By Rachel Aspden
12 June 2015
One afternoon earlier this year, I stepped into the carriage of a Cairo metro train. I was on the way home from interviewing female students – all of them devout, veiled Muslims – who had been snatched off the street and sexually assaulted by police for protesting against the military regime. It was hard for them to speak openly about the attacks for fear of shaming their families and destroying their own chances of marriage.
On the journey between our meeting place and the metro station we had run a familiar gauntlet of leers, obscene gestures and comments, and I hustled into the crowded women-only carriage – one of the two per train introduced in 2007 as a measure against rising sexual harassment – feeling a familiar mix of anger and humiliation. Minutes later, a hand grabbed me hard between the legs, at what felt like an impossible angle. It was a man with no legs, swinging through the carriage on his hands to beg from the passengers. He laughed, and some of the women around us laughed too. Others looked away, wincing. None of them said anything to the man as he swung off, and, frozen by the grotesqueness of the situation, neither did I.
Unlike most of its citizens, I was in Egypt by choice, and this event doesn’t prove anything in itself – but it gives some idea of the day-to-day blend of deprivation, inequality, state brutality, resentment, sexual frustration, religious indoctrination, shame culture and struggle for power that makes up a general human suffering in Cairo of which abuses against women are a significant part.
In Headscarves and Hymens, the Egyptian-American journalist and activist Mona Eltahawy holds a match to this combustible mix. It is a book-length expansion of a controversial article, “Why Do They Hate Us?” – where “they” is Muslim men and “us” is women – she wrote for the US magazine Foreign Policy in 2012. The book, its title calculated to provoke as much as the blood-red scarf that trails across its cover, is no less polemical. “Covered. Tortured. Imprisoned. Murdered,” declares its back cover. Eltahawy’s outrage is personal, too – in November 2011, during street clashes between protesters and the security forces in Cairo, she was picked up by the police, sexually assaulted and beaten until her left hand and right arm were broken.
A group of female protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, November 2011, where Eltahawy was sexually assaulted and beaten. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
The abuses Eltahawy lists are shocking, and vital to record. At least 90% of married Egyptian women between the ages of 15 and 49 have undergone FGM, a practice that continues to cause an unknown number of deaths. In Tunisia – often seen as a liberal beacon in the region – 47.2% of women have suffered domestic violence; in Egypt, 99.3% of women have experienced sexual harassment. Saudi Arabian women of any age need the permission of a male legal guardian to travel, marry, work or access education, and must wear abaya robes and headscarves in public (which does not prevent 86.5% of Saudi men blaming “women’s excessive makeup” for rising harassment). Fifteen teenage girls died in 2002 when “morality police” prevented them from leaving a burning school in Mecca because they were not wearing “correct” Islamic dress.
Across the Middle East, family matters are governed not by secular civil law but by religious “personal status laws” that most often fail to protect women adequately against child marriage, marital rape, domestic violence or inequality in divorce and child custody. Where more progressive laws do exist in theory – Eltahawy cites recent draft legislation against domestic violence in Lebanon – attitudes within the police, legal system and society hobble them in practice.
To Eltahawy, the root of this inequality is clear: “a toxic mix of culture and religion”, particularly Islam, and more particularly the spread of its ultraconservative Saudi-style interpretation. The headscarf, in her eyes, is both cause and symptom, reinforcing women’s status as separate and subservient. (Now flamboyantly scarlet-haired, she wore the headscarf between the ages of 16 and 25.) The book’s other marker of repression is the hymen, the tiny membrane unscientifically believed to guarantee virginity, which is enthusiastically policed by families, religious authorities, lawmakers and security forces alike.
In reality, the causes, and therefore the solutions, are harder to pin down. After confidently identifying the “they” who hate women as “Muslim men”, Eltahawy then squirms out of her own definition. Are they “Islamists”, “a right wing among Muslim men”, “Islamists and the equally misogynistic secular men of our societies” or “the alliance of State and Street”? These various configurations of religion, politics, gender and power point to the complexity of the issues she raises – and the book gives little sense of how greatly they vary geographically and historically.
But the central problem with Headscarves and Hymens is that few of the women Eltahawy writes about are likely to agree with her about the cause of the problems – or even define their existence in the same terms. Her original article provoked a passionate outpouring of criticism, as this book is certain to do, from Middle Eastern Muslim women, who resented what they saw as her “neo-orientalist”, “neocolonialist” and “Islamophobic” attempt to speak for them. They rejected her western-style secular formulations of “feminism” and “women’s rights” as an attack on their culture and religion – a reaction compounded by what is seen as the hypocritical meddling of the west and its local proxies, particularly dictators’ wives such as Suzanne Mubarak and Louboutin-shod Asma al-Assad, who monopolised activism on women’s issues even as their husbands oppressed an entire population.
For Eltahawy, casting off her headscarf and her virginity both felt like radical acts. “Be immodest, rebel, disobey”, she urges the women of the Middle East and North Africa – though the prospects for those who do so and do not emigrate are thoroughly bleak. Creating change will require a slow process of dialogue and compromise with entrenched hostile ideologies rather than a rhetorical onslaught, however justified. The question is the same one confronted by the region’s stalled political revolutions: can you liberate people who don’t want your brand of liberation?
• Generation Revolution by Rachel Aspden will be published by Harvill Secker next year. To order Headscarves and Hymens for £13.59 (£16.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.