Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs A Sexual Revolution
by Mona Eltahawy
Nonfiction – Women’s Rights/Feminism
Headscarves and Hymens was the third book in Book Riot’s Persist: Feminist Book Club, which is what brought it to my attention. We’ve been reading roughly two chapters a week and talking about it via Instagram Live. It’s certainly not my favorite venue to use – for one, I can’t seem to find a setting to let me know when someone goes live on Instagram, so I have to set myself an alarm. (I missed one book club session because I just forgot.) I also can’t seem to watch the videos after they’re over, so I can’t catch up on what I missed. I much prefer the Twitter chat that YA_Pride does. I can go back through those, and still have conversations with other people that read the book (and follow them!) where I can’t do that easily with Persist.
But you’re here to hear about the book, not the club! HH is short, under 250 pages, with seven chapters and an epilogue. Each chapter is basically an essay on a topic, from driving (“Roads Through the Desert”) to veiling (“Black Veil, White Flag”) to purity and Female Genital Mutilation (“The God of Virginity”). Eltahawy is well-researched, mixing anecdotes and statistics to show us both the big picture of what is going on, as well as making it personal and hard-hitting.
I’m glad we read it in small chunks – some of the chapters are harder than others (the chapter on FGM and sexual “purity” was particularly rough). Spacing it out let the information really sink in before moving on to another topic. Additionally, we were reading it at the same time as the Kavanaugh hearings, and that was also….unsettling.
This is a really eye-opening book, but be sure you’re emotionally prepared to read it. It’s probably healthier to set it down and walk away for breaks, rather than to read it straight through.
From the cover of Headscarves and Hymens:
The journalist Mona Eltahawy is no stranger to controversy. Through her articles and actions she has fought for the autonomy, security, and dignity of Muslim women, drawing vocal supporters and detractors. Now, in her first book, Headscarves and Hymens, Eltahawy has prepared a definitive condemnation of the repressive forces – political, cultural, and religious – that reduce millions of women to second-class citizens.
Drawing on her years as a campaigner for and commentator on women’s issues in the Middle East, she explains that 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.
Eltahawy has traveled across the Middle East and North Africa, meeting with women and listening to their stories. Her book is a plea for outrage and action on their behalf, confronting a “toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend.” A manifesto motivated by hope and fury in equal measure, Headscarves and Hymens is as illuminating as it is incendiary.