'No spring without flowers'
Although women were at the forefront of the Arab Spring revolutions, some feminists say that women's rights have since been under attack, writes Gihan Shahine
the 25 January Revolution that ousted former president Hosni Mubarak, the late Al-Azhar Sheikh Emad Effat, shot during a cabinet sit-in protest earlier this year, encouraged the female members of his family to take part in the protests. Effat seemed to have had so much faith in the participation of women that he encouraged his wife, who had given birth only three weeks earlier, to take part in the demonstrations and to bring her newborn child along with her.
"For him, the participation of women and children in the revolution was a strong message that this was the revolution of a nation that was ready to sacrifice whatever it takes to attain liberty and put an end to despotism," Effat's widow, Nashwa Abdel-Tawab, explained.
Effat always considered social activism aimed at improving the quality of life to be an integral part of the faith and something that should be seen as being in line with the performance of the rituals. For him, women should have a similar role to that of men in bringing about positive change. However, Effat's enlightened religious opinions regarding many issues, including those related to gender and in essence reflecting the moderate discourse of Al-Azhar, the Sunni world's most prestigious seat of learning, were not necessarily shared by others.
Indeed, there have been mounting fears among some feminists that the recent rise of the Islamists in the aftermath of the Arab Spring may be rolling back the gains that women have made over past decades. The Islamists, who won a majority of the seats in parliament in Egypt and Tunisia and are gaining influence in Libya and Yemen, have made it clear that any legislation that in their view is not in line with Islamic Sharia law will be reviewed and possibly annulled. Given the existence of various Islamist ideologies, many wonder what this may mean.
There is almost a consensus that women, though they took a leading role in the Arab Spring, are now being sidelined in the shaping of the countries in transition, including Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. Many feminist activists claim that the Arab Spring has not helped women claim their rights, but that on the contrary the end of the Arab dictatorships may have backfired on women, who will perhaps now need another revolt to claim their rights.
Whether women have been the only losers as a result of the Arab Spring and whether this has been at least partly due to the rise of Islamists remains a subject of heated debate. Many argue that at least in the case of Egypt the revolution has not yet attained its main goals, including freedom, justice and social equality. Meanwhile, the influence of Islam itself has been questioned. Is the issue Islam, Political Islam, or a legacy of cultural hindrances and antagonisms to gender issues in general?
FEWER WOMEN IN PARLIAMENT: While such questions can be debated, the fact remains that at least in the case of Egypt there are signs that women may need to exert more efforts to claim their rights in future. Female representation in Egypt's parliament, for instance, has fallen from 12 per cent to just two per cent since the revolution and the 64-seat quota reserved for women has been abandoned.
A recent report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union entitled Women in Parliament deplored the fact that the countries in transition had failed to take advantage of reforms to guarantee the stronger participation of women in politics.
"Despite pro-democracy protests toppling leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the Arab region was the only area in the world without a parliament of at least 30 per cent women," the report's authors wrote. "On the contrary, we can even see that setbacks have occurred, particularly in Egypt where the percentage of women parliamentarians has fallen from 12 to two per cent," Abdel-Wahed Radi, president of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, told a recent press conference in New York.
Tunisia fared better for introducing a "strong affirmative measure that required parties to list women alternately with men on ballots. [However], in practice, because most of the more than 80 parties were competing for one seat in any one constituency, it went to the man topping the list," the report noted. "As a result, two fewer women were elected in 2011 than in the previous election in 2009."
The first draft of the new electoral law in Libya reserved 10 per cent of the seats in the constituent assembly for women, but this draft was later abandoned, much to the outrage of women's rights advocates.
Yet, it remains uncertain whether it has been the rise of the Islamists that has led to fewer women making it to parliament, as some women's groups suggest. The Inter-Parliamentary Union's study, for example, also mentioned a tangle of cultural hindrances and challenges, including "insufficient funds to run a campaign, high expectations from the electorate and the antagonistic nature of competitive political parties."
"In addition, women tend to have fewer resources at their disposal, less experience in running for office and in public speaking, and a lack of support from spouses and family," the report said. "Women also have multiple roles, and balancing them all can be very difficult."
Nevertheless, many feminists argue that the reduction in the number of women in Egypt's parliament has been at least partly due to the Islamists dominating it, arguing that the clustering of women candidates at the bottom of the Islamists' electoral lists reduced their chances of winning seats. Feminist activists also argue that replacing women's photographs with pictures of flowers on the campaign materials of the Salafi groups made them less likely to win.
Isobel Coleman, senior fellow for US foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, wrote in a recent article entitled 'Is the Arab Spring bad for women?' in the US magazine Foreign Policy that the rise of the Islamists has been a source of concern for many liberals and women's rights groups. "The ultraconservative Salafi groups, which took a surprising 20 per cent of the vote, openly question a modern role for women in society," Coleman wrote.
A recent report by the International Federation for Human Rights similarly argued that women in the countries in transition "are now confronting attempts to exclude them from public life, as well as acts of discrimination and violence perpetrated with impunity by extremist groups and security forces." The report mentioned the virginity tests conducted by the military to humiliate female protesters in Egypt as a case in point.
ISLAMISM AT A CROSSROADS: Such mounting fears among many female activists, perhaps extending across parts of Egypt's female population, have meant that many are now concerned that the Salafi groups that proved to have nationwide popularity in the recent elections will perhaps call for a smaller role for women in public life, undermining their rights.
Some Salafis had earlier alarmed public opinion in Egypt when they made perhaps miscalculated statements about women's employment and in favour of the segregation of the sexes in the workplace and a greater role for polygamy. Such statements, which may have only represented the viewpoint of the speakers, were instrumental in creating a measure of "Islamophobia" among some liberals and feminist groups.
Feminist columnist Ragheda Dergham at Dar Al-Hayah was quick to denounce what she called people "surrendering" to a democratic process that could ultimately bring the Islamists to power in an article entitled 'Fears of the Arab Spring becoming an "Islamist Spring",' expressing concerns at "dangerous indications that the personal freedoms of Arab women and religious minorities are being undermined in the age of the Islamist monopoly of power."
Kuwaiti women's rights activist Ebtihal Al-Khatib was equally quick to attack the rise of the Islamists in the countries in transition, telling Egypt's Independent newspaper that "when religious groups rise to positions of powerÒê¦ the first to be affected negatively are women."
Young activist Howeida Abdel-Alim Fouda, a professor at the Faculty of Physical Therapy in 6 October City, is despondent at the way women's issues are being handled and discussed in parliament. "Our hopes were very high at the time of the revolution, but now these hopes have been crushed with the rise of those who speak in the name of Islam," Foda told the Weekly.
As a veiled Muslim women herself, she said she had been frustrated at seeing women being pushed down the campaign lists of the Nour Party and women hardly represented on the committee that will write the country's new constitution. The issue goes wider than the fewer women now in the new parliament, she said.
"The main problem is that these few female members of parliament are not in the least concerned with women's issues and hardly defend women's rights," Fouda said. "They only defend their own ideologies, which do not necessarily represent those of the majority of Egypt's female population. I am a veiled Muslim woman, and yet I feel that these women in parliament do not really represent me."
She had been particularly frustrated by the viewpoint of one female MP belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) regarding the harassment of a female protester who had been stripped of her clothes by the military in a Tahrir Square protest in Cairo, she said. "The MPs hardly defended the abused female protesters," Fouda added. "Instead, they questioned their presence at such protests."
The media has also been reporting controversial statements apparently made by Azza El-Garf, an MP belonging to the Freedom and Justice Party, who recently allegedly called for the cancellation of the anti-harassment law. El-Garf was quoted as saying that "the indecent attire of women is what invites sexual harassment; hence, harassers are not to be blamed," according to the BBC.
Previously, El-Garf had allegedly made other controversial statements regarding what she described as the need to revisit family laws that were possibly not in line with Sharia law. El-Garf had reportedly attacked the khul' personal status law that allows women the right to initiate divorce proceedings against their husbands if they renounce their financial rights.
For many women even more worryingly, El-Garf had also been reported to have attacked a law that penalises female genital mutilation and one that grants a woman the right to the marital house during the period of custody of her children. She had allegedly called for revisiting a law that allows women to obtain a divorce in cases where her husband marries another woman without her being informed or consenting in advance.
However, in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, El-Garf said that she had not said what had been attributed to her. The media "spreads lies as part of its systematic attack on FJP members, who represent moderate Islam," she said. She had been singled out for such misrepresentation because she was a member of the FJP. Independent MP Mohamed El-Omda had been the one calling for the revisiting of the khul' law, and his demand had already been rejected, she said.
"The members of the FJP have not discussed any of the laws relating to women, except one in favour of single female breadwinners," El-Garf told the Weekly. "This is not because we do not consider women's issues to be important. It is because we are presently going through a transitional period, meaning that we must give priority to more pressing issues," including the new constitution, the laws governing the presidential elections and resolving problems relating to security and the economy.
"It is a shame that the media sees fit to fabricate things I never said and distract public opinion with side issues at such a critical time in Egypt's history," El-Garf said. "Al-Azhar is the only body that can say whether or not a family or other law conforms to the Sharia. For myself, I am an educated woman who believes in women's rights and have supported many women's issues. However, at this pressing time I have other issues to attend to."
Other FJP MPs have nevertheless called for the dismantling of the National Council for Women, a body that acts on behalf of Egypt's women, on the grounds that it was set up by the former regime.
THE 'FIRST LADY STIGMA': In Egypt, many laws relating to women are the target of review or even stigma on the grounds that they are associated with Egypt's former first lady Suzanne Mubarak. The National Council for Women was founded and headed by Mrs Mubarak, and its work over the past few decades has been attacked since the revolution on the grounds that everything that it did was done to please the former first lady, a strong supporter of gender issues, and because the measures it promoted allegedly do not conform to Sharia law.
While Coleman notes that Egyptian "liberals have not been stalwarts of women's rights in Egypt" and that secularists attacked "the 2000 decision to grant women the right to no-fault divorce" on the grounds that this could undermine the family, in general critics of the laws associated with the National Council for Women have attempted to "discredit the reforms by derisively calling them 'Suzanne's Laws', after Suzanne Mubarak."
"They claim the laws were intended to accommodate the wealthy friends of the former first lady, and they blame those statutes for a rise in the country's divorce rate."
Such criticisms, now coming from almost across the political spectrum, have worried many women's groups because, they say, changes in the country's family laws have saved women much suffering, especially in cases of divorce. Before the new laws, cases could drag on in the courts for years, and women who failed to prove abuse at the hands of their husbands were unlikely to obtain a divorce.
"Given the criticism of these laws from all parts of the political spectrum, it is likely that they will be amended by the new parliament, and not to women's benefit," Coleman wrote.
However, Fawzia Abdel-Sattar, a law professor at Cairo University, is not overly concerned. Abdel-Sattar was the former head of the legislative committee in parliament, a member of the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and a staunch supporter of the khul' law when it was originally passed. She insists that the law conforms to the principles of Islamic Sharia and that it has saved many women a lot of suffering.
"We should not worry too much about what the MPs say, since Al-Azhar, which represents a moderate understanding of Islam, will have the final say on such issues," Abdel-Sattar told the Weekly. What annoys her is the rhetoric that seeks to discredit such laws on the grounds that they were passed "to please the former first lady".
"This is a real shame. It is indecent to question the integrity and conscientiousness of the legislators and religious scholars who were involved in the drafting of these laws," she said.
LET THEM TALK: Veteran journalist and writer Safynaz Kazem concurs, shrugging at attempts by some conservative groups to undermine women's rights as just "nonsense talk".
"Let them talk," Kazem said, referring to the provocative statements made by some Islamist MPs. "No one will listen except to the voice of reason. Islam respects women and grants them equal rights with men. There is no argument about that."
However, Kazem also says that there may be some Islamists who do not correctly understand this. "Now that the door is wide open for everybody to express their views after so many years of repression, the Islamists are likely to make as many mistakes as the liberals, secularists and leftists. No one claims to be perfect," she told the Weekly. "Time will tell the good from the bad, and it will differentiate those who defend the true essence of Islam from those who only speak in its name."
Kazem dismisses claims that women are being disadvantaged by the rise of Islamism after the Arab revolutions. "All citizens, not just women, are suffering from injustice. I myself am suffering from injustice, but not because I am a woman. Instead, I feel injustice because I am a citizen. In this case, Islam remains my only true defender."
For Kazem, women suffered because the true principles of Sharia law were abandoned. "Women were subjected to cultural and social discrimination and unfair social norms that had nothing to do with Islamic principles," Kazem said. Today, women feel more empowered, and they will not allow anyone to undermine their rights, she added.
"We will stand firm in the face of attempts to annul the khul' law, because this law has saved women from a lot of suffering," Kazem said, adding that she would take a similar stance with regard to any other law that is unfair to either spouse or that does not conform to Sharia law.
More widely, it is questionable how much influence the conservative rhetoric of some Salafi groups has in society, even though such groups gained 20 per cent of the vote in the recent parliamentary polls.
"Gender equality has always been a loaded question in the Middle East," according to Coleman. "The whole concept of gender equality in many people's minds isn't something to be aspired to -- it's culturally alien, sometimes translating as women trying to be men. It can be seen as a Western import," Coleman told an interviewer from the Cairo Review.
In her view, even broader issues of human rights and democracy may find little attraction in society and are sometimes even looked upon with scepticism. "Many of these youth from Tahrir -- the revolutionaries -- go to places outside of Cairo and people walk away when they start talking about democracy," Coleman said. "Forget about women's rights. They can't even get traction for democracy and human rights."
Coleman suggested that multiple approaches should be designed to overcome such barriers, including the use of "different languages for different communities", perhaps bearing in mind that 85 per cent of the population has said that the new constitution should give a central role to Sharia law.
"What does that mean exactly? How will that be interpreted? These are important questions," Coleman noted.
Rabab El-Mahdi, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, agrees that women's groups in Egypt should design different approaches to counter attacks on women's rights. First and foremost, feminists should realise that these are the result of historical, cultural and social antagonisms to gender issues and not of the rise of Political Islam.
"Getting bogged down in conflicts with the Islamists, and being oblivious to the fact that these represent a wide range of views and trends that cannot be simplified into one stereotype, is not the right approach," El-Mahdi insisted.
Instead of criminalising the Islamists for their views -- one women's rights group has said that it will sue El-Garf for her statement in favour of female genital mutilation, calling for her parliamentary immunity to be lifted such that it can take her to court -- feminists should engage in dialogue to counter such views and increase public awareness of the issue, El-Mahdi said.
The recent rhetoric attacking women's rights does not reflect real life, she said. "Women have never been more active and motivated to engage in public life, as well as social and political activism, than they are today," she told the Weekly. The demonstration engaging at least 6,000 women of all ages and social and religious backgrounds in protest at the excessive use of force by the Egyptian army against female protesters may be a case in point.
Dalia Ziada, Egyptian director of the American Islamic Congress, perhaps sums up the issue. "Tell people there is no spring without flowers, and likewise there is no Arab Spring without women," she told the Women's Day world summit in New York recently.