From the library: Headscarves and Hymens; Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, by Mona Eltahawy

From the library: Headscarves and Hymens; Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, by Mona Eltahawy January 11, 2016

I picked this up of the New Book shelf yesterday and it’s a short enough book and a compelling enough that I read it quickly enough to summarize it for you now.  What Eltahawy has to say is very much connected up with the attacks in Cologne, though the book doesn’t address the question of Arab emigrants to Europe, just the situation in their home countries — the Arab-speaking countries of North Africa and the Middle East, where the sort of harassment that these women in Cologne endured is nothing new.

Her book starts with a chapter called “Why They Hate Us,” which is not, as typically is the case, a discussion of what “we” in the West have done to upset Arabs; rather the “they” is Arab men and the “us” refers to “Arab women.”  She gives a brief biography:  the daughter of two highly educated Egyptian parents, she lived in the UK for 8 years beginning at age seven, then moved to Saudi Arabia when her parents got jobs there, and lived there for six years, experiencing the awfulness of the country’s treatment of women, before returning to Cairo and ultimately becoming a journalist and activist.

The book is, simply summarized, a litany of the mistreatment of women — not just in Saudi Arabia but in the whole of the Arab world, even in countries which are given the label of “moderate,” and not just by governments but by men themselves.

Eltahawy doesn’t mince words:  “The Islamist hatred of women burns brightly across the region — now more than ever,” she writes (p. 11), and clerics all over the region condone FGM, husbands abusing their wives, and the general inferiority of women.

Here are some specifics:

In a 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights,  more than 80 percent of Egyptian women said they’d experienced sexual harassment, and more than 60 percent of men admitted to harassing women.  A 2013 UN survey reported that 99.3 percent of Egyptian women experience street sexual harassment.  Men grope and sexually assault us, and yet we are blamed for it because we were in the wrong place at the wrong time, wearing the wrong thing.  (p. 13)

She writes extensively on her experience choosing to wear the hijab, then, after 8 years, taking it off again — though the choice to wear it was made out of a hope that it would free her from the harassment and groping she experienced, and even so:

Still, the garments I wore did not protect my body from wandering fingers and hands.  If I were to use paint to indicate the places where my body was touched, groped, or grabbed without my consent, even while wearing the hijab, my entire torso, back and front, would be covered with color. (p. 53)

She further describes women who, even without a legal mandate, are effectively obliged to wear the hijab due to family pressure (even to the point of being threatened with being expelled from the family home for failing to do so) or out of fear of harassment from men in public.

She addresses the issue of street sexual harassment: — it is

not exclusive the the Middle East and North Africa.  It is a disturbing reality for too many women around the world.  But a combination of societal religious, and political factors has made the region’s public space uniquely dangerous for women.

Activists . . . concluded that harassment was unchecked across the region because laws don’t punish it, women don’t report it, and the authorities ignore it. (p. 79) . . .

Levels of street sexual harassment have soared throughout the Arab world, and everyone asks why.  One answer — always met with howls of denial from conservatives — is that the more women cover up, the more it lets men off the hook.  The “purity culture” that exists across the Middle East and North Africa burdens girls and women with the responsibility for their own safety from sexual violence, and for ensuring they don’t “tempt” boys and men.

She also reports on the comments she received after publishing an op-ed in an Egyptian paper, complaining about groping — repeatedly, she was told that she had deserved being groped, for not wearing a hijab.

And she describes the state-sanctioned sexual assault of “virginity tests”, and the sexual attacks by Egyptian security forces, and the abuse women experience even in refugee camps.

(I’ll skip over her chapter on FGM.)

At home, too, women suffer abuse, and receive no protection from the state, as there are either no laws on the books to protect them, or the laws are not enforced.  She tells an anecdote of hearing an Islamic scholar, on a TV call-in show, advising an abused woman to stay with her husband, because she must have been doing something that merited being beaten.

And she cites studies:

In the 2005 Egypt Demographic and Health Survey, 47 percent of women who are or had ever been married reported being victims of physical violence.  In Tunisia, a 2012 survey showed that 47.2 percent of women had been subjected to physical violence in the home.  Over 40 percent of women polled in Lebanon said they had suffered from physical abuse, a third reported sexual abuse. . . (p. 145 – 146)

and it should go without saying that there are no domestic violence victims’ shelters in the region, and they don’t even have the support of their families to return home.

And as far as rape itself, there is likewise little protection, as so many countries continue to allow rapists to escape prosecution if they marry their victim — and so many families pressure/oblige their daughters to do exactly this.  “A September 2014 article in The Jordan Times estimated that as many as 95 percent of rape cases in Jordan are resolved with the survivors marrying their rapists.”  (p. 167)

Eltahawy laments the status of Saudi Arabia in particular — the requirement for a male guardian, the prohibition against driving (which traps many women in their homes, since, contrary to the usual impression, not every Saudi family can afford a driver), the fact that the United States and other Western countries turn a blind eye to this, and that Saudi Arabia buys its way onto UN commissions and makes claims about supporting women’s rights.

And, finally, Eltahawy advocates for a “sexual revolution” in the narrower sense that it was used in the United States in the ’60s, for women to be free to have sex outside of marriage.  While I’m not going to affirm her desire in a “free sex” sort of way, the fight against criminalizing nonmarital sex, as she describes in Morocco, is still important.

And that’s that.  Lunch break over.  Except this:

It should go without saying that this book sets out unmistakably the challenge that Germany, and Europe in general, face:  it is men with these attitudes, who believe they have the right to grope women, abuse them, demand they “cover”, who are arriving in Europe.  It is preposterous to think that education, an “integration course,” will be sufficient for these men to change their ways.   I honestly don’t care whether you call it “Muslim culture” or “Arab culture” or “Middle Eastern/North African culture” but we can’t ignore it.

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