Headscarves and Hymens: A valiant fight against injustices meted on women

Girls and women are forced to be cultural vectors. Their bodies are the medium upon which culture is engraved, be it through headscarves or cutting — Mona Eltahawy

Jackline Mwende’s name hit the headlines this past week when she became the face of domestic violence after her husband, Stephen Ngila Nthenge, chopped off her hands. In addition, Ms Mwende is nursing serious head, neck and back injuries and lost hearing in her left ear as well as three teeth in the ordeal.

This is just one case of domestic violence among many lately making the news cut. Domestic violence, or the devaluation of women, is a global phenomenon.

In her book, Headscarves and Hymens, Egyptian activist and unapologetic feminist Mona Eltahawy writes a heartfelt argument, backed by facts and stories from women across the world, on what it means to be a woman and the battles fought on the woman’s body in the name of honour and state.

“When the state sexually assaults you — when the hands of its police force and paid thugs grope you, and the state denies you any legal redress — it sends a message to all that women’s bodies are fair game,” she writes. Is this the same case for women in Kenya? The late Prof Wangari Maathai fought to protect the land for future generations and against the politics of the day. Is there a voice left for the woman who cannot speak for herself here? Are the right questions being asked?

Eltahawy lists abuses against women, including official denials of the same. This is a deeply personal book.

Shaming perpetrators

She tells her own story, shaming perpetrators in the shadows and diffusing the silence and shame of assault with how ‘‘almost every part of my body has been groped or touched without my consent’’.

From the revolutions that toppled Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi to Ethiopia and a small village in rural Kenya, Eltahawy lays bare the case for women to be protected against predators of state, street and in their homes, which should be their sanctuary.

In subsequent pages, Eltahawy writes about the horror of enduring “virginity tests” by security agents as well as female genital mutilation in the name of becoming a woman.

Of this she asks; “How does a girl survive this barbarism with her trust of other people intact, especially after her own mother was there and failed to protect her?”

She lists example after example of reasons various cultures use to control women and their sexuality including “beautifying” women’s privates, emphasising the importance of “sharing our stories” to create the much-needed discourse as a way of getting solutions.

Her voice is unwavering, and sharp with courage, the title tells you this. Its shock factor gets your attention.

She has a certain impatience in her writing, an urgency to get it all done now. “My feminism wrestled with my headscarf,” she writes, “but not with my hymen.” Sexism, sexuality and cultural norms are fought hard within her pages.

Headscarves and Hymens is a call to action, to speak up against injustices against women as well as keep the conversations going.