugs and having sex in tents in Tahrir Square.”
More genuinely shocking, at least to Western readers, is Eltahawy’s account of the abusive treatment of females demonstrating in Cairo in March 2001, when troops of the post-Mubarak interim military regime arrested seventeen female demonstrators who “were beaten, prodded with electric shock batons, subjected to strip searches, forced to submit to ‘virginity tests,’ and threatened with prostitution charges.” Unlike Eltahawy, I will spare the reader the graphic details of the virginity tests. Less gut-wrenching, but just as disturbing, is Eltahawy’s account of laws in Arab countries that routinely allow rapists to escape conviction by marrying their victims. She cites estimates from Jordan that as many as 95 percent of rape cases there get resolved this way.
Then there is child marriage, which Eltahawy reports is “permitted and prevalent” in poor countries such as Sudan, Yemen, and Egypt, but also in Saudi Arabia. She cites data from Yemen that in 2006 14 percent of females married before age fifteen. She goes on to report the case of an eight-year-old Yemini girl whose impoverished parents sold her off to a forty-year-old man who, in Eltahawy’s unnecessarily crude but revealing words, “fucked her to death on their ‘wedding night.’ ”
Finally, Eltahawy focuses on female genital mutilation (FGM), citing a 2008 Egyptian government survey showing that 74 percent of girls aged fifteen to seventeen underwent the procedure, a number that actually constituted a downward trend. Though subsequently banned in Egypt, FGM is still practiced there by Christians as well as Muslims. It remains widespread in part because it has become “medicalized”, with most FGM procedures in Egypt conducted under professional auspices.
Eltahawy’s response to all this is that the Arab world needs, as her subtitle suggests, a sexual—not a political—revolution. She insists that as far as Arab women are concerned “military rulers and Islamists are two sides of the same coin.” And she concludes by insisting that “women—our rage, our tenacity, our daring and audacity—will free our countries.” A great applause line if ever there was one.
But like most applause lines, so what? What comes next? What’s missing in Eltahawy’s argument is any appreciation of the possible irony that the women doing the freeing may not be the liberated types she has in mind, but could very well be an Egyptian version of a Margaret Thatcher or a Golda Meir—liberated, yes indeed; libertine, not in the slightest. Indeed, she cites approvingly the example of a twenty-year-old Egyptian woman who posted a nude picture of herself on her blog, resulting in death threats and her flight to Sweden. To critics who complained that this woman was reinforcing those scandalous stories about sex in the tents in Tahrir Square, Eltahawy responds: “But it is the job of a revolution to shock, to provoke, and to upset, not to behave or to be polite.”
And for Eltahawy that seems to be the main point. Her agenda is explicitly and unreflectively liberationist. As she asserts at one point: “The more freedom we have, the more choices available to people. The fewer freedoms we have, the faster hypocrisy will eat away at the heart of our society.” With regard to contemporary Egyptian society, she may have a point. But since she has spent considerable time in the United States, including being married to an American, one might expect an awareness that at some point the more choices that are available, the more confused and muddled we may become. Indeed, some have long understood this intuitively even before behavioral economics confirmed it for the rest of us.
At various points Eltahawy declares that her goal is for women in Arab societies to be “free to live as autonomous citizens”, language strikingly reminiscent of the Supreme Court’s recent decision affirming the right to homosexual marriage. And as with that decision, what’s absent here is any notion of how such autonomy may be inconsistent with familial or societal responsibilities. And again, for a woman who has experienced contemporary life in the United States, one might expect at least some recognition by Eltahawy of our social and cultural confusion with regard to sex and gender, never mind alcohol and drugs. And for someone who expresses concern over the disparate choices available to Arab women from different social classes, Eltahawy displays no awareness of how the “autonomy” experienced by many American women, especially those without educational credentials or professional standing, has left them financially and emotionally burdened with raising children virtually alone.
At this point, one might ask why this flawed book merits any attention. The answer is that privileged women from Arab and Muslim societies like Mona Eltahawy have an important role to play in influencing how our civilizations see and understand one another. The prominence of her article in a venue like Foreign Policy and the publication of her book by a house as distinguished as Farrar, Straus and Giroux both attest to this. But if educated, professional Arab women adopt a transgressive liberationist agenda that gives aging American feminists thrills reminiscent of their glory days, it won’t serve any of us well. They certainly will not have helped the Arab and Muslim world understand us—our shortcomings as well as our strengths. Nor will they have helped advance the status of the mass of ordinary women—not to mention liberal democracy—in their own societies.