Headscarves and Hymens | Mona Eltahawy

Summary of: Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution
By: Mona Eltahawy


Get ready to explore the challenges Arab women face in the fight for sexual revolution with ‘Headscarves and Hymens’, by Mona Eltahawy. The book summary delves into the cultural norms and practices in conservative Islamic societies that contribute to the oppression of women. Whether veiling, preserving a woman’s hymen, or facing sexual harassment, women in the Arab world are subjected to numerous forms of control. Understand the complex ways in which silence emerges between different groups, and learn about the courageous Arab feminists who are breaking these barriers, demanding change, and sparking hope for future generations.

The Power of Silence

Arab women remain silent to avoid embarrassing their communities while Westerners shy away from critiquing what is seen as misogynistic behavior. The author believes that it takes a tremendous amount of courage for an Arab feminist to fight for women’s rights and admit that Muslim society is inherently misogynistic. On the other hand, many Western liberals stay silent on Arab women’s rights issues because they want to “respect” other ways of life, supporting cultural relativism. The author criticizes them for their tacit support of the conservative aspects of Arab societies and their failure to address Arab women’s secondary status in society. Arab feminists throughout history have summoned the courage to raise their voices, and the author is following in their footsteps.

Unveiling the Veil

The religious and personal motivations behind Arab women’s choice to wear the veil, and how social and religious norms make it difficult for women to make their own choices.

Born into a wealthy family in Saudi Arabia, the author was able to choose whether or not to veil or risk facing severe consequences, such as social stigma, lashing, or imprisonment. The book details the two types of veils in Arab culture: the hijab, which covers the head and chest, and the niqab, which covers head, chest, and face. Quran and Hadith interpretations instruct women to cover themselves fully, except the face and hands, making a woman who chooses to veil herself appear pious, modest and respectful.

While the veil’s primary motivation is religious belief, it’s personal for some women, too. Some see it as a way to gain freedom in male-dominated societies where women are often shamed or blamed. Others use it to protect themselves from sexual harassment.

Nonetheless, the veil isn’t an option for most Arab women, making it an oppressive tradition that needs to change. Custom outweighs women’s rights in many Arab societies, and even more damaging is preserving the woman’s hymen for her wedding night.

The Cultural Obsession With Hymens and Female Genital Mutilation

Arab cultures’ obsession with female virginity results in the harmful practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). The cultural stigma of a broken hymen before marriage causes many families to perform FGM on their daughters to “protect” their hymens. FGM, however, does not decrease female sexual desire and leads to physical complications such as bleeding, infection, infertility, and even death. This cultural practice is not religious and is considered a human rights violation by the United Nations and the WHO.

Plight of Arab Women

Women living in Arab countries face constant threats of abuse, both in their homes and in public spaces. Sexual harassment and assault are pervasive, and victims are often left with no recourse for justice. Domestic violence is also widespread, and religious laws and cultural norms fail to protect women or punish perpetrators. The situation is dire, with little hope for change in the near future.

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