Book review: 'The double-bind that Muslim women find themselves in'

Written by:
Samayya Afzal
Read time:

With Islamophobia emerging as a key discussion point of 2018, community activist Samayya Afzal reviews Egyptian-American Mona Eltahawy's seminal text on Islam and feminism, Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East needs a sexual revolution

Image: Women stage a pro-democracy sit-in in Bahrain, 2011

There’s lots to agree with and lots to disagree with in New York Times columnist Mona Eltahawy’s exploration of Muslim womanhood.

Released in 2015 in the wake of the Arab Spring, Headscarves and Hymens looks through this lens. Eltahawy proposes that the only true liberation for women is freedom from coercion, control and abuse, from the men in their families, on the streets, and those that make up the state.

Eltahawy is more qualified than most to write about the ripples of revolution that spread across North African and Middle Eastern countries during the Arab Spring. In 2011, as she took part in those very protests, she herself was beaten and sexually assaulted by Egyptian authorities. After women took up roles organising the masses to wrestle power back from authoritarian rulers, accepting that this new-found freedom could only be distributed among a select few (rarely women), will have made for a frustrating phenomenon.

Outside her personal experience, a lot of Eltahawy’s evidence is also anecdotal. She draws from documentaries she's been involved in, women she's met or had contact with, alongside statistics from the UN and Human Rights Watch to demonstrate trends and societal issues. The book features child marriages in Yemen; Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) across Egypt; rape-marriage clauses in Morocco; sexual harassment in Cairo; and social rehabilitation centres for abused women in Libya, which they can only leave if a man marries them. The list goes on; there's a lot to take in.

Her assertions on women’s freedom are not particularly controversial for those of us who accept the concept of freedom as universal. In a bid to bring round those who probably don't, the book reads like a traumatic commentary on the suffering of women from all angles.

Eltahawy weaves in the necessity of a newer, more defined sexual revolution, and holds Islamism responsible for a global increase in women adopting hijab, labelling it a victory for conservatives in establishing social control. Eltahawy doesn't believe that the choice ‘to veil’ is ever a free one, instead that it is inherently oppressive. As a Muslim woman born and raised in the Western world, who adopted a headscarf early on in life, I understand her arguments and agree with quite a few of them; but they're not sufficient. It's a tortuous position to be in, advocating for the rights of women, Muslim and non-Muslim, when we live in a society all too ready to demonise Muslims as inherently misogynistic. Eltahawy's opinion in the book manifests to the extent that she supports niqab bans in Europe. The left wing are condemned for allowing right-wing Islamophobes to control the narrative instead of putting forward their own case for why religious face-coverings are oppressive to women. I'm not sure we should be giving right wing Islamophobes any ground on this issue.

It's evident in the book that through personal and societal observation, Eltahawy doesn't hold marriage in high esteem. Pondering the rates of divorce, domestic abuse and the institutionalised manner in which some women, upon marriage, have their guardianship transferred from parental to spousal, it's easy to be pessimistic. There's little doubt that this is changing, women are indeed more empowered through their understanding of Islam to demand their rights within marriage, however the institution of marriage itself doesn't survive Eltahawy's analysis. Here, she proposes a sexual liberation for Muslim women, battling the idea of keeping sexuality within the confines of marriage. Sounds a radical proposal, but when you consider it, it's really more of an acknowledgement of what happens across the world anyway. Muslim women are by no means one homogenous entity.

The reasons we don't commonly hear about the practice of this kind of sexual liberation: a) it's against the law in some countries; b) men are more likely to 'get away with it' as they're not subjected to arbitrary ‘virginity’ tests; and c) concepts of honour and modesty are unmistakably attached to the bodies of women, so stigma and shame feature more prominently in their decisions to be open about sexual activity. It does evoke strong questions; does the model of second-wave feminism and sexual liberation work for Muslim women? Is it something considered necessary by the majority? Are we falling into stereotyped fantasy when we consider the Muslim woman's experience as one-dimensionally sexually repressed and objectified?

Admittedly, I had preconceptions before reading Headscarves and Hymens, I bought it nearly two years ago and only read it this year. I've always admired Eltahawy’s resilience to the assaults she suffered at the hands of the state and her refusal to appease European and American right-wingers in their Islamophobic rhetoric, but reconciling with this abrasiveness towards Muslim women covering was an issue for me.

My impressions, however, changed almost immediately after speaking to her. There can be a difference between the image you build up of someone through their social media profiles, and their actual personality. I was relieved to find Mona much more sympathetic and engaging in person. Despite our differences of opinion, there was a mutual sense of solidarity. When I shared the struggles I faced in articulating my identity as a Muslim woman at her talk at the Bradford Literature Festival, or with facing racism and misogyny in everyday life, she offered me words of support I'll never forget.

I can understand where a lot of Eltahawy’s arguments come from; if we want to be liberated from power structures that oppress us, we cannot do it by opting to remain within the frameworks those structures set out for us. But to critique this, how can we exist independently to the beliefs we subscribe to? My belief is that Islam does not belong to the men who grasp the religion to their chests and act as mediators between women and God, denying them their rights to live as equal human beings. There are vast efforts being made to argue against interpretations that allow some to abuse their power and perpetuate gender-based oppression, and I think this is where the answer lies. As women of faith, should we leave our religion to be defined by narrow minds and egotists?

I would mark Headscarves and Hymens as a recommended read for those looking to understand the double-bind that Muslim women find themselves in. I've never shied away from calling myself a feminist, but feminism becomes a dirty word when those operating from an anti-Muslim perspective try to co-opt Muslim women's voices to propagate the ‘over-sexualised and violent Muslim male’ stereotype. I'd recommend reading this book because in the age of Trump, #MeToo and the overwhelming brutality women are facing the world over, it's never been more important for us to acknowledge the wider global context of gendered and racist oppression. It's an intense read, you won't agree with everything, but if it causes you to challenge yourself and question the state of the world, it's worth it.

Follow Samayya on Twitter: @SamayyaAfzal

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