Headscarves and Hymens: Time to topple the Mubarak in our minds

By Mona Eltahawy | June 20th, 2013
Headscarves and Hymens: Time to topple the Mubarak in our minds

The Arab uprisings may have been sparked by a man – Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in desperation – but they will be finished by Arab women. They must be if our political revolutions stand a chance of succeeding.

We might have removed Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Muammar Gaddafi 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.

For us women, there have always been two revolutions we had to undertake: one fought side-by-side with men against regimes that oppress everyone and a second against a misogyny born out of a toxic mix of religion and culture that targets us. That hatred is best fought via revolutions of thought – social, sexual, and cultural revolutions that will undoubtedly take time but without which any change on the political level will be cosmetic at best.

Such revolutions of thought and mind – especially when it comes to gender issues – are especially pertinent in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, where Islamists are playing leading roles in governing their respective countries. Although not the numerical majority, Islamist parties such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia’s Ennahda – neither of which are known for a firm belief beyond lip service to gender equality – have played significant roles in writing constitutions for their post-revolutionary countries. Such Islamists – who too often shut down criticism by wrapping piety and faith tightly around themselves – must be fought as hard as the nominally secular dictators who preceded them. Anyone who thinks women can be short-changed must be fought fiercely.

Jubilant as I was to see all those dictators toppled, it has since become painfully apparent that although women may have been on the barricades beside men, they are swiftly losing ground in post-revolutionary Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and Syria where the revolution is on-going but where ultra-conservative militant militias have made their anti-women positions clear despite the tremendous contributions of women to their countries’ struggles for freedom. Meanwhile, in the wealthy Arab states where money forestalled revolution, men and women seem to have acquiesced to the status quo via a numbness so eloquently described by a Saudi woman as a ‘golden cage’.

Sadly, it was in the ‘new Egypt’ that I was sexually assaulted by security forces in November 2011, beaten so severely that my left arm and my right hand were broken, and detained by the Ministry of the Interior and Military Intelligence for 12 hours – two of which I spent blindfolded. Only by virtue of a borrowed cell phone was I able to alert friends on Twitter to my situation. My experience was traumatic from a personal perspective, but it was also par for the course – part of a broader pattern of misogyny, repression and sexual violence that plagues the region, and must be addressed before significant political change can be effected.

At least 12 other women were subjected to various forms of sexual assaults during the protest in which riot police attacked me and yet none of them have been able to speak about their ordeal either due to shame or family pressure. I could not cry for weeks after being sexually assaulted, but I wept for the woman who became the icon of the horrendous state-sanctioned abuse that too many of us encountered during our revolution. What but hatred propelled those soldiers to drag her and strip her down to her blue bra and smash their feet into her exposed rib cage?

Lazily described as ‘Blue Bra Girl’ – her reduction to her underwear enraged me – she became my invisible sister, and she inspired thousands of Egyptian women and men to march against sexual assault. The protest garnered the one and only protest from the ruling military junta. I have since learned that my nameless sister has been prevented from speaking to media by a family ashamed of an experience that for us makes her a hero but for them makes her just a bra that everyone saw.

When the State sexually assaults us, it gives a green light that our bodies are fair game. Egypt has become synonymous with street sexual harassment and assault. But similar crimes are rife throughout the region. In October 2012, outraged Tunisians took to the streets by the hundreds to protest the treatment of a woman who was allegedly raped by police officers – and then charged with public indecency when she filed a complaint.

And State-enabled misogyny also kills. When Amina Filali, a 16-year-old Moroccan girl was forced to marry her rapist in March 2012, she drank poison. Her rapist husband beat her on the way back to her parents’ home. Filali’s tragic demise had the potential to make of her the Moroccan Bouazizi but despite some protests, nothing changed in Morocco, a country usually considered a beacon of progressive laws. The Justice Ministry finally announced this January that the law allowing rapists to escape charge if they marry their victims would be scrapped but there are still many other sections of the penal code that need to be rewritten to protect women from violence.

Our double revolution is necessary because despite the political revolutions, a woman is still considered the sum total of her headscarf – what’s on her head – and hymen – what’s in between her legs. In Egypt, in March 2011, the then ruling military junta stripped women of both their headscarves (detained female activists were made to strip) and their hymens (soldiers subjected them to ‘virginity tests’ by inserting two fingers into their vaginal opening). What are the military’s ‘virginity tests’ but a cheap tactic to humiliate and silence?

Under such circumstances, nakedness and sex become weapons of political resistance. You could witness how nudity sears through layers of hypocrisy and repression by following Aliaa El Mahdy, a 20-year-old Egyptian who lit the fuse of a vast bomb when she posted a nude photograph of herself on her blog. The response in Egypt was ferocious, with El Mahdy called a prostitute, mentally ill, and far worse for daring to challenge increasingly stultifying norms of modesty.

In a society in which sexual assault can be paraded as a test of the ‘honour’ of virginity, posing in your parents’ home in nothing but stockings, red shoes and a red hair clip becomes an attack on the system and against all the patriarchs out there.

Egyptian artist Nadine Hammam’s used another kind of artillery. In her painting Tank Girl, she sits in just her bikini top astride the cannon of a tank and looks like she has a huge erect penis that is ejaculating rats. The message accompanying the art work is clear: ‘Go love yourself’. Tank Girl is surrounded by other portrayals of women accompanied by condom packets and entreaties such as “You said you wanted me...Well, here I am” – all of them head-butting against the coyness expected of women.

Rebel artists like Hammam and renegades like Mahdy know exactly where it hurts – and that’s where they kick. Fed up with hypocrisy and sexual repression, they understand the power of undressing. Their images are the Molotov cocktails thrown at the Mubaraks in our heads – the dictators of our mind – which insist that revolutions cannot succeed without hard-fought cultural changes that upend misogyny and sexual hypocrisy.

The battles over women’s bodies can only be won by a revolution of the mind. Too many times women are scolded for daring to bring up ‘identity politics’ and urged to lay aside their insistence on women’s rights in aid of the larger goal of solidarity or fidelity to the revolution. This is a mistake. Huge swathes of the Arab world are being remade now, with far-reaching and unguessed-at repercussions. Women – and men, too – have an unprecedented opportunity to confront – and root out – the systemic hatred and suspicion of women that makes us little more than headscarves and hymens.

We have a remarkable heritage of women proudly embracing feminism from Hoda Shaarawi who removed her face veil in 1923 to Doria Shafik who led 1,500 women in storming the Egyptian parliament in the 1951 and then staged a hunger strike to demand women’s enfranchisement. Nawal Saadawi, an Egyptian physician, and Fatima Mernissi, a Moroccan sociologist, also both fiercely advocated for women’s rights.

We must now stand on the shoulders of these giants and revolt against the Mubaraks in our heads.

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