Photo: Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center
Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution is the title of Mona Eltahaway’s new book, described by the publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux as “a passionate manifesto decrying misogyny in the Arab world.” Eltahaway, an Egyptian American journalist, activist, and fearless advocate for human rights, discussed the book with Robin Morgan at the Crosby Hotel in SoHo on May 9. The event lived up to its bold title. Morgan opened by saying that they intended to kick ass, especially the patriarchy’s—and they did. The two women, old friends with a lively rapport, got right to the heart of feminist issues in both the Middle East and the West. Eltahaway spoke passionately, rapidly firing well-articulated and rousing truths.
Morgan first asked Eltahaway why she wrote a book critical of the Arab world now.
“Because we’re going through a global revolutionary moment,” Eltahaway answered, and cited examples in China, India, Afghanistan, Turkey, and the United States. She explained that she’s tired of having to choose between racism and sexism; that we can fight both. And it is our right to fight misogyny. Furthermore, there can be no revolution without a sexual revolution. The reason: sex is about consent and agency; and what is a revolution without consent and agency?
Her book, while political, is also very personal. Eltahaway asserted that the personal is crucial to revolution. At one point she quoted Muriel Rukeyser: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” When Eltahaway was a girl, her family moved from the UK to Saudi Arabia, where she experienced a very different type of Islam, one that viewed women as the walking embodiment of sin. She started to wear a hijab as a way to hide from men. Then, at nineteen, she discovered the antidote: feminism. She realized the Saudis worshipped a misogynist god who was not her god. The religious right has whittled women down to their sexuality.
So what are the solutions? In a passionate call to action, Eltahaway told the audience to destroy the patriarchy, our common enemy. Earlier, Morgan cited statistics from Eltahaway’s book that show how factors like wealth, education, and political engagement do not determine whether a country has equal rights; rather, patriarchy and misogyny are the root of the problem. Eltahaway also told the audience not to fight her fight, but to fight their fight here, and to fight complacency. Those in the United States are not living in a post-sexism or post-racism society. She said to hold political representatives to account, to tell them to stop hypocrisy when it comes to human rights.
In her fight for feminism, Eltahaway has had her arms broken and has been sexually assaulted. After that happened, she dyed her hair bright red and tattooed her arms as a way to restore a beauty she felt she’d lost. “I’m a tenacious optimist,” she said.
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