A Book Review of Mona Eltahawy’s “Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution”

The women’s liberation movement was initiated by non-Muslim, secular, liberal women who believed that women should have ‘equal rights’ as men. These rights were essentially conceived and devised by John Locke, a 17th century philosopher and the founding father of liberalism. He states that man is born with natural rights that cannot be taken away. They are the right to life, liberty and property. These rights reflect that all human beings are born equal, in the sense that each individual is of equal moral worth. As each century has passed, these rights have evolved and changed and so has the feminist movement. Additional rights have been added to this list of “inalienable rights” now known as human rights. 

Mona Eltahawy is a liberal, and describes herself as “a secular, radical feminist Muslim.” In view of this, she looks at the world through the lens of Western interpretations of equality and freedom as opposed to Islam. Here is a common mistake that I have been guilty of making, and maybe you have too. There are so few books written by Muslim women about Muslim women’s issues, so when we see one, we do not evaluate or critique the ideas they are conveying to the extent that we would had a non-Muslim wrote it. Yet as Muslims, it is our obligation to seek knowledge and unearth the truth. 

I aimed to evaluate her opinions without positive or negative bias. Just because she is a Muslim woman doesn’t mean we unquestionably embrace her. Rather, I aimed to evaluate her views objectively. Moreover, it’s essential to assess whether a writer’s views are in line with the majority, scholarly, mainstream Islamic opinions. 

Eltahawy’s book is written to challenge. She does not mince her words. Like other feminists from the Muslim world, she surmises that Arabs hate women. Her remedy leaves little room for doubt: unless women in the Middle East dispense with religion and their cultures and embrace a liberal equality, they will remain mere chattel. Her language is often unpleasant and crude, as she declares, “I believe in the power of profanity…profanity – especially delivered by women – is a powerful way to transgress the red lines of politeness and niceness that the patriarchy.” [1] In her mind, that is how she is going to get heard. Women’s rights can only be secured after women go through a sexual revolution, dispense with anachronistic norms, and embrace liberal ‘modernity.’ 

Before critiquing her approach, I would like to begin this review with overlaps between my thinking and hers. Regardless of the quality of evidence she cites and the accuracy of her experiences, I agree with her point that the Muslim world is a mess. Women are treated horrifically in many countries and the injustice many women have to face coupled with the failure of Arab and Muslim governments to protect their rights should make us all feel a sense of sadness. The problem is two-fold: firstly, that the treatment of women falls short of any sense of a just society, and secondly, the rule of law is non-existent. In other words, very few perpetrators of harm against women seem to face punishment.

I first came across her work when I read the chapter she penned, “Too Loud, Swears Too Much and Goes Too Far” in the troubling book, It’s Not About the Burqa, where she explains her perspective. She calls for “social and sexual revolutions alongside the political revolutions of the Arab Spring in order to liberate women from all forms of oppression.” Her views are embraced by many young Muslim women and of course championed by westerners eager to find so-called independent voices in the Muslim world, even if she is a New Yorker.

Achieving social, political, and sexual equality for women is Eltahawy’s mission. If she finds an Islamic rule that disagrees with these principles, then this rule has to be rejected. This is because her connection with Allah is not one of submitting to His omniscience, but to only incorporate aspects of the religion which accord with social liberalism. She says,

I insist on the right to critique both my culture and my faith in ways that I would reject from an outsider… I am not naïve enough to think that ‘fornication’ will disappear as a concept or as a sin from either the Muslim or Christian way of life in our region. I am instead calling for a pragmatic approach to sexuality that would allow consenting adults who choose to have sex with other consenting adults the freedom to do so, with the knowledge and birth control they require to do so safely. That freedom to choose will not infringe on the freedom to choose to wait until marriage, if that is what you want. The more freedom we have, the more choices available to people. The fewer freedoms we have, the faster hypocrisy will eat away at the heart of our society. [2]

I genuinely believe many women, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, are not happy about how progressively promiscuous our societies are becoming. There are a number of books and articles about the Sexual Revolution that took place during the 1960s and its subsequent effects. The Sexual Revolution was a movement that challenged traditional gender norms and called for sexual liberation and equality for women. With it came normalization of sex outside of heterosexual, monogamous relationships, increased use of contraception and the pill, pornography, homosexuality, the legalization of abortion, public nudity, etc.

Unlike first-wave feminism, which focused mainly on legal obstacles to gender equality liking voting and property, second-wave feminism included “politics, work, the family, and sexuality”. The consequence this was that women were now positively encouraged to be sexually free and equally promiscuous as men. This view of sex and relationships has been exported globally via popular culture through music, movies, novels and social media. Of course, Muslim countries have not been immune to this proselytization.

However, this lifestyle goes against Islamic values, normalises zina, encourages people to question the sanctity of marriage and promotes shamelessness which in the Quran is called both al fahsha and al fahisha – lewdness, indecency, vulgarity, or anything that is inappropriate and ugly.

And do not approach unlawful sexual intercourse. Indeed, it is ever an immorality and is evil as a way (Quran 17:32)

Bearing Islamic sexual ethics in mind, it is difficult to understand why the author is advocating quite vociferously for the need for a sexual revolution in Muslim countries.

Eltahawy denounces conservative interpretations of Islam. Maybe here she has a point: as a result of two centuries of liberalization, Muslim scholars have adopted a conservatism to respond to liberal degradation. It’s a defensive mechanism to attempt to safeguard the family in the face of a cultural onslaught. However, one must not be under any illusion; if she was offered a selection of more ‘softer’ Islamic opinions, she would no doubt find any law that didn’t accord with a western conception of rights to be unacceptable. A husband seeing it as his responsibility to pay the bills and or even separate entrances to a mosque would be seen as the patriarchy. She says,

In Tunisia polygamy was banned, and I agree with this. A man should not be able to marry four women unless a woman can marry four men. I am not monogamous; I don’t believe in monogamy and I don’t have just one partner, but Islam allows men to be polygamous and not me. It’s unfair. Either both can have multiple partners or neither can.

The most worrying problem with Eltahawy is that she will not accept an Islam that isn’t chastened by secular liberalism. She sounds like a radical, but only in tone. Her prescriptions are as old as the imperialism she borrows them from. Like Lord Cromer before her, the 19th Century Englishman saw the liberation of women to be the key to unlocking the Muslim world. In practice, imperialism had a more sinister aim: to destroy the Muslim family as a means to destroy Muslim society.

Name me an Arab country, and I’ll recite a litany of abuses against women occurring in that country, abuses fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend.

Her solution to the abuse Muslim women face is that Islam must be reformed and Muslims should take a secular approach to their religion just as some Christians and Jews have. Allah and His Messenger ﷺ come after Locke and Voltaire – for example, supporting the right of newspapers to slander the Prophet ﷺ and that the cartoons “didn’t offend” her.

Her criticism of Islam comes in the form of straw man. She glosses over two centuries of colonialism in the Muslim world, the cause behind despotism and failed societies in both Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and instead shifts the blame onto Islam. A true academic would have analysed the status of Muslim women throughout Islamic history, measured that with the decline from the 19th century onwards and the systematic way colonialism and liberalization contributed to undermining the fabric of Muslim life. 

For example, the Saudi family has used religion to maintain the monarchy and justify their autocratic rule. This relationship between religion and monarchy was a result of a 18th century pact between Muhammad bin Saud and the local religious authority in order to fight the Ottoman Empire. This pact served and was supported by the British, as it sought to undermine Ottoman strength. 

Eltahawy’s biggest criticisms are made at Egypt, 

When an article in the Egyptian criminal code says that if a woman has been beaten by her husband ‘with good intentions,’ no punitive damages can be obtained, then to hell with political correctness.

Egypt is not by any stretch a state obedient to Islamic law. Egypt was ruled and shaped by a foreign imperial power: the British Empire. Modern Egypt dates back to 1922, when it gained independence from the British Empire. However, British military occupation of Egypt continued. The current prime minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government is dedicated to maintaining Egypt as a secular state. This secular state was consolidated by the British to serve their interests. The absence of rights isn’t due to Islam, but because of Islam’s absence in state and society.

Most secular autocrats in the Muslim world have tried to force liberalization from above, having begun under colonial powers. Mohammed bin Salman is doing that right now in Saudi, and Hosni Mubarak did this in Egypt. What we have now in the Muslim world are postcolonial constructs that serve Western interests, dysfunctional societies that are failing both men and women.

Liberal elites under autocrats have lived a safe life of luxury. They raid the country of its wealth and flout their social cultures in public, looking down with disdain at the poor and religious. They write books calling for an Islamic reformation, and Muslims that live on a diet of social media outrage find a cause in Eltahawy.

She denies that she wants “the West to rescue us” and that “Only we can rescue ourselves.” But after reading this book, it’s clear her aim is for Muslim women to replace our Islamic identity and rescue ourselves by adopting her secular liberalism. Her intentions are illustrated by her comments about wearing hijab and the niqab.

…I support banning the face veil, everywhere and not just in France where they are to vote on a resolution and possibly a ban on wearing the garment in public places…[3]

What is the difference between what she is saying and the language we have become accustomed to in newspapers and talk shows? The Muslim world is in turmoil, but not because of Islam, but because of its absence. To help Muslim women, we first have to assert our Islamic rights in Muslim societies.

Works Cited

  1. Khan, Mariam. It’s Not about the Burqa. Picador, 2019.
  2. Eltahawy, Mona. Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016
  3. Nicolas Sarkozy. Is France Right to Ban the Burka in Public? | The Debate … www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2010/mar/21/debate-on-french-burka-ban.

About the Author: Farhat Amin is an author, and host of the podcast Smart Muslima. She shares Islamic life advice via www.smartmuslima.com to help Muslim women achieve confidence in their faith, and equip them with practical Islamic solutions to the challenges they face. Twitter @farhataminuk

Photo by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

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