14.06.2012In Dialogue: Charlotte Wiedemann & Mansoura Ez-EldinProspects for Women in the Arab Spring
Cairo, 16 July 2012
Mansoura Ez-Eldin As I write these lines, news is circulating that the elected president, Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Mursi, intends, among other things, to appoint a woman as one of his vice-presidents. If he does, she would be the first woman to hold this office in our country's recent history.
That is of course a good start, although the real change I would like to see would be for an Egyptian woman to someday be elected head of state.
But let's take a brief look at the situation: how paradoxical it is that it has taken so long to make this move in a country ruled thousands of years ago by strong women such as Hatshepsut, Cleopatra and other outstanding pharaonic queens!
In my last letter, it was by no means my intention to say that we shouldn't insist on women taking on leadership positions; on the contrary, I deem this a necessary and important demand. I just wanted to point out that we should not be content to rely on women solely in elite and leadership circles, because this alone does not guarantee any improvement in the situation of women at the centre of society.
For decades, there have been female ministers and women in management functions in Egypt, and for years, women have also been working in the judiciary. I hope that now, after the fantastic dedication they showed during the January Revolution, women will be granted all their rights without restrictions, even though I know that the road will be a long and difficult one. There are, however, some signs that give rise to optimism, foremost among them the new spirit I sense spreading amongst Egyptian women of the most diverse social and cultural backgrounds.
In this context, it may suffice to cite just once the remarkably high female turnout at the presidential elections, even in rural areas. Millions of women went to the polls, and many of them were against the amendments to the civil status law proposed by Islamist members of parliament before its dissolution, which included plans to lower the legal minimum marriage age for girls to 14.
As soon as the Muslim-Brotherhood-affiliated "Freedom and Justice" party became aware of the high numbers of women taking part in the first round of the elections, it quickly announced before the second round began that it had nothing to do with such legislative plans affecting women.
I spoke with several illiterate women who are against the lowering of the minimum marriage age, and I saw how important it is to them that their daughters get a good education – as if to compensate for the fact that they themselves were deprived of it. One woman actually said to me that had she been able to go to school, she would have become nothing less than a minister. She went on to say that she dreamed of the day when her daughter would assume a leading position instead of facing a forced marriage, as she herself did in her younger years.
I agree with you that the presence of women in leadership positions promises major added value for all women in the respective country. Whether or not one approves of the policies of Angela Merkel, Margaret Thatcher or Benazir Bhutto, the fact that these women have held such prominent positions definitely provides encouragement for women in countries all over the world, because it has convinced many of them that such a dream is not impossible. Perhaps these role models also inspired the woman who so sadly told me of her unfulfilled dream of becoming a minister.
Of the above-named politicians, the deceased Benazir Bhutto perhaps has special significance as daughter of a conservative Islamic society. Among other things, her election as prime minister of Pakistan at the end of the 1980s and the negative reactions to her election – it was called an offence against Islamic Sharia law – induced the Moroccan author Fatima Mernissi to set out in search of female rulers in Islamic history whose names had been deliberately omitted from the history books.
In the resulting study, "Female rulers under the crescent: the suppressed power of women in Islam", Mernissi sheds light on the forgotten history of women rulers in early Islamic societies from Delhi to Cairo, from Yemen to Andalusia and North Africa.
I also agree that it would be a good idea to dedicate ourselves anew to Islamic history, rewriting it to highlight more strongly the role of women and the legacy of strong female figures, who are otherwise completely ignored as if they had never existed.
But now I would like to turn my attention to a completely different point: I absolutely agree with your remark that women are more readily accepted as activists than in institutionalised politics. In Egypt, however, this problem is taking on yet another dimension: the revolution is unfinished, and it is not the revolutionaries who came to power after the fall of Mubarak, but the military. And in the transitional phase, the military made their deep disdain for all revolutionaries – whether male or female – more than plain, whereby they ignored female activists even more blatantly. I believe that the standing of the female activists would be a great deal better today had the revolution actually been able to rapidly achieve its goals and seize power.
This last point also makes it clear that radical Islamic fundamentalists are by no means the only ones at fault for the renewed marginalisation of women after the revolution. They have indeed shown themselves to be hostile to women and to freedom in general, but the real marginalisation and the much more significant damage comes from the military junta.
It is also good to note that we are in agreement that some of the problems facing women are caused by other women. The phenomenon of "misogynistic women" is widespread, and I believe that standing up for women's rights and causes can only succeed if we try to put a stop to this phenomenon. As elsewhere, women in Egypt play a major role in shaping their children's convictions and behaviour, and they are thus able – if they so desire – to anchor values such as gender equality and respect for women's rights on a long-term basis.
This brings to mind a witty saying about Egyptian mothers that did the rounds during the protests: "The Egyptian revolutionary is not afraid to die; he courageously braves the tanks and the bullets – rubber or live – but he doesn't dare admit to his mother that he was out demonstrating!"
I also have a lot to say about Western media, but let's wait until my next letter, because I have already said quite enough for today.
In anticipation of your reply, and looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts,
with best regards,
To read Charlotte Wiedemann's reply, click on "5" below.