By Adefolami Ademola
In a little over 200 pages of crispy anecdotes, graphic illustrations and exerting metaphors, Mona Eltahawy’s Headscarves and Hymens expressly reveals the physical subjugation and mental — psychological — ‘dewomanization’ that women in the Middle East and North Africa are surreptitiously subjected to.
Like every literature that is hell-bent on questioning ultraconservative dogmatism, and challenging cultural, social and religious status quo, the book unequivocally paints pictures of how women, till today, still harbour an erroneous misconception that they are second fiddle to men, and the annoying way with which virulent Islamic clerics and men in Muslim nations ogle after the ownership of female bodies, even painting pictures of a masochistic chauvinism that is a privilege men enjoy in these climes.
For Mona, the Headscarf is a tool for female repression. The lack of choice in veiling or not, for women, shows the extent to which the voices of women have been silent. For extreme (ultra) conservatives, it is, bound by Islamic injunctions, an obligation for women to veil themselves. A misinterpretation of the holy prophet’s suggestion of a ‘curtain’ for privacy has seen errant Muslim fanatics request women to don thick black Niqabs to ‘protect’ them from the unremitting sexual appetites of men, which always leads to the heightened sexual harassment and rape of innocent women.
For centuries, women have been at the receiving end of societal obscurity and dehumanizing treatments. In Africa, the public consensus is that women should make the home and subject their dreams and aspirations to the whims and caprices of irresponsible husbands. But even at that, this dysfunction has been challenged by fearless women like Queen Amina of Zaria, Mrs Ransome Kuti, Moremi, Efunsetan Aniwura, among others; women who took various African societies by storm and showed the global village that women can do everything a man does, maybe even better. But these strong examples the society has tried to sweep under the opaque carpets of historic oblivion.
Even in intellectual spaces, women’s voices have almost always been receded into the backgrounds. During the first generation of literary writers in Africa, writers like Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, J.P Clark, Leopold Sedar Senghor were the poster boys, and effortlessly paraded as though writers like Flora Nwapa, Ama Ata Aido, Buchi Emecheta and others had not written books that could match the literary brilliance of their male counterparts. Even in early Europe, many female authors in the past were forced to use a male pseudonym in order to get published and they would be surprised to discover that this practice still happens today. Mary Ann Evans published under the name of George Elliot, Louisa May Alcott published as A. M Barnard. More recently, J. K Rowling even published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Try and think of a famous historical female artist or a female composer? It seems as though they never existed.
With this prerequisite knowledge as backdrop, Mona’s book becomes a scathing work that outright calls out the patronizing patriarchy that is shielded by Islam, or the deliberate misinterpretation of Islamic tenets by hyper-extreme conservatives and the men folk at large.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), domestic violence, sexual assault (an experience which the author was sadly a recipient of too many times, even during the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca) are salient issues that the book takes on. In a time when rape has become a global menace, and the unfortunate belief is that women should be blamed for their rape because they wear provocative clothes that arouse men, Mona’s mind-blogging statistics of countries where majority of women are closely veiled, but still sexually harassed, shows how the global society has unanimously agreed to blame women for whatever befalls them. In Yemen, for instance, nearly all Yemeni women are covered from head to toe. Even at that, more than 90% of Yemeni women claim to have been groped or sexually assaulted on the streets. In Egypt, almost 100% of Egyptian girls and women report being sexually harassed. These figures point out the ‘ownership of women’s bodies’ privileges that is a default configuration in the psyche of men in most climes. There is an aggregated, albeit curious, mindset by men that women’s bodies belong to them. This reality is further amplified by laws that criminalize women who, despite the potential harm it engenders, claim to have been raped when they ‘cannot provide evidences’. The sheer hypocrisy of it all, as Mona pointed out, is nerve-racking.
These privileged claims to women’s bodies, and the state’s obsession for ‘protecting’ these bodies from the women culminates into ‘virginity tests’ that allows men to poke their fingers into the vaginas of girls and women, to ascertain if they are virgins. It is considered less of a catastrophe if a girl lost her life than if she lost her hymen — a rather baffling exposition of the repression that women have been saddled to put up with. Families in North Africa and the Middle East continuously remind female children that their hymens are not theirs but the family’s.
On reading Mona’s opus, the sad thought that surmised the whole experiences of women is that the dehumanization, objectification and subjugation of women is a state affair in almost all the Middle East and North Africa.
To dare criticize Islamic excesses is to live on the fringe of a lifetime in jail, derision, exile or even death. Nawal El-Saddawi, Aryan Hirsi Ali, Mona Eltahawy are writers who have had to pay the price for rising to speak against religion-backed, culture-heightened and society-supported rape of women; physically, mentally and psychology, accentuate by an organized collaboration between state and religion.
Perhaps, in this modern age where feminism and the relentless strive of NGOs have continued to fight for female liberation the fate of women in this conservative neighborhoods will be bettered. The fight is ongoing, and Mona’s Headscarves and Hymens is her contribution to the struggle for a world where any man who harasses, rapes or abuses a woman is punished accordingly, and not given a window ‘to marry his victim so as to keep intact her family’s honor’; a world where women are allowed in parliaments, and hold key political positions like their male counterparts in extremely religious countries; a world where women have a say in their choice of clothes, without being accused to ‘inviting the men to rape them’ because of their ‘indecent’ dressing; a world where women are not denied sexual pleasure by being mutilated or witnessing a part of their vagina cut off, and ultimately, a world where men and women are equal.