Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)
Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

In-Focus: Gender equality crisis

No society can progress until women attain their full and equal rights, writes Galal Nassar

اقرأ باللغة العربية

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi’s call for legislation to provide for gender equality in inheritance and to grant women the right to marry non-Muslims has thrown into relief a profound crisis in Arab countries, especially in Egypt. This is not just because of the religious and doctrinal controversy this has triggered between civil society organisations and religious institutions such as Al-Azhar, but also because of how politics has intertwined with religion in this fracas that has spread beyond the usual domains in the press and social networking sites.

The controversy exposes grave problems in the way questions pertaining to the status of women and women’s rights are handled in the Arab region and in the prevalent attitudes that are brought to bear in the process. If the approaches appear to vary from person, organisation or institution to the next, in Egypt, at least, the discussion, for the most part, has largely been characterised by superficiality, a knee-jerk pietism and a rush defence of “cardinal” religious principles.

As I am neither a theologian or expert in Islamic jurisprudence, I refuse to enter into a debate on matters that I am not qualified to discuss. What concerns me here, in any case, is how fragmented our vision is on basic human rights when it comes to our mothers, wives, sisters and female friends, colleagues and fellow citizens who share the Egyptian people’s concerns for the welfare of the nation, who are constitutionally endowed with equal rights and duties and whose vote counts the same as everyone else’s in the polls that determine the fate of our nation.

No harm can come to society if a portion of its people bring a religious perspective to discussions of religious affairs. The harm comes when some people claim possession of the absolute incontrovertible truth, refuse to give countenance to an explanation or opinion that contradicts theirs, and dismiss all other views and arguments as invalid and even blasphemous. There can be no dialogue under such conditions. So, debate will inevitably descend into verbal brawls and fusillades of mudslinging, curses and accusations of heresy flying back and forth while all consideration and respect for the views and even for the rights of others fly out the window. Soon enough, political and ideological divides will project themselves on the “discussions”, exposing sharp polarisations that have nothing to do with religion. One also finds participants raking up any number of unrelated issues that have no logical connection to the subject at hand, such as the question of Tiran and Sanafir islands that were transferred to Saudi sovereignty in accordance with the maritime border agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia that was ratified by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi last week.

The Muslim Brotherhood and the rest of its kindred groups that have been designated as terrorist organisations immediately seized on the opportunity of the controversy over the “status of women” in the hope of steering discussion towards a public condemnation of the orders that emerged as the alternative to them thanks to the grassroots revolt against them in Egypt and Tunisia. The religious fanatics railed against the “secular” regimes that were not governed by “God’s Law” and that were propelling their societies towards the brink of hellfire and damnation and closing them off to the blessings of paradise to which the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, like other violent Islamist groups, claims to hold the key in their capacity as the possessors of the absolute truth, the “shadow of God on earth” and self-appointed defenders of the “true” faith.

In Tunisia, in contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood, as represented by the Ennahda movement, announced that President Essebsi’s calls for legislation guaranteeing gender equality in inheritance and to grant Muslim women the right to marry non-Muslim men were not political issues but rather religious ones. Accordingly, Ennahda would not discuss the matter since it is a political party that discusses only political issues.

Abdallah Al-Khalfawi, a member of Ennahda’s political bureau, took advantage of the controversy to portray Ennahda as a political movement rather than a religious party. He wrote on his Facebook page: “Religious cultural issues are of concern to all citizens who should express their points of view rather than to sit on a hill.” He stressed that questions of what is religiously prohibited or permitted and interpretations of scriptural texts were not matters for political parties but rather religious affairs that concerned the state’s religious authorities.

In Egypt, the crisis is particularly acute because, in spite of the many phases of the struggle for women’s rights, enormous efforts are still needed to produce the legislation and guarantees to safeguard women’s gains, however small, and to realise greater progress in this domain. The reason for this has less to do with the discussions that take place in religious institutions on matters of good and bad from theological and jurisprudential standpoints than it does with prevailing condescending and misogynistic attitudes towards women and their rights, attitudes that often assume a pietistic façade while ignoring rights established by Islam. We therefore find ingrained practices in the Egyptian countryside that keep women from receiving their share of an inheritance to which they are entitled under Islamic law. Often, after the death of a husband, the brother’s, uncle’s or other male relative’s “guardianship” rights and duties over women are used to justify increasing the man’s share, a practice that has spread from the Egyptian villages to our cities and provincial capitals.

The current controversy has also revealed the absence of a strong political framework to back women’s rights and gains. Efforts to change prevalent attitudes towards women have been insufficient, even though five women are sitting in the current cabinet and the House of Representatives has an unprecedented number of female MPs, and even though we have a National Council for Women, an Egyptian Women’s Year and hundreds of NGOs operating beneath the banner of human rights, women and the family.

A large portion of society continues to view women as lacking in intelligence, wisdom, awareness and sense of responsibility in spite of the fact that Egyptian women have proven as strong as pillars of the home and family as men. Moreover, in the absence of a husband, due to death, travel or separation, Egyptian women have shown that they are perfectly capable of performing all the essential roles involved in the economic, psychological, physical and social supervision and management of the home and care for the health and wellbeing of the family.

A society that does not appreciate the value of women is doomed to fail. No society and country can develop and progress until women obtain their full rights and the status they merit, regardless of religious controversy, illusory battles in the social media and futile tugs-of-war in the political arenas.

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