Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Taming the mental monster

Women in the Middle East have begun to question those aspects of their culture that injures them in the name of religious protection. 

More often than not, prohibition of any kind triggers hidden human desires to surface with provocative force. It may vary across cultures but psychological response to imposed conditions is commonly associated with extreme behavior. Aptly fitting in this construct is the practice of misogyny, which invokes sexual violence against the other half. And, far from taming this mental monster the society instead burdens women with the responsibility for their own safety from sexual violence. 

Turning a personal tragedy into public outrage, Mona Eltahawy has given a call for a sexual revolution in the Middle-East – to rid the society from the practice of oppressing its women. Provocative as the title may be, Headscarves and Hymens is a book-length expansion of a controversial article, ‘Why They Hate Us’, she wrote for ‘Foreign Policy’ in 2012. It is a courageous narrative by a woman who was picked up by the police during street clashes in Cairo, sexually assaulted and brutally beaten until her left hand and right arm were broken. Rising like a phoenix from her battered self, Mona has used her personal experience to narrate the plight of women in the middle-east. 

If she were to use paint to indicate the places where her body was touched, groped, or grabbled without her consent even while wearing the hijab, says she, her entire torso, back and front, would be covered with color. And, she isn’t an exception! Over 99% of women in Egypt have experienced sexual harassment; in Tunisia some 47% of women have suffered domestic violence; and to top it all, at least alone 90% of married Egyptian women between the ages of 15 and 49 have undergone Female Genital Mutilation - a practice that continues to cause an unknown number of deaths. This and more, it is a painful narrative that can numb readers’ senses. 

Trapped in a state of perpetual victimhood, women are unlikely to publically accept their private struggles against the oppressive forces. No wonder, the ultra-conservative society in the middle-east has not only forced women to be cultural vectors, but has used their bodies as the medium upon which culture is engraved. The author despises such cultural indignation, and calls upon women to break their silence because ‘it is the power of women’s stories that can tear down the soundproof walls of home.’ Only by breaking the cycle of inter-generational transfer of victimhood, by suffering mothers to their daughters, can personal liberty become the political tool against oppression. The battles over women’s bodies can be won only by women. 

A toxic mix of culture and religion, promoted by the state, has allowed ultra-conservatism to be the leitmotif of women’s existence in the middle-east countries. Else, why would Saudi Arabian women of any age need the permission of a male legal guardian to travel, marry, work or access education. And, why would as many as 95 per cent of rape victims in Jordon marry their rapists to protect the families, and to preserve their reputation. Shockingly, such archaic practices are considered by many as beneficial to women. The silence of women seems deafening.

Mona wears her defiant attitude on her sleeves, and not on the head, because she considers headscarf a piece of cloth that reflects women’s status as separate and subservient. Hijab burdens women with expression of purity and modesty, she adds. Rarely is it been considered that women shoulder such socio-religious norms at an enormous cost to their intellectual and emotional self. And the enthusiasm with which the tiny membrane (hymen) is protected by families, religious authorities, lawmakers and security forces, women have let their bodies be controlled by others.

Headscarves and Hymens lends voice to several small but significant stories of rebellion, wherein women have begun to question those aspects of their culture that injures them in the name of religious protection. Violating the kingdom’s ban on female drivers by forty-seven Saudi women who took to the wheel in 1990 has been a story of inspiration across the region. However, change in itself is a slow process that will require a process of dialogue to challenge entrenched ideologies. That the silence is being broken, and that women struggling against the oppressive forces have begun to come out is a sure sign of change. Only when the victims seek liberation, can liberation be achieved. 

Headscarves and Hymens
by Mona Eltahawy
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London
Extent: 240, Price: Rs 799 

This review was first published in Deccan Herald on its issue dated March 20, 2016

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