There are moments when clarity burns through the screen, incinerating any semblance of doubt. Such a moment happened to Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian-American activist who received a startling bulletin from Human Rights Watch in 2002 that reported an abominable crime. A girl’s school caught on fire, and fifteen were trampled to death — with another fifty-two injured. “Parents and journalists angrily demanded the resignation of education officials they accused of incompetence and corruption.” The school, dangerously overcrowded, packed about “eight hundred schoolgirls … into a building designed for only two hundred fifty. The main gate to the school was locked. There were no emergency exits, no fire alarms, and no fire extinguishers in the building.” Horrific as it may sound, this is not the most depraved aspect. “Firefighters told the Saudi press that morality police had forced the girls to stay inside the burning building because they were not wearing the headscarves and abayas that women must wear in public in that kingdom. One Saudi paper reported that the morality police had stopped men who tried to help the girls escape the building, including firefighters, saying, ‘It is sinful to approach them.’”
At the age of fifteen, Eltahawy lived in Saudi Arabia, where she 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 country “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.” The key problem is institutionalized, religiously-sanctioned patriarchy, which holds women down so thoroughly that they risk internalizing, and often do internalize, their own oppression. Eltahawy’s argument is at its strongest when she explores the intersectionality between religion, culture, and politics, a matrix of control that keeps half of the population in bondage. She writes,
Male-dominated religions and cultures, which cater to male sexuality with barely a nod to women’s desires, are difficult enough to endure without the judgments of fellow women. I know where these judgments come from; I recognize the need to conform. That need internalizes misogyny and subjugation, so much so that mothers will deny daughters the same pleasure and desire they were denied, and will call them “whores” for seeking it. In order to survive, women police their daughters’ bodies and their own, subsuming desire for the “honor” and the family’s good name.
The triune authority of regime-street-home forms the crux which lays out how the social forces of reactionary culture and religion, coated with a veneer of political rhetoric, subjugate half the human race. Put more simply, in an interview with the New York Times Magazine, “the enemy is misogyny and patriarchy.” “We are in denial if we do not honestly reckon with the role of religion in maintaining the patriarch’s rule at home, including how the men of religion help him to uphold his rule.” Activists at the first-ever regional conference on sexual harassment, which took place in Cairo in 2009, and was attended by representatives from seventeen Arab countries, concluded that harassment was unchecked across the region because “laws don’t punish it, women don’t report it, and the authorities ignore it.” Eltahawy first unleashed a firestorm with an article for Foreign Policy magazine in May 2012 titled “Why Do They Hate Us?” — an experience that led to her feeling like she is “walking into a minefield” when discussing misogyny in the Arab world, putting her between a rock, “a bigoted and racist Western right wing” that co-opts some of what she wrote to confirm their own prejudices, and a hard place, liberals in the West who “are blind to the cultural imperialism they are performing when they silence critiques of misogyny.” Her critics on the left “behave as if they want to save my culture and faith from me, and forget that they are immune to the violations about which I speak,” whereas on the other side, her right-wing critics are “driven by a covert racism.”
Lest anyone suspect that misogyny and sexism have been stamped out everywhere else, “Street sexual harassment is not exclusive to the Middle East and North Africa. It is a disturbing reality for too many women around the world. But a combination of societal, religious, and political factors has made the region’s public spaces uniquely dangerous for women.” In a panel discussion held at the Aspen Institute titled Women and the Arab Revolutions, Eltahawy declared, “You cannot be free when half of your society is oppressed.” Eltahawy is an Arab-Muslim woman, a fearless polemicist, and a self-described provocateur. In the central chapter, Eltahawy quotes Egyptian feminist thinker Nawal el-Saadawi. “Arab society,” el-Saadawi wrote,
still considers that the fine membrane which covers the aperture of the external genital organs is the most cherished and most important part of a girl’s body, and is much more valuable than one of her eyes, or an arm, or a lower limb. An Arab family does not grieve as much at the loss of a girl’s eye as it does if she happens to lose her virginity. In fact if a girl lost her life, it would be considered less of a catastrophe than if she lost her hymen.
During a taping of the TV show “Head to Head” in Oxford Union, on Al Jazeera English in February 2014, after sharing her story of having worn the veil only to finally remove it for good years later, Eltahawy was “chided” by a woman in the audience who wore a full-face covering (known as a niqab) after Eltahawy made it clear that she supports a public ban on wearing it. The woman with the niqab believed that “I was preventing her from completing her own journey” with questions of identity. After the show, the same woman approached the author, this time without a niqab. “I was shocked and asked her to explain why she wasn’t covering her face.” The woman explained that she wore it “depending on the situation,” to which Eltawahy rejoindered that “women in the Middle East and North Africa did not have such a privilege.” In an earlier episode, she is accosted by a niqab-wearing woman, in Cairo, who asked point-blank, “Why aren’t you wearing a niqab?” Eltahawy was dressed quite conservatively, but it didn’t matter. “Isn’t what I’m wearing enough?” she plaintively asks, to which the fully-covered woman says, “If you want to eat a piece of candy, would you choose one that is in a wrapper or an unwrapped one?” Eltahawy’s answer is devastatingly succinct: “I’m a woman, not a piece of candy.”
Manal al-Sharif, one of many women activists who are the heroes of Eltahawy’s book, is a Saudi citizen fighting for the right to drive a car. (Saudi Arabia is the only state in the world that does not accord women this right.) In 2011, al-Sharif told the press “that the storm begins with just one raindrop and argued that the kingdom cannot forever keep at bay the hurricane of women’s rights.” Saudi authorities had her lose her job and al-Sharif fled for Dubai. Saudi Arabia is suffused with “unimaginable obscurantism and misogyny,” forces that affect “the disadvantaged, the most marginalized, and the most vulnerable” most acutely. Eltahawy calls out spineless international organizations, like the United Nations Human Rights Council, which is “continually caving in to … cultural relativism,” whereby “international officials side with the [Saudi] regime and with hard-line clerics and fail to support the brave work of local activists,” such as the courageous women drivers. Saudi Arabia is a contradictory kingdom: “A country that in about six decades built multilane highways across the desert, and is one of the most connected on the information superhighway, keeps its women locked in a medieval bubble — and the world is shamefully silent.”
For a BBC documentary called The Women of the Arab Spring in March 2014, Eltahawy and a producer named Gemmy Newby spoke with women legislators in Tunisia, the country of ten million that sparked the uprisings. Eltahawy hates the term “Arab Spring”: a revolution, she says, is not a season. She interviewed a secular lawmaker and an Islamist lawmaker of the Ennahda party, both women, who drafted the only constitution in the Arab world — and the first in modern Arab history — that mandated equality of the sexes. “Although it remains to be seen whether their efforts will translate into more than words on paper,” Eltahawy writes, “Tunisia’s constitution is the first in the Arab world that recognizes men and women as equals. Unlike their counterparts in that first parliament in Egypt after the revolution, not all female Islamist lawmakers in Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly are foot soldiers of the patriarchy.” Nesma el-Khattab, an Egyptian activist, said that Tahrir Square was not the only battleground: “I would go to Tahrir without our family knowing and my mother would say, ‘You’re not allowed back in the house.’ … I’ve been fighting for years but the revolution took it to another level.”
For the BBC series, Eltahawy also interviewed Libyan women who were fighting for their country’s liberation from Moammar Qaddafi, and liberation from patriarchy, one of whom is Zahra Langhli, “a cofounder of the NGO Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace.” Langhli told Eltahawy that since the fall of the Qaddafi regime in 2011, the ensuing security vacuum has been especially gruesome for women, who are “also being deliberately excluded from the political process.” Jordan, Tunisia, and Mauritania are the only nations in the region that “have laws that specifically address domestic violence,” but they are usually unenforced — Mauritania and Tunisia share the distinction of being “the only countries in the region that have a law against marital rape.” With the compounded effect of so-called Personal Status Codes, millions of women are systematically oppressed and infantilized. She cites a fantastic article from The National (UAE) describing “a forty-year-old [divorcee] whose eleven-year-old son would become the arbiter of her remarriage once he reached the age of puberty. ‘This law is a disgrace. I’m a grown woman and should be allowed to make my own decisions,’ she said.”
Eltahawy’s involvement with feminist advocacy begins in 1994, when she was a correspondent for the UN International Conference on Population and Development, and received “a report on reproductive rights in Egypt” that detailed a story about a teenaged girl, 17 years old, who “was returned to her mother’s home on her wedding night with a note from the young woman’s husband to his mother-in-law: ‘If you want your daughter to be married, you know what you need to do.’ On the spot, the mother called a traditional midwife” to perform female genital mutilation (FGM), a barbaric ritual “practiced by both Muslims and Christians in Egypt, where many believe it is a religious duty, despite the fact that it is not mentioned in either the Qur’an or the Bible.” Eltahawy says she has “blamed the Arab world’s toxic mix of culture and religion for many of the examples of misogyny I cite in this book. Female genital mutilation is such a difficult practice to eradicate precisely because those two behemoths underpin it. Although both Muslim and Christian girls are subjected to FGM, activists have long complained chiefly of the mosque preachers who instruct their communities that it is their religious duty to cut their daughters.” Egypt’s first democratically-elected leader, Mohamed Morsi, had a “women’s affairs adviser … [who] described FGM as ‘beautification,’ and objected to the practice only when it was carried out on girls as young as seven or eight.” In other words, “Girls and women are forced to be cultural vectors. Their bodies are the medium upon which culture is engraved, be it through headscarves or cutting.”
Anticipating the reaction that FGM is “an African thing,” Eltahawy records that half of women at a clinic in Jeddah, the most cosmopolitan place possible in Saudi Arabia, were found to have undergone FGM, according to “the Iraqi German NGO WADI.” Furthermore, “Research by students at Dubai Women’s College reported that FGM is also practiced in the United Arab Emirates for tribal and Islamic reasons. … The U.S. embassy in the Omani capital, Muscat, held a recent panel discussion on FGM in which it emerged that the practice may be quite widespread in Oman,” among many places across the Muslim world. This retched practice is not entirely unknown in the history of the Land of the Free™: “A friend told me that after surviving a rape in the early decades of the twentieth century in the United States, her mother was subjected to a clitoridectomy in the hospital, to protect her from ‘becoming sexually out of control.’” In a recent report by the US Population Reference Bureau, of the top ten countries of origin of “women and girls at risk of female genital mutilation/cutting in the United States,” Egypt tops the list with 109,205. The stories Eltahawy relates are harrowing and infuriating. One of these horrific anecdotes merits quoting verbatim, in full:
Lama did not stand a chance. The five-year-old’s father, Fayhan al-Ghamdi, was a “cleric,” a regular guest on Muslim television networks despite not being an authorized cleric in Saudi Arabia. He beat Lama with canes, burned her with electrical cables, crushed her skull, and tore off her nails. He also raped her repeatedly, “everywhere,” according to a social worker at the hospital where Lama was admitted. It is impossible to imagine what that little girl’s last few months alive were like, and it is equally unimaginable that her father inflicted all that torture on her because he apparently suspected the five-year-old was no longer a virgin. She was admitted to the hospital on December 25, 2011, and died a few months later. A Saudi court sentenced al-Ghamdi to eight years in prison and to eight hundred lashes. Of this term, he served only three months before an Islamic judge overturned the sentence, releasing him. Compare this to the verdict of another Saudi court, which gave four young men sentences of between three and ten years in prison and five hundred to two thousand lashes for dancing naked in public, and gave a verdict of three years in jail to human rights lawyers who were convicted of “disrespecting” the judiciary.
In 1899, Eltahawy recounts, a reformer named Qasim Amin wrote Tahrir al-Mar’a (The Liberation of Women), which “controversially argued that the veil stood in the way of women’s progress and, by extension, Egypt’s. Muslim scholars reacted strongly to Amin’s polemic and demanded that women who remove their veils be imprisoned or at least fined.” Flash-forward to Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, tolerates pedophilia in the form of “child marriage.” In a particularly graphic account, we are visited with a visceral example of one such “marriage”: “Witness the case of Rawan, an eight-year-old Yemeni girl who was killed by her ‘husband.’ She died of internal bleeding after a man five times her age fucked her to death on their ‘wedding night.’” Afterward, “a Dubai-based news organization claim[ed] that the story is a hoax and has circulated a video of a little girl who is allegedly Rawan, alive and well,” although “the Yemeni journalist who originally reported the story stands by it, accusing local officials of a cover-up.”
Or consider the case of another Yemeni girl, Fawziya Ammodi, 12 years old, “who died in 2009 from severe bleeding after struggling for three days in labor. Her baby also died.” In the face of such obscenity, Eltahawy takes aim at euphemism: “Slavish obedience to the clerics, who know how to squeeze every last drop of advantage out of religion, is killing our girls. We must speak — blaspheme, if necessary; be accused of being apostates, if that is what is required.” Since July 2013, Eltahawy observes, “when el-Sisi overthrew President Mohamed Morsi, who came from the Muslim Brotherhood movement, women who are affiliated with the Brotherhood — which has since been outlawed as a ‘terrorist group’ — have also said they were subjected to ‘virginity tests’ in detention. So it does not matter where you stand on Egypt’s political spectrum: if you are a woman, your body is not safe.” The walls are very high, but, on a brighter note, the sexual revolution is “unstoppable.” A sexual revolution is long overdue. The arc of history is long, but whether it will bend toward justice cannot be taken for granted.