A book for the global feminist struggle

Denise Balkissoon at the Globe and Mail talks to Mona Eltahawy.

In Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, she dismantles what she calls the “trifecta of oppression” working against Arab women: the state, the street and the home, which “work together for their own benefit by keeping girls and women down.”

She takes the reader to Jordan, where a man can escape a rape charge by marrying his victim; to Egypt, where unending street harassment leads families to impose curfews on their daughters; and to Lebanon, which recently decriminalized marital rape.

It’s a must-read.

You say many people are “all too happy to hear how badly Muslim men treat their women,” even when their own behaviour is sexist.

It troubles me deeply that the group that speaks the loudest about the niqab and how the niqab is misogynist is the right wing, Islamophobic, xenophobic racists. My point all along has been that it is possible to talk about misogyny within my own community and also call it out in the right-wing racist community that tries to use my words against Muslim men.

That’s one reason I do my best to amplify voices that are not in the group right wing, anti-Muslim, xenophobic racists; voices that belong to ex-Muslim and Muslim feminists and secularists and liberals. There are a lot of them, with strong voices.

Almost an entire chapter is about your opposition to the niqab. Are you worried that in coming out so strongly, you might alienate women who consider themselves feminists and believe that wearing it is their choice?

This idea of the niqab being feminist is an idea I totally reject. I think it directly contributes to erasing women and it directly contributes to a very dangerous idea of piety, equating it to the disappearance of women. I know there are some who oppose my position on this vehemently, and that is their right. And it’s my right to say: Just because a woman does something doesn’t mean that I have to support her.

Actually that chapter is about the hijab, not the niqab. Mona wore hijab herself for years.

You’ve been criticized for writing in English. Who is the book for?

My book is in English for a very personal reason: When I was 7, my family left Egypt, and English has been my main language, through no choosing of my own.

This is going to sound very dramatic and egotistical, but the book is for the global feminist struggle. I think this is a real moment in which women of various ethnic backgrounds can see each other standing up. You can’t take down something like patriarchy and misogyny without naming it, and I wanted to put together all of these examples and name them. I wanted to name the women who are standing up in this part of the world.

It doesn’t sound dramatic and egotistical at all. Mona is well placed to write a book of that kind, having lived in Egypt and the UK, Saudi Arabia and the US. Certainly her book is for the global feminist struggle.

I hope it’s a best-seller.


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