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Book review: Headscarves and Hymens by Mona Eltahawy

Book review: Headscarves and Hymens Why the Middle East needs a Sexual Revolution” by Mona Eltahawy


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Firstly, why did I want to read this book? The title is hardly Islamic. What could I possibly learn from a book whose title has such promiscuous connotations?

The reason why I read this book was for the purpose of research for a new book that I am writing with fellow Muslim writers on the topic of the Islamic alternative to feminism. 

Since I became interested in the topic of whether Islam is compatible with feminism, I have genuinely made an effort to understand feminist ideas by reading books by non-muslim and Muslim feminists. I don’t want to have a shallow understanding.

As I have said in previous podcasts, the women’s liberation movement was a movement that was initiated by non-muslim, secular, liberal women who believed women should have Equal rights as men. These rights were essentially thought conceived and devised by John Locke, a 17th-century philosopher, he was the founding father of Liberalism. He has a prophet-like status amongst liberals. In his secular (teachings) he states that man is born with natural rights, these rights 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. I wanted to explain this so you can understand where the author is coming from.  

Mona Eltahawy

As a liberal, she believes in human rights. She described herself as “a secular, radical feminist MuslimHer lens for looking at the world and finding solutions is equality and freedom, not 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 as we would be, if a non-muslim had written it. As Muslims, it’s our obligation to seek knowledge and unearth the truth. 

So, this is how I approached this book, and now all books written by Muslim women and I would like to invite you to do the same. I decided to evaluate her opinions without positive or negative bias, just because she is a Muslim woman it shouldn’t mean we automatically assume she has our best interest at heart. Rather I evaluated her views objectively and unemotionally Secondly, it’s essential to assess whether a writer’s views are in line with the majority, scholarly, mainstream Islamic opinions. 


Mona Eltahawy’s book is written to challenge. She does not mince her words. Like other feminists from the Muslim world, she surmises 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, 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”. in her mind that’s 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 accurateness of her experiences I agree with her 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 her 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 equally troubling book, “It’s Not About the Burqa” where she explains her thinking, 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.” In her mind this oppression is rooted in Islam. Yet the perplexing thing is 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. 


El-Tahawi is a secular, radical feminist. Achieving social, political and sexual equality for women is her 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 omnipotence 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.


She continues, “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.”

We are all aware that liberal societies are becoming hypersexualized and I genuinely believe many women, Muslim and non-muslim, are not happy about how progressively promiscuous our societies are becoming. So why has this hypersexualisation occurred?


I have been reading a number of books and articles about the Sexual Revolution that took place during the 1960s and its subsequent effects. The other books I’ve read include A Return to Modesty by Wendy Shalit and Sex Object by Jessica Valenti.  Both hold opposing views about the benefits of the Sexual Revolution for women living in America. We read A Return to Modesty as part of the Thinking Muslim Bookclub on Goodreads.


What was the Sexual Revolution? Also known as a time of sexual liberation, it was a social movement that challenged traditional codes of behavior related to sexuality calling for sexual equality for women in their interpersonal relationships throughout the United States and subsequently, the wider world, from the 1960s to the 1980s. Sexual liberation included increased acceptance of sex outside of traditional heterosexual, monogamous relationships (primarily marriage). The normalization of contraception and the pill, public nudity, pornography, premarital sex, homosexuality, and the legalization of abortion 


At the same time as the sexual revolution was taking place, the second-wave of feminism began in the United States in the early 1960s and lasted roughly two decades. It quickly spread across the Western world.

Whereas first-wave feminism focused mainly on suffrage and overturning legal obstacles to gender equality (e.g., voting rights and property rights), second-wave feminism broadened the debate to include a wider range of issues: sexuality, family, the workplace, reproductive rights.


We can observe that the combined consequence of both these movements was that women were now positively encouraged to be sexually free and equally promiscuous as men. 


This Liberal view of sex and relationships has been exported globally via popular culture so that would be through music, movies, novels and social media, of course Muslim countries have not been immune to this proselytization.


However we know that 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 Fasha and al fahisha.


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


Al Fahsha: This refers to shamelessness in the general sense, The idea of being inappropriate or doing ugly things. Anything that is ugly , detestable behavior is considered fasha. Socially unacceptable speech, socially unacceptable clothing, socially unacceptable actions, Vulgarity, lewdness etc fall under Fasha.  Al fahisha: This refers to a particular act of inappropriateness. So Fahsha is the general inappropriateness. Al fahisha is a particular act of inappropriateness. Bearing all of this in mind it is impossible to understand why the author is advocating quite vociferously for the need for sexual revolution in Muslim countries.


For El-Tahawi, she rails against conservative interpretations of Islam. And maybe here she has a point, as a result of two centuries of liberalisation, Muslim scholars have adopted a conservatism to respond to liberal degradation, its 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.”

She will not accept any Islam that isn’t chastenned by secular liberalsim. And this is the most worrying problem with El-Tahawi. She sounds like a radical, but that’s 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 is that Islam must be reformed and Muslims should take a secular approach to their religion just as Christians and Jews have. Allah and His Messenger come after Locke and Voltaire – El Tahawi would have approved of the latters play labelling the Prophet of Islam a “fanatic and imposter” in the name of free speech. 


Her criticism of Islam comes in the form of straw men. 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 on 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 found the liberalsiation process that undermined the fabric of Muslim life. 

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 religious authority in order to fight the Ottoman Empire. This pact served and was instigated by the British, as it sought to undermine Ottoman strength. 

El-Tahawi 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 by foreign imperial powers: The British Empire. Modern Egypt dates back to 1922, when it gained nominal independence from the British Empire as a monarchy. However, British military occupation of Egypt continued, and many Egyptians believed that the monarchy was an instrument of British colonialism. The current prime minister is  Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, his 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 is because of Islam’s absence in state and society. 


Most secular autocrats in the Muslim world have tried to force through a process liberalization from above. Mohammed bin Salman is doing that right now in Saudi, Hosni Mubarak did this in Egypt.  This forced liberalisation began under colonial powers. So what we have now in the Muslim world are postcolonial constructs that serve Western interests.


Colonialism and its aftermath are the reason why Muslim societies are so dyfunctional and are failing both men and women. Liberal elites under autocrats have safely lived a 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. Then they write books in New York calling for an Islamic reformation. Their pretences fall on deaf ears in the Muslim world, but in the west, young Muslims that live on a diet of social media outrage find a cause in El-Tahawi. 


El-tahawi denies that she wants “the West to rescue us. Only we can rescue ourselves.” but after reading this book, it’s clear her aim is for Muslim women like me and you 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 the bans on the face veil that have been imposed in France, Belgium, and some parts of Barcelona, Spain.”

Really what is the difference between what she is saying and the language we have become accustomed to in newspapers and talk shows. Let’s not be under any illusion, the Islamic world is in turmoil, but this is not because of Islam its because if its absense. To help Muslim women we first have to assert Islamic rights in Muslim societies.


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