When my gal pal Maggy asked me if I wanted to do the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge with her and be a part of a pseudo book club where we read and talk about our books without actually reading the same thing at the same time, I didn’t even hesitate to say yes. I’m here in this other country where my relative lack of social life and commitments makes it easy to make time to read. And I think the idea of the Book Riot challenge is great! They provide 24 reading tasks for the year that allow you to “push yourself…to explore topics or formats or genres that you otherwise wouldn’t try…we like books because they allow us to see the world from a new perspective, and sometimes we all need help to even know which perspectives to try out. That’s what this is – a perspective shift.” It’s a reading challenge that aligns perfectly with my own personal life challenge which is Peace Corps.
I know a lot of my friends, family members, and former co-workers love to read, so I thought it would be fun to share with you all what I’ve been reading and maybe introduce you to new authors, genres, and topics along with me.
Read Harder Challenge task accomplished:
Read a nonfiction book about feminism or dealing with feminist themes
The author of Headscarves and Hymens Mona Eltahawy, is a female Muslim journalist who was born in Egypt, moved to London at a young age, moved to Saudi Arabia as a teenager, and spent her college and young adult years in Egypt before finally relocating to New York. H&H, as I’ve affectionately referred to her book, was published in 2015, and is an expansion of an essay she wrote for Foreign Policy in 2012, which was called “Why Do They Hate Us.”
In the book, Eltahawy lays out the oppression of women in Muslim Middle East countries. She begins by talking about the head veil and why it is such a hot topic in the Middle East. She shares her own experiences of not wearing the veil, then deciding to veil as a teen, and her personal process and motivations for finally unveiling.
In the sections where she writes about the ridiculous amount of sexual harassment that women experience in the streets of Egypt and Yemen, Eltahawy is writing rhetoric that absolutely applies to all women everywhere, but with a Muslim twist.
“This purity culture leads both men and women to unjustly blame women for the harassment they suffer. Women are criticized, and they criticize and police one another, for wearing clothes that are too tight, or the wrong color, the wrong length, the wrong style – it’s always the women’s fault…
To insist on ‘modesty’ as a prerequisite for safety on the street is victim blaming with disregard for the facts of street sexual harassment…In the hope that men won’t hiss obscenities at us and that their hands respect the boundaries of our bodies, we plead, ‘What if I were your wife, sister, or daughter?’ Always the focus is on the woman, the object of the obscenities and assaults. Does she not deserve safe passage in public space unless she is identified by her relationship to a man?
We should instead be exposing and shaming the boys and men who would deny us that safety, and we should ask, ‘What if he were your husband, brother, or son?’ The people who make our lives hell on the streets are men we know, men we are related to, and they should be the object of scrutiny instead of us.”1
But just when I am starting to see this as a women’s issue, and not a Middle East women’s issue, Eltahawy writes, “Our hymens are not ours; they belong to our families.”2 She goes on to write about how virginity isn’t just placed on a pedestal within Muslim Middle East cultures, it is confirmed prior to marriage. A woman without an intact hymen isn’t a marriable woman. She even shares that hymen reconstruction is a thing that women undergo so as not to have their new husbands reject them on their wedding nights. Beyond hymen checks, female genital mutilation (FGM) is still a practice in the Middle East. FGM consists of removing all external genital organs with the intention of reducing a girl’s sex drive; girls without sex drives won’t have a problem maintaining their virginities.
This is a fascinating read. I urge everyone – regardless of sex or gender – to pick it up and learn about the ongoing oppression of our sisters in the Middle East. We can’t stop what we don’t know about, so please, learn about this.
1From the chapter “One Hand Against Women” in Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution by Mona Eltahawy, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
2From the chapter “The God of Virginity” in Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution by Mona Eltahawy, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015