Women in the Arab world face unspeakable sexism, from the limitations on their movements to child marriage and genital mutilation. They're also used as political pawns: there to be saved by Western white-knight warriors, then willfully ignored when petro-dollars are changing hands. What rarely happens is an airing of their opinions, especially on any mainstream, widespread scale.
Letting Muslim women speak for themselves is the mandate of journalist Mona Eltahawy, who was born in Egypt, spent her childhood in London and moved to Saudi Arabia with her family as a teenager. It was there, in the birthplace of Islam and one of the world's harshest environments for women, that Ms. Eltahawy became a feminist, one who struggled against the restrictions put on her sex in the name of her faith.
For decades, her work for outlets including Reuters, the Washington Post and the BBC has spotlighted the violence and cruelty often faced by women and girls in North Africa and the Middle East. It has brought her infamy – and danger: In 2011, she was arrested and sexually assaulted by Egyptian police when reporting in Tahrir Square. Despite being jailed and having her left hand and right arm broken, she refused to abandon the region. For the past two years, she has been living in Cairo, working on her first book, to be released next week.
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.
Ms. Eltahawy, who calls herself a radical Muslim feminist, also reveals how women are resisting, and often succeeding. She interviews women throughout the region who have long histories of activism – women who don't want outside recognition or Western help to reclaim their countries, but deserve it just the same. On the phone from Cairo, she discusses the book's imminent release, and the burgeoning power of Arab women.
Are you expecting a lot of pushback from the book?
Oh yeah, I'm preparing myself. I know that I have touched on very difficult subjects. Generally speaking, women of colour – for lack of a better term – all over the world are not encouraged to talk about sexism and misogyny. For the longest time we've been silenced by this [notion of ] "You make us look bad in front of outsiders."
In the book, you quote a woman from Tunisia who says, "Where women fight, only men benefit." This is when you're discussing what you call "the double battle" – that women were essential to the Arab Spring but afterward the misogyny and the violence were just as bad, maybe worse.
We began these difficult revolutions and then we focused on men and the struggles among men to basically divvy up the spoils. We're just doing musical chairs to replace one man with another.
We need to start talking about violence against women as a form of terrorism and recognize that until we solve that terrorism – instead of the kind we're often told we must focus on: the explosions; the fight between military rule and the Islamists – the political revolution will fail. That's why I keep talking about the double revolution. Nothing will succeed and we will never be free unless we have a concurrent social and sexual revolution that focuses on all of us.
I appreciated learning about women in the Middle East who have been agitating for years. Could you talk a bit about Wajeha Al-Huwaider from Saudi Arabia?
Wajeha is one of the first Saudi feminists that I began to follow closely. Years ago she would drive her car across the border between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, knowing she'd get arrested. She was banned from travelling, had her passport confiscated. The column that she wrote for a Saudi newspaper was banned. Yet she persisted.
In 2008, she recorded a fantastic video chiding the Saudi royal family for not sending any women to the Beijing Olympics, reminding them that, according to the teachings of the prophet, families are supposed to teach their sons and their daughters sports. She also recorded a video of herself driving a car, clearly violating the ban on women driving as she narrated an open letter to the Saudi interior minister. She's constantly put herself on the front line of the feminist revolution that I'm sure will happen in Saudi Arabia.
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.
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.
Do you think Saudi Arabia is the most important country in the Arab world, to have women's rights be advanced?
I think when the revolution begins in Saudi Arabia – and it will, of this I'm sure – it will solve so many of our problems. Saudi Arabia gets away with what it gets away with because it has oil and it has billions of dollars to spend on weapons deals from Canada, from Europe, from the U.S. Just as insidiously, it is home to the two holiest sites for Muslims.
Once the revolution begins in Saudi Arabia, I think people will start to recognize that Saudi Arabia doesn't own the copyright to Islam. Saudi Arabia has set back centuries of women's rights and human rights by wrapping itself up in the flag of Islam. The Saudi royal family have ruined a lot of what Islam meant, not just for their own people but for Muslims around the world.
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.
This interview has been condensed and edited.