Headscarves and Hymens

Taking advantage of the fact that I now live within walking distance of Elliott Bay Bookstore, I decided to listen to Mona Eltahawy when she discussed her new book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution. It was worth every step to get there and every minute of listening. What a great spokesperson against misogyny – and not just in Islamic countries, but worldwide.

Eltahawy approaches issues from a secular perspective yet fully aware of ways that religion is often used to justify traditions that vary between communities of believers. Rather than get into the fray of “my verse” against “your verse,” Eltahawy simply evaluates practices against the criteria of whether or not they are good for women. She has not renounced her Muslim faith. She believes it is compatible with full equality for women and policies that honor the worth of every person. With her knowledge of historic figures from the Muslim faith who believed in the value of women, she challenges both religious and state authorities who perpetuate the subjugation of women.

As one who pays some attention to the news and to women’s issues globally, I was familiar with many of the practices described in the book. That said, I found it useful to have these concerns explained in more detail. What was totally refreshing was learning about the many ways that women are protesting and speaking up about abuse and restrictive policies, even in countries where governments are trying desperately to keep women under wraps.

As always, one of the saddest states is our “friend and ally” Saudi Arabia. Do we have to wait until the oil in the Kingdom is totally depleted before we pay attention to the status of women in this most absurd country? I would like the rest of the world to use all of the tactics that were applied against Apartheid in South Africa to bring change for women in Saudi Arabia. Still, I understand that the Middle East is not South Africa. While Eltahawy documents a history of feminist thought in Islamic countries, there are still many who regard feminism as a Western value. Best if change emerges from within rather that from outside pressure.

When you see Muslim women locally wearing headscarves or even the niqab, if you wonder if they feel free to do otherwise, you will appreciate Eltahawy’s extended discussion of her own choices over the years. Headscarves now carry political significance; they are cheered and jeered by men from opposite perspectives. Liberal “cultural relativists” cheer; critics of Islam jeer. This only complicates the decision women face. Truly they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Even in countries where women are free to veil or not to veil, it is uncomfortable to know that your decision will give comfort to either one group of men who don’t value you or to another group of men who don’t value you.

Read and weep. Read and cheer. Read and take comfort in the knowledge that women are striving for their own freedom in places where you didn’t think it was possible.