Headscarves and Hymens

Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution

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Mona Eltahawy
  • New York, NY: 
    Farrar, Straus and Giroux
    , May
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian feminist, delivers a courageous and defiant appeal for women’s rights throughout the Middle East in her latest book, provocatively titled Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution. For those who hoped that female liberation would accompany the political uprising of the Arab Spring, prepare for disappointment. As Eltahawy so keenly observes, the males demanding freedom on the streets are anything but liberal at home; the question of freedom for “their” women to have autonomy over their own bodies is never raised. Against a background of war and violence in Syria and Yemen—and the region in general—Eltahawy points out the irony that violence and bloodshed are somehow more acceptable and less traumatizing than the sight of female nudity, the ultimate taboo.

This is not an easy book to read; for some it will be very painful. Personal testimonies and narratives reveal an ugly picture of gender relations throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Eltahawy views Arab society as waging a literal war upon its female citizens, sublimating their rights and suffocating their aspirations. The silence is lifted from longstanding taboos, as Eltahawy brushes aside cultural shame to discuss domestic violence, the purity culture and cult of virginity, lesbianism, rape, honor killing, and sexual assault on the street. She demands debate about female genital mutilation [FGM], forced marriage, and the control of women’s bodies by men. She asks why men hate women, and answers that it is all about fear, control, and perpetuating patriarchy. She supports the ban on face veils in Europe and argues that the choice to wear the veil turns feminism on its head. Not all women have a choice about whether or not to veil, Eltahawy points out. She sees the trend of the past thirty years to cover the face as an attempt to strip women of their identities, to rob them of non-verbal communication and their capacity to work and function as equals alongside men. Newspaper reports of sex slavery crimes committed by ISIS against the Yazidi women of Syria, cases of honor killings in the US, and the secret illegal FGM procedures in the United Kingdom show that these issues are global and need to be debated.

Eltahawy opposes the xenophobic and Islamaphobic right-wingers of the West as vehemently as she opposes the clerics and patriarchal establishment throughout the Islamic world. She also criticizes Western liberals, clinging to cultural relativism, who choose to focus on political correctness and therefore avoid upsetting Islamists by mentioning the abuse of women. Careful not to criticize Islam itself, Eltahawy prefers to name her struggle as one of women’s rights. She focuses on the way the state and the family curtail the free movement and choices of women, and so tries to keep the debate on a secular rather than religious track. Such clear-cut boundaries between the sacred and the secular, the private and the public do not exist in the Middle East. She is appealing to the West in this volume, but then states that she does not want the West to rescue the women of the Middle East. Though how exactly women’s liberation will occur is left in the air, because Eltahawy states that Middle Eastern women have little-to-no-right of dissent in the community. Her closing remarks outline her call for sexual freedom in the Middle East, an acceptance of women’s sexual needs, and the freedom of consenting adults to have sex outside of marriage. Throughout the Middle East, sex outside of marriage is a crime with punishments of varying degrees up to and including the death penalty. Same sex relationships are also forbidden.

The author does not focus on those women who perpetuate the strict social expectations of chastity, for it is not just men who are upholding the patriarchal status quo. Eltahawy is correct in pointing out that these customs are a limitation of personal privacy and autonomy. Many women, however, would argue against Eltahawy, and state that individuality is a poor trade for security and relationships within tight knit communities. They would point to the social ills and the burdens of working mothers in the West, where women still face objectification and sexual exploitation. Indeed, it is hard to envision a Western style freedom spreading in the Middle East where misogyny and subjugation are normalized and accepted. Eltahawy presents solid evidence to voice her grievances but she does not venture to detail the root causes of this situation in terms of economics, politics, religion, sociology, or philosophy.

 I would argue that it is exactly the spreading of modern ideas and the flow of ideologies from outside the Middle East into its midst that have set the current trend to cover and resist change. Eltahawy is correct in noting that the women of the 1970s were more free to dress as they pleased, while their daughters now cover themselves and hold more conservative values. This can be seen as a reaction to globalization as well as an indicator of political and economic instability in the Middle East. It can also be seen as a stance against postcolonialism. Eltahawy makes a strong case, and as a Muslim Arab woman, she has the right to state her views. She sticks to arguing her cause without mention of alternative explanations, exceptions to misogyny, or the opinions of other Arab women who might have a different worldview. To sidetrack into these areas would detract from and dilute her main theme of sexual oppression. There will be many who disagree with her, including many Muslim women, for whom the veil is worn with pride and chosen as a personal statement. There will be others who shame and blame her for her views and who will offer different interpretations of the so-called gender apartheid in the Middle East. Eltahawy must be commended for speaking from her heart and opening a discussion on matters that need to be discussed, putting her own personal safety and reputation on the line to fight her jihad of gender rights.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Angela Scott is a graduate student at the Claremont School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning Egyptian American feminist writer and commentator. Her essays and op-eds on Egypt, the Islamic world, and women's rights have appeared in various publications, including The Washington Post and The New York Times. She has appeared as a guest commentator on MSNBC, the BBC, CNN, PBS, Al-Jazeera, NPR, and dozens of other television and radio networks, and is a contributing opinion writer for the International New York Times. She lives in Cairo and New York City.


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