A Letter to Mona Eltahawy on “Headscarves and Hymens”

A Letter to Mona Eltahawy on “Headscarves and Hymens” June 11, 2015

Dear Mona,

Some of my fellow Muslimah Media Watch writers put together a roundtable about their thoughts on your book, and as I read it, I decided to explore some of their ideas and thoughts further. This review in the form of a letter stems from the need to address not only the book itself, but also the themes that are the core of your work in general.

“Headscarves and Hymens” is a personal book. In fact, the information in this book is at times so intimate that you explain, “I have had to fight hard to keep these paragraphs in, knowing that my family will see them and disapprove, but this is my revolution” (p. 205). And as such, I think it is important for you to know who is writing this review.

I am a convert to Islam, and I learned the core of my beliefs and practices from the very women whom you quote in your book, such as Amina Wadud, Fatima Mernissi, Leila Bakhtiar and others. I have also learned from influential and inspiring women of colour like bell hooks and Gloria Anzaldúa, who are important to me because of my background as a woman from the Third World. More specifically, as a recently “discovered” Indigenous woman, who still struggles with what you describe as cultural/religious/social baggage. Unlike you, I grew up in a very liberal family who discussed sex, pleasure and women’s rights in the same breath. Nonetheless, my upbringing and experiences are mediated by my education and socialization into the colonial/nationalist/Catholic/Eurocentric complex of Mexican society.

Many of the people who have helped me make sense of my own experiences are the very women in this blog, who have tirelessly written about media depictions of Muslim women in the media, about their own experiences as Muslim women, about policy and law, religion and culture and tradition and transformations. We have writers who wear the veil and some who do not. We also have writers who have taken it off, and some who have put it back on again and have been very open about it. We have writers who are married, divorced, widowed, single, coupled or in “complicated relationships.”

Our writers are social and political activists, change-leading mosque attenders, unmosqued-spiritual women, grassroots organizers, artists, protesters, academics or/and mothers raising the new generation of Muslim women and men. Some are based in the West, some are in the Middle East and Africa, and others are in South East Asia and Europe. Some of us have privileged upbringings and lives, while some others have known scarcity and hardship. Our writers’ sexual and gender identities are also varied, and in some cases fluid.

I mention all of this because despite the fact that in your writing you spend a lot of time dismissing those of us who critique your work, it is important for the readers to know where this critique is coming from.

Why They Hate Us

Upon reading your chapter “Why they Hate Us” I was not sure who “they” and “us” referred to, but you quickly set the stage to depict a struggle of women vs. men as a way to speak about patriarchy. I must admit, the first part of your chapter describing what it was for you to live in Saudi Arabia reminded me of “Princess,” Jean Sasson’s infamous book about a Saudi princess. One of the most striking resemblances is the lack of nuance. For instance, state policies, religious attitudes and people’s actions and feelings are all conflated as if all men in Saudi Arabia are “Islamists” (not a very well defined term), and the Islamists are equal to both government and the religious elite. Also…you tend to portray Saudi women as silent victims, and you explain, “…to be female in Saudi Arabia is to be the walking embodiment of sin” (p. 10). You do not acknowledge agency or resistance, on behalf of Saudi women or men, until your later chapters.

In this chapter, you also set the stage to further discuss female genital mutilation (FGM), sexual harassment and the policing of women’s bodies in Egypt and the Middle East, which you attribute to a “toxic mix of culture and religion” (p. 18). It is also worth noting that even though you briefly discuss Christian minorities in Egypt, for the most part you conflate Islam with the Middle East. This is problematic in discussing the “toxic mix” because as a reader I am unclear on who is affected by this “mix” and exactly what the “mix” contains.

Moreover, what struck me about this claim is that my own background growing up in Mexico resembles what you describe in terms of harassment and policing. Whereas FGM is scarce in Mexico, sexual harassment is common, so much that we also have women-only metro cars (which you describe in Cairo and also dislike). In public schools, girls and young women are not allowed to wear anything but knee-length skirts (pants for those who prefer them are not always an option and hijab would rarely be acceptable), which are often length-measured at the entrance of the school. So my question is, what cultures do we blame for being toxic? Which religions? And to what do we attribute their toxicity?

In speaking about the army and the police in Egypt, you describe violent forces that often violate women. True, this is in fact the experience of thousands of women around the “postcolonial world.” That is exactly why I believe that some engagement with decolonial literature and the works of Indigenous and black women would have been helpful in the book. Police and army forces within the colonial complex were explicitly created to control the “unruly” population. That is why in Mexico we have lost numerous women and men at the hands of the state. Further, in settler states like Canada, the police was purposefully created to address the “Indian problem” and that is why, in Canada thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women have not found justice.

Whereas you claim that you are not inviting the West to rescue women in the Middle East (p. 28-29), you portray Middle Eastern and Egyptian masculinities as the archetype of abuse, oppression, rape and patriarchy while somehow depicting Western masculinities as “safer.” Such an attitude painfully neglects the abuse that Muslim women experience in the West and also the oppression and death that other women of colour, especially black and Indigenous women have found at the hands of white-Western patriarchies and masculinities.

Headscarves and Hymens.

After the initial chapter, you discuss your experiences of institutional Islam, and encounters with Wahhabism. Your main focus in this section is veiling. You talk about having worn hijab and about the shame surrounding your hijab experience. You draw a very strong dichotomy between hijab and non-hijab, as if these two are always opposites. I must say, I do not wear hijab. I made a very conscious decision not to wear it based on my own cultural background. However, I am open to the possibility. Why? Because why the hell would I police myself in the same way that the state, religious institutions and society in the West already do? Further, I observe my fellow Muslim friends and realize that for many, hijab is a journey and a cycle in itself. Some wear it and take it off; others do exactly the opposite (here, here, here, here and here).

You seem particularly troubled by claims that hijab protects women from sexual violence. And I am with you in that. Sexual violence is a feature of patriarchy and power relations. Hijab neither makes Muslim women less likely to experience harassment nor should non-hijabi women be told that they are responsible for the violence they experience. However, let me tell you that this is not unique to the Middle East. Have you ever heard of Slut Walk (not free of criticism)? Have you ever been exposed to regional bans on miniskirts in some Latin American countries? To this date even in Canada, a recent case involving rape was settled by a judge claiming that “sex was in the air” because of where the survivor was and what she was wearing. Also, let me tell you that these ideas about policing of women’s bodies are sometimes heavily endorsed by women themselves. Yes, it is an example of how women participate in, endorse and may benefit from patriarchal structures, something that we often do not want to talk about in feminist circles…

However, what I find troubling about this chapter are your views on the policing of niqab. You say, “I’m outraged when people say that as a feminist I must support a woman’s right [to wear the niqab]” (p. 62). I am not saying that you have to do anything. But you must admit that your justifications for hating the niqab have more to do with your own personal experience as a hijabi, than they do with anything else. You yourself talk about the shame of finding yourself a hijabi and a feminist in Egypt (p. 46-49), and you talk about making choice between being a hijabi and truly devoting yourself to your feminist principles (p. 55). In your mind, being a feminist, at least your kind of feminist, is incompatible with wearing hijab (and obviously niqab) because being a feminist is a choice while wearing hijab is a “socially imposed choice.” The problem is that you are not only telling a whole bunch of Muslim women that what is on their head (in)validates their feminisms, but you yourself are engaging in the same policing that you critique, inviting state forces to police women’s bodies by supporting legal bans on niqabs.

You say, “Face veils, I believe, violate that [social] contract by diminishing the ability to interact fully because of the way they impede nonverbal communication” (p. 65). But your ideas of “nonverbal” communication are also flawed in that nonverbal cues neither disappear from the niqab-wearer nor are they universal. As an example, coming from Mexico, it took me years to make eye contact with Westerners because in my culture eye contact is reserved for peer-to-peer or intimate relationships. Also, as a fellow writer has pointed out, your argument is ableist in that you assume that everyone “sees” nonverbal communication, as if visually impaired people did not interact with the society at large.

One Hand against Women

Transitioning from what is a very hijab-heavy chapter, the next section in the book focuses on how states and governments (in the Middle East primarily) police women’s bodies. You explain, “The regime knows it can violate women because society subjects women to the same violations; it knows that society will not speak out for its own women” (p. 100). Yes, but there are many other instances in which the voices speaking on behalf particular communities of women are either ignored or shut down. For instance, sex-workers remain one of the most marginalized communities in North America and are at risk of further criminalization in Canada right now under bill c-36. The activism is there and the community’s members have been out there raising the issues both at the grassroots and institutional levels… but their marginalization is one of their biggest barriers. Also, what about the work of Indigenous women in countering the abuses of the American and the Canadian states? The work has been done for years, but it has been consistently silenced in different ways, including by other feminists. In addition, in those instances where society does not speak, it may have more to do with colonized minds (you do not need to be Indigenous to be “colonized”) than an actual plot against women. Violence against women is a symptom of a broader problem.

The God of Virginity

In my opinion this short chapter is probably one of the most balanced ones in terms of showing that the notion of “virginity” remains crucial to many societies, institutions, traditions, etc. In this section you state, “Our hymens are not ours; they belong to our families” (p. 109). To that I would also add that even when they do not “belong” to our families, hymens are regulated in a variety of ways including the law (i.e. marriages are not “consummated” unless intercourse takes place).

Further, you make a point to connect the different ways in which virginity is protected, whether it is through FGM, virginity tests, virginity pledges, bloody sheets after the wedding night, etc. I also appreciate that you acknowledge that FGM is something that transcends religion and culture. What I found to be key is a conversation that you quote with Dr. Nahid Toubia: “when I asked her how I could be as delicate in my own conversations [about FGM], she told me never to make the women we love feel like freaks for having been subjected to cutting” (p. 121). I think this is a golden rule that must apply to anything we do. It also calls for attention about the need of creating support mechanisms for survivors of FGM rather than solely focusing on prevention.


The fifth chapter is a surface analysis of “Islamic Law” or “Sharia.” Here, you claim that under “Islamic Law” a father cannot receive death penalty for murdering his kids or that a husband cannot receive the same punishment for the killing of his wives (p. 142), and since sources are not always acknowledged in your writing, I am not sure where these statements come from. However, what I did notice is that, despite the fact that there is no universal understanding of “Islamic Law” neither among non-Muslim nor Muslim circles, you fail to recognize that human-made law based on religious sources, whether it becomes a constitution or it translates into policy, will always eventually lead to controversy. For instance, Ireland just legalized gay marriage after centuries of interpreting marriage in conservative Catholic ways (they still keep a constitutional ban on abortion, though). In Canada, discussions about euthanasia and assisted suicide are permeated by a Christian background, too. But as these examples show, laws stemming from religious codes are often challenged as societies or communities change and do not see themselves reflected in those codes.

“Sharia” is a contentious topic, no doubt about it; and in my opinion, Muslim communities need to have a deep and serious discussion about the role of “Sharia” in society, communities and personal lives. However, something that I found problematic in this chapter was your association of secular laws with necessarily less oppressive regimes. You write that “The legal codes of most countries in the region have been ‘modernized’ in the last century, either through laws imposed by colonial rule or through a move away from religiously based legislation and toward secular laws” (p. 154). I am skeptical of the so-called “secular laws.” Both Canada and Mexico have “secular” legal regimes that strongly resemble very particular interpretations of Christianity. Moreover, “secular laws” have been used for all sorts of oppressive purposes. Take for example, the Charter of Values in Quebec, Canada. MMW’s Editor-in-Chief was in fact involved in countering this piece of legislation which on “secular grounds” aimed to ban religious garments like hijabs, niqabs and turbans, among others. Also, the colonial dimension of secular laws that you mention only in passing has been particular troubling to Indigenous communities. As you may be aware, Canada still regulates the live of Indigenous peoples through the Indian Act, one of the most colonial, racist and gendered pieces of legislation ever enacted. Thus, “secular” does not mean better, women-friendly or impartial, and in my mind the ‘modernization’ that you speak about has meant some degree of oppression to the groups described above and others.

Roads through the Desert

You take us once more back to Saudi Arabia and you point out, “There is nothing “exceptional” about Saudi Arabia, and the country’s blatant misogyny should not be given any leeway. Rather, Saudi Arabia is exceptional in its degree of discrimination against girls and women” (p. 180). But, where does this come from? In reading this far and finding little historical context about the country, its colonial history and its relationship with Wahhabism, I am left to think that one day there was a country called Saudi Arabia and poof! It became misogynous. Well, no. As everything, there is a context, and in my mind, the colonial legacy of the British and everyone else who came along, has a great impact on how Wahhabism and the ruling elite shaped themselves and how they acquired power. Let’s not forget that.

Now, you pick up on the most publicized themes such as the ban on women’s driving. You discuss the activism of the women who risked arrest and went out to drive, only to say that “Just sixty women drove in the 2013 campaign, a mere ten or so more than in 1990. This is an indication of the fear and internalized subjugation among women in Saudi Arabia” (p. 188). But how can you think that every woman in Saudi Arabia has access to a vehicle? How can you say that everyone needs to put themselves at risk no matter what? How can you think that because they do not join the campaign they are not striving? And, why are you looking only at driving when that is not the only arena where Saudi women may be taking risks and resisting subjugation? Internalized misogyny and subjugation exist, I do agree. But these appear not only in the lack of women out there driving, but also in the very “feminists” that do not see the multiple ways in which women fight the systems that oppress them.

Speak for Yourself

This last chapter aims to give readers, I assume mostly Muslim/Middle Eastern women (which, again, you often conflate), the “push” to speak for themselves. And you say, “Unlearning cultural and religious lessons and taboos can involve a radical turning point against all that you have been taught” (p. 198). I agree. But part of that process is recognizing the nuances of women’s lives including our experiences and contradictions. Finally, in this chapter, in one sentence referring to your marriage to an American man, you acknowledge this, “…a man’s personal attitude toward women is more important than his cultural background” (p. 204). Bingo! I feel that this very sentence should perhaps be the starting point of your next book…

Concluding Thoughts

There are important things in this book. Perhaps the most obvious is your own self-discovery, which I think is your real contribution. It is not about the Middle East needing a sexual revolution, but about you struggling with your own experiences and cultural/religious/social baggage. I believe that your story and your self-discovery process is important for two reasons. First, because I believe that women’s story-telling is an important form of resistance to oppression. But more importantly, because many of us have been there, struggling in between our feminisms, our faiths and our intersections.

However, I continue to feel uneasy about your liberal white-feminist leanings, your belief that secularism is somehow “better” and your neglect of race and the colonial experience. Thus, your book does not speak to my experience as a Muslim woman, or as a woman from the Third World. My advice to you… look elsewhere too. Learn from others. As a Latin American with Indigenous roots I can tell you that patriarchies are complex systems, but the work is being done all around the world.


Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment

5 responses to “A Letter to Mona Eltahawy on “Headscarves and Hymens””

  1. I doubt there is a better example of missing the woods for the trees to be found than this critique of Mona Eltahawy’s contribution to the struggle to get out from under the dead hand of patriarchal religion and cultural practices.

    • “patriarchal religion” ? How exactly does a non-patriarchal religion look like ? Secular godfathers were all from patriarchal systems too.

      And “Cultural practices” ? How is secular practices not part of American or British or other cultural practices ?

  2. Just finished it, and I don’t agree with the writer. The book was a personal, subjective look at these issues through Mona Eltahawy’s eyes and lived experience as a Muslim woman living in the Middle East. Not a monograph or an academic thesis. Although I appreciate this writer’s perspective, she seems to think the book should have been a compendium of all Muslim women’s experiences, and I think that is missing the point of this particular book. I’ve yet to read Headscarves and Hymens but I’m familiar with many of Eltahawy’s arguments, which the book encapsulates and expands on. And I truly hate it when women like her are accused of having “white feminist leanings”, as if they’re some sort of native informants or Uncle Toms. That last paragraph ruined whatever credibility the entire rest of the piece might have had for me.

  3. Congrats on this review. So many great, insightful points. Especially liked this one: “You draw a very strong dichotomy between hijab and non-hijab, as if these two are always opposites.” Anyway, what is to be expected from a book with such an atrociously bimbo title? One can just imagine the kind of audience such a piece of literature would be directed at.