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book review

Mona Eltahawy’s provocative new book, Headscarves and Hymens, falls short in its goal to change the Arab world, writes Stephanie Nolen.Markus Schieder/Getty Images/iStockphoto

It's right there on the cover, in that flinchy word "hymen" – a word to make every woman who sees it wince a little, because there is no good context in which anyone talks about hymens.

That provocation cues you for what's coming from Mona Eltahawy: There will be provocation, with no apologies. The book is a fusillade, a rant whose logical inconsistencies are initially disguised by the verve and conviction of her writing.

Her subject here is women and sexuality and sexism, and the particular ways these are handled in Arab countries. The book is a mix of intimate memoir – she writes with great emotion about the decision to wear a hijab, and later to leave her head uncovered – and jeremiad against the "tyrants" who oppress Arab women in their governments, and in their homes.

Eltahawy is an Egyptian writer and journalist who now divides her time between Cairo and New York. She grew up in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and London, and carries the mark of all three. You may remember her as the woman who suddenly seemed to be everywhere at the start of the Egyptian revolution, explaining the country to Western media. This book, she says, is born of concern that even as political space opens in the Arab countries experiencing revolutions and upheaval, the freedoms of women are not only not expanding but in fact may shrink.

As I read along into Headscarves and Hymens, I realized I wanted it to be a good book. I have never met Eltahawy, although we overlapped as foreign correspondents in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. We are Twitter friends, that modern phenomenon, a connection spurred by our shared feminism. I like her public voice: it's brassy and unapologetic, and when she wrote a wildly provocative article for Foreign Policy in 2012 called "Why They Hate Us" (us being Arab women, on behalf of whom she presumed to speak, and they being all Arab men), I found it problematic but was glad to have a Muslim Arab woman making the argument that too often comes from racist Western conservatives, or, nearly as painful, earnest Western feminists (or Prime Minister Stephen Harper) who can see only oppression when they look at a woman who is visibly Muslim.

But the book suffers from a sense of haste – in its conception, or its writing, perhaps both – flipping between a somewhat breathless conversational style that is, at least, highly readable, and sudden expanses of arid statistics that read more like a first-year anthropology paper.

Eltahawy's argument is scattered and reductivist, but when you can find it, it is that, in essence, Arab men have a fear that bleeds into loathing of women's sexuality and thus a compulsive need to control it. In one of its more cogent articulations in the book, she writes, "They hate us because they need us, they fear us, they understand how much control it takes to keep us in line, to keep us good girls with our hymens intact until it's time for them to fuck us into mothers who raise future generations of misogynists to forever fuel their patriarchy. They hate us because we are at once their temptation and their salvation from that patriarchy, which they must sooner or later realize hurts them, too. They hate us because they know that once we rid ourselves of the alliance of State and Street that works in tandem to control us, we will demand a reckoning."

To back up the argument, she presents a dizzying array of horror stories – child brides in Yemen who bleed to death when they are raped by their husbands on their wedding nights, Egyptian survivors of genital cutting, Lebanese women beaten to death by their husbands as their children watch and the police refuse to intervene, Saudi women who become prisoners of their adolescent sons.

But as a reader, I stumbled repeatedly over two problems. First, her research is not deep: The majority of cases she cites are from reports in the limited English-language Arab media, and she draws heavily on interviews she did for a BBC radio documentary. Sometimes there are UN statistics, and sometimes there is something a woman said to her once on the subway. I found myself craving a deeply researched, Andrew Solomon-esque book on this topic, one where the author has immersed herself in the subject not just from lived experience but in research, in criticism, in thousands of hours of interviews. I wanted the anger to be irrefutably backed up.

Second, she levels charges against all Arab societies – although culturally and even linguistically Tunisia has a limited amount in common with Lebanon and the two are a world again different from Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless Eltahawy feels that crimes against women in one are from the same root as those in another – but why draw the line there? I found myself thinking repeatedly of my last posting, in India, and the pervasive misogyny that I ran into in story after story I reported there. No different, surely – Eltahawy's response, I think, would be that of course patriarchy is universal but she is entitled as an Arab woman to start her critique in her own community. Well, sure, but at the same time she is invested in arguing that there is a uniquely Arab pathology here – tied up in the twin obsessions with female virginity and veiling – and she does not convince.

Eltahawy says she was "traumatized into feminism" when she moved to Saudi Arabia with her family at the age of 15, "because to be a female in Saudi Arabia is to be the walking embodiment of sin." She is an old-school feminist, sprinkling the books with quotes from bell hooks and Audre Lorde and others from the generation whose writing she discovered as a teenager. "To this day I have no idea what dissident professor or librarian placed feminist texts on the bookshelves at the university library in Jeddah, but I found them there. They filled me with terror. I understood they were pulling at a thread that would unravel everything."

There is still enormous power in the writing of hooks and others of her era, and it is refreshing to see their words given weight as relevant today, not just as artifacts. It's a reminder that feminism is about revolution, not just Dove ads or whether you should call your daughter bossy.

The book is at its best when Eltahawy describes trying to reconcile the expectations of her family and community with her religion, and with her feminism, on veiling or premarital sex. "My feminism wrestled with my headscarf," she writes, "but not with my hymen. Why? Why did I obey? And why did I wait so long to finally disobey?" It's not access a Western reader often gets – to those most intimate spaces of Middle Eastern women – and it is engrossing. (Similarly, Western readers may appreciate the voices of feminist thinkers and writers from the Arab world, not widely read in translation, that pepper the book.)

The greater clarity and compelling character of those sections left me sensing a missed opportunity: A sexual revolution is not the same thing as a women's rights revolution, although Eltahawy lumps them together willy-nilly. She might have done better to focus on the less-trod ground of the former, where she has the most compelling things to say.

There are a great many female bloggers and journalists in the Middle East who don't agree with Eltahawy on Islam's treatment of women, or appreciate her self-nominated position as spokesperson – there was a deluge of enraged response to her Foreign Policy piece – but she is good at calling out absurdity in the usual responses. "Why is it acceptable to move beyond sharia when it comes to theft [and amputating hands, a punishment only Saudi Arabia maintains] but impossible to do so when it comes to women's rights in the family? The simple answer: Personal status laws are the area where religious and conservative men shore up their control of women's lives."

Eltahawy writes that Muslims are forever telling her that the problem isn't Islam, it's "some people's" interpretation of the religion. Nonsense, she says: "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."

But she trips herself up in a denunciation of the niqab, or face veil; she says its sole purpose is to erase women's participation in public life, and supports the controversial French ban on wearing it. It's hard to make the leap from pages earlier when she talked about her own feminist defence of a head veil, and the fundamental idea of feminism being about women's choices. No woman would choose the niqab, all else being equal, Eltahawy insists – but a great many Muslim women dispute that, and how can she deem their voices invalid?

She sets her book up as a manifesto: "We might have removed Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, but until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors on our streets and in our homes – unless we topple the Mubaraks in our mind, in our bedrooms, and on our street corners – our revolution has not even begun."

Yet the vital next paragraph – the one that suggests a plan, a path, a strategy – never comes. Eltahawy's prescriptions are limited to vague instructions to "confront" misogyny wherever it is found, "for each of us to expose and to fight against local versions of it."

What would that look like? Who is she talking to? What does she suggest Arab women do? And men? It's important to be angry – as Eltahawy makes clear there is ample reason. But as events in her beloved Egypt have made brutally evident since the first brave protesters went to Tahrir Square, it's vital to have a plan for what comes next.

This book has value as the opening salvo in a debate. But you will have to read elsewhere to find the next lines of the manifesto for this revolution.

Stephanie Nolen is The Globe and Mail's South American correspondent, and the author of several books, including 28: Stories of AIDS in Africa.