Egypt has always been a conflicted country regarding the treatment of women. The country has one of the longest histories of Arab feminist agitation, starting perhaps with the self-unveiling and political agitation of upper-class feminist activist Huda Shaarawi. Gamal abd al-Nasser’s policies during the 1950s and 60s are qualified today as ‘state feminism’; massive strides forward in women’s rights were advocated by the government (especially via welfare-state mechanisms) while independent feminist organizations were effectively banned. These policies were decidedly effective and resulted in high levels of employment for women, but this process collapsed in the 1970s coinciding with the economic liberalization of Egypt and Islamist resistance. For more information, see Mervat Hatem’s article, Economic and Political Liberation in Egypt and the Demise of State Feminism. Today, Egypt still has a relatively conservative populace on issues regarding women’s equality.
A poll from December 2010 (prior to the revolution) showed that a majority (54%) of Egyptian Muslims support sex segregation in the workplace.
A extensive poll taken by Pew from April 2011 also provides evidence of the position of the Egyptian people towards women’s equality.
Women’s equality is a relatively unimportant issue to Egyptians, with 39% believing that it is “very important” to Egypt’s future.
The vast majority believe in the strict application of the Quran to Egyptian law.
Interestingly, Egyptians seem to be split regarding “fundamentalism”. “Fundamentalism” is typically not a widely used term within Arabic; it is possible that Pew asked a question that mentally evoked the radically conservative doctrine of Salafism. Without seeing the Arabic questionnaire that Pew provided it is hard to make a judgement either way.
The Pew Global Attitudes 2010 poll regarding gender issues is also revealing regarding the relative position of Egypt and women’s equality. Egypt consistently ranks towards the bottom of countries polled regarding support for women’s equality, both among all countries and among Muslim countries. However, it is important to note that (like other countries) Egyptian women consistently support women’s rights issues to a greater extent than men (around 10-30%).
The month of November has been a turbulent one in Egypt, but perhaps especially notable for the high-profile stories regarding women in the country. The first story is that of Alia Elmahdy, a 20 year old who self-describes as “Secular Liberal Feminist Vegetarian Individualist Egyptian”, as well as an atheist. I am not certain if Ms. Elmahdy was raised Muslim, but if that is the case, fully 84% of Egyptians already believe that she should receive the death penalty for apostasy (see the December 2010 Pew poll linked above).
The firestorm around Ms. Elmahdy was started when a nude photo of herself to Twitter, which she called “echoing screams against a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy” was circulated around twitter. Liberals, perhaps understandably given the cultural environment of Egypt, were quick to distance themselves from her, denying reports that she was affilated with them.
The actions of Aalia Elmahdy may become a crucial test of the new Egyptian legal system and how it will incorporate Islamic law, especially regarding sexual freedom. Legal action have been entered by Egyptian Islamic lawyers, described as following
“The old constitution and the new declarations of the new one says Islamic law is the source of governing, therefore we asked for Islamic law penalties to be executed on the two bloggers,” Ahmed Yehia, coordinator of the coalition told Bikyamasr.com. “It is an insult to the revolution as these two persons who pretend to be one of the revolutionists and asking for sexual freedoms, they are giving the uprising a bad name. It is our duty to fight corruption and this is a corruption case, we people who are trying to corrupt society with foreign and unacceptable customs like the sexual freedom they ask for,” continued Yehia.
Amer had been in the spotlight a few years earlier in Egypt, spending time in jail after he was charged with insulting Islam in one of his blog posts.
“The top authority, either the Grand Mufti or the ruling council, should give them the proper sentence they deserve for the crimes they committed,” added Yehia.
During the Egyptian revolution, journalist Mona Eltahawy became somewhat of a celebrity spokeswoman for the cause of the Egyptian people in the West, both as an Egyptian-American and a liberal Muslim feminist. While covering the recent protests in Tahrir Square, Ms. Eltahawy was arrested by the CSF and was sexually assaulted by security forces as she describes-
“They cornered me, because I wasn’t able to get out,” she said. “And I was surrounded by about four of five riots police, who rained down blows with their big sticks. As they were dragging me, they subjected me to the worst kind of sexual assault that I’ve ever experienced. Hands all over my body, grouping my breasts, hands in between my legs, so many hands that I lost count were put in-between my belts and trying to get in between my trousers.”
This followed shortly after the assault of French reporter Caroline Sinz (note: disturbing) by protestors and months after the assault of CBS correspondent Lara Logan, also by protestors. From all available information, sexual harassment of women in Egypt is extremely common.
In 2008, Abul Komsan, the woman’s rights activist, polled 1,000 women from all parts of the country. What she found shocked her. 98 percent of foreign women polled said they had been sexually harassed. And about eight out 10 Egyptian-born women said the same thing. She also surveyed Egyptian men, and almost two-thirds of men polled actually admitted that they harassed women.
The atmosphere in Tahrir Square is such that Reporters Without Borders is advising the media to stop sending female reporters to Egypt.
Ms. Salah has not received a great deal of attention, but her viewpoint is interesting in light of the heightened display of Islamic rhetoric in the last few weeks in Egypt, and she likely espouses viewpoints that are somewhat unexpected in the West. She was recently featured by al-Sharq al-Awsat as a candidate of the Salafi Movement.
ومع وجود مرشحات من النساء للانتخابات الرئاسية في مصر، فإن المرشحة منى تقول إن النساء ناقصات عقل ودين ولا يجوز لهن الولاية حيث إنهن يخضعن للمشاعر، معلنة تأييدها للمرشح حازم صلاح أبو إسماعيل المحسوب على التيار السلفي، وتعتبر منى أن ترشحها لمجلس الشعب مختلف حيث قالت «إن الولاية في مجلس الشعب ولاية جزئية تمثيلية وليست كلية».
“And as for the participation of women candidates for the presidential elections in Egypt, Salah says that women are lacking in intelligence and religion and authority is not to be permitted to them as they are subservient to their emotions. She is declaring her support for the candidate Hazem Saleh Abu Ismail (a favorite of the Salafi movement) and considers her candidacy for parliament differently, saying that “authority in the parliament is partial representational authority, and isn’t complete.”
Commentators have described a surge of Salafist activity post-revolution in Egypt. Salafists will be represented by three parties running under a united list, the Nour party being the most prominent among them. Wikipedia provides an overview of recent opinion. (FJD is the party of the Muslim Brotherhood)
It is entirely possible that the Salafists will fail utterly in the upcoming elections and end up a fringe religious party. Given the general religious conservatism of the Egyptian people and the large number of people still undecided, it may be wise to not underestimate their chances. Even as a fringe party, small religious parties still have the ability to disproportionately affect policy, as is the case in Israel with the Shas party.
Egyptian women have described how the revolution has opened up cultural and public spaces to them that was before closed as a result of cultural and state repression. The backlash we are seeing now would be surprising is if there wasn’t such precedent for it in the Arab and Muslim world as a whole. Algeria during the civil war, Iran during the 1979 Revolution, and the West Bank/Gaza during the First Intifada all saw energetic participation of women as independent figures and leaders, only to see their role in society repressed afterwards due to conservative reactions. The challenge of Egyptian women to face off against decades (perhaps centuries) of inertia on the issue of women’s rights will be especially long and incremental, and more defeats should be expected in the near future rather than victories.
About MeNews producer. Blogger on politics and culture of the Middle East, specializing in issues of public diplomacy.
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