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A movement for all seasonsBy Mariz Tadros
Why has feminism become such a dirty word? Some blame the backlash, others say there are no more rights to be fought for; they have all been won. Some say we have more representative movements than feminism. The debate is ongoing in Egypt, as elsewhere.
Creative writer and contributor to feminist thought Nawal El-Saadawi was head of one of the most outspoken organisations in Egypt, the Arab Women's Solidarity Association, which was closed down in the early 1990s. She believes that women themselves are not as forceful as they once were in the struggle for emancipation. She believes that this is partly due to the inertia of the young, educated, middle- and upper-middle-class women whom she refers to when talking about the younger generation. "When the women of my generation were 20 or 30, we were full of enthusiasm to liberate ourselves and our country. We paid the price with our blood and our reputation, but the younger generation is trying to escape the fight. They don't appreciate what other generations of women went through so that they can enjoy the margin of freedom they now have."
According to El-Saadawi, the "new generation" believes that women now have the rights they asked for, and there is really no longer a reason to liberate women. "They think women have been emancipated; but these women, too, are still oppressed. They are unaware of it, because the educational system and the media give them the illusion that they are free, but they are not. Their intellectual and sexual freedom, for example, is still limited."
Freedom, for this generation of well-off, well-educated young women, means something quite different from what freedom meant in her day, says El-Saadawi. "For today's young women, their idea is to be able to wear whatever clothes they like, get an education, graduate and work. But we were more politically oriented than that, we wanted to have the power to make decisions for ourselves, for our families and for our country."
The separation of the personal and the political that many young women make is particularly disappointing, indeed reactionary, according to El-Saadawi. There is a global and local backlash against women's liberation, she argues. "Our struggle was to abolish the line between the personal and the political. This is at the heart of the backlash today, because the class patriarchal system is built on separating the two."
This backlash, she explains, has been waged by the minority who control wealth and power, and who rule the world. To control the rising popular movements that emerged in the second half of the 20th century, they used religion to control emerging forces of change and legitimise their own position. Fundamentalism and neo-colonialism, for El-Saadawi, are two global faces of the same coin: "in the West, we have the Christianisation of the women's movement and its Islamisation in the East."
Wary of women's attempts to liberate themselves through religion, El-Saadawi is particularly worried about women's return to the home, especially for those who have completed their education and who choose to stay at home if they can afford to. "When my generation of women fought for the right to work, it was not just to get a salary: we wanted to do it for ourselves." The fragmentation of the women's movement today is itself a consequence of the backlash, she adds. "It is the old policy of divide and rule." El-Saadawi, however, adds that a silent majority of women does believe in the quest for equality, but does not have the channels through which to express itself.
Aida Guindy, who has been advocating women's rights in development for 40 years, also feels that the women of her generation focused more on political rights. She believes that many young women became disillusioned and withdrew when they realised that women who held positions of power were not working to advance women's interests. "I think this is wrong. They should continue the fight. We were not as restless as young women are today, and the world was not so materialistic, so we had time for other things than just making a living," she explains.
Then again, for Guindy, the '40s, '50s and '60s were the "golden age" of the women's movement. "My generation had inherited a tradition of women's activism from outstanding women such as Amina El-Said and Doria Shafiq." Still, she insists that the movement has not died. "Young women today have a heritage to carry forward, but will they take it seriously?" Guindy urges young university women to take up the challenge of pursuing their cause and reviving the women's movement.
NO CONFRONTATION?: Aziza Hussein, head of the National Commission on Population and Development (NCPD), believes that there never was a women's movement in Egypt in the first place because there were always so many cultural barriers. "Women's movements will always create conflict in society," she asserts. Hussein has never identified herself as a feminist because of the connotations. "I don't believe that the problems in women-men relationships are solved by confrontation. Feminism is a word that has this [conflictual] connotation. I believe in a movement where both women and men should be involved with the aim of reaching their full potential to develop society. If you provoke too much, as some Western feminists do, you don't get what you want."
For Hussein, the issue of women's sexual freedom, which, she believes, was advocated by Western feminists, is emblematic of this provocation. Of society's double standards vis-à-vis pre-marital sex, she notes: "You should not react to the fact that it is fine for men, but not for women, to sleep around before they get married by advocating women's pre-marital sexual rights. This is not the way to go about it. When we [the NCPD] have a programme to provide youth with sex education, awareness on reproductive health, female circumcision and so on, we always discuss these issues in the context of marriage.
"We always work within culturally accepted frameworks, like the family, which many feminists have identified be a domain in which women are oppressed by men. I do not want to intimidate men. It is very important for us to be part of the social fabric, and that is why the NCPD has been able to win the support of women of different views."
In the Egyptian context, Hussein believes that those organisations that have opted for a non-confrontational approach have been able to exert the most durable impact. She feels, furthermore, that the proliferation of NGOs led by professional young women in civil society is a positive sign.
REBUILDING THE MOVEMENT: Hoda Badran, head of the Alliance of Arab Women, believes that the feminist movement faded or died after the July '52 Revolution, at a time "when many movements, not just ours, were suppressed by the government".
She would not describe the "awakening" of the 1970s as a movement "but, by the 1990s, an awareness of the need to address women's issues increased, especially at the time of the ICPD and the Beijing Women's Conference. A movement is being born, as reflected in the network of organisations that have emerged. For a movement, you need a common leadership, a common goal and an organisation. I don't think we have one leadership, because we have more than one movement, but we do have the goal and we have organisations but under different structures. So at present, we have a multiplicity of sub-movements. Perhaps the stage after that would be a federation of organisations followed by one movement."
Badran, too, is convinced there is a backlash against women's rights activists worldwide -- they are being singled out as scapegoats for the problems that the political and economic crises have brought up. "Women come in handy for that: they are responsible for men's unemployment because they have taken men's jobs, women are responsible for crime among young people, because they are working mothers. Under the structural adjustment programme, women workers were the first to have to go. You get articles ranting and raving about how women should go back home, and how so many problems would be solved that way. But the majority of women cannot afford to stay at home. As for the few who pay lip service to the idea, can they really afford to practice what they preach?"
The demands, too, have evolved, she believes: "We are now asking to participate in governance and decision-making, we want to be judges and governors, so in many ways, while our demands are essentially the same, they are more crystallised and more focused."
SPIRAL MOVEMENTS: Like Hoda Badran, Marie Assaad, head of the Female Genital Mutilation Taskforce, believes that "there are now many movements centring around different women's issues: for example, one movement advocating women's right to become judges, another focusing on raising poor women's legal awareness, yet another dealing with how to stop FGM."
'Areas that were accepted as being privately regulated and nobody's business are now being talked about openly, like domestic violence and power relations in the family'
Aida Seif El-Dawla,
New Woman Research Centre
(photo: Sherif Sonbol)
She agrees with Badran that the ICPD played an instrumental role in mobilising support for women's issues. "Since then there has been an emergence of movements, of equal people, of kindred minds." For Assaad, this represents progress since, in the past, "people gathered around certain women who decided what the important issues for women were, they were basically one-woman shows."
Assaad also believes there is another positive difference between women's struggle today and its predecessor: "The movements today are definitely more grassroots. Before, it was mainly educated women who wanted to liberate themselves, whereas now we believe that the most victimised women should set the agenda on their own terms for their own liberation. We recognise our role today as intermediaries between the policy-makers and grassroots women."
Assaad points out that today's emphasis on gender, rather than women's, issues has encouraged both men and women to become involved, "like the FGM Taskforce, which, although led by women, has men participating in it. Some of the extremist feminists in the West realised they were losing because the exclusivity of their movement created a backlash against them. This is why gender inclusion is very important."
The differences among women's organisations do not disturb her. "God bless difference!" she says emphatically. "There is nothing wrong with having a mosaic of women's movements, as long as these differences don't take us away from the goal, which we need to be very clear about."
According to Assaad, women's organisations are moving in a spiral. "We move ahead a little, then we pause because people start to get insecure when we shake up the system, then we pick up again and move on." Assaad herself does not "like to be defined. I believe in advocacy on behalf of those who are oppressed and face injustice, whether they happen to be women, children or men; at the moment, they happen to be women."
THE MANY FACES OF RESISTANCE: Aida Seif El-Dawla, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Ain Shams University and member of the New Woman Research Centre, believes that "we have a movement in the process of development". Like Assaad, she sees the emerging organisations and groups as a healthier sign than having "just one or two vocal feminists". Also, she believes that traditional welfare providers are slowly becoming conscious of the need for advocacy.
From Seif El-Dawla's perspective, the women's movement is slowly gathering momentum, "because they realise that the rights they took for granted are not really so definite, like the right to work, the right to decision-making and whether women are really human beings -- after all, we are still discussing whether it is proper or not to cut bits and pieces off a woman's body."
Women are resisting in different ways, asserts Seif El-Dawla, even if this resistance is not always evident, and despite the talk about women contributing to their own oppression. "Women may accept certain social norms today because it increases their bargaining power and their ability to survive. They may make certain social concessions so that they can have the freedom to work and earn a living, or a divorced woman might choose to veil for instance in order to maintain her autonomy without being ostracised by the community around her."
Such forms of resistance may be more subtle, much less visible and low-profile than the protests and demonstrations of the old women's movement; but, she believes, they are more viable in the long term. On the other hand, she points out, "this manipulating and manoeuvring, which achieves what it wants without disturbing the system" will not work forever: "it can only work to a certain point because there is only so much compromising that can be done."
Unlike El-Saadawi, Seif El-Dawla believes that private space has become increasingly politicised in recent years. "Areas that were accepted as being privately regulated and nobody's business are now being talked about openly, like domestic violence and power relations in the family."
ORGANISING WOMEN: Azza Soliman, head of the Centre for Egyptian Women's Legal Assistance, is anxious about the impact of a reactionary trend which aims to separate roles along gender lines, denying women the right to participate in society on the premise that their domain is the home, their role that of mother and wife.
"Until the end of the '60s, we were talking about the important role women do and should play in society, about what they can contribute to building it and how to enhance it. Since the 1970s, this seems to have gone gradually down the drain. We now have movements that just glorify motherhood and the sacred duty of women as helpmeets to their husbands."
Soliman is also perturbed that many women still feel inferior to men. "The idea that women have broken wings is still prevalent, and seems to be increasing in the light of the economic crisis affecting low-income families." Apart from the pressure being placed on women to give up their jobs to solve men's unemployment problems, Soliman explains, there are simply no channels through which to vent their frustration and anxieties.
As far as the Centre is concerned, lobbying for changes in the laws that affect women is a priority. Making women aware of whatever rights they have poses another challenge: "Because of the economic crisis, people don't want knowledge; they want services that will help them meet their material needs. We are trying to build a popular base, but sometimes people are suspicious of why we are so concerned with women, with issuing birth certificates and identity cards."
WOMEN'S HERITAGE: The Women and Memory Forum is one of the new Egyptian NGOs that addresses women's issues from a distinct perspective. According to its coordinator, Hoda El-Sadda, it is concerned with re-reading Arab cultural history as a gateway for tackling contemporary women's issues. Practically, that means providing alternative voices that draw their legitimacy from the culture's own past and are capable of confronting the conservative forces that claim to speak on behalf of all.
"There are people speaking in the name of culture and its preservation, and yet no one is challenging their discourse. We want to create a space for women to speak out from within the culture. They have the right to do so because they represent a significant component of this culture," asserts El-Sadda.
In fact, she points out, the Forum is doing nothing new: it is simply continuing what women have always done throughout the ages. "There was always a cultural dimension to new demands. For instance, let's take one popular example, that of Hoda Sha'rawi. In 1919, when she asked for the reform of the Personal Status Law, she referred to how Muslim women in the past were entitled to certain rights under Muslim law which were no longer being upheld." El-Sadda emphasises the importance of this approach in showing that there has always been support for the feminist consciousness in the Arab world -- an awareness that women have been disadvantaged in society, and want to do something to change it.
According to El-Sadda, this Arab feminist consciousness does not simply mirror events and developments in the West. "You cannot say that the Third World feminist has waned just like the feminist movement in the West today. The white feminist movement today is reconsidering many of its assumptions and is being influenced by the voices of 'the majority world'. Feminists and women activists in Egypt and in the Third World are no longer just at the receiving end."
The quest for women's emancipation in Egypt is not dead: that much is clear. Today, however, it comes in so many different shapes and sizes, there should be one to fit every man and woman.