Book Review: Headscarves and Hymens

headscarves and hymensHeadscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs A Sexual Revolution
by Mona Eltahawy
Nonfiction – Women’s Rights/Feminism
240 pages
Published 2015

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.

Book Review: This Will Be My Undoing

this will be my undoingThis Will Be My Undoing: Living at the intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America
by Morgan Jerkins
Memoir/Black Feminism
258 pages
Published 2018

I have a tough time reviewing books about Black Feminism. I enjoy reading them – well, maybe “enjoy” isn’t quite the right word. They can be tough. I am glad to have read them. But how to review them? I’m a white woman, it’s not really my place to critique these works. But it would be remiss of me to not talk about them – denying them the same space on my blog that I give to everything else I read is its own kind of erasure. I’m not sure how best to resolve this, but for this specific book, at least, I can talk about what I learned from it.

What I learned is that some of my childhood was straight-up racist. I always thought of my childhood as pretty idyllic – my parents were high school sweethearts, and to this day still adore each other. We lived in a house my parents owned. (My most formative years were actually spent in the house my mother grew up in; my parents bought it from my grandparents when I was seven.) We got to run around and play on a quiet neighborhood street where we knew all of our neighbors. We had pets of various species, we got technology fairly quickly since my father was a computer geek, we had a garden out back that Mom canned beans out of every year.

But I was homeschooled until eighth grade. (With Bob Jones and Abeka Books, notoriously Christian curriculum. I thought humans lived with dinosaurs well into my twenties.) We went to a conservative Christian church every Sunday. (And Tuesday. And some Fridays.) While my parents taught that I could be anything I wanted to be, the church definitely over rode that with “women should be subservient to men” and “don’t trust your own judgment, ask God/your parents/the elders.”

The incident that Jerkins’ book brought back to mind, though, was a party I went to. I’m pretty sure it was someone’s birthday party, but at a church. Not our church. There were a lot of people, though, so I could be wrong about the birthday party. It was this party where I got the tiny scar in my eyebrow – some kid broke the bat on the pinata and threw it behind him, where it hit me in the face. Before that, though, was the cake walk. There were footprints laid out on the concrete floor, and we paced around them while music played, kind of like musical chairs, I think. (I was younger than ten, my memory is a little fuzzy.) I won the cake! I thought nothing of this until reading This Will Be My Undoing.

“The cakewalk was a dance performed in the late nineteenth century at slave get-togethers. You lean or rear back and kick your feet out left and right or vice versa as you move forward……White people would watch them dance, fascinated by the exoticness of it all. These spectacles were purposeful humiliations. But the cakewalk evolved as slaves’ own form of subversion. While serving at large and fancy parties in the early 1800s, they would watch well-to-do white people perform strict and stiff dances, like cotillions and quadrilles, and mimic them, exaggerating the bowing and small skips and hops and adding some high steps and jumps. In diaries kept by white people in the antebellum South, the cakewalk is not depicted as a form of satire. After all, why would a sweet slave mock his benevolent master? To white people’s eyes, this imitation seemed like flattery. They were delighted that the slaves were attempting their civilized dances. In fact, they would hold competitions and the winning slaves would receive a cake, hence the name. Yet they were being mocked, right in front of their faces.”

WHY WAS THIS BEING HELD AT A CHURCH PARTY? I don’t recall if it was all white kids, but it probably was. My hometown was not very ethnically diverse. The more I learn – academically, politically, socially, secularly – the more I realize my childhood was pretty fucked up in a lot of different ways. I don’t know if it was more or less fucked up than most white kids’ childhoods – white supremacy is insidious. I was an ignorant child at the time, but to realize, decades later, how racist holding a cakewalk is, stopped me in my tracks. (Incidentally, this means that calling something “a cakewalk” has its roots in racism, like so many other things in our language. Cakewalks weren’t easy – but the best dancers made them look that way.)

So that’s what I can say about this book. I learned something about my childhood. Beyond that, all I will offer is that Jerkins is an excellent writer; the book flows well and is an easy read, despite the subject matter not being easy. Read it. It’s important.

From the cover of This Will Be My Undoing:

From one of the fiercest critics writing today, Morgan Jerkins’ highly-anticipated collection of linked essays interweaves her incisive commentary on pop culture, feminism, black history, misogyny, and racism with her own experiences to confront the very real challenges of being a black woman today—perfect for fans of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists.

Morgan Jerkins is only in her twenties, but she has already established herself as an insightful, brutally honest writer who isn’t afraid of tackling tough, controversial subjects. In This Will Be My Undoing, she takes on perhaps one of the most provocative contemporary topics: What does it mean to “be”—to live as, to exist as—a black woman today? This is a book about black women, but it’s necessary reading for all Americans.

Doubly disenfranchised by race and gender, often deprived of a place within the mostly white mainstream feminist movement, black women are objectified, silenced, and marginalized with devastating consequences, in ways both obvious and subtle, that are rarely acknowledged in our country’s larger discussion about inequality. In This Will Be My Undoing, Jerkins becomes both narrator and subject to expose the social, cultural, and historical story of black female oppression that influences the black community as well as the white, male-dominated world at large.

Book Review: Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud

too fat too slutty too loudToo Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman
by Anne Helen Petersen
Feminism Nonfiction
266 pages
Published 2017

This is the first book Book Riot chose for Persist, their Feminist Book Club. I only just learned about the book club, so I’m reading the first two books before diving into the third. (Second book is Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper, and the third book is Headscarves and Hymens by Mona Eltahawy.) I really wish I could have read this book with their book club, as it definitely would benefit from being able to discuss each chapter with other readers.

The book is divided into chapters focusing on individual women and what they are guilty of being too much of. So Too Strong – Serena Williams, or Too Shrill – Hillary Clinton, or Too Slutty – Nicki Minaj. Then it dives deeply into why people think the woman embodies that negative, and often, what the woman herself thinks of it. We get cultural background on the adjective; in Too Pregnant, Petersen examines how celebrity pregnancies have changed how we treat pregnant women – how pregnancy has changed from something to be hidden to something to be valued and publicized and adored. But when someone isn’t pregnant in the right way – Kim Kardashian, for instance, suffered from swollen feet and preeclampsia and general misery and “poor” fashion choices – we judge them for it.

Too Loud delves into the world of publishing and book reviewing, profiling Jennifer Weiner’s fight against sexism in publishing. The chapter educates us on how the genre of “chick lit” started, and how women authors and readers are too often relegated to “chick lit” when if the same story had been written by a man, about a man instead of a woman, it would just be “literature” and eligible for review by things like the The New York Times Book Review.

Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud was a highly educational look at pop culture and how women are judged much harsher than men are for showing the same traits. It is imminently readable – I only started to fall asleep once, and I think that’s more because I only slept four hours last night! I had a fiction book on the table beside me, ready to dive into when I needed a break from the nonfiction – it’s still there, untouched. This is a great book, but I’d definitely read it as part of a book club or a buddy read if you can. Get a friend to read it so you can discuss it!

From the cover of Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud:

You know the type: the woman who won’t shut up, who’s too brazen, too opinionated – too much. It’s not that she’s an outcast (she might even be your friend, or your wife, or your mother) so much as she’s a social variable. Sometimes, she’s the life of the party; others, she’s the center of gossip. She’s the unruly woman, and she’s one of the most provocative, powerful forms of womanhood today.

There have been unruly women for as long as there have been boundaries of what constitutes acceptable “feminine” behavior, but there’s evidence that she’s on the rise – more visible and less easily dismissed – than ever before. In Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud, Anne Helen Petersen uses the lens of “unruliness” to explore the ascension of eleven contemporary pop culture powerhouses: Serena Williams, Melissa McCarthy, Abbi Jacobson, Ilana Glazer, Nicki Minaj, Madonna, Kim Kardashian, Hillary Clinton, Caitlyn Jenner, Jennifer Weiner, and Lena Dunham. Petersen explores why the public loves to love (and hate) these controversial figures, each of whom has been conceived as “too” something: too queer, too strong, too honest, too old, too pregnant, too shrill, too much. With its brisk, incisive analysis, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud will be a conversation-starting book on what makes and breaks celebrity today.

Book Review: Period

period twelve voices tell the bloody truthPeriod: Twelve Voices Tell The Bloody Truth
Edited by Kate Farrell
Nonfiction
208 pages
Published May 2018

Period consists of twelve essays about periods. The authors are wonderfully diverse, covering intersex, disabled, POC, and trans individuals. There are stories about fibroids, about wishing to have periods, wishing not to have periods, pads vs tampons, having periods at work, dealing with a period while being homeless, running a marathon while menstruating – just an amazing variety of experiences with periods. Some of the essays talk about how menstruation is treated in pop culture, from the famous “blue liquid” of pad commercials to the sitcom trope of “angry woman is irrational because she’s on her period.”

I think this is a book that every parent of a young daughter should read. I say that because it’s a little advanced, so perhaps not a book to hand to every pre-pubescent girl, but there’s a lot in it about what we teach our girls about their periods. Any person who has ever wondered if their period is normal should also read this book. There is SO. MUCH. VARIETY. when it comes to menstruation. But while there is plenty of variety that is normal, there is some that isn’t. The essay about the fibroids is an example of this. That level of bleeding is NOT normal, and it’s dangerous to tell people that it is. But because we don’t TALK about periods, people unfortunately assume things are normal that aren’t.

The book also makes me want to put together some hygiene kits for the homeless women I see in Baltimore. I’d never really thought about how difficult it is to deal with your period while homeless. Some pads/tampons, some hand sanitizer, and some cleaning wipes in a ziploc would go a long way towards making their lives a lot easier. The essay about having periods while homeless includes some ideas for kits to give out.

Overall, this is a very educating (and entertaining!) read. For those with periods AND those without. Menstruation should stop being a shameful topic. It’s a health issue.

From the cover of Period: Twelve Voices Tell The Bloody Truth:

Periods enter the spotlight, raising a diverse group of voices on a topic long shrouded in shame and secrecy.

In this collection, writers of various ages and across racial, cultural, and gender identities share stories about the period. Each of our twelve authors brings an individual perspective and sensibility. They write about homeless periods, nonexistent periods, male periods, political periods, and more. Told with warmth, humor, and purpose, these essays celebrate all kinds of period experiences. 

Periods are a fact of life. It’s time to talk about them. 

Book Review: Red Clocks

red clocks dystopiaRed Clocks
by Leni Zumas
Feminist Dystopia
350 pages
Published January 2018

Red Clocks first caught my attention because it’s set in a small fishing town in Oregon, my home state. After that, learning that it’s a dystopia where abortion and in vitro fertilization have both been banned outright meant I HAD to read it. Of course, I got it from the library some weeks ago and had so many other books to read that I didn’t get to it until the day it was due back to the library! Luckily, I read fast!

I think the cover description oversells the book a little. I wouldn’t call Gin’s trial “frenzied” nor the drama exactly “riveting” but it did keep my attention throughout the book. I really enjoyed the relationships between the characters, and the point that none of them really know what is going on in each other’s personal lives. One moment I particularly liked is slightly spoilery, but I loved how Ro was able to put her personal feelings aside to help Mattie, her student. That was really, really hard for her, but she recognized how much damage it would do to Mattie to not help her.

I think I found Gin the most interesting – given all the reading I’ve been doing lately about autism, her entire personality screams autism to me, but she was never labeled as autistic. So I’m marking her as a possibly autistic character. (I’d love if any of my autistic readers could weigh in on that, if you’ve read the book!) Between preferring to live in the woods with animals and NOT around people, specifically, and the way she reacts to the textures and smells in the jail when she’s arrested (shoving the bleach-scented blankets as far away in the cell as possible, and refusing to eat the food), and how she stumbles over her answers in the courtroom when she’s interrogated – it seems likely.

My only actual complaint about this book had nothing to do with the writing or plot! But it refers to the ghost pepper as “the hottest pepper known to man” which the Carolina Reaper growing in my backyard would have an issue with!

Other than that very minor quibble, I thought this dystopia was pretty good. I’m always interested in Reproductive Rights-related dystopias. This isn’t as good as The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s MILES better than Future Home of the Living God. It’s good at showing the lengths women will go to, to ensure their own reproductive freedom. Outlawing abortion doesn’t eliminate abortion. It just makes it less safe.

From the cover of Red Clocks:

In this ferociously imaginative novel, abortion is once again illegal in America, in vitro fertilization is banned, and the Personhood Amendment grants rights of life, liberty, and property to every embryo. In a small Oregon fishing town, five very different women navigate these new barriers alongside age-old questions surrounding motherhood, identity, and freedom. 

Ro, a single high school teacher, is trying to have a baby on her own while also writing a biography of Eivor, a little-known nineteenth-century female polar explorer. Susan is a frustrated mother of two, trapped in a crumbling marriage. Mattie is the adopted daughter of doting parents and one of Ro’s best students, who finds herself pregnant with nowhere to turn. And Gin is the gifted forest-dwelling herbalist, or “mender,” who brings all their fates together when she’s arrested and put on trial in a frenzied modern-day witch hunt. 

Red Clocks is at once a riveting drama whose mysteries unfold with magnetic energy, and a shattering novel of ideas. In the vein of Margaret Atwood and Eileen Myles, Leni Zumas fearlessly explores the contours of female experience, evoking The Handmaid’s Tale for a new millennium. This is a story of resilience, transformation, and hope in tumultuous – even frightening – times. 

Book Review: The Female Persuasion

the female persuasionThe Female Persuasion
by Meg Wolitzer
Contemporary Fiction
454 pages
Published April 2018

So this book came to my attention through an ad on Facebook for Barnes & Noble’s first official book club meeting. I tossed around the idea of going – I haven’t had good experiences with book clubs (nor bad ones, just – ambivalent experiences) – but we wound up at a Barnes & Noble on Sunday, because we were bored, so I decided to snag the book and read it. And then I went to Book Club on Wednesday! We had a small turnout at my Barnes & Noble – only four of us, including the employee leading the discussion. But after seeing a couple photos of larger turnouts, I’m glad for it – I wasn’t afraid to speak up in the small group. I’m a pretty shy introvert, a bigger group would have led to me being pretty quiet.

I feel like I was more intrigued by our book club members than the book! S., who led the group, was a natural at it, and really got us talking. I.R. opened the meeting with “I want you guys to change my mind about this book” but wouldn’t tell us her original opinion of it! And T, who was the oldest of us, brought a completely different viewpoint to the discussion, which was invaluable. (I’m pretty sure IR and S, like me, are millennials.) At the end of the discussion, T revealed she has a Ph.D. in Sociology, specialized in Gender and Sexuality, and she’s writing a book! We all agreed we wish the Book Club was monthly instead of quarterly, so S. is going to talk to her bosses and see if we can’t do a monthly book club at our location, which would be AWESOME. She also said Barnes & Noble was hiring and encouraged us to apply, and – not gonna lie – that was tempting. It’s a bus ride and a short walk away, though, and while my health and energy levels are improving drastically, I’m not sure they’re quite up to holding down a job yet. Not and get anything done around the house.

Anyway. On to the book! The Female Persuasion was billed as a feminist novel, and in some ways it is, but we all agreed it’s not REALLY about feminism. The main character, Greer, works for a feminist foundation, but you could have changed what the foundation’s purpose was, or made her work for a corporation, and the essence of the book would have been exactly the same. It was only tangentially about feminism. It was about women supporting each other, though, and the mentor relationship between an older woman and a younger woman, so in some ways, yes. If I was asked to make a list of books about feminism, though, it certainly wouldn’t make the cut.

All of the characters have some major flaws. Greer is selfish, and doesn’t understand when things don’t go according to plan. Cory’s life gets entirely derailed by a tragedy he couldn’t prevent, but in some ways he lets the derailment happen. If he’d really wanted what he said he wanted (and perhaps he didn’t) he could have fixed his trajectory. Zee is a little brash and headstrong, but the most likable character in the book. Faith – oh, Faith. Faith is the older feminist mentor who turns out to be far more jaded than expected.

I have lots of conflicts about Faith. She is one of those feminists who doesn’t seem to care for individual women – she can’t even remember most of the women who credit her with changing their lives – but she keeps her eyes on the big picture. And as I brought up in book club, the movement does need people who see the big picture. Those people are important – but they still need certain principles that I think Faith lacks.

IR mentioned that Cory was a good foil to all the female characters in the book, and he needed his flaws, because otherwise he would be the perfect feminist boyfriend. And no one is perfect.

We were all a little disappointed with the ending; it felt like Wolitzer skipped a whole section of the story. How did Greer get from point A to point B? (Well, really, it’s more like the book covers Points A, B, C, and E. And skips D.)

I think one of my favorite quotes from the book (I misattributed it to Faith at the book club, it turns out it came from Greer) was the one about being given permission:

“I think that’s what the people who change our lives always do. They give us permission to be the person we secretly really long to be but maybe don’t feel we’re allowed to be. Many of you here in this room…..had someone like that, didn’t you? Someone who gave you permission. Someone who saw you and heard you. Heard your voice.”

I think that really sums up mentorship, in some ways. Women are often still socialized to not trust their own instincts, to lean on outside opinions for validation. (I know I was.) To be given permission and encouragement to trust yourself can be a life-changing event.

I really enjoyed this book. I saw bits of myself in all four characters – Faith’s practicality, Greer’s impressionability, Zee’s idealism, and even a little of Cory’s foggy despair and lack of ambition. I wouldn’t call it a feminist classic. But it was a good book.

From the cover of The Female Persuasion

Sometimes the person you admire most recognizes something unusual in you and draws it out, opening a door to a bigger, electrifying world.

Greer Kadetsky is a college freshman when she meets the woman who will change her life. Faith Frank, dazzlingly persuasive and elegant at sixty-three, has been a pillar of the women’s movement for decades, a figure who inspires others. Hearing Faith speak for the first time, in a crowded campus chapel, Greer feels her inner world light up. She and Cory, her high school boyfriend, have both been hardworking and ambitious, jokingly referred to as “twin rocket ships,” headed up and up and up. Yet for so long Greer has been full of longing, in search of a purpose she can’t quite name. And then, astonishingly, Faith invites her to make something out of her new sense of awakening. Over time, Faith leads Greer along the most exciting and rewarding path of her life, as it winds toward and away from her meant-to-be love story with Cory, and the future she’d always imagined. As Cory’s path, too, is altered in ways that feel beyond his control, both of them are asked to reckon with what they really want. What does it mean to be powerful? How do people measure their impact upon the world, and upon one another? Does all of this look different for men than it does for women?

With humor, wisdom, and profound intelligence, Meg Wolitzer weaves insights about power and influence, ego and loyalty, womanhood and ambition into a moving story that looks at the romantic ideals we pursue deep into adulthood: ideals relating not just to whom we want to be with, but who we want to be.