On the first day of the Eid el-Fitr celebrations, Cairo’s Nile River promenade’s sidewalks were crowded, and packed with young boys on the prowl. The few women on the streets were huddled in packs, braving the Eid holiday known for its rampant sexual harassment. When one boy grabbed a woman’s breast and behind, she turned and yelled at him, she received a push from the perpetrator in response.
Police nearby stood and watched. The two officers exchanged words with each other, pointing at the confrontation between the young girl and boy. They both began laughing, and not once did they move to intervene or separate the boy from the clearly distressed girl.
This story highlights the ongoing struggle facing women in the country. Sexual harassment is a pandemic facing all women in the country. The National Council of Women (NCW) chief Mervat Tallawy said recently that Egyptian women are harassed on average 7 times every 200 meters.
Women and men in the country are bravely attempting to form groups, action-based organizations, that aim to tackle this growing problem. There has been some successes in recent months by a few groups, but nothing substantial and nothing long-term.
Last year, I interviewed Nawal Saadawi for The Progressive magazine in the United States. She talked about the need for women to be at the forefront of the decision-making process as Egypt’s revolution continues. She argued that “the revolution will take years to be successful. There are no quick fixes.”
At the heart of her argument was the idea that women must be leaders, their voices must be heard and not silenced. For Saadawi, the idea that women’s rights were being pushed aside in favor of an overarching human rights agenda was dangerous.
“Women have been silent for too long and as such they must be in positions to make decisions. Pushing aside women’s rights as being counter to the revolution misses the reality that women and their rights are in need of being created, since we didn’t have many for far too long,” she told me at her home in Cairo.
And her fears are coming to fruition in the new government of President Mohammed Morsi, who although promising numerous posts for women in the new Cabinet, gave them only two positions out of 24. Activists say the ministerial positions are nothing more than window-dressing and give women little to no power in forming ideas for the future of the country.
Making matters worse still for Egyptian women, Morsi’s advisor on women’s issues, Omaima Kamel, in a recent interview published by Tahrir newspaper, attacked women’s faith in Islam if they are not circumcised and described female genital mutilation as “cosmetic surgery.”
Women’s rights groups in the country lashed out at Kamel over the comments, saying she was attempting to rewrite laws and push for Mursi to end numerous provisions that had given women authority over their bodies.
The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR), in condemning Kamel’s comments, hit home one of the major issues facing women in the country: use of language.
They warned “of playing with words and decorating disasters with sweet words because this is a form of violence. When the word violence is mentioned, we always think of the violence that has side effects due to beating or physical assault; however there are so many forms of violence including ‘symbolic violence’ which was defined as ‘an invisible and gentle violence that leads to harming [of] others through language and education.”
Many female Egyptians commentators I have spoken to since the January 2011 uprising have made similar arguments. They have argued that sexual harassment and assault are visible and are in the face of the country on a regular basis. But the unspoken desire to see women return to their homes, as leading feminist activist and commentator Dalia Ziada said, is growing.
“I think that what we are seeing nowadays is the attack on women because men are taught to be superior to women by their family, so when they go to get a job and see a woman in a position of power, they lash out,” she told me. One way they do this is by sexually assaulting women on the streets, but the more pragmatic way appears to be what the Muslim Brotherhood and by extension, its Freedom of Justice Party (FJP), is creating.
The FJP has talked a big game on women’s issues. They have repeatedly stated that they will not curtail women’s rights in the country. Despite a number of worrying comments, the FJP has done little on women’s issues, much to the relief of women’s groups and activists in the country who fear a turning back of legislation giving them rights.
But neither have they made any progress. The FJP sit in silence as women are pushed from leadership positions, and as the male-dominated politics plays out in the country. The future of Egypt, in many ways, is teetering and women are being left aside, without any real say in their country’s future.
As Saadawi noted, “without women there is no revolution.”
If women are continued to be forced into submission, the future new Egypt that so many were optimistic about even one year ago, is heading down a dark path. I have spoken with numerous FJP officials in recent months, and on each occasion they talk about the need to protect women in the new Egypt. But much of their argument boils down to ensuring the family unit remains solid, reinforcing patriarchal gender stereotypes that keeps women at home.
Amr Darrag, the head of the FJP in Giza told me ahead of parliamentary elections that “women should be allowed to work until they have children. After this, their job should then be to be a mother.” While his sentiments might be in the right place, in many ways it is the heart of the FJP and Muslim Brotherhood’s position on women. Darrag argued this was to “protect” women and “build the family.”
One would think that the rise of Islamic conservatism, namely the Brotherhood project, would be more tolerant of Islam’s historical support for women’s rights and their mobility in public – think of the era of the Prophet Mohamed and the openness of that society. The Prophet was adamant that all people were welcome in Medina and that women were to be treated with the utmost respect. At the time, unlike today, there was no sexual apartheid in the mosque, with men and women praying side-by-side in a show of unity. Now, what we are witnessing is the rise of a movement that appears to be supportive of women and their rights, but is more anti-women.
Highlighting how deep the conservatism of Egyptian society is needed now more than ever. A United Nations study, published before the revolution, showed that the vast majority of men and women in Egypt believe that it is OK for a man to beat his wife if she refuses to have sex with him, if she does not do as he says or if she talks to a man on the street.
In the near future, Egypt and its Muslim Brotherhood will be forced to look at the role of Islam in society. For the Brotherhood, their policies , as we have seen, appear to based on cultural relativism and not on the Prophet’s actions. This hypocritical stance may work now, in the current rise of Islamic conservatism Egypt is witnessing, but as women continue to say enough, their policies will need to change if they are to maintain power and women gain their rights. Or the Brotherhood will fade as they are unable to cope with the rise of powerful, strong women who seek a greater role in their own society.
(Joseph Mayton is Editor-in-chief of Bikyamasr.com, where this article was first published Nov. 19, 2012)