Mona Eltahawy on Women’s Rights in the Middle East

By Claire LuchetteSeptember 4, 2015

Mona Eltahawy on Women’s Rights in the Middle East
AT AGE 16, MONA ELTAHAWY decided to don a hijab, believing it would defend her from the leers and harassment of men in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The harassment continued. Nine years later, she took off her scarf for good. She had learned that the scarf did nothing to protect her from the toxic misogyny that determines how women are treated and how they can live in Saudi Arabia. In Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, she writes, “[I was] traumatized into feminism — there’s no other way to describe it — because to be a female in Saudi Arabia is to be the walking embodiment of sin.”

Since then, Eltahawy has been vocal about women’s rights crises in the Middle East, and she cites the hijab as a symbol of women’s oppression in the Muslim community. An Egypt-born Muslim, Eltahawy writes and reports on threats to women’s rights in the Islamic world and beyond. Headscarves, her first book, was borne of her 2013 article for Foreign Policy entitled “Why Do They Hate Us?,” in which she explored and decried the history of the violent hatred of women in the Arab community. I had the chance to ask Eltahawy about the issues she addresses in her book: the oppression of women, global feminism, and what it means to advocate for women’s rights regardless of faith or culture.


CLAIRE LUCHETTE: How do you hope readers will respond to this book?

MONA ELTAHAWY: I’m an angry woman, and I wrote an angry book. I realize that when one finishes reading, one will be angry — which is exactly the reaction I want.

I think some might take a comfortable, complacent position, like, “Oh my god, it’s awful over there! Thank god I live over here.” But what I would much rather have the anger do is make the reader say, “God! This is bad for women everywhere, and the best way that I can help the cause of global feminism is to make sure I am fighting for feminism where I live.”

Many people ask me, “How can I help [the women of the Middle East]?” and I always say, “Help the women in your own community.” Because I genuinely believe that global feminism is helped when feminism everywhere is lifted up. Which is why I find that as I give interviews or speak about this book, I try to connect everything I say to global feminism, and to give examples of issues in China, India, or Afghanistan.

Yes, and you explain in the book how there’s so much work to be done everywhere. But misogyny can be perceived in degrees: in some instances the subjugation of women is more subtle, so, for example, I’m privileged not to have to face genital mutilation, which is a huge problem in the countries you examine in this book. Some issues and causes seem more pressing than others.

You’re right. When I say there’s a spectrum of misogyny around the world, and that misogyny hasn’t been wiped out anywhere, I recognize that it exists in degrees. So the life of a woman in, say, Scandinavia, where the reach of feminism is much further, compared to the life of a woman in my part of the world, is obviously very different. But I don’t think it’s productive to sit and talk about how we can help over there; there is no way to help over there from here besides amplifying our voices. Otherwise you enter into the territory of the savior complex with white women assuming the burden of rescuing other women.

I don’t delude myself. Obviously, there are laws in the West that protect against domestic violence, whereas we’re still fighting for those laws in the Middle East and North Africa. Still, I don’t want readers to become complacent about local feminism. Look at what the right wing has done to women’s rights in the US today: they’ve made it almost impossible for women in some Southern states to get an abortion. And there’s the treatment of rape victims on college campuses, and the fact that young women aren’t taken seriously when they speak out about violence and harassment. I don’t mean to equate any of these with the realities of women in the Middle East, but women do continue to face problems all over the world. So the best way to help women everywhere is to help the women of your own community. That’s what I think global feminism is all about.

It’s hard to know how to read about these rights crises and violent misogynist incidents and not judge the men of certain cultures. And yet some women advocate for radical tolerance of whatever a woman chooses, even when her choices are inherently unfeminist; still others maintain that we can’t judge cultures that aren’t our own.

It’s a real minefield, yes. I think it can help to start with a broad perspective and then narrow it down. It’s important to recognize that most religions — with the exception of the Wiccans, because I always hear from a Wiccan somewhere who will complain that it’s not the case for Wiccans — are patriarchal, and most do have misogyny at their core; they do obsess over women’s bodies and sexuality. In the book, I make the connection between Orthodox Jewish women who cover their hair and go to temple for a ritual bath after their periods, and Christian women who have to wear hats to church, and Muslim women’s scarves. As this occurs in my own faith background and elsewhere, I call it “modesty culture,” and I use this term intentionally, because I’m connecting these values, for instance, to notions of Christian purity in the United States.

I think it’s useful to make these global and interfaith connections. It helps to recognize that these biases exist in more than one religion. Otherwise, when you criticize an aspect of my culture, you’re accused of encouraging Islamophobia.

But when I bring up these issues, I can only speak to my own experience. So when I say that I chose to wear a headscarf at 16, and I chose to take it off at 25, that’s a very personal statement. I also write that it took eight of those nine years for me to decide to take the scarf off. What does it mean when it’s harder to choose to stop doing something than it was to do it in the first place?

Sometimes when a Western woman sees a Muslim wearing black from head to toe, she will want to go up to her and say, “Aren’t you hot? Aren’t you uncomfortable? Why are you doing this? Don’t you know that we fought for women’s rights in this country for a really long time?” While I recognize where that sentiment comes from — I oppose the headscarf, too — my response is: Leave it to Muslim women to fight this problem. Because when someone from outside the community joins up, there’s a knee-jerk defensiveness from Muslim women, and the conversation ends. But when we lead and maintain the conversation, we who can attest to the experience, we can make all sides understand that the choice is not as simple as it’s made out to be.

I’ll also say that these religions burden girls and women with the idea of modesty; these same burdens are not placed on the shoulders of boys and men, and therefore they are not feminist. I do not support these religions, and the choices women make to follow them. When someone says to me, “Look, a woman chose that; you have to support it,” I think that’s ridiculous. My response is, “I’ve thought long and hard about this; just because a woman chooses to do something does not mean I am obliged to support it.”

That kind of discourse always strikes me as inarguably sexist: the idea that one woman represents and is the same as another.

Of course. You’ve got women in the Christian right wing in this country who propagate the idea that the man is the head of the household, and abortion is bad for you, and the woman must submit to her husband. So here’s a woman who on the surface of things appears to have chosen this lifestyle. But that, for me, is not a feminist choice.

Tell me about the eight years you spent deciding to take off your veil. What was the substance of your inner dialogue?

My inner dialogue went like this: “I’m going to look weak. I’m going to let my side down. I’ve worked so hard to convince people that I can wear hijab and be a feminist and now they’re going to think I’m a fake. I have to be stronger. I have to be stronger.” Over and over and over in a loop in my head.

In this book, you combine personal narrative with political reporting. Was that especially challenging?

I started writing this book after moving back to Egypt in March of 2013. Since January of 2011, after the revolt against President Mubarak, it had been a terrible time there. The year I moved back was especially terrible, after the Rabaa massacre, when we were put under curfew for more than six months. So the day-to-day environment in Egypt was very intense, and women’s rights issues were very much in the background.

On top of all that, for me to write anything long form, I need a deep mental space. The reality in Egypt made it very difficult to work on this bigger project. Actually, I wanted to include a lot more, but at a certain point I just had to hand it over to my editors. It’s like being pregnant and not wanting to give birth; at a certain point, you just have to let it go for the baby’s sake and your own! But I could’ve worked on this book for years.

What are you working on now?

I’m about to embark on a massive essay on my feminist summer, featuring the ubiquity of the penis/absence of the vagina in the Western art cannon: Mad Max: Fury Road, Pitch Perfect 2, Magic Mike XXL, Amy Schumer, and the play Threesome by Egyptian-American playwright Yussef El Guindi. It might just turn into a book eventually, prefaced by my contribution to PEN America’s festival opening night performance, in which my prediction for 2050 is that it will be the year when Egypt gets its first woman president (who’ll be a bisexual poet), Saudi Arabia will get its first woman mufti (who will be an atheist), and the US will get its third woman president, the first Latina to hold that position.


Claire Luchette is a writer who once lived in Brooklyn.

LARB Contributor

Claire Luchette’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, The Millions, the Poetry Foundation, and Travel + Leisure.


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