Women Power_Featured_, Human Rights Wednesday, July 18th, 2012
Growing up in Egypt I always wondered how fair it is that when a young man has his fun, he is considered cool and it counts as experience but when the female does the same or less, she is labeled as easy or worse and risks being a victim of shame. I was glad to be a male in this sexist society because the freedom I enjoyed could never be compared to what my sister or female friends were allowed to have. This granted lifestyle reflected directly on my personality and it’s only normal to think that theirs also reflected on their own personalities, maybe even more directly.
Among most of the educated elite minority, parents often worry about what will the doorman thinks when their 20-something year old daughter comes home after midnight. A girl will only move out from her parent’s house after marriage and many choose to make that important decision at a relatively immature age and for the obvious wrong reasons; wanting their independent lives and/or falsely assuming that the first candidate will be the father of their future children. Understandably, divorce and other psychosocial problems usually follow as natural consequences.
As for the lower socioeconomic classes, the average girls are expected to wear the veil by the time they reach puberty and sometimes even earlier and the natural right to interact with the opposite sex becomes a senseless religious taboo. Among Christians who represent 10% of the population, some women choose to cover their hair in public out of tradition for the elders or out of fear of harassment for the youngsters. They represent the segregated minority within the minority and many have faith that the church is their only safe haven.
With trying to fit in the angelic image usually portrayed by parents, religion, society or in most cases all of them combined, I can only imagine the constant pressure building up on Egyptian girls’ shoulders as they grow up. Most of them lead suppressed discriminated lives, trying to neglect the surrounding indoctrinated male chauvinism and all the quagmire of frustrations and insecurities that must drag along. Marrying and mating become their reason for living and the ultimate worldly salvation.
In all male-dominant societies throughout the region, the average man considers women as second grade citizens, ignoring the fact that mothers, sisters, wives and daughters are also women. I believe that a mix of misunderstood religious dogmas and lack of education have led to this irrational ideology over hundreds of years. Some of today’s openly misogynist Salafeyya sheikhs, whose origin is the intolerant branch of Islam the Saudi Wahhabism, often brag and preach on live television about how women have “missing brains” and how they are not “fit” to assume significant roles in life. However, true Islam never demeaned women but considered them equal partners who should be respected and gently taken care of.
In Saudi Arabia for example, alcohol and mixing of the sexes are illegal but they have one of the highest rates in rape and sexual harassment, and drinking in private is the common norm. Fortunately, Egypt has always been a moderately religious nation but the society didn’t escape its fair share of hypocrisy. For the young adults who dare to experiment with premarital relationships, many do so in secrecy. Lying, pretending and faking become ways of survival in this highly judgmental society.
I believe that the majority remaining singles until the hard-to-attain marriage is a main cause of the many frustrations seen between people in the streets. Many lack the emotional intelligence needed to peacefully interact and get along, but we can never blame them for the mistakes of their greedy and selfish oppressors.
After more than one year since January 25th and in the midst of an incomplete but ongoing revolution, I often question how this blowing wind of change will affect the women of Egypt and how are they going to be remembered in history and -herstory- this time. Hoping to get a better understanding on this controversial issue, I asked a few young educated Egyptian women their opinions about how they relate with what’s going and how do they see things from their own eyes. I planned to paraphrase and reword but then realized that I wouldn’t be as eloquent or elaborate as their own personalized accounts, so I will quote them as they are, each depicting different aspects of their Egyptian womanhood.
S.F, a 30 year old working woman said: “Looking at the meagre showing of women in the recent parliament, and the oppressive discourse and treatment of women both by the military council and Egypt’s Islamists -from dragging and stripping female protesters (army) to raiding media with announcements of how Egyptian women and female tourists should be clothed (Islamists) – it’s easy to fall into pessimism over the status of Egyptian women post-uprising. But the women’s march in December against the army’s treatment of female protesters really renewed my hope and optimism. It made me realize that although at the political level Egyptian women may be marginalized, at a sociological level the revolution has shaped their consciousness and awareness and empowered them to say “No.” Women from all walks of life and of all ideologies were integral to the Egyptian revolution, they defied the more traditional notions of women’s place in the public arena, and they took to the streets to demonstrate, with some even camping out in Tahrir square. I think this is very reassuring for women’s standing in Egypt, more than most people would assume.”
The 32 year old B.H explained: “I have no issues walking alone in the streets of Cairo after the revolution, I’m probably just more annoyed than anything else at the chaos. Men do look and they will always look, why would they stop? It’s not like their circumstances changed, or their mentalities progressed overnight, or the culture was suddenly altered after Jan 25. Something like this needs years and years of weeding out – through education, sexual education, less sexual frustration, understanding freedom and personal space etc…. . I think there’s actually more harassment today probably due to people feeling they are now falsely “free” and that this means they can say and do what they want when they want regardless of the impact on others. Also, due to lack of police security these days, there is less control and therefore more “freedom.”
M.R, a 25 year old Egyptian living in Canada said: “I used to work in poor areas of Alexandria where I had to wear the Abaya (Jilbab) and veil to be accepted by this society. I cannot even begin to describe what the women there have to deal with on daily basis as they try to fit in that male-dominant society and protect themselves from all the potential dangers facing them. Many sacrifice this life for God, not by ignorance but by genuine belief that their feminine side -hair, curves and looks- should be covered to go to heaven. With this desperately poor life they lead on earth, they will do everything they can to be promised better circumstances in the afterlife. I feel it’s our duty to protect these women against all this hardship they are facing. From the experiences I shared, I look up to them and feel proud of these Egyptian women.”
Y.N, a 31 year old Living in Canada said: The revolution slogan everyone was chanting was: “Bread, Freedom, Social justice” and If you support a woman’s freedom of choice, and I personally do and I defend it just as hard as I defend my choice to willingly wear the veil, you should do so unconditionally, even if wearing the veil or the Niquab is not to your liking. Tolerance is not easy, especially in the Arab world, but it’s one of the greatest gifts you can give or receive.”
N.H, a young Egyptian woman living in Canada writing on her pro-revolution blog: “As a female who grew up and lived most of her life in the Middle East, they programmed our minds with beliefs such as: We should be protected, covered head to toe and dressed respectfully. How religion treats, protects and respects women and how you should keep your virginity till you get married as it shows that you’re a respectable conservative religious female to keep the family “honor” intact! Women are bred to start families and raise kids and it’s Ok if they worked too due to the economic situation; so they work, raise kids AND become wives. The way we were taught to deal with our body became associated with respect/disrespect, honor/dishonor, humiliation/abuse, reputation and it defines who we are.
Women`s rights were first highlighted in the western society with the 1st wave of the feminist movement between the 18th and early 20th century. The modernist author Virginia Woolf described in her book A Room of One’s Own how men socially and psychically dominate women and how they are “simultaneously victims of themselves as well as victims of men and are upholders of society by acting as mirrors to men”. In Britain, the Suffragettes campaigned for the women’s vote, which was eventually granted − to some women in 1918 and to all in 1928 and the crucial part played by British women during the First World War was fueled by efforts of the Suffragists.
In Egypt, The fearless Hoda Shaarawi helped organize the largest women’s anti-British demonstration in 1919. As my grandmother would reminisce, this was a time when women were confined to harems and hidden behind face veils. A few years later, Shaarawi founded and became the 1st president of the Egyptian Feminist Union and she took off her veil in public for the first time as a sign of defiance in one signal event in the history of Egyptian feminism. Safeya Zaghloul, the wife of the distinguished leader Saad Zaghloul Pasha was also a renowned active feminist by then and was already involved in politics.
One of today’s outspoken female advocates, the Egyptian American author Mona El Tahawy, Tweeted recently: “It takes optimism to launch revolutions, to believe that you can end decades of dictatorship and that you deserve freedom and dignity. Why are the people of the Middle East and North Africa – all too aware of the challenges they face in rising up to despots – more optimistic about their revolutions and uprisings than those outside the region – who all too often take for granted their own freedoms?”
Egypt’s two vicious predators are poverty and illiteracy; with 40% living under the poverty line and another 40% for women illiteracy. Rationally, these figures cannot be reverted with a 1-year old revolution and concrete results will take years to materialize. Women development and gender equality in Egypt will not be a walk in the park especially with the rise of the almost womanless, often-bigoted Islamists-majority parliament that is now being dismantled and hopefully properly restructured.
I’m not sure if in my lifetime we will witness any substantial change in the status of women in the region, but I do believe that learning how to equally share roles in life is part of our healthy human evolution.
Today’s courageous opinionated female figures like Bothaina Kamel, Gamila Ismail, Dr. Heba Raouf Ezzat, Dina Abdel Rahman, Dr. Manal Omar to name a few, have ventured and politically spoke up against the criminal injustice towards the Egyptian people. And along with the thousands who took part in the recent women’s marches, they do represent a shining hope for a better tomorrow. Let us see how will the new Muslim Brotherhood elected president, Dr. Mohamed Morsi act towards the whole issue, especially after unconfirmed talks about hiring a female deputy. The dream of true freedom and equality is not too far from reality today and I`m sure that the strong-willed women of Egypt will once again prove that they are proud partners in that hopeful dream.
The late George Carlin once said: “Men are from earth, women are from earth; deal with it.” Nobody has to ever win the battle of the sexes, women consist half of the world’s population and their role towards humanity is as important as ours. With all our differences and similarities there`s no doubt that we do complement each other, almost gracefully when thinking about it. Just like it’s still illegal for them to drive in some parts of the world, they are inspiring active revolutionaries who are shaping history in others. The seeds of hope planted today will be sown by tomorrow’s daughters and granddaughters and just by looking at what women have gone through and already achieved in this cruel man’s world, I offer nothing but utter and sincere respect.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Son of Eve