Charlotte Wiedemann (left) and Mansoura Ez-Eldin (photo: private copyright / Isolde Ohlbaum)
In Dialogue: Charlotte Wiedemann & Mansoura Ez-Eldin

Prospects for Women in the Arab Spring

As part of our new "Dialogue" series, the prominent German journalist Charlotte Wiedemann and the renowned Egyptian novelist Mansoura Ez-Eldin discuss social achievements and prospects for women in the Arab Spring

Berlin, 10 May 2012

Dear Mansoura Ez-Eldin,

We're going to be chatting on here for a while – isn't that great!

Charlotte Wiedemann (photo: private copyright)
Charlotte Wiedemann, born in 1954, is a political journalist and author. She spent several years in Malaysia and has visited numerous Islamic nations in Asia and Africa. She researched the most recent social upheaval in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. A revised edition of her book, "Ihr wisst nichts über uns! Meine Reisen durch einen unbekannten Islam" (You Don't Know Anything About Us! My Travels Through an Unfamiliar Islam), was published in 2012

​​But who are "we"? Two women, for sure, but that's not all, of course. We've both studied (you journalism, me education and sociology), and we both write, although you write more beautifully than I do. Language is for both of us a means of grappling with the world. Now the differences. The first is obvious: We come from two different cultural spheres. The second difference is revealed upon sight of our photos: We come from two different generations, I'm 22 years older than you (but please keep it to yourself!).

Does age matter? I think it does, but not necessarily in the sense that it has to divide us. My age means I can personally look back on a longer phase of the ongoing fight for women's rights, in particular the fight in the West, and that sometimes guards me against hypocrisy and presumptuousness in dealings with non-Western societies.

So that you understand what I mean by that, I'd like to tell you a short personal story: In my secondary school class I was the first girl ever to come to school in trousers. I went to a girls' school, and all the girls wore skirts, the teachers did as well of course. When I was 11 years old, I nagged my mother so much she eventually had to buy me a pair of trousers. They were flared and made out of a thick brown material, with a severe crease; sort of like men's trousers. I've never forgotten the first time I wore them to school. Because the material was so stiff, I walked like a solider on parade – and I was terribly proud.

That was in the 1960s; these days, many people have no idea how conservative customs were in the "liberal West". Not that a pair of trousers was that revolutionary. But smalltown girls back then simply didn't show what was shamefully referred to in German as the "Schritt", or "crotch". So actually it wasn't that long ago that we had a dress code here that it was taboo to break. This dress code didn't have anything to do with religion, but with social perceptions of what a woman was allowed to do.

Forgive me if this little foray into the past has gone on a little too long and I've bored you. To give you a more rounded impression of who I am, I'd like to add that I lived in Malaysia for several years and then, as a journalist, visited a whole series of Islamic countries, from Iran to Mali. I published two books during this time, and I'm currently working on a third, which grapples with the Eurocentric view of the world in consideration of my own experience within various cultures. What interests me most is the psychological aspect and the question of to what extent we can emancipate ourselves from our individual influences. But that's enough about me!

Dear Mansura, you certainly won't have time to write books at the moment, what with all the dramatic events happening in Egypt right now. I'm following the news with bated breath. As my first letter will hopefully reach you before the presidential elections, I'd like to ask you: Where are the women, the female candidates everyone was talking about a few months ago? Just like you, I don't subscribe to the illusory view that a woman could become president in Egypt at the present time. But standing for election was indeed an encouraging sign that some women are beginning to question what has up to now been taken for granted. What do you think?

With warm greetings from Berlin,

Charlotte Wiedemann

***

To read Mansoura Ez-Eldin's reply, click on "2" below.

Cairo, 5 June 2012

Dear Charlotte,

photo: Isolde Ohlbaum
Mansoura Ez-Eldin, born in Egypt's Nile Delta in 1976, studied journalism at the University of Cairo and worked until August 2011 at "Akhbar al-Adab", one of the nation's most influential literary magazines. Her novels have been translated into numerous languages. She was named as one of the best Arab-language authors under 40 in the year 2010. The same year, she was the only woman to be nominated for the "International Prize for Arabic Fiction".

​​Firstly, I'd just like to say how pleased I am that we're beginning this exchange!

In your first letter you mentioned the differences and similarities between us, at least the most obvious ones. I can only agree with you, yes, I'd even go as far as to say that the differences between us promise to fuel our exchange with even more meaning and a quite deliberate vitality.

Your experiences of the situation of women in other cultures and your first-hand knowledge of this will, I hope, spare us numerous misunderstandings and will ensure that your view is not clouded by prejudice or clichés, and that you don't force anything into pigeonholes with fixed labels.

Just like age, direct experience also guards against "hypocrisy and presumptuousness in dealings with non-Western societies."

Personally, up to now I've not had the opportunity to live in a nation other than Egypt. But I've visited many western countries when taking part in literary colloquiums and festivals. This gave me the chance to enter into in-depth discussions with a broad spectrum of women representing various generations and schools of thought.

As far as my experience in Egypt is concerned, I have been fortunate enough to experience different spheres of life. I was born in a small, remote village and at the age of 18 went to study in Cairo, where I lived alone. This meant I could observe and draw direct comparisons between the various aspects of women's lives in rural areas as well as in the city.

During my first years in Cairo I was a member of the city's underclass, sub-letters sidelined and only able to gain a foothold among those in the same predicament. After completing my studies, starting work as a journalist and setting out to become a writer, I gradually became a proper "city dweller" or to be more precise, I found an apartment, a job, and eventually started a family.

I'm only mentioning this to introduce myself, just as you introduced yourself to me by mentioning your travels and your books, and by telling me the remarkable anecdote about how you wore trousers for the first time in 1960s Germany.

However, unlike you I don't believe that this interesting detail is simply a reflection of personal experience. No, it's much more than that. It shines a spotlight on the social history of a small European town in the 1960s and the situation of women there. I wouldn't of course wrongly simplify things by saying that the anecdote provides a complete picture, but it does represent a significant fragment of a large whole.

And lastly, I would like to join you in asking the question: What has happened to the women in the Egyptian presidential elections?

Allow me to answer by thinking aloud: Should we only be pinning our hopes on women in the upper political echelons? It is of course important that women are represented on this level, after all it would guarantee a long-term improvement in the situation of women, even if this is not happening everywhere all the time.

But maybe we should now look to ordinary women. I am absolutely convinced that ordinary citizens and individuals on the margins of society can also write history. The Arab rebellions can, despite intellectuals being involved to a greater or lesser extent in each nation, be described as popular revolutions.

It is evident in Egypt that aspects of public life that are "taken for granted" are mostly being challenged by women who would normally be described as "quite ordinary". Especially notable here is perhaps Samira Ibrahim, a woman who has confronted outdated traditions and social hypocrisy by persisting in her debilitating battle with the military, which forced her to undergo a virginity test together with other detained women.

Just like you, I would also have liked to see women standing for the presidency and just like you, I would not have expected a woman to win. Until we get to that point, the path ahead of us is long and arduous. But had there been a woman among the candidates, it would have meant a great deal, symbolically speaking at least.

There was one woman, Bouthaina Kamel, in the running as a possible candidate at the start of the election campaign, but she didn't succeed in winning the necessary 30,000 votes or securing the support of 30 parliamentarians, and had to exit the race.

Perhaps she failed because she is a woman, perhaps because she herself does not enjoy broad public support, perhaps both reasons played a part, alongside other factors associated with the complex context of these elections. But that's another story requiring lengthy explanation.

With warm greetings from Cairo,

Mansoura Ez-Eldin

***

To read Charlotte Wiedemann's reply, click on "3" below.

Berlin, 16 June 2012

Dear Mansoura,

Charlotte Wiedemann (photo: private copyright)
Charlotte Wiedemann

​​I agree with you that we should not focus too much on women in leadership positions – positions which, in any case, remain illusory for women in the Arab countries at present. I also agree with you when you say that "ordinary citizens and individuals on the margins of society … also write history".

There is, nevertheless, one point that we mustn't overlook: we need women in prominent positions, as role models and inspiration. Even if these individuals don't change the reality of the situation of women as a whole, even if they don't do a better political job than the men, what they can do is change women's attitudes, change women's consciousness. After all, it is often women themselves who lack faith in the abilities of their own sex. This is what comes of centuries of patriarchy.

Let's take the example of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. I am not a supporter of her policies, but it is thanks to her that we have over the years grown used to the idea of a woman holding such a position. She is never off German television. There is no one around nowadays who would think, "A woman cannot do that." By the way, Mrs Merkel did not get where she is today because the women's movement gained in strength.

Her rise up the career ladder had much more to do with historical circumstances, with the turbulence of German reunification and with a series of coincidences. She then became very power-conscious and managed to outsmart all of her male competitors. When I met her 20 years ago, she was still a very young and inexperienced minister. She told me at the time that she felt like someone who was travelling in a speeding car and she was having problems just keeping up with everything that was happening. I wonder if she still remembers that.

Women have to start believing that women are capable of more: I believe that that is the key to so many things. Some of the authoritarian Arab countries, including Mubarak's Egypt, operated a quota system for women in the past. But now we have a situation in Egypt where there are fewer women in the new freely elected parliament than there were in the old one (I won't even mention the constitutional court's decision to dissolve the parliament; that's another story). We cannot just blame men for women's lack of power. I know from other countries too that it is often the case that women prefer to vote for men. This is something we cannot simply turn a blind eye to. The idea that the public domain is a male domain is one that is undoubtedly rooted in the patriarchal legacy of Arab culture. But, to a greater or a lesser extent, this kind of thinking exists in other cultures too. It is part of the mind-set of many women around the world.

I think that the Arab revolts have shown that women are more likely to be accepted in the role of activists than they are within institutionalized politics (please correct me if this is a misperception!). From this, many western observers have concluded that women were strong during the revolution because religion played no part in the revolution. Now, they say, the Islamists have become strong, and, inevitably, this means that women lose out. I rather disagree with this theory. First of all, it is a typical exaggeration: Arab women went from being the darlings of the western media one moment to suddenly reverting to their role as terribly oppressed Muslim women the next. As if everything was so black and white!

But there is another aspect here: the journey from the streets to the political institutions is often a long one for women – and not only in Arab countries. Why? Because it is about power and competition. On the streets, during demonstrations or when carrying out some of the groundwork for the revolution, female activists are not a threat to any men's jobs. In the political arena, it is a different story. There, particular seats, sinecures, money and status are all at stake. So the gap between the prominence women enjoy in political movements and their weak position in parliaments, commissions and governments is by no means a phenomenon restricted to the Arab Spring.

Examples of this can be found in Germany too. The political parties here have introduced different quotas to ensure that women are given adequate consideration when lists of candidate are compiled for elections. Here too, this is by no means a given! Even in the media, a branch in which many women work nowadays, a new discussion recently began on whether a quota is needed for managerial positions. Recently a group of respected woman journalists introduced an initiative with the aim of having 30 per cent of chief editor's posts occupied by women in five years' time. Currently they make up only two per cent!

So, dear Mansura, let's have a laugh at this joke together: the German media wants to liberate Arab women, but at home, in their own offices, hardly any women are ever allowed to make it to the top!

As I write these lines, we are still awaiting the outcome of the presidential elections. I am really curious to see what you will have to say about that!

Best wishes from Berlin!

Charlotte

***

To read Mansoura Ez-Eldin's reply, click on "4" below.

Cairo, 16 July 2012

Dear Charlotte,

Mansoura Ez-Eldin (photo: I. Ohlbaum)
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,

Mansoura Ez-Eldin

***

To read Charlotte Wiedemann's reply, click on "5" below.

Berlin, 8 August 2012

Dear Mansoura,

Charlotte Wiedemann (photo: private copyright)
Charlotte Wiedemann

​​In your last letter you mentioned the Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi. I met her here in Berlin yesterday! One of Madame Mernissi's friends of many years was hosting a private dinner party, to which I had kindly been invited. At over 70, she, as befitting a feminist, had her short hair dyed red, was wearing bright red lipstick and was dressed in various shades of red – a little reminiscent of rural Morocco (I am venturing a guess here; the truth is I am really only familiar with Moroccan cities).

Fatima Mernissi was as lively as ever; while our host was still busy filleting the fish, she had already served up several theses to the group, one of which was that the Arabs would not look to the West anymore. As she said this, she made a gesture as if dropping the West from the tips of her fingers onto the floor, as one might a dirty napkin.

Mernissi has been doing research on the social impact of pan-Arab satellite channels for a decade now, and it is the effect of those, she says, that has brought about the Arab revolutions. They had created a vast space within which free speech and controversy had become possible, she claimed, and had changed both communication behaviour within families and the image of women. She has just published a book in Morocco, in which, following her suggestion, seven successful woman journalists describe their lives and careers. The book is called Generation Dialogue to highlight the difference with a past dominated by male monologues.

Dear Mansoura, I would like to use the opportunity provided by the familiarity we both have with Mernissi to begin an exchange of ideas with you on the subject of sexuality, sexual control and sexual harassment. Mernissi believes that women in the pre-Islamic period were sexually aggressive, that they slept with many men, "reduced men to mere sexual commodities and denied them the right to paternity". In the Muslim social order, therefore, there were many rules to limit the activities of dangerously strong and sexually active women and to keep them under control; this, she contends, was the only way to ensure the pre-eminence of the stable nuclear family, with the father at its centre, as the foundation of the Muslim community.

In contrast to the Western image of Muslim woman as weak victims, Mernissi's women are strong and sensual. Given Islam's explicit recognition of a woman's right to sexual satisfaction, one might be tempted to see this almost as a kind of peace offering. As compensation for the fact that the woman is allowed only one sexual partner, the man had better make sure he works hard to please her. As far as I know, Islamic law sees long-term sexual dissatisfaction on the part of the wife as a ground for divorce. In view of how difficult it is in general for a woman to obtain a divorce, it is remarkable that sexual neglect is given such prominence as a reason for separation. This, by the way, also underlines something else that is often misunderstood in the West: that the Muslim religious marriage is also something man-made, not a "sacrament", as the Catholics call it. What can God do about it, after all, if the husband is lousy in bed?

But I wonder how many Muslim women nowadays have the courage to demand a divorce on grounds of sexual frustration?! This brings us back to the social realities of the present, to the Arab Spring and to the question of how revolution, sexuality and sexual control are related.

Dear Mansoura, you have written very pertinently about the so-called "virginity tests", which one should really call "officially sanctioned rape". You write that these attacks are used "to punish the woman for her presence in the public sphere, which men still see as their domain". What do you think about the brutal gang attacks on women in the area around Tahrir Square? I dismissed the first reports about women having their clothes torn off by a mob as an aberration, sickening though it was. But we can no longer consider this an isolated case. I read the shocking report by the British journalist Natasha Smith and was absolutely disgusted. Egyptian women are certainly among the victims too; it is just that the foreign women are less reluctant to talk publicly about what has happened to them.

I talked about this recently with a young German journalist, who is now working in Cairo. A short time later, he almost had first-hand experience of it when he was out on Tahrir Square with a female photographer. She was attacked, he told me, and it was only by a joint effort that they managed to get her away from the mob and reach safety. I asked my colleague if he thought the men had been a group of organised thugs in the pay of the old regime. But he said no, that they had appeared to be just "normal" men. He described to me the greed and the aggression he had seen in their eyes, which he just couldn't forget.

In an article in the English online version of Al-Ahram, I read that in all their testimonies, the women had talked of groups of spectators who had either encouraged the violence by cheering and shouting or not done anything to stop it. This is something I find very troubling; the behaviour of spectators always reveals more about the state of a society than individual crimes do.

Please help me understand this phenomenon! What is going on here? Does this actually have anything to do with sexual desire? Or are some women being punished, to make an example of them, because other women are becoming so prominent in the public domain? Are the attackers counter revolutionaries, revolutionaries or paid ruffians with whom the "normal" men simply join in?

In the past, women in Germany were often blamed for being raped. They were told their skirts had been too short, and that this had "provoked" the men. Even judges pronounced sentences like this! From this point of view, the woman was the culprit and the man her victim. This perception has changed due to the feminist movement. In other words, some people may still think in the same way as they did in the past, but they no longer have the courage to use these sorts of arguments in public.

Should sexual harassment be regarded as a (possible) precursor to sexual violence? That sexual harassment has nothing to do with the way women dress can be seen most clearly in Yemen. Almost all women there are veiled up to their eyelids, yet many women complain about sexual harassment. At first I thought the women were being oversensitive. A few years back I had a female interpreter there who would make us leave the taxi every time she heard the driver talk in a suggestive undertone. Sometimes women obsess over things like this – and that is something you have also written about – but during my last stay in Yemen, where I was looking at the Yemeni women's active involvement in the public sphere during the revolution, I had a very strong, emancipated female interpreter. She was a very tough negotiator with the taxi drivers. She would haggle over the price and was often showered with the most offensive sexual insults for her trouble.

What's going on?

Are we witnessing an underground battle of the sexes? Or are these the accretions of an epoch in which so much is changing? I am very much looking forward to hearing what you have to say.

With my very warmest wishes,

Charlotte

***

To read Mansoura Ez-Eldin's reply, click on "6" below.

Cairo, 1 October 2012

Dear Charlotte,

Mansoura Ez-Eldin (photo: Isolde Ohlbaum)
Mansoura Ez-Eldin

​​Your last letter contained numerous points that merit deeper consideration and invite lengthier discussion.

Allow me to begin with Fatima Mernissi, whose work I became acquainted with as a student. I like the way she views women's issues in the Arab-Islamic context against the backdrop of Islamic history, and the way she dismantles the entire structure of the misogynist mindset, while at the same time challenging many western stereotypes of Muslim women.

But in reference to her statement that "the Arabs would not look to the West anymore", I fear this might have been nothing more than a platitude uttered in haste. If we make statements such as these, which Arabs are we referring to, and what West?!

Within radical Islamist circles, and also outside their ranks there are many voices propagating a pure, hermetically sealed identity and attacking the western world, which they portray as faithless, or as the author of conspiracies and exploitation. But even these voices are aware of the impossibility of complete isolation in today's world.

On the other hand there are new generations that perceive themselves to be the offspring of a globalized world, irrespective of old divisions in East and West. This group includes for example those who guided the discourse of the Egyptian revolution in its early days.

And then there are those who perceive the West as a cultural, non-geographical concept, and try to profit from its positive aspects while not losing sight of its problems and its darker side. This generation differentiates clearly between the western world of liberties, human rights, culture, philosophy and literature and the belligerent, colonialist and arrogant West in its dealings with other cultures.

On the other hand I can only agree with Ms. Mernissi when she writes that the aggressive sexual behaviour of women in the pre-Islamic era was the main motivation for attempts to curb the threat represented by these sexually active, strong women. And I also think that all monotheistic religions acted in more or less the same manner.

It is true that Islam recognises a woman's right to sexual satisfaction and that long-term sexual neglect is accepted as a ground for divorce. But few women these days dare to speak openly about this, let alone cite it as a reason for deciding to file for divorce.

Religious texts are, as you know, highly complex. That's why we rely on exegesis to help us understand them. But unfortunately, most contemporary interpretations of Islam are especially rigid and superficial – interpretations that do not explore the more profound meaning and essence of the religious text. These literal interpretations emanate from an extremely patriarchal and macho standpoint. The protagonists of this mindset try to package their mostly hostile rejection of women in a way that portrays it as "ur-Islamic", by dressing it up in religious justifications.

I am reminded in this context of the interpretation of the Tunisian intellectual Lafif Lakhdar, in which he expounds the view that the Islamic extremists' misogynistic body of thought can be partially attributed to revenge on their mothers, which they find embodied in Aisha, the "mother of the believers" – as revenge on her for her active participation in the first great schism within Islam brought about by the death of the Prophet Mohammed. This is because the collective consciousness holds her up as a "murderous mother" owing to her incitement to murder the Caliph Uthman Ibn Affan and her involvement in the battles of the Caliph Ali Ibn Abu.

Islamic history is teeming with strong women like these – also those who ascended to the pinnacle of power and assumed roles that they defended to the hilt. To this day, Arab-Islamic societies have an abundance of strong women who fight for their rights as women, as well as for human rights in general. But they are still erroneously reduced to wretched stereotypes and limited to the role of the weak and repressed.

The problem with these stereotypes is not that they can only function in accordance with an inflexible prototype, but that they try to reduce a complex, very vibrant overall picture to just one of its many aspects, and portray this as the one and only truth.

The notion that Arab women are the only victims in all of this is unfortunately widely represented in western media. Women were already present before the start of the present revolutions, they did not just appear when the Islamists began to gain strength as a result of the Arab Spring, as some may believe.

I still have very vivid memories of the moment when, during the first days of the Egyptian revolution as Egyptian women also led demonstrations from the front, I received a letter from a renowned Italian magazine asking me to write about the danger presented by the Islamists and their "revolution" against Egyptian women.

When I replied that both men and women were being hounded in equal measure on the streets and squares of the nation by Mubarak's security forces – and not by the Islamists, the magazine rapidly lost any interest in a piece.

That was the beginning of February 2011. At the time, the Islamists were not yet playing a significant role in the revolution and did not present a threat to Egyptian women at all. But the accusation was already out there. When the misogynist stance of the radical Islamists became more evident, prejudiced voices in the West could again be heard casting Egyptian women as nothing more than passive victims, thereby completely ignoring their tenacious resistance over the course of the entire revolution.

For sure, misogynistic phenomena are prevalent within our society: Women are labelled as "sinful temptresses", and viewed by Islamic hardliners as "spiritually and religiously deficient", their mere presence outside the house barely tolerated. They view every woman as a new Eve whose sole aim is to seduce Adam thereby banishing him from paradise.

This is closely associated with the issue of sexual harassment, although this is not a physical invasion, but an open attack on a woman's freedom of movement and how she chooses to dress, in fact even on the mere presence of women in public life. This development also indicates that there appear to be robust efforts underway to banish women from public life completely and to restrict them to the home and the bedroom, which would degrade them to the status of domestic servants forced to live as though in the dark ages.

When I wrote that sexual harassment was a way of exacting revenge on Egyptian women for their active participation in the revolution, this was primarily in reference to the violent acts perpetrated by members of the paramilitary special forces, military police or the army, who dragged female political activists half naked through the streets, stripped them and made them undergo humiliating virginity tests. It should be said that this violent phenomenon existed during the Mubarak era, when female demonstrators were systematically sexually harassed by thugs in a bid to nip pre-revolutionary protests against the regime in the bud.

But the problem of sexual harassment goes much further, even if it is always derived from the same derogatory view of a woman's body, which simply reduces women to their physicality. This view perceives a woman as just a sexual vessel, into which a man can pour his wishes and desires.

It's an old problem that has been exacerbated in recent years to such an extent that now entire waves of collective harassment emerge, in which men angrily unleash their repressed sexual desires on women. This happens at parties and ceremonies in particular. Some places are more badly affected than others, and we now have what are known as "harassment maps" indicating hotspots for incidents of collective harassment.

The paradox here is that in a country where even just a public kiss can cause serious problems for the lovers concerned, many of the harassers who infringe the physical integrity of a woman and who grope her body, are not chased away by onlookers, but that these bystanders often stop to watch the show.

What I find striking here is the idiotic tendency to always want to assign blame to the victim, whether through the direct accusation that the woman bears full responsibility for the sexual harassment or attack, because she has seduced the man simply by leaving the house; or whether through the rather more underhand way of condemning the miscreant while at the same time advising the victim to be modest and not wear any provocative clothes – although even women who are veiled from top to toe are sexually harassed on the streets!

But I am particularly irritated by the tendency of some women to adopt a totally macho, male, sexist standpoint in this context. Just imagine, dear Charlotte: There are actually women who have recently attacked harassment victims with reactionary statements such as this – "you have been harassed, so punish yourself for the damage you have inflicted on the young man's chastity!" Or the victim is described as a "stupid hussy who has put her body on show!"

Quite apart from the fact that sexual harassment in itself represents a repulsive ailment, it is also a symptom of a malaise that is affecting social structures at a much deeper level. This must be investigated, brought to light and thoroughly treated. And until that point, all those who sexually harass women or behave in a violent way towards them must be more harshly punished.

These have not been isolated incidents for some time now. Anyone claming this is aiding and abetting the further spread of this dangerous disease. It is difficult for me to answer your question about whether the attackers are revolutionaries or not, as there are no reliable statistics available. It is highly likely to be a varied mix of different groups, from paid-up thugs to your average man on the street venting their repressed sexuality, to those who feel provoked by the massive presence of women during the demonstrations on public squares. The motives also vary from sexual deprivation, through an underlying or openly exhibited hatred of women to a mixture of the above.

It is however important to remember that Egyptian women are putting up a brave fight, boosting their public presence and mobilising in the ongoing fight for their rights. It is true that some of the victims of collective harassment now report that they hate their own bodies and that they are wondering what the hidden reason is for this barbaric attack on them, but for many this experience has galvanised them to continue their resistance and expose prevailing double standards in society. It is now quite normal for girls and women who have been harassed to write about it, and others are even demonstrating an even more encouraging resolve to file a complaint and hand the miscreants over to the police.

There are also regular campaigns against this phenomenon on social networking sites, as well as in the real world. These campaigns are perceived as an integral part of the revolution. This is further evidence of the tireless battles being waged by Egyptian women for the success of the revolution and their salvation from the clutches of religious fascism.

I am also absolutely convinced that female revolutionaries are key to making the current uprisings into comprehensive cultural and social revolutions against the traditional, the ideologically defunct, and the moribund. After all, an uprising against repression, torture and tyranny alone is not enough, the greatest challenge lies in the revolution for a liberation in the further sense, a revolt of the ego against itself and the body against everything that shackles it.

The body is also assigned a central position in the revolutions of the "Arab Spring", acting as the trigger and carrying the torch onward, from torture victim Khaled Said, to the burned body of Bouazizi, to the bodies of the female demonstrators stripped and shamed in public or subjected to virginity tests. The tortured, broken body, rendered weak by injury but nevertheless still putting up heroic resistance, was present on all public arenas. But the more difficult question still remains – when will the revolution for the liberation of the body begin, to enable this body to throw off its shackles?

***

Charlotte Wiedemann's reply will be posted soon.

Berlin, 29 October 2012

Dear Mansura,

Charlotte Wiedemann
Charlotte Wiedemann

​​Many thanks for your detailed answer to my question about the causes of sexual harassment and sexual humiliation in revolutionary times! What you have written about the role of the body in the Arab Revolution will hopefully be taken up by others and explored further. Actually our correspondence has been full of things to think about; we have, after all, been batting some pretty weighty topics back and forth between us!

As I write, I am about to leave for Mali, a country which, when I first went there, was a peaceful and friendly place. Now, however, it is the scene of a very complex conflict, where the political interests of the West, human rights issues, aspirations for democracy, terrorism and greed for raw materials all come together in a messy confusion. The fall of Gaddafi was not wanted by the Malians and it has had dreadful consequences for them. Now, as I sit here with my laptop in a cafe in Berlin, feeling a little nervous at the thought of my imminent departure, I read your letter and it gets me thinking. Bear with me a moment while I commit my thoughts to the page.

Maybe it is just the case that unpleasant things will occur wherever people begin to throw off the shackles of repression and try to take things into their own hands. I have a newspaper in front of me that contains new reports from Myanmar; one of these is an account of the persecution of the Muslim Rohingya people, an abuse that has now entered a new phase with 26,000 refugees reportedly fleeing the violence. The most shocking thing about the article is the claim that pro-democracy activists, opponents of the former dictator, who have consistently stood up for human rights, have now abandoned the Rohingya; and what is worse, some of them, it is said, have even joined in with the nationalist rabble-rousing against these stateless people. Is this possible?

I am a believer in the wonderful notion of the indivisibility of human rights. In reality, however, human rights are very much divisible. Men who are up in arms one minute, defending the principles of freedom and democracy, deny the rights of women in the very next minute. This happens at the very moment that they find themselves in a position where they are able to take decisions on what others may or may not do – even where this is only by virtue of their being in the majority in a constitutional council. A little power is sufficient to corrupt – that is just the way it is.

In Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent so much time under house arrest and has now become a political celebrity, was asked whether the Rohingya should be granted citizenship. And do you know what this icon of the democratic movement answered? She said: "I don't know." That is quite something, isn't it? The Nobel Peace Prize winner does not know whether people who have lived in the country for generations and who are now seeing their houses burned down around them should be given an identity card granting them full civil rights. Had she answered the question with "yes" she would have upset some of her followers. It would have been a bit like an Arab revolutionary incurring the wrath of his male friends by standing up for women's rights.

Does that sound pessimistic? No, I am not a pessimist. But I am becoming more and more aware of the immensely complex issues thrown up by the fact that currently so many people in the world are on the move – or are in movements. They are rising up and demanding their rights, or what they consider to be their rights. At the same time, I am happy to have the opportunity to be in a position to observe and to comment on these times.

Here in Germany we have a well-known and actually already very elderly journalist who is very proud of having visited every country in the world. His name is Peter Scholl-Latour and of course he fulfils a typically male role since no one would ever dream of inviting a doddery old woman on to talk shows as a Middle East expert. In any case, he is still writing bestsellers; his latest is entitled "World Out of Control" (Die Welt aus den Fugen). The blurb refers to ominous things happening all over the world. But is the world really "out of control", just because so many people are fighting for their interests, be it on the streets of Rome or Cairo or in the mines of South Africa? Was the world more stable or less "ominous" when the Cold War was in progress and so many dictatorships were helping to maintain a neatly structured order? I don't think so. But our elderly bestseller author is exploiting people's fears; fears that are also linked to a menacingly unfamiliar world, one where the West is no longer in control and pulling the strings.

Dear Mansura, I have been given a sign from the wings to tell me that our correspondence will soon be drawing to a close. Perhaps there will be others who will want to take up our thread, maybe even add a few more Gordian knots to it! Since we are now apparently living in a world that is "out of control" it is unlikely that either of us need worry about being bored in the future.

I wish you, dear younger sister, an exciting and fulfilling future and I thank you for the time and the thoughts that you have shared with me!

Yours
Charlotte

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