Sunday,24 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1372, (7 - 13 December 2017)
Sunday,24 February, 2019
Issue 1372, (7 - 13 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Person of the Year?

Should Egypt’s women be in the running for this year’s Time magazine Person of the Year, asks Amina Khairy

UK Egyptologist Barbara Watterson once wrote that “in ancient Egypt a woman enjoyed the same rights under the law as a man. What her de jure (rightful entitlement) rights were depended upon her social class not her sex. All landed property descended in the female line, from mother to daughter, on the assumption perhaps that maternity is a matter of fact, paternity a matter of opinion.” 

“A woman was entitled to administer her own property and dispose of it as she wished. She could buy, sell, be a partner in legal contracts, be executor in wills and witness to legal documents, bring an action at court, and adopt children in her own name. An ancient Egyptian woman was legally capax (competent)… and ancient Egyptian women enjoyed greater social standing than many women of other societies, both ancient and modern.”

Meanwhile, a modern Egyptian woman “enjoys” a different social, cultural, economic and political standing, and this together with a misguided religious understanding of her role perhaps makes her eligible to be this year’s US Time magazine’s “Person of the Year”. 

Every year, UNITE, an initiative launched in 2008 by then UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, leads a 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence Campaign that aims to raise public awareness and mobilise people everywhere to bring about change. This year’s theme for the campaign, which started on 25 November and runs until 10 December, is “Leave No One Behind: End the Violence against Women and Girls”. 

Women and girls are paying a high price for what has been happening in Egypt over the past few decades. The issue started almost seven decades ago when Egypt was torn between a corrupt monarchy and an organisation whose members were dubbed the “People of Allah”. Members of the latter, the Muslim Brotherhood established in 1928, gained a reputation among many Egyptians as being devout, compassionate and understanding people who did charitable work based on religion. But with charity and religion came a slow but sure distortion and manipulation of the role and status of women in Egypt. 

Unlike the image that the Brotherhood likes to portray of itself as a modern and open-minded organisation that treats women equally, degradation and contempt for women lies at the heart of its manifesto, considered to be the origin of those of later Islamist groups. 

In 2013, while Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi was residing in the Ittihadeya Presidential Palace in Cairo and its members and Salafist kinsmen dominated parliament, the organisation issued a formal statement with regard to a proposed United Nations declaration condemning violence against women. A whole list of Brotherhood objections disclosed the real face of this allegedly moderate and Western-friendly Islamist group that has been so dear to the West in the years of the Arab Spring.

The statement said that wives should not have the right to file legal complaints against their husbands for rape. Husbands should not be subject to the punishments meted out for the rape of a stranger. A husband, according the Brotherhood, must have “guardianship” over his wife, not equal partnership. Daughters should not have the same inheritance rights as sons. The article in the law that stipulates a husband’s consent for a wife to travel should not be abolished, the Brotherhood said, arguing that the same thing was true for a woman’s decision to work or use contraceptives. 

The Brotherhood’s statement uncovered decades of poisonous thoughts and erroneous interpretations of Islam that have affected Egypt and Egyptians. There was a promising era for women rising up to a world of social equality starting during the 1930s and 1940s, and former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s time in office was a golden era for the advancement of women. 

The 1956 constitution and the new electoral laws of the time granted women the right to vote and run for public office. Nasser also encouraged women to work outside the home and saw to it that they were given unprecedented educational opportunities. Women’s literacy increased, and with a set of progressive labour laws and protections for working women such as paid maternity leave and childcare Egyptian women flourished. 

 Some of this was reversed by the so-called “devout president” that followed, Anwar Al-Sadat, whose political manoeuvres in the second article of the 1971 constitution made the principles of Islamic Sharia Law a main source, later the main source, of legislation. This marked what some scholars call the “great Islamic transformation” that Sadat brought about in Egypt. Despite the fact that this transformation was a purely political manoeuvre, Egyptian women are still paying the price for it, and Egyptian society turned out to be politically, psychologically and culturally ready for this “great transformation”. 

Millions of Egyptian workers migrated to the Gulf countries in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and many of these, travelling with the rudiments of the “great transformation” in mind, were ready to adopt the culture and religion, or rather the interpretation of religion, of their new host countries. Millions later came back to Egypt and started to spread a version of Islam that has nothing to do with Egypt’s culture and history, let alone with true Islam. 

It was therefore natural that some Egyptians were not shocked when their great Pharaonic heritage was described as “rotten” by a leading Salafi preacher. In 2012, during the peak of attempts by Islamist radical groups to tear Egypt apart, Abdel-Moneim Al-Shahat, official spokesman of the Salafist group Al-Daawa Al-Salafeya and a religious preacher and TV host, made these remarks, adding that he would like to see all Egyptian women wear the niqab, or full face veil.

This Islamisation of Egypt, totally different from Islam as a religion, is one of the main factors that have put Egyptian women where they stand today. Ideas of Islam that only deal with appearances, terminology, the manipulation of interpretation, the adoption of undocumented hadiths (sayings of the Prophet), an infatuation with sex disguised under religious robes, and, last but not least, the degradation of women in a fake repackaging of “Islam’s reverence for women,” have made many women’s lives hell. 

Millions of women have given in to this falsified version of religion. The reasons have varied from brainwashing to poor education to falling prey to doaah (religious exponents) who manipulate feelings of fear and the wish to be devout to parental, marital or social pressures. Millions more have refused to give in, but have found themselves struggling either to adapt to a set of norms by wearing religious robes as a form of camouflage, or to struggle against them even if it means hardship or even charges of infidelity.

The plagues of sexual harassment (often justified by the assertion that a woman is not wearing properly modest clothes), domestic violence (defended on the basis that it is a man’s duty to discipline his wife, daughter or sister), domestic rape (referred to as a husband’s right to have sex with his wife whenever it suits him), female genital mutilation (described as preserving the chastity and honour of a girl), child marriage (marketed as protecting girls by shielding them in their husband’s house) are just some of the forms of violence practised against Egyptian women. 

What makes combating them in the 16 days of the campaign almost impossible is the fact that some of these forms of violence are defended by society. They have been spreading and manipulating the collective mind. 

The 30 June Revolution that toppled Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt started critical discussion of the radical and fanatical groups that are sabotaging Islam. Were Muslim Egyptian women infidels prior to the Islamisation of society? Has the Islamisation of society made Egypt a better place for Egyptians and specifically for Egyptian women? Do the members of the Muslim Brotherhood and their kinsmen support the sort of equality that human rights organisations promulgate? Does their view of the status of women fit with the democratic criteria called for in Eestern democracies? 

Looking at the daily lives of many Egyptian women and what they have to endure starting with a sexual harassment-friendly environment and ending with an acquired culture that regards them as sex objects that should be enjoyed but well-hidden, it is safe to say that Egyptian women deserve Time magazine’s award of “Person of the Year” for reasons that are both good and bad. 

The writer is a journalist at Al-Hayat newspaper.

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