Mona Eltahawy's 'Headscarves and Hymens': Potent and provocative

"Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution" by Mona Eltahawy.

Headscarves and Hymens

Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution

By Mona Eltahawy

Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 256 pp. $25

Reviewed by Helen W. Mallon


In Headscarves and Hymens, Egyptian American journalist Mona Eltahawy provokes a globally critical question: Can genuine democracy take root in countries where half the population is oppressed by the other half? Her answer will be obvious, her prescription less so: For real political revolution in the Middle East, a sexual revolution must also happen, one that liberates women and brings them to equality.

In post-Mubarak Egypt, nearly 100 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment. In Yemen, where "nearly all women are covered up from head to toe," it's 90 percent. So much for the widespread claim that women invite sexual violation because of their immodest dress. Even in relatively liberal Tunisia, laws require women to "prove that the harassment occurs on a regular basis."

Naming the problem provokes misogynist rage. Eltahawy received vituperative responses to her op-ed piece on sexual harassment in a privately owned Egyptian newspaper. " 'Who would want to grope you?' " wrote one man, "as if being sexually assaulted were a compliment."

Street harassment is only the beginning. Eltahawy presents a thoroughly researched and uncompromising analysis of damning practices: government-sanctioned rape, child marriage, female genital mutilation, and the infantilization of women throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

She does not rely on statistics alone. Her concern is with the stories of actual women. This includes an account of her own detention, beating, and sexual assault by Egyptian government forces in 2011. At least 12 other women were similarly attacked during this protest. None has spoken out. "The political will never truly change," Eltahawy writes, "unless it is accompanied by a parallel fight in the realm of the personal - the double revolution."

By making it personal, Eltahawy undercuts the belief that such violations "couldn't happen here" in modernized Middle Eastern nations. In fact, victim-blaming is widespread, and the silence of women is grossly misunderstood. "I want to move beyond my privilege," Eltahawy writes, "to remember the millions of women who have none."

Mona Eltahawy is a women's-rights genie loosed from the bottle of male oppression. Outrageous and provocative, her words and actions have flown too far to be stuffed back inside.


Helen W. Mallon's e-mail is