In the first chapter of the book, Mona Eltahawy asks, “Why do they hate us?”, meaning societies in the Arab countries of North Africa and the Middle East and their hatred of women. And then she writes, “They don’t hate us because of our freedoms, as the tired, post-9/11 American cliché had it. We have no freedoms because they hate us.” Eltahawy is not one to mince words, and to contend her use of the word ‘hate’ is impossible in the face of everything that is presented in this book.
First of all, she knows what she is talking about because having grown up in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and later working as a journalist in the region, she is intimately acquainted with all the oppression and subjugation girls and women have to endure there. She herself was sexually and physically assaulted, agonized for years over her own wearing of the hijab, and struggled with her sexuality. Together with the stories of other women, statements and reports by NGOs like Human Rights Watch, and statistics, the whole picture of a system of gender apartheid is revealed, and no relevant topic, be it child brides, female genital mutilation, polygamy, veiling, virginity tests, domestic violence, male guardianship, public sexual harassment, or the ban on driving, is omitted.
She also acknowledges that it is not Islam alone but a toxic mix of culture, politics, and religion that leads to this extreme misogyny, and that it is a larger problem that extremists and fundamentalists want to take control of women’s bodies; she explicitly mentions America where the Christian right with its views on abortion, birth control, and extramarital sex, and its obsession with the ‘purity’ of girls and women is not all that different in this regard. When it comes to its relationship with Arab countries, the West in general is not excused because it often supports misogynistic regimes, and its cultural relativism is exceedingly harmful.
Another topic is the ban on face veils that was enacted in some European countries which is an issue that has been hijacked and championed by far-right politicians for all the wrong reasons. Eltahawy argues that the ban is nonetheless a good thing because it is not an act of islamophobia but an advancement of women’s rights as wearing a veil or headscarf is not a choice. This may be a controversial opinion but her argumentation, as it generally is in this book, is sound and convincing, especially due to her first-hand experience.
Overall, this is an angry and brave book that pulls no punches, and I think that this kind of brutal honesty is needed in this fight because anything else has proven futile. The stories Eltahawy shares in this book about women who have been mutilated, murdered, raped, or assaulted are as heartbreaking as they are infuriating. How is it possible that in this day and age 8-year-olds are forced to marry, 12-year-olds die in childbirth, 99% of a country’s female population has been sexually harassed, girls are pressured into marrying their rapists, and that all this is sanctioned by states, religious leaders, and the community. When she writes about the women that speak out and revolt despite being aware that the backlash could be anything from threatening to fatal, their bravery and conviction is inspiring and uplifting, although the knowledge of how Sisyphean of a task this battle really is weighs heavily.
Despite the focus on North Africa and the Middle East, the message of the book, which is that it is paramount to speak out, is relevant to all women, regardless of where they live, because no matter how far women have come in the fight against inequality, there will always be those that try to take away any hard-won autonomy. Eltahawy writes that “being a woman anywhere is dangerous” and that, unfortunately, is the truth.