Egypt's Women: Covered-up or Locked-up
The ancient Egyptians created a sophisticated civilization, particularly regarding the status of women. On women's rights, ancient Egyptian society was considerably more liberal and progressive than Athens and Rome. Ancient Egypt's eight female pharaohs and a number of influential queens led the country as it achieved astonishing feats in a wide range of fields that include engineering, fashion and astronomy. From the archaeological evidence of the art on the ancient temples, at least in the realm of law, it appears Egyptian women had achieved equality with men. Women could own land, divorce their husbands and represent themselves in court. Women also played a central role in the how their society was governed.
Those days are long gone. In today's Egypt, women, even when they just walk on the street, every day endure violence, aggression, and sexual harassment. Women are often discouraged from seeking justice, both by officials, who want to protect Egypt's reputation and by their own relatives, who want to protect their family's honor.
What happened? The answer seems to lie with Islam's Sharia Law and how it is interpreted by the clerics at Egypt's -- and Sunni Islam's -- foremost religious establishment, Al-Azhar University in Cairo, and by other hardline fundamentalist groups in the country. The clerics at Al-Azhar, all men, seek to keep women behind the veil and under the thumb of the country's theocracy.
Last week, things came to a head when a new draft of the Egyptian constitution was approved by a 50-member committee appointed by Egypt's Interim president, Adly Mansour. The current draft includes Article Two of the old constitution which states that "Islam is the state religion, Arabic is its official language and the principles of Islamic Sharia law form the main source of legislation."
To its credit, the committee also approved Article 89, which criminalizes child marriage, forced marriage and female genital mutilation ["circumcision"]. Two members of the committee did not vote in favor of this article; they were outside the country; and Salah Abdel-Maboud, a representative from the Salafists' ultraconservative Nour Party, refused to vote on this article. He left the room. Abdel-Maboud also objected to Article 11 of the proposed constitution, which addresses the equality between men and women and states that those women's rights are defined in Sharia's laws. Islamists keep repeating that Sharia laws have all the solutions to the world's problems.
At the outset, the Islamists, who seek to shape Egyptian society, would deny women the right to participate in their country's governance. Women's involvement in politics is now a Western idea; it has no place in Muslim Egypt. Sheikh Abu Ishaq al-Heweny recently stated that the successes enjoyed by women leaders such as Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir were abnormal phenomena in history, and that no nation could enjoy any progress with a women at the helm.
The oppression, however, does not stop there. It goes much deeper. In the minds of Egypt's theocrats, a woman's body should not be seen in public. In televised interviews and sermons, leaders of the Nour Party have stated that when a man sees a woman, his testosterone hormones are activated. Therefore women, according to his interpretation of Sharia law, need to be covered-up or locked-up.
Many of the Islamists damn non-Muslim societies for granting women their freedom -- to men, the biggest danger.
These ideas, unfortunately, have a real impact on how girls and women are treated in Egyptian society. Instead of protecting women from the violence of men, ideas promoted by the Nour Party, and by clerics at Al-Ahzar and the educational system they control, have given men license to behave like animals toward women.
A few weeks ago, a 7-year-old girl, Ehssan, was kidnapped and raped while playing front of her family's house in Alexandria. The community's elders discouraged the father -- to protect both the honor of his daughter and the honor of his family -- from going public about what had happened to her. The police and the local hospital initially refused to get involved in the case. The father stated in a televised interview that what happened to his daughter happens regularly to girls of a similar age in Egypt.
Hania Moheeb -- an ordinary Egyptian woman who was attacked in her way to Tahrir Square in January 2013 to celebrate the second anniversary of the January 25 Revolution -- can also testify to the problem of violence against females in Egyptian society. Moheeb told the BBC what happened: "All of a sudden I found myself inside a very, very huge circle of men who were attacking every inch of my body," she says in a voice that is soft but unflinching. "They stripped me - their hands were all over my body, violating my intimate parts. I thought I was going to die because they were very aggressive. At a certain point I think I fainted because one of them was trying to strangle me with a scarf that was around my neck." What happened to Hania Moheeb happens every day to Egyptian women.
In December of 2011, during one of the youths' demonstration against the SCARF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces), a young woman wearing the Islamic niqab was severely beaten by Egyptian soldiers. This graphic and horrifying video captures the attack, during which soldiers pulled the niqab over her head and exposed her blue bra and stomach.
Although she survived the attack, what is really instructive is how she was demonized on Egypt's Islamic talk shows and blamed for the violence she endured. Commentators seemed obsessed with the color of her bra, and accused her of deliberately wearing a blue bra to invite the attack -- as if it could even have been seen beneath the black Islamic veil she wore before she was attacked. The question they asked was not how the soldiers could attack a defenseless woman in such a way, but how she could dare to wear such a bra. Others accused her of being a whore. Other hosts asked why she didn't wear multiple layers of clothing under her niqab to protect herself in Tahrir Square, as if the niqab were not enough. Azza Hilal Suleman, an activist who tried to help the victim, was beaten by the same soldiers.
Ideas about women disseminated by Al-Azhar have made their way to the West where they have been embraced by both men and women. On October 11, 2013, Diane Sawyer, anchoring an ABC News show, interviewed hardliner fundamentalist women in UK as part of a segment about the 16-year-old Pakistani girl, Malala Yousafzai. The interviewees wore the same Islamic niqab [veil] that was worn by the woman who was beaten in Egypt in 2011. It is a black garment designed to conceal a woman's shape and is required by ultra-conservative Muslims.
The women explained that the niqab was to honor and protect them, unlike Western women, who are seen as no more than sex objects, and, they said, have to expose their cleavage to get a job. The women emphasized that Islam cannot co-exist with freedom and democracy, and they told Sawyer that she was oppressed because she was not covered-up.
If the niqab is intended to protect and honor women, then how does one explain the violence endured by a completely veiled Egyptian woman in 2011?
The problem is not with the clothes that women wear, but with the ideas that are in the heads of men who attack the women.
To get a taste of what these ideas are, it is useful to listen to the testimony offered by Australian Grand Mufti, Sheik Taj Din Al-Hilali, in a 2006 sermon about adultery. Speaking in a mosque in Sydney, the mufti blamed women for rape. He stated that, "If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street, or in the garden or in the park, or in the backyard without a cover, and the cats come and eat it ... whose fault is it, the cats' or the uncovered meat?…The uncovered meat is the problem."
The sheik then said: "If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred."
He said women were "weapons" used by "Satan" to control men.
"It is said in the state of zina [adultery], the responsibility falls 90 per cent of the time on the woman. Why? Because she possesses the weapon of enticement [igraa]."
It is no surprise that Sheik al-Hilali feels this way about women. According to a video produced by Al-Ahzar TV in Egypt, the Mufti was described as a jihadist who fights for Islam in the West and whose entire education took place in Al-Azhar-operated schools.
To deflect the outrage over his statement --many Australians demanded his resignation -- Sheik Al-Hilali fabricated a story about people breaking into and vandalizing his mosque. He blamed the incident on his opposition within the mosque but was caught in the act of vandalizing his own mosque by security cameras.
After Al-Hilali was forced to resign his post as the Grand Mufti, he went back to Egypt and condemned his former host country, Australia. In an interview with Amr Adeeb in Al Qahera-Al Youm (Cairo Today), Al-Hilali confirmed his views about women, but denied that he vandalized his own mosque. He said, "There is no freedom and no democracy [for Muslims] -- the most dishonest and unjust people are Western people and the English in particular."
I witnessed the impact of Sharia's interpretation on the status of women first-hand before immigrating to the United States. After my family had moved to Cairo, I saw my mother crying in the kitchen upon her return from the market. She always responded to inquiries about what happened with "nothing" or "Walad el Kalb…haywannat" -- sons of a dog…animals." Her tears kept coming, but she never answered any questions.
I could only guess what happened to my mother until I saw "Cairo 678," an Egyptian movie based on real stories. It addresses the sexual harassment problem in Egypt through the lives of three women from three different economic, religious and social backgrounds. The movie also highlights the weapons available to women to fight their attackers and the techniques used by men to deny any charges. For example, women who have to use the public transportation have to use hairpins to keep harassers away.
Although she never articulated how deeply she was affected by the inequality that pervades Egypt today, my mother communicated her fear and sadness through denial, silence and quiet tears.
As a male in this society, I was unaware, until many years later, of the discrepancy between the personal freedom I enjoyed as young man in Egypt, free to come go as I pleased, and the utter lack of true freedom that was intentionally withheld from women like my mother. In countries governed by Islamists, including Egypt, sexual harassment is a taboo subject. Women are told that if they are sexually harassed, it is their fault. Victims are told that they had better not to show their country's dirty laundry.
Egypt today is constantly featured in the media: its political unrest, its economic challenges that plague the country, and increasingly, its mistreatment of women.
It is high time for Islamists to face the reality that their ideas are hurting Egypt, and for the civilized world to speak up.
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