With a tumultuous year behind it, Egypt is bracing for a fresh start – but this new democracy carries some old baggage, including the classic challenge of the marginalisation of the country’s women.
With conservative groups such as Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood winning majority votes in the new government after decades of either being banned from elections or relegated to the political fringes, what will the role of women in this new Egypt be? Some Western media have placed emphasis on the potential offered by some women’s rights groups, while more alarmist pundits have gone so far as to say that women’s rights will be taken back to the “dark ages”.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also expressed concern that women were being “largely excluded from the transition process and even harassed in the street”, and that “the best-organised political parties supported few women candidates in the recent elections”.
Omaima Abou Bakr, a professor at Cairo University, told Al Jazeera: “We go through different historical periods with different kinds of challenges.”
Shortly after the revolution, Abou Bakr – a founding member of the Women and Memory Forum, a Giza-based NGO fighting misperceptions of Arab women – said that Islamists and moderates alike started asking for a change in “Suzanne’s laws” – laws initiated by former first lady Suzanne Mubarak that give women rights to initiate divorce, greater muscle in custody battles and more.
These calls came “under the pretext that these laws were corrupt because they were created under [ousted President] Hosni Mubarak’s regime,” said Abou Bakr. “[This is] a false politicisation of the laws and an excuse to rescind certain women’s rights – such things lead to the cancellation of the women’s quota in parliament.”
But while many worry about women being disenfranchised from political participation under conservative religious leaders, the physical violence against women in Cairo’s streets in December was perpetrated by ostensibly secular officials.
“This violence, these virginity tests, women having their veils snatched from them – the real threat of physical violence is coming from the military police, whereas the threat coming the Islamists is a quiet marginalisation,” said Abou Bakr.
The revolution’s real gains
Sanaa al-Banna, granddaughter of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, told Al Jazeera that “the revolution has been definitely good for segments of Egyptian women who first voiced their grievances and succeeded in mobilising thousands, and later on millions, of Egyptians around primarily humane demands.” However, while women “paid the price, they shared little of the gain”.
Those lost gains, she said, have – ironically – gone instead to Islamist parties.
“They [the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists] lived in a cave when young ladies … were shouting against dictatorship in the streets, on Facebook and Twitter,” said al-Banna.
“The Egyptian woman has participated in both the initiation and continuation of the revolutionary surge that pushed Islamist parties to power.”
Indeed, there are clear signs of struggle when it comes to Egyptian women hoping to find equal footing with men, and there have been gains – for instance, a legal decision banning “virginity tests”of female detainees in military prisons.
“The revolution has been good for women in the sense that we all know that Egyptian women of all social classes participated, were out on the streets, so it has been good – for Muslim or Christian or Copt – because we rediscovered our capacity to participate in street uprisings and politics,” said 54-year-old Abou Bakr. It had been especially empowering for the younger generation of Egyptian women, she added.
Mozn Hassan, an expert in constitutional reform and the head of Nazra Feminist Studies, a Cairo-based NGO, doesn’t think women will lose much in the new government, but worries that they won’t gain much either.
“The struggle will be, on a social level, the trial of all social conservatives to make us lose [the progress] we have been struggling hard for years to gain,” she said.
‘Everyone is guilty’
Abou Bakr sees this as a false dichotemy and one that has little relationship with the daily lives of women in Egypt.
While women’s rights may be under threat, she doesn’t see the shift in political power to Islamist parties as being wholly responsible.
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“There are going to be challenges, definitely, but this is the story of women everywhere. This is the story of women in the Arab world, in the Middle East,” she said.
The political marginalisation of women “has been in motion from the beginning – even before the Islamists,” said Abour Bakr. “From SCAF [the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces], and from the government and from everybody – what I’m saying is, everyone is guilty of excluding women or of marginalising women’s issues under the pretext that they were not a priority.”
Nagwan El Ashwal, a political science researcher at Cairo University recognises the labels and rejects them – for her, the struggle for women in Egypt is the struggle of all Egyptians – to put an end to the suppression of all citizens. She was on her way to protest the deaths of at least 74 people after football fans clashed with Egyptian troops on Wednesday, February 1.
“The question is not about women and men – the question is the country – today in Egypt there is a new approach, not only with the Islamists, but also with liberals and socialists. I’d like to remind you that when we had the elections, not one of these parties put the women on the top of the electoral list [making it more likely for the candidate to win],” said El Ashwal.
“The problem is not with the Islamists – the problem is with the mentality of men in this society.” she said, adding that changing perceptions of women must come from the streets, not from the parliament.
Islamist politicians (such as MP Azza al Garf, who Slate.com compared with Tea Party supporter Michele Bachmann), scholars, and activists such as Abou Bakr – who look at women’s rights through an Islamic frame of reference – say they are looked upon with some scepticism by Western and secular feminists in general.
“Secular feminists have always been suspicious of Islamist politics – and maybe half of that is right, because the gender ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood is conservative and the Salafist gender ideology is influenced by Wahabi gender ideology, so I can see why there is a justification for these suspicions,” said Abou Bakr, adding that it was not only within Islam that women fight for equal rights, but also within Christianity and Judaism.
“[Islamic] Feminism doesn’t have to be the exact copy of Western feminism – it doesn’t have to be a copy of the feminist struggle in West.”
Hassan also rejects a singular view of feminism, and points out even within secular feminist thought, there are “radicals, liberal, Marxist or cultural feminists”.
There are similar nuances within Muslim feminism, she said. Female members of the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, support women’s rights as they see them through the eyes of the group’s ideology, as compared with both more moderate religious feminists and more conservative Salafist activists.
“Muslim Brotherhood women are cadres working hard to implement their views and they have their political journey and their struggle; they are not supportive [of] some women’s rights, as they see them [as being] against Islam,” said Hassan.
“Salafi women are still in the beginning of their political journey [with] no expectations where they will go, but they personally think that they will be developed, and will have women like Zeinab al Ghazali [the founder of Egypt’s Muslim Women’s Association in 1935, and a close associate of the Muslim Brotherhood] asking for more rights for women within their ideology.”
Whereas many Muslim feminists, such as Abou Bakr, might quote Islam’s notion of justice and equality as a basis for seeking equal rights, others prone to a more conservative approach to Islamic scriptures will take a more literal interpretation of the sources to determine women’s rights – a conciliation of two concepts many secular feminists see as contradictory.
“I don’t think Sharia and feminism – meaning women should be allowed to do what men do – are not compatible,” said Yomna Ahmed, a 17-year-old supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.
“Sharia law enhances women’s rights. Before Sharia law, women didn’t have equal rights … their fathers were allowed to bury them alive,” said Ahmed, who considers herself both an Islamist and feminist.
“Sharia is about freedom – everything about Sharia is freedom – you are free by your own volition, by your own free will, to believe.”
Of course, there’s no shortage of views that oppose Ahmed’s – notably, that of writer Intissar Abdel Moneim, who in her The Memoirs of a Former Sister: My Story with the Muslim Brotherhood enumerates the ways she feels the movement oppresses women, such as on the issue of polygamy (an issue that reportedly divides opinion within the Muslim Brotherhood itself).
The Muslim Brotherhood filed a complaint against the author in January, accusing her of “libel and slander”.
Although al-Banna points out that Islamist parties represent a wide range of views on women, she is circumspect about the extent to which they want women to participate.
She points out that women tend to be “restricted to tactical and executive functions; they only head women and family sections and influence party policies and strategies to the extent that they concern these two sections”.
“Unfortunately women’s participation in the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi parties is in some sections – [such as] foreign relations – female participants are empowered, again, to the extent they serve the movement’s ‘image’ in the outside world,” said al-Banna, who taglines her emails with a quote from the Persian poet Rumi (”Be not content with stories of those who went before you. Go forth and create your own story”).
The polemic of the ‘Blue Bra’
Despite the feeling that gains have been made, there’s still room for doubt that things have changed – or will really change – in a country where more than 80 per cent of the female population reports being sexually harassed.
“This is unacceptable by all means – Sharia law doesn’t accept this, and human rights don’t accept it,” said Ahmed, who also considers herself a feminist.
“Women can’t be harassed on the streets. I’m sure there are already laws – but we have to strengthen them, to work in the civil society, to prohibit this.”
A spate of attacks on women – some high-profile, such as blogger and activist Mona Eltahaway– and some anonymous, such as the lady in the blue bra – have drawn international attention to Egypt, while also causing a stir domestically.
“Sexual harassment on the streets and in work places is a widespread phenomena in Egypt and related to different social, economic aspects. What happened in December was an implementation of militarisation by targeting women in public spaces using gender tools to humiliate them,” she said, adding that the protests and outcry against such behaviour was significant.”It is important to differentiate between sexual harassment and sexual assaults, especially when it comes from authority,” said Hassan.
And this aggression, it must be noted, came largely from the secular military police, not the Islamists.
After the infamous assault of the woman wearing the blue bra (under her abaya) at the hands of the Egyptian military police, there were a number of marches expressing outrage at the way the woman was brutally exposed and beaten on the streets of Cairo.
There was also maelstrom of commentary bashing the woman in question – saying that she wasn’t modest enough in her attire and should not have been marching on the streets along with men in the first place.
“Myself, my colleagues, researchers – we have been writing about this, that this Orientalist view of Arab women and Muslim women has to stop. Muslim and Arab women are not an exception and their struggle – our struggle – is part of the struggle of women everywhere, in all traditions,” said Abou Bakr.
While she concedes that the work to shift the way Sharia views women has been largely scholarly, the move from academia to activism is beginning.
“There will always be resistance and struggle on the part of women – we will always resent being pictured as being victims all the time,” said Abou Bakr.
“Mish ma’ool [‘it’s not comprehensible’] – we can’t be.”
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