​Headscarves and Hymens – A much-needed reorientation of society

It’s been a while since I last blogged and also almost a month since I finished Mona Eltahawy’s Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East needs a sexual revolution. But I just couldn’t get myself to pick up another book since I was ‘not done processing’ this one enough. There’s much to read, explore and comprehend fully. And I knew the best way to get a wholesome grasp on a book is to write about it.

Mona Eltahawy is as much of an inspiring person, as she is intimidating for me. An award-winning journalist, she is an international public speaker on feminism, Arab and Muslim issues. She has written hallowed publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy and a correspondent for Reuters among others. Her body of work, her arguments and thinking only leave me gaping in awe and hoping to meet her some day.

As the title suggests, Headscarves and Hymens is not an easy book to get through. It strives to make people aware in the simplest of forms, how patriarchy is so deeply entrenched in us, that women have been relegated to being worse than second class citizens in the Middle East, and how they have to fight tooth and nail for even the most basic of services. Reality for men and women are exceedingly different. Mona makes the argument that in the backdrop of all the political upheaval in the Arab world, true progress will be made only when political revolutions are accompanied by simultaneous social and sexual revolutions. Women need to be viewed as people too, and not objects of sex meant only for men’s personal pleasure and procreation.

On April 23, 2012, the essay ‘Why do they hate us’ featured on Foreign Policy. In this feature, which is the first chapter in the book, Mona dissects the rampant misogyny in the Middle East and how it stems from hatred towards women. She puts an entire political and economic system in focus, “one that treats half of humanity like animals” and how it must be destroyed. Mona talks of her own personal revolutions that took place while she grew up in Egypt, the UK and Saudi Arabia. The stark contrast in her family life and what she saw in others’ homes left her conflicted, but nothing could compare the struggle she had with her identity of a hijab-wearing feminist, till at last she set herself free. It was in Jeddah as a young adult when she came across feminist texts in the university library, and then there was no looking back for her.

“SO WHY DO THEY HATE US? Sex, or more precisely hymens, explains much.”

Tackling sexism in the Arab world is a task not for the faint hearted. There are obstacles for women at every level, be it at home, on the streets, workplaces or even in schools. While we in India too have our own issues to worry about, situation in the Middle East and Egypt is much worse.

Families impose curfew on daughters and women since they could get raped or assaulted, but no one tells the boys and men to keep their hands to themselves. From parliaments to mosques, women and girls are groped, assaulted and relegated to being mocked by men.

She mentions how as a child, which is true for even me, girls would resort to wearing baggy clothing so that the curvaceous contours of the body are not defined and do not give more fodder to men and their perverted minds and gallivanting hands. I remember as a child how I would not like travelling by public transport. It would make me cringe because I always had to be on guard. I was at an age when my growing sexuality and changes in my body and mind were still at a hazy stage, and in the absence of any ‘conversations’ with my mother, I would not want to be all primped up and pretty. I was a rough oddball.

And reading accounts in the book that resonated with mine, made me pause and think how society in general made me squash my sexuality and I had no way to express myself in the way I thought it best.

So while Mona was a hijab-wearing feminist for a while, confident she could do justice to both, she soon realised how while wearing the hijab helped hide her body from men, in the end it only hid her body from herself. How true. My own mother made me wear loose and ill-fitting clothes, making me supremely conscious of my body. And with society’s eyes on me all the time, whether I wore jeans or a dress, it made me withdraw further into myself.

Another aspect she talks about is the ‘purity culture’. This is extremely toxic. While men can be forgiven for indecent dalliances, sometimes even expected of some, god forbid a woman walks down the same road, and suddenly every man feels emasculated and angry. In many countries in MENA (Middle East and North Africa), purity tests are still conducted. Sometimes randomly, and against the wishes of the said person. Doctors, or any official in the absence of doctors, shove two fingers inside the vagina to check for the presence of the hymen. Sometimes parents get it done on their daughters. Often these experiences are so traumatic, since they’re so young when they have this done on them, they often don’t recover fully from them.

Female genital mutilation or FGM is another devil plaguing women in the region. While it may be rampant in some of the countries of MENA, it takes places in India too. Genital cutting is the total or partial removal of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. It is believed to reduce a girl’s sex drive and make sex for her an extremely painful ordeal. It is followed by Muslims and Christians in Egypt and it must be a horrendous thing to make your own child to go through.

It’s been centuries of hate and spite that men pile up on women, everyday, day in and day out. There is little respite. From the little things to the greater scourge, women and girls continue to suffer.

“Why do those men hate us? They hate us because they need us, they fear us, they understand how much control it takes to keep us in line, to keep us good girls with our hymens intact until it’s time for them to fuck us into mothers who raise future generations of misogynists to forever fuel their patriarchy.”

This book is like an unending whiplash of sorts. Mona does not let the reader get away with ease. She makes the reader uncomfortable and forced to face facts, forced to face the truth, the truth that many shy away from, turn a blind eye and which many believe to be lies. There is no getting away from her and it is heartening to feel that it’s alright to be struggling with one’s own personal revolutions. Feminists aren’t made in a day. Sometimes it’s slow progress. We, as a society, have become so used to the misogyny that we don’t even realise it when it happens to us or to someone we know, or even if it happens right under our noses. These are issues that make people uncomfortable, and many would rather stick their heads in the ground that face these head on.

Mona handles all doubts that might creep up silently, and she explains basic concepts so well. Even I once thought if a person should want to wear the veil, she should be free to do so. But Mona changed my thinking. And from her unique position of a woman who is a feminist and a Muslim, she gives to the reader a true perspective on the Arab and Muslim world. “I insist on the right to critique both my culture and my faith in ways that I would reject from an outsider.”

Courtesy – Feminism in India

Hillary Clinton once said. “Why extremists always focus on women remains a mystery to me…But they all seem to. It doesn’t matter what country they’re in or what religion they claim. They want to control women.”

Even though Clinton said it perfectly, she still supported many misogynistic despots, and this is something we’re currently seeing in India with the #MeToo movement that has taken over social media like a wildfire that refuses to come under control. And it should be given free rein as for once women and her thoughts, her emotions, her experiences and pain are being shared on public forums, and the men who for years have treated women with disdain are being brought to the fore, their hidden secrets come tumbling out and, being named and shamed for the whole world to see. Men, women, boy, child and girl…everyone, in general, need to know that it is NOT OKAY to behave in a certain way, to conduct oneself with impropriety and it is time that the world understands the meaning of NO, not to abuse one’s position of power, and the importance of CONSENT.
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