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Book Summary: Headscarves and Hymens – Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution

Headscarves and Hymens (2015) chronicles the many levels of abuse suffered by women in the Arab world and what brave feminist activists are doing about these injustices. These summary describe the various forms of oppression women face, from child marriage to virginity tests, and call for a sexual revolution in Islamic nations.

Introduction: Open your eyes to the systemic oppression of women in Arab countries.

There is much controversy in the Western world surrounding the veiling of Arab women. Feminists argue that the veil is a means of oppression, enforced by men; traditionalists counter that veiling is a sign of cultural awareness. And Western liberals kindly remind us that we should restrain ourselves from intruding too much into other people’s affairs.

What we’re missing in these debates, however, is that the veil is just one of many issues concerning the broader issue of women’s rights in Arab countries. To tell it straight: women face a dire situation in the Arab world.

In these summaries, you’ll learn about the Arab world’s misogynist culture; how the oppression, abuse and punishment of women is justified by religion and a male-dominated society; and how a nascent Arab feminist movement plans to liberate women from their status as second-class citizens.

In these summaries, you’ll also learn:

  • what the difference is between a hijab and a niqab;
  • what happens to a Saudi woman when she doesn’t wear the veil; and
  • why female genital mutilation is considered a “ceremony” in many Arab lands.

Book Summary: Headscarves and Hymens - Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution

Arab women live amid hostile, misogynistic environments.

Most Westerners are aware that women in the Arab world don’t enjoy equal rights, but might not know of the astounding daily abuse under which many women suffer.

The author believes Islamic religion encourages discrimination, and its influence is directly related to the promotion of a misogynistic culture throughout Arab nations.

Misogyny – hatred of women – is rampant in the Arabic-speaking areas of the Middle East and North Africa. Many people in these regions subscribe to ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam, ideas which spawn societies obsessed with the control of women.

This is especially true among Salafi groups or those who follow the Sunni sect of Islam, as well as in political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood or Shiite militias in Iraq. In general, the social control of women and inequality between the sexes are the norm throughout the Islamic world.

In many places, family matters are handled by religious courts that enforce Islamic laws. These laws are supposed to protect families but fail to prevent atrocities such as child marriage, marital rape, sexual harassment and domestic violence.

In Egypt, for example, a court can decide that an Egyptian man may beat his wife with “good intentions” and not face any consequences. In Yemen, 2013, an eight-year-old girl was forced to marry a man five times her senior. She died on her wedding night from the internal bleeding she sustained as a result of her husband raping her.

But despite such horrific cases, voices for child marriage are more prevalent than those opposed. Yemeni clerics essentially support pedophilia by referencing the example of the Prophet Mohammed, whose second wife was a child when they were wed.

Because of practices like child marriage, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report, which measures levels of inequality, found that no Arab country qualified to appear in the list of top 100 countries working to close the gender gap.

Morocco, a nation that has been questionably praised as supporting “progressive” family policies, was listed at 129; Yemen appeared at the very bottom of the list.

While the situation of women in many Arabic-speaking nations is dire, many people aren’t aware of the specifics of what being an Arab woman is like in daily life. Let’s find out why.

When it comes to misogyny, Arab women and Western liberals remain largely silent.

Since they’re brought up in a culture that rewards obedience, Arab women often don’t know how to express their feelings toward their male oppressors. At the same time, people living in Western countries often shy away from directly critiquing what is seen as misogynistic behavior.

Here are a few reasons why silence is so prevalent among both groups.

Arab women often remain silent to avoid embarrassing their communities. A woman who is critical of social “norms” risks exposing friends and family to investigations by internal forces, such as community members or the police, for which she might feel ashamed; she also risks drawing the attention of external forces, such as Islamophobes looking for any justification in their criticism of Muslim society.

Thus 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.

The author believes this courage is comparable to that which American women of color found when raising their voices against sexism in the black community, despite concerns of hurting people around them.

In contrast, many Western liberals stay silent on Arab women’s rights issues because they want to “respect” other ways of life. This isn’t surprising, as Western society has a tendency to support cultural relativism, or double standards that in this instance, are used to justify non-involvement in the fight for equality.

In an article published in Foreign Policy in 2012, the author criticized Westerners for their tacit support of the most conservative aspects of Arab societies and their failure to address Arab women’s secondary status in society.

Luckily, Arab feminists throughout history have, against all odds, summoned the courage to raise their voices. The author is following in the footsteps of these brave women.

While there are many reasons to wear a headscarf, Arab women have little choice in the matter.

Conservative Islamic societies expect women to cover their faces. But few critics have looked behind the veil, so to speak, of this religious custom to understand how it came about.

In the Arab world, there are two ways to wear the veil. The hijab covers the head and chest. The niqab covers the head, chest and face.

Interpretations of the Quran and the Hadith, a collection of stories attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, instruct women to cover themselves fully, except the face and hands. A woman who wears a veil, then, is considered pious, modest and respectful of tradition.

While custom is primarily motivated by religious belief, the choice to veil oneself can be personal, too.

For other women, wearing a veil is a way to gain freedom in a male-dominated society which holds women responsible for the desire they trigger in men.

Others wear the veil to protect themselves from sexual harassment. The author began wearing a veil at the age of 16 in Saudi Arabia, following a pilgrimage to Mecca during which she was harassed twice.

But the choice to wear a headscarf exists only for a fraction of Arab women, mostly those of privileged means. This needs to change. The author wore a headscarf until she was 25; the decision to stop wearing the veil was much more difficult than the choice to put it on.

Having grown up in a wealthy family, the author is aware of the privilege she enjoyed, having a choice to veil or not veil. In Saudi Arabia, morality police patrol the streets; a woman without a veil, aside from facing social stigma, might end up being lashed or even imprisoned.

In other countries, Arab women without a veil are seen as bringing shame upon themselves and their families. Thus until women’s rights take precedence over religious custom, women have no choice.

Veiling isn’t the only custom in which women in Arab countries experience oppression. A tradition that’s potentially even more damaging is that of preserving a woman’s hymen for her wedding night.

Virginity is held sacred, thus Arab girls are “protected” with dangerous, often deadly, genital cutting.

While Arab society demands its women be covered, it raises the stakes when it comes to sex. For many Arab cultures, it’s critically important that a woman’s hymen be “protected.”

An intact hymen, the small membrane that partly covers the opening to a woman’s vagina, is believed both historically and in many unscientific circles to be a guarantor of virginity. Thus the state of a woman’s hymen before marriage is diligently policed by Muslim families as well as clerics.

These purity advocates believe that a girl’s hymen must remain intact until her wedding night. The pressure of this cultural “norm” causes many mothers to shame daughters if they dare explore their sexuality.

To ensure virginity, some Arab societies “protect” girls through the harmful cutting of their genitalia.

In general, families are committed to such an act as their honor is at stake; in some cases, if an Arab girl is found to have a damaged hymen before marriage, she’ll be murdered to avoid the shame.

The practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) is intended to control the sex drive of Arab girls and thus “protect” their hymens. FGM involves the partial or complete removal of a girl’s exterior genitalia.

The intended result of this procedure is to decrease a girl’s sexual desire and thus maintain her virginity as well as keep her faithful to her husband once she is married. It’s even common for mothers to bring their daughters to FGM “ceremonies,” to further remind young women of what’s expected of them.

FGM, however, does little to decrease female sexual desire, but FGM victims are less likely to experience pleasure during sexual intercourse.

A key point about FGM is that it’s a cultural and not religious practice. In countries like Egypt, for example, Muslim and Christian girls are cut, although there’s no mention of FGM in either the Quran or the Bible. In contrast, stories in the Quran and Hadith discuss the importance of female pleasure.

FGM victims often complain of bleeding or problems with urination; later on, they can suffer infections, infertility and complications in childbirth. Some girls even die during, or after, the procedure.

Today FGM is considered a violation of human rights by the United Nations and the World Health Organization.

Arab women face sexual harassment and physical abuse both in public and at home.

Women living in Arab countries face the threat of abuse constantly. Outside the home they are frequently sexually harassed; the police also pose a threat; and often, home is no safe zone.

According to a 2013 United Nations survey, 99.3 percent of Egyptian women reported experiencing sexual harassment in public, the majority of instances being unsolicited touching or verbal attacks.

Yet once an instance of sexual harassment happens, problems only compound as female victims have practically zero rights.

An abused woman like Dalal, a 16-year-old Jordanian girl, ended up in a forced marriage with her rapist. Often men can avoid punishment or social shame for their crimes by marrying their victims.

And if a victim goes to the police, the danger only increases. In Egypt, for instance, police conduct “virginity tests,” essentially a form of rape. During such a test, a man disguised as a doctor “checks” to see if a woman’s hymen is still intact.

The author and 12 other women were sexually assaulted by security forces following a women’s rights protest in Egypt in November 2011. The author’s arm and hand were broken during the assault.

So the public sphere isn’t a safe place for Arab women. Yet home is also dangerous, as women are literally the property of their husbands.

Many Arab societies rely on sharia, or religious laws based on the Quran, to resolve issues of domestic abuse. Yet these laws only protect men. The few Islamic governments that have passed national laws regarding domestic abuse, such as Saudi Arabia, often fail to enforce them.

In Iraq, for example, a man faces a maximum of three years in prison for murdering his wife, as opposed to a life sentence in most other Western countries. In the United Arab Emirates, men are encouraged by clerics to discipline their wives and daughters, as long as they can do so without leaving marks.

To add insult to injury, many victims of domestic violence in Arab countries are blamed for bringing the attacks upon themselves.

Arab feminists are using the internet to reach out to other women, sparking meaningful change.

Despite the constant fear of repressive, demeaning or even violent treatment, Arab women are beginning to take a stand against misogyny in society.

While many Arab nations that follow sharia law maintain that women are not ready to receive equal treatment in society, Arab feminist activists are bravely proving them wrong.

In Saudi Arabia, the royal family handed its authority over domestic issues to state clerics, so that any reform against the regulations of sharia would be interpreted by authorities as an attack on Islam. The rulers did so as they’d rather insist that women are unprepared for change than risk clerical outrage.

Clerics always have held that girls playing sports was a dangerous step toward Westernization. The Saudis have long banned women from playing sports or participating in the country’s Olympic team.

In 2008, however, activist Wajeha al-Huwaider launched an online campaign to protest the ban. With an overwhelmingly positive response, by 2012, the Saudi Olympic team had two female members.

The internet is a powerful platform for social change. In 2011, a Saudi woman named Manal al-Sharif was taken into custody for driving a car and jailed for nine days. Saudi law forbids women to drive; in general, women’s freedom of movement without a male companion is strictly constrained.

Once al-Sharif posted online a video of her driving a car, it prompted another 12 women to upload videos of themselves driving as well, triggering a wave of online support to change the restrictive law.

These online protests are irrefutable proof that Arab women are not just ready for change, they’re demanding it.

Even during liberating revolutionary movements, women have had to combat sexual violence.

While feminists today fight for women’s rights, such activism in the Middle East is nothing new. Feminist action in the Arab world goes back to 1923, when Egyptian feminist Huda Sha’arawi started a movement for women to shed the veil.

More recently, Arab women in 2010 and 2011 poured into the streets during the Arab Spring, taking part in demonstrations against oppressive government regimes.

Unfortunately during many protests, women continued to suffer sexual violence at the hands of both authority figures and fellow protesters.

Women in Syria who took part in protests against President Bashar al-Assad were raped and tortured by loyalists. Many women protesting in Egypt against the rule of President Hosni Mubarak were sexually assaulted by people in the enormous crowds.

In 2014, during the presidential inauguration of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a woman was gang-raped in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. It wasn’t until women’s rights groups and initiatives such as HarassMap and Tahrir Bodyguard put their power behind the issue that the government finally came to terms with sexual violence on the streets of Egypt and took measures to stop it.

But while Arab women are still violently repressed, even during social movements that claim liberation for all people, they continue to fight for equal rights and social change.

After all, political revolutions that fail to address social and sexual abuse will never transform the misogynistic status quo.

One positive step toward addressing these issues is the introduction of sex education in regions where women suffer disproportionately from sexual violence. This could help change repressive laws, such as those that forbid extramarital sex and allow rapists to marry their victims.

And finally, positive change can only come from people speaking up. The author is doing her part by putting her beliefs down in words and knows that everyone has a role to play.

Those who can’t fight physically in the streets should take a stand by whatever means they can!


The key message in this book:

Every day, women and girls in Islamic countries suffer horrific abuse and repression while the world looks the other way. To encourage change and achieve equal rights for women, Arab women need to claim their rights and Westerners need to stand with them in solidarity.

About the author

Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian American freelance journalist and commentator. Her essays and op-eds on Egypt, the Islamic world, and women’s rights have appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The Miami Herald, and other publications. She has appeared as a guest commentator on MSNBC, BBC, CNN, PBS, Al-Jazeera, NPR, and dozens of other television and radio networks. She lives in New York.


Society, Culture, Politics, Social Sciences, Women in Islam, Islamic Social Studies, Gender and Sexuality in Religious Studies, Feminism, Religion, Islam, Northern Africa, Egypt, Social Movements, Social Justice, Sociology

Table of Contents

Why They Hate Us
Black Veil, White Flag
One Hand Against Women
The God of Virginity
Roads Through the Desert
Speak for Yourself


The journalist Mona Eltahawy is no stranger to controversy. Through her articles and actions she has fought for the autonomy, security, and dignity of Muslim women, drawing vocal supporters and detractors. Now, in her first book, Headscarves and Hymens, Eltahawy has prepared a definitive condemnation of the repressive forces–political, cultural, and religious–that reduce millions of women to second-class citizens.

Drawing on her years as a campaigner for and commentator on women’s issues in the Middle East, she explains that since the Arab Spring began in 2010, women in the Arab world have had two revolutions to undertake: one fought alongside men against oppressive regimes, and another fought against an entire political and economic system that represses women in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and other nations.

Eltahawy has traveled across the Middle East and North Africa, meeting with women and listening to their stories. Her book is a plea for outrage and action on their behalf, confronting a “toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend.” A manifesto motivated by hope and fury in equal measure, Headscarves and Hymens is as illuminating as it is incendiary.


“Turn to any page of Headscarves and Hymens and you’ll find a statistic or anecdote to make your blood boil . . . [Eltahawy] has now expanded that [Foreign Policy] article into a book,Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, which blends her own story-an ideological journey toward feminism while growing up in Egypt, England and Saudi Arabia-with a sweeping portrait of what life is like for women in the Middle East. The same righteous anger that propelled her essay fuels her book. It’s easy to see why she’s so incensed.” ―Bari Weiss, The Wall Street Journal

“Headscarves and Hymens is a small but packed manifesto, incendiary by design . . . With this book, [Mona Eltahawy] is wisely exploiting her fame to further her cause, which is the physical and emotional emancipation of Arab women . . . Eltahawy is a relentless cataloguer of all the ways the Arab world continues to cloak misogyny in religious fervor.” ―Connie Schultz, The Washington Post

“Eltahawy has issued a bold manifesto for women’s rights . . . For the sake of the ‘double revolution’ for women in the Middle East, it’s a good thing that Eltahawy has remained fearless.” ―Asra Q. Nomani, Ms. Magazine

“Eltahawy exposes hard truths about the current state of gender equality in the Arab world. She is brutally honest in her accounts of the oppression and violence that women regularly face . . . Eltahawy issues a rallying cry in hopes of ending the silence that too often surrounds women’s issues globally. . . Eltahawy is unflinching in her look at the oppression of women in the Middle East and North Africa, but she reminds us that women are subjugated across cultures and that it should not be used as an excuse to demonize Islam.” ―Stephanie Long,Bustle

“This is a timely and provocative call to action for gender equality in the Middle East.” ―Publishers Weekly

“A remarkable book . . . Eltahawy is brave, determined, and at times deliberately provocative . . . Eltahawy’s voice is full of energy, purposefulness and courage. Her rightful anger helps her to not shy away from difficult questions . . . Headscarves and Hymens is timely, important and much needed.” ―Elif Shafak, Literary Review

“This is a powerful global feminist demand for equal rights.” ―Vanessa Bush, Booklist

“In her debut book, Egyptian-American journalist and commentator Eltahawy mounts an angry indictment of the treatment of women throughout the Arab world.” ―Kirkus Review

“This is not an easy book to read-why should it be? Eltahawy’s Headscarves and Hymens is a story of terrorism and torture endured by bodies as fragile as that of a five-year-old girl and as vulnerable as that of protestor splayed by soldiers stomping her bared chest. Why should it be easy to encounter Eltahawy’s own testimony of sexual and physical assault meted out as punishment for resisting totalitarianism? This book is not easy because it is born out of the ongoing struggle of how women can bear witness to their own abuse and oppression while trying to shield their families, communities, nations, and faith from the ugly and dangerous presumptions of Muslim barbarism that fuel Islamaphobia. It is not easy because it forces all of us to examine our ignorance, our complicity, our silence in the face of gender violence perpetrated in the name of religion, culture, and tradition.This book is not easy to read, but it is necessary. Necessary because the warrior journalist who is Mona Eltahawy refuses to leave women crushed beneath the feet of their abusers or hidden behind their veils. Eltahawy recovers women’s activism, art, voices, humanity, and demands for a revolution that makes a material difference for them, their daughters, sisters, friends, lovers, and teachers.” ―Melissa Harris-Perry, host of MSNBC’s “Melissa Harris-Perry”

“‘The most subversive thing a woman can do is talk about her life as if it really matters,’ says Mona Eltahawy in this courageous blend of the personal and the academic and the political. In the hands of Eltahawy, so many silences are opened. She writes about what others have largely feared: the body politic and the body sexual. This is a ground-shaping book that defines the edge of so many vital contemporary debates. Hers is a voice simultaneously behind and beyond the veil.” ―Colum McCann, author of TransAtlantic

“Mona Eltahawy brings a journalist’s keen eye, a revolutionary’s prophetic courage, and a feminist’s incendiary intellect to this work, demolishing the last cultural relativist myths. And she writes so well that it’s hard to put down this audacious, information-packed treasure about the half of the Arab world that’s female. Miss this book–the real key to the Middle East–at your peril.” ―Robin Morgan

“One of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. And will ever read. No matter where she is-in Cairo during the Arab Spring, in the Saudi Arabia of her adolescence, in Oklahoma talking about American ‘purity balls’ with students, in a dozen countries across the Middle East and North Africa-Mona Eltahawy skilfully dismantles the religious, political, and familial machines that maim and silence girls and women everywhere. She is fearlessly honest about her own struggles as an Arab Muslim woman-to tell or not to tell when men accosted her in public, to wear or to not wear hijab (and how to take the hijab off), to wait or not to wait to have sex until marriage. She challenges men and boys, too, to transform themselves and their societies. Her honesty, her anger, and her unrepentant joy in being alive make Headscarves and Hymensmore than an important feminist manifesto. It is a meticulously, beautifully drawn map to freedom.” ―Karen Connelly

“Headscarves and Hymens is a call to arms by a woman who’s plainly proud of her justified rage . . . “It is the job of a revolution to shock, to provoke, and to upset,” Eltahawy writes, “not to behave or be polite.” Mission accomplished.” ―Marcia Kaye, The Toronto Star

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In “Distant View of a Minaret,” the late and much-neglected Egyptian writer Alifa Rifaat begins her short story with a woman so unmoved during sex with her husband that, as he focuses solely on his pleasure, she notices a spiderweb she must sweep off the ceiling and has time to ruminate on her husband’s repeated refusal to prolong intercourse until she climaxes, “as though purposely to deprive her.” Just before her husband reaches orgasm, the call to prayer interrupts their intercourse, and he rolls over. After washing up, she loses herself in prayer, and looks out onto the street from her balcony. She interrupts her reverie to dutifully prepare coffee for her husband to drink after his nap. Taking it to their bedroom to pour it in front of him, as he prefers, she notices that he is dead. She instructs their son to go get a doctor. “She returned to the living room and poured out the coffee for herself. She was surprised at how calm she was,” Rifaat writes.

In a crisp three and a half pages of fiction, Rifaat lays out a trifecta of sex, death, and religion that forms the pulsating heart of misogyny in the Middle East. Here is a writer who, when she was alive, was held up by academics as an “authentic” Egyptian woman, untainted by a foreign language—she spoke only Arabic—and influence from abroad. It is said that Rifaat never traveled outside Egypt, although she did perform a pilgrimage to Mecca and attended a literary conference in the United Kingdom. She was forced by her family to marry a man of their choice, with whom she traveled across Egypt.

Rifaat does not mince words, nor does she mollify. In the slim volume of short stories titled Distant View of a Minaret, she introduces you to a sexually frustrated middle-aged wife who wonders if her mother suffered the same fate with her father, and another mother who laments her youth lost to female genital mutilation and a society that fought her womanhood at every turn. The stories show women constantly sublimating themselves in religion, even as this faith is used against them by clerics and male-dominated society.

There is no sugarcoating it. We Arab women live in a culture that is fundamentally hostile to us, enforced by men’s contempt. They don’t hate us because of our freedoms, as the tired post-9/11 American cliché had it. We have no freedoms because they hate us, as Rifaat powerfully says.

Yes: They hate us. It must be said.

“The fact is, there’s no joy for a girl in growing up, it’s just one disaster after another till you end up an old woman who’s good for nothing and who’s real lucky to find someone to feel sorry for her,” Rifaat writes in the story “Bahiyya’s Eyes.”

Some may ask why I’m bringing this up now, when the Middle East and North Africa are in turmoil, when people are losing their lives by the thousands, when it can sometimes seem as though the revolutions that began in 2010—incited not by the usual hatred of America and Israel, but by a common demand for freedom and dignity—have lost their way. After all, shouldn’t everyone receive basic rights first, before women demand special treatment? Also, what does gender or, for that matter, sex have to do with the Arab Spring? It should have everything to do with the revolution. This is our chance to dismantle an entire political and economic system that treats half of humanity like children at best. If not now, when?

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. When more than 90 percent of women who have ever married in Egypt have had their genitals cut in the name of “purity,” then surely we must all blaspheme. When Egyptian women are subjected to humiliating “virginity tests” merely for speaking out, it’s no time for silence. 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. And what, pray tell, are “good intentions”? They are legally deemed to include any beating that is not “severe” or “directed at the face.” What all this means is that when it comes to the status of women in the Arab world, it’s not better than you think. It’s much, much worse. Even after these “revolutions,” women remain covered up and anchored to the home, are denied the simple mobility of getting into their own cars, are forced to get permission from men to travel, and are unable to marry or divorce without a male guardian’s blessing.

The Arabic-speaking countries of the Middle East and North Africa stand apart in their terrible record on women’s rights. Not a single Arab country ranks in the top one hundred positions on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, putting the region as a whole solidly at the planet’s rock bottom. The annual report looks at four key areas: health (life expectancy, etc.), access to education, economic participation (salaries, job types, and seniority), and political engagement. Neighbors Saudi Arabia and Yemen, for instance, are eons apart when it comes to gross domestic product (GDP), but only eight places separate them on the Global Gender Gap Report, with the kingdom at 127 and Yemen coming in at 136, the very bottom of the 2013 index. Morocco, often touted for its “progressive” family law (a 2005 report by Western “experts” called it “an example for Muslim countries aiming to integrate into modern society”), ranks 129th.

It’s easy to see why the lowest-ranked country is Yemen, where 49 percent of women are illiterate, 59 percent do not participate in the labor force, and there were no women in parliament as of 2013. Horrific news reports about eight-year-old girls dying on the evening of their “wedding” to much older men have done little to stem the tide of child marriage there. Instead, demonstrations in support of child marriage outstrip those against it, and clerics declare that opponents of state-sanctioned pedophilia are apostates because the Prophet Mohammed, according to them, married his second wife, Aisha, when she was a child.

At least Yemeni women can drive. It surely hasn’t ended their problems, but it symbolizes freedom of mobility—and nowhere does such symbolism resonate more than in Saudi Arabia, where child marriage is also practiced and where grown women are treated like children their entire lives, made to obtain the permission of a male guardian to do the most basic of things. Saudi women far outnumber their male counterparts on university campuses but are reduced to watching far less qualified men control every aspect of their lives.

* * *

Nothing prepared me for Saudi Arabia. I was born in Egypt, but my family left for London when I was seven years old. After almost eight years in the United Kingdom, we moved to Saudi Arabia in 1982. Both my parents, Egyptians who had earned PhDs in medicine in London, had found jobs in Jeddah, teaching medical students and technicians clinical microbiology. The campuses were segregated. My mother taught the women on the female campus, and my father taught the men on the male campus. When an instructor of the same gender wasn’t available, the classes were taught via closed-circuit television, and the students would have to ask questions using telephone sets. My mother, who had been the breadwinner of the family for our last year in the United Kingdom, when we lived in Glasgow, now found that she could not legally drive. We became dependent on my father to take us everywhere. As we waited for our new car to be delivered, we relied on gypsy cabs and public buses. On the buses, we would buy our ticket from the driver, and then my mother and I would make our way to the back two rows (four if we were lucky) designated for women. The back of the bus. What does that remind you of? Segregation is the only way to describe it.

It felt as though we’d moved to another planet whose inhabitants fervently wished women did not exist. I lived in this surreal atmosphere for six years. In this world, women, no matter how young or how old, are required to have a male guardian—a father, a brother, or even a son—and can do nothing without this guardian’s permission. Infantilized beyond belief, they cannot travel, open a bank account, apply for a job, or even get medical treatment without a man’s stamp of approval. I watched all this with a mounting sense of horror and confusion.

I would mention voting rights, but back when I lived in Saudi Arabia, no one could vote. King Abdullah had said women will be allowed to vote and run for office in the 2015 elections, but it remains to be seen if clerics—such as the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, who believes that women’s involvement in politics “will open the door to evil”—will scuttle that promise as they did in 2009, when only men were enfranchised in Saudi Arabia’s firstever municipal elections.

Yes, this is Saudi Arabia, the country where a gang-rape survivor was sentenced to jail for agreeing to get into a car with an unrelated male and needed a royal pardon; Saudi Arabia, where a woman who broke the ban on driving was sentenced to ten lashes and, again, needed a royal pardon. So bad is it for women in Saudi Arabia that tiny paternalistic pats on the back—such as the king’s promise to give women the vote in 2015—are greeted with acclaim from international observers, and the monarch behind them, King Abdullah, was hailed as a “reformer”—even by those who ought to know better, such as Newsweek, which in 2010 named the king one of the top eleven most respected world leaders. This so-called reformer’s answer to the revolutions popping up across the region was to numb his people with still more government handouts—especially for the religious zealots from whom the Saudi royal family inhales legitimacy.

When I encountered this country at age fifteen, I was traumatized into feminism—there’s no other way to describe it—because to be a female in Saudi Arabia is to be the walking embodiment of sin. The kingdom is unabashed in its worship of a misogynistic god and never suffers any consequences for it, thanks to the triple advantage of having oil; being home to Islam’s two holiest places, Mecca and Medina; and controlling the flow of petrodollars that keep the weapons manufacturers of its Western allies happily funded.

Then (the 1980s and ’90s) as now, clerics on Saudi TV were obsessed with women and their orifices, especially what came out of them. I’ll never forget hearing that if a baby boy urinated on you, you could go ahead and pray in the same clothes, yet if a baby girl peed on you, you had to change. What on earth made girls’ urine impure? I wondered.

The hatred of women.

This clerical obsession with women’s organs continues today. My favorite recent howler: driving will damage your ovaries.

“If a woman drives a car, not out of pure necessity, that could have negative physiological impacts as functional and physiological medical studies show that it automatically affects the ovaries and pushes the pelvis upwards,” the Saudi cleric Saleh Lohaidan told the news website Sabq in 2013. “That is why we find those who regularly drive have children with clinical problems of varying degrees.”

Saudi Arabia follows an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam known alternatively as Wahhabism or Salafism, the former associated more directly with the kingdom, and the latter, austere form of Islam with those who live outside Saudi Arabia. The kingdom’s petrodollars and concerted proselytizing efforts have taken Wahhabism/Salafism global, and with it the interpretations of Islam that make women’s lives in Saudi Arabia little short of prison sentences.

Yet the hatred of women is not unique to Salafism. It is not merely a Saudi phenomenon, a hateful curiosity of a rich, isolated desert. The Islamist hatred of women burns brightly across the region—now more than ever. By “Islamists,” I intend the Associated Press’s definition: “An advocate or supporter of a political movement that favors reordering government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam.” This includes the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafi groups who belong to the Sunni sect of Islam, and the Shiite militias in Iraq.

The obsession with controlling women and our bodies often stems from the suspicion that, without restraints, women are just a few degrees short of sexual insatiability. Take as an example the words of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the popular Egyptian cleric; resident of Doha, Qatar; and longtime conservative TV host on Al Jazeera. Al-Qaradawi supported the revolutions, no doubt hoping they would eliminate the tyrants who had long tormented and oppressed both him and the Muslim Brotherhood movement from which he springs. While al-Qaradawi, who commands a huge audience on and off the satellite channels, may say that female genital mutilation (which he calls “circumcision,” a common euphemism that tries to put the practice on a par with male circumcision) is not “obligatory,” you will also find the following priceless observation in one of his books: “I personally support this under the current circumstances in the modern world. Anyone who thinks that circumcision is the best way to protect his daughters should do it,” he writes, adding, “The moderate opinion is in favor of practicing circumcision to reduce temptation.” So even among “moderates,” girls’ genitals are cut to ensure that their sexual desire is nipped in the bud. Al-Qaradawi has since issued a fatwa against female genital mutilation (FGM), but it came as no surprise that when Egypt banned the practice in 2008, some Muslim Brotherhood legislators opposed the law. Upholding the credo of the Muslim Brotherhood, to which al-Qaradawi belongs, several of the movement’s women are on record as supporting or legitimizing FGM, including Azza el-Garf (a former member of parliament) and Mohamed Morsi’s women’s affairs adviser during his brief presidency, who called FGM a form of “beautificiation.”

Yet while clerics busy themselves suppressing female desire, it is the men who can’t control themselves. On the streets of too many countries in the region, sexual harassment is epidemic. In a 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, more than 80 percent of Egyptian women said they’d experienced sexual harassment, and more than 60 percent of men admitted to harassing women. A 2013 UN survey reported that 99.3 percent of Egyptian women experience street sexual harassment. Men grope and sexually assault us, and yet we are blamed for it because we were in the wrong place at the wrong time, wearing the wrong thing. Cairo has women-only subway cars to “protect” us from wandering hands and worse; countless Saudi malls are for families only, barring single men from entry unless they produce a requisite female to accompany them. Families impose curfews on their daughters so that they’re not raped or assaulted, and yet is anyone telling boys and men not to rape or assault us?

We often hear how the Middle East’s failing economies have left many men unable to marry, and some even use this fact to explain rising levels of sexual harassment on the streets. Yet we never hear how a later marriage age affects women. Do women have sex drives or not? Apparently, the Arab jury is still out on the basics of human biology. Here is some more wisdom from al-Qaradawi: virgins must be “patient” and resist the temptation of masturbation, which he claims is “more dangerous” than male masturbation because if a virgin inserts her fingers or other objects into her vaginal opening, she could perforate her hymen and her family and future husband will think she committed fornication by having sex before marriage.

Enter that call to prayer and the sublimation through religion that Rifaat so brilliantly introduces in her story. Just as regime-appointed clerics lull the poor across the region with promises of justice in the next world, rather than a reckoning with the corruption and nepotism of the dictator in this life, so women are silenced by men who use women’s faith to imprison them.


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