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Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution

4.14  ·  Rating details ·  2,700 ratings  ·  417 reviews
The journalist Mona Eltahawy is no stranger to controversy. Through her articles and actions she has fought for the autonomy, security, and dignity of Muslim women, drawing vocal supporters and detractors. Now, in her first book, Headscarves and Hymens, Eltahawy has prepared a definitive condemnation of the repressive forces--political, cultural, and religious--that reduce ...more
Paperback, 256 pages
Published May 10th 2016 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published August 12th 2014)
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4.14  · 
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Update I've finished the book. I have a lot to say. I'm thinking on how to do it. I have a lot of problems with the author and find her wilfully stupid and also ignoring ways of helping end FGM because they don't suit her politcally. When I think on how to say it, I will write a review.

There is a small herd of elephants in the room.They are hiding behind the sofa that everyone is sitting on facing the author who is in full swing with her justified and passionate rant. She can see them but she kn
Michael Finocchiaro
I was recently at a friend's going away party here in Paris and got into an interesting conversation with a woman from Algeria who mentioned this book to me. She said that should had her hand over her mouth the entire time - about how the author was groped during her hadj (or hajj) while she circled the Kaaba and how she was gang-raped in Cairo during manifestations in 2011 following the Arab spring revolution there. Her analysis of misogyny in the Middle East is precise and factual citing issue ...more
Jun 16, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Caroline by: Louise
Shelves: world, 5-star-books

Later add......
I think my review of this book has probably been rather biased in some respects. Two comments were particularly good in restoring some balance to my perspective. See below, comments 22 and 24.


I found this one of the most depressing books that I have ever read about female oppression. It describes the state of Muslim women in North Africa and the Middle East. There are small signs of rebellion and hope, like the fact there are currently more Saudi
I have to admit I am conflicted about the whole complete veil, the niqab. It just seems segregating in a way that simply covering your hair doesn’t do. Furthermore, the men who seem to endorse it, by and large, are men that I never want to meet. Yet, I am American enough (Eltahaway would undoubtedly say I am Western liberal enough) that if it is a choice freely made than who I am to say otherwise.

And the key to that sentence is freely. And it is too Eltahaway’s credit as a writer that she has
I first came across this book at the Librairie Antoine in Beirut, Lebanon, where I was happy to find a shelf full of feminist literature, mostly by Middle Eastern authors and some Western feminist literature as well. Up until to this point, I hadn’t really been aware of Arab or Middle Eastern feminists, and it was high time to change this – Mona Eltahawy’s book was the right one to start with. Written in 2015, it focuses amongst other things on recent events in the Middle East, especially the Ar ...more
Abeer Abdullah
It's hard and bizarre to see your ugly reality reflected before you so accurately. Even more incredible is to have a book speak to you so personally, one that sounds exactly like your own internal monologue in the face of what feel like tyrannical life forces, impossible to counter. This book gives me the sort of hope I'm really afraid of having. But Mona Eltahawy has documented our lives with an incredible mix of the public and factual and the personal and intimate. I'm extremely grateful to he ...more
Mikey B.
Be Warned this is one hard-hitting book! As a cautioning, some parts of this book are emotionally difficult – on occasion I literally had to put the book down and take a deep breath.

We all know that women have it tough the world over in all forms of sexual harassment. Mona Eltahawy acknowledges this. But in the Middle East it is far worse. She was brought up in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. She gradually started to realize, as she entered adolescence, the level of abuse she and other women underwent.
Growing up in the Middle East, I’m no stranger to the way men sexualize girls and women. I have been subjected to that myself, and had to spend years actively rejecting these misogynistic inclinations that I’d subconsciously internalized over the years.

Despite my experience with this topic, and despite opening this book with a good idea of what to expect, Headscarves and Hymens made me furious. It shed light on just how little respect men have for women in the Arab world, and just how little re
Giss Golabetoon
Jan 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
“What would happen if a woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
It befits a feminist to start her year with a book by a feminist.
This was too close to home, even though she mentioned Iran’s name barely three times, this all applied to us and it made me hurt but also made me realize I’m not alone, we’re not alone and together we will bring change.
Aug 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
If I had read this 10 years ago, I would have been tempted to make a few feeble arguments defending the right to wear hijab, but now I am all in with Mona. She's right. It's all based in misogyny and oppression and there are softer edges of and harder edges, but it is killing women and destroying society. She's right that the left and the right are both condescending and paternalistic toward the middle east and often hand the men the power they have extracted by oppression and shame. Ending the ...more
Mona Eltahawy's book, Headscarves and Hymens is a manifesto, intended to be a rallying call for feminists in the Arab world. It is a sometimes compelling and frequently disturbing account of the ways in which misogyny leads to the brutalisation of women in the Middle East. And I do mean brutal—there are a number of points where I had to pause in my reading because I was quite literally nauseated by a story which Eltahawy recounted. Almost every single woman in Egypt has been sexually harassed at ...more
Jun 15, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Mona Eltahawy is advocating, literally, a sexual revolution in the Middle East. She touches on issues such as voting, employment and access to education, but the main theme is that the social, legal and religious control over women’s bodies and their sexuality needs to change.

She provides a survey of the status of laws in the region that permit the indefensibly unjust treatment of women and the flimsy Quranic authority on which they are based. There have been some small successes at the politica
Jan 21, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: gender-studies
Thank God my daughter was born in Canada. And, more and more, I realize how much I've won the lottery of life by being born white, male, and Western.

There's always a dilemma when rating important books. Yes, this should be read and absorbed and debated and turned into action. The personal stories and details are heart-rending. And the call to avoid an Orientalist approach to problem solving in the Middle East is refreshing. But the writing is ordinary.

So read and recommend Mona Eltahawy's report
Jenn Fields
Apr 19, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The title clued me in -- I knew I'd be angry as I read this one. And I was. And the rage grew the more I read. That's why I recommend it. We should all be so enraged.
Sep 18, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: borrowed, non-fiction

The first essay "Why they hate us" is excellent, pulling you in with an arresting reference to a story from the Egyptian writer Alifa Rifaat about "a woman so unmoved during sex with her husband [...] she notices a spiderweb she must sweep off the ceiling." Soon afterwards the husband is dead and we're off to the races.

Some of the essays are tough to get through, heartbreaking stories sometimes get lost in a litany of statistics and recitations of laws. Eltahawy connects best when she is descri
Jun 21, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: adult-nonfiction
The author of this hard-hitting book expanded on an article she did several years ago for "Foreign Policy", entitled "Why Do They Hate Us?":
She illuminates what she calls the "trifecta" of misogyny: state, streets, and home. In her home country of Egypt, women are routinely sexually harassed on the streets. (There is a website where women can note places where they have been harassed: ) In Saudi Arabia, where her family lived for a
Mona Eltahawy’s book tackles a largely taboo subject: Arab Feminism. She talks with candor about head coverings and purity culture, sexual violence and female honor, and what this all means in a modern world.

Before reading this book, there were a lot of topics I simply avoided thinking about on the basis of “well, that’s just how things are done there, I guess.” For example the subject of the hijab stood in an awkward middle ground for me, a non-religious person, between culture sensitivity and
Sajda (Across the Words)
This was a decent read but I didn't really learn anything new. If you've read any of Mona's articles then you can pretty much guess the argument in this book. I did wish there were more analytical arguments + viewpoints about more progressive interpretations of Islamic texts b/c the book seemed a bit one-sided at times.

Jun 15, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very informative to the Western reader....a great primer on women's rights issues in the Middle East.
한 카트
Oct 05, 2015 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Exhausting read, too angry for my taste. Offers nothing objective on the subject, lots of speculative talk. And I despise the "everyone with a peepee is my enemy" tone of this book.
Nick Imrie
Sep 25, 2018 marked it as did-not-finish  ·  review of another edition
I can't quite figure out why this book lost my interest.

Eltahawy has a chatty style which is easy and engaging to read. This subject matter is interesting to me. And yet, I just kept putting it down, always intending to come back to it, and never quite getting around to it.

I wonder if it's something to do with the title, which strongly suggests the Eltahawy is going to explain why the Middle East needs a sexual revolution, but Eltahawy seems to evade the issue. I suppose that's partly because th
Alexandra Daw
Mar 13, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
If the title of this book doesn’t draw you in, nothing will. This passionate polemic from award-winning journalist Mona Eltahawy commands our attention and warns against political correctness blinding us to the blatant gender inequality alive and well in the Middle East.

Many of us will remember watching the scenes of the Egyptian Revolution in Tahrir Square during 2011. This was part of what is now referred to as the Arab Spring. Women marched alongside men to free themselves from oppressive re
Sep 28, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: politics
One the one hand, I would like to say that the author of this book has incredible courage to speak out for women’s issues in a part of the world where dissent of any kind is often met with violence or the threat of violence, but for a woman to speak out on women’s issues is even more dangerous. On the other hand I don't know why she would continue to call herself a Muslim.

One argument that I haven’t heard in defense of anti-hijab and anti-niqab laws in Western Europe is that to allow this form
This is difficult - painful - for me to read, but I think necessary. I cringed at Eltahawy's brutal and harsh but honest and impassioned speech(es), both in agreement and disagreement, and her accounts of severely mistreated women all over the world, and specifically in the Middle East, "for their protection." Worst of all, it was difficult for me to read some of her words reflecting many of my own thoughts and experiences.

This book made me realize why, when people who don't know me very well t
Sonia Crites
Aug 13, 2016 rated it it was amazing
What to say about this book. The facts in it were deeply disturbing and I wanted to believe she has some angle some reason to exaggerate. I would walk away from it only to go right back. Rage and disbelief as I hear the reality of my sisters in the Middle East and know we still have so far to go here as well. This is a book worth reading even if reading it is hard. I wish I could thank her for her courage in writing it.
Bree Hill
Jul 23, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Read this book because their are 8 year old little girls who are married off and dying on their wedding nights because their husbands who are over the age of 40 are "f****** them to death" because you know 8 year old bodies aren't ready for that! Read this for the girls who are forced to marry the same men who raped them to save the MAN from going to jail and then decide to end their own lives. This book has me reflecting on my everyday life and the simple things I take for granted. I highly enc ...more
Apr 22, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I went into a books store the day before I was set to leave the UK looking for poetry books, only to stumble across a lonely copy of this powerful read in the politics sections. I was lucky to find this when it has been in my wishlist ever since the book came out. I was in a 6 hour transit when I decided to check the first few pages, 5 hours later I was tired, angry and a 100 pages in. I had to begrudgingly stop reading to get to my flight gate and then get to my next holiday destination to reop ...more
Mar 11, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Abandoned halfway this book was no good not because of subject matter under discussion but because of its repetitive and superficial writing style the level of writing is like a school girl writing an essay on the subject wish a better writer could have written a very nice book on this crucial subject rather than this piece of mediocre writing.
Jan 27, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An important book that every woman in the Arab world should definitely read.

Keyword(s): woman in the Arab world. As that is who it was written for.
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Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-American journalist based in New York. She is a feminist.
“Now that I'm older, I can see that feeling terrified is how you recognize what you need. Terror encourages you to jump, even when you don't know if you'll ever land” 14 likes
“The battles over women's bodies can be won only by a revolution of the mind” 14 likes
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