Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Towards an Egyptian feminism

By Khalil Al-AnaniFirst
Published: September 9, 2008
Daily Star Egypt

I am starting to detect a growing feminist movement in Egypt; one that was revived following three decades of political and cultural deadlock resulting from conflicts with extremists.

It is well known that the most powerful feminist movements in the Arab world sprouted in Egypt at the hands of feminist foremothers Aisha El-Taimuriya, Hoda Shaarawi, Nabawiya Moussa, Safiya Zaghloul, Duriya Shafiq, Malak Hifni Nasif and Aisha Ratib.

The basic difference between the current movement and the one preceding it lies in capabilities and interests. It is the difference between liberal Egypt, which experienced cultural and political emancipation during the first half of the 20th century, and totalitarian Egypt which has been suffering from political repression and cultural dogma since the 1952 Revolution.

Women today are merely combating sexual harassment on the streets, which has increased despite the fact that more women don the veil. And this is where the paradox lies. The religiosity and rate of sexual harassment seem to be growing in parallel, which makes this religiosity appear superficial, void of morals and values and respect for women as human beings entitled to their privacy.

A report by the Egyptian Center for Women’s rights revealed that 84 percent of women in Egypt are subjected to sexual harassment, 70 percent of which at least are veiled.

Adding insult to injury, a few weeks ago the Washington Post compared women’s status in Egypt to that of women under the Taliban’s regime in the 1990s in terms of political and social barriers.

Unfortunately, instead of asking for political, social and cultural equality, putting an end to the harassment women are subjected to on the streets seems to come first on their list.

While men in Egypt suffer from political repression by the authorities, women suffer from familial and societal repression.

Women’s struggle for equality and dignity starts in households, schools and universities. Unfortunately, Egyptian women seem to be subservient in nature to the imposed restrictions justified by traditions and customs that hinder thought and change.

I am referring precisely to the traditions that push women to the sidelines and deem them secondary to men, not independent entities with capabilities and talents. If given the chance, women would change the painful reality in Egypt.

I write these words bearing in mind the “superiority complex” that characterizes the minds of men in Egypt — most of whom are well educated and cultured — who regard themselves superior to women they consider second-class citizens — myself included.

The dilemma lies in merely a “psychological wall” that is instilled in the hearts of Egyptian men and women since childhood.

We have to bear in mind that despite the improvement in some women’s conditions — exemplified in their taking on unconventional jobs like judges or maazouns — we are yet to see a unified feminist movement that can fight for women’s rights.

Unless Egyptian women claim the rights dictated by the constitution, which are plenty and equal to men's rights, we will not see change in their conditions and they will always remain on society’s sidelines, with no real impact on its core.

Khalil Al-Anani is an expert on political Islam and Democratization in the Middle East and is a visiting fellow at Brookings Institution. E-mail: kalanani@gmail.com

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