A 25-year-old Egyptian woman recently reminded her country’s people that dreams do come true. Bassant Hemeida, a sprinter from an athletic family whose husband is her coach and her mother a former gymnast, recently won Egypt two gold medals in the 2022 Mediterranean Championship.
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After a short trip to Egypt, she traveled to Tokyo to prepare for the upcoming Olympics, with the hope of raising the Egyptian flag once again. Bassant made Egyptians happy and proud. We were all overcome with joy as she wrapped the flag around her body and prostrated herself to thank God. This is an action that numerous Muslim male athletes do without reprisal. Mo Salah introduced it to the West.
It was a beautiful and sincere moment. A moment of immense gratitude to her Lord who allowed her this success. Yet, success is always envied and pushes the ugliest feelings to the fore.
Bassant, a hero who was cheered on by Algerian fans who saw her as a symbol of the pan-Arab dream, was attacked by some of her fellow Egyptians. Though most Egyptians celebrated her achievement, some thought this was an opportune moment to throw abuse at her.
Apparently, Bassant’s achievement didn’t matter; her hard work didn’t matter, and her joy didn’t matter. What only mattered was what she was wearing, or more specifically what she was showing, and more importantly, what she failed to cover.
Once again, a female body and the fact that she is a woman allowed some to exercise their flawed moral judgments to attack her. For them, a woman is in essence ‘Awra,’ an Arabic word that describes a private part to be covered.
Yet, with the popularity of Islamism and Salafi philosophy, the word ‘Awra’ has been extended to describe everything related to women. A woman’s hair is ‘Awra,’ body is ‘Awra,’ voice is ‘Awra.’ And since a woman – in their thinking – is a private thing, that by necessity should be concealed from all public domains, her mere presence in a public sphere is an unforgivable aggression that should be punished.
And it’s not only in our part of the world that women’s bodies are curtailed by social, cultural, religious and political conceptions. Recently the US severely restricted access to abortion. Further establishing that a woman has no control over her body. It should instead be subjected to the rules set by others.
It almost feels that women should always be on the defensive because we are consistently attacked. It doesn’t matter if the abuse is due to what an athlete wears when she decides to thank God, or if she has the mental or physical capability to remain pregnant, or even murder if she has the audacity to say no to a man. A woman is under attack for the mere and simple fact that she was born a woman. It should scare us all.
I really don’t want to go on the offensive lamenting the underlying patriarchal structure that establishes and sustains oppression against women. I must concede, that especially in the Arab world, there is a conscious effort to improve and further advance women’s rights on the legislative and social fronts. It is a sincere determination to empower women in every way. However, when a Muslim scholar advises females to wear the hijab in response to the slaughtering of a young woman, the clear message is that the victim caused her own death because of her attire. And, when a national sports champion instills immense pride in a nation, but attacked for wearing shorts, the suggestion is that whatever is achieved is irrelevant, if it’s thought the woman has dressed inappropriately. I can’t help but feel rage.
A woman’s body has always been a source of contention. For some reason, the female body makes people afraid. It is the body that God endowed to offer the ability to bring and sustain life. Perhaps this is the essence of the problem. Life is the problem.
People who attack women because they refuse to hide themselves, and conceal their femininity hate the beauty of life that is manifest in women. For those people a woman must shroud herself in garments, preferably black – the color of mourning. They should remain unseen. A woman, like Bassant, who is carefree, determined, spontaneous and lively represents everything they abhor. Life should be celebrated. Women should be celebrated.