Egyptian women fret as 'modesty' becomes election issue

ByJOSEPH MAYTON / THE MEDIA LINE
November 14, 2011 20:05

Islamist presidential candidate sparks fears by calling for bans on veils and bikinis.




Egyptian veiled woman walks in Cairo

Egyptian veiled woman 311. (photo credit:Reuters)

CAIRO -- Marwa and Heba are polar opposites, at least outwardly. Both 23 years old, Marwa, a recent university graduate and unemployed, is veiled, while Heba displays her hair in a pony-tail uncovered. Both take drags from their shisha (water pipe) at a local café.

Yet, in spite of their appearance, both are frustrated at the campaign promises being touted by leading politicians over how women should dress and act. A lengthy elections season has begun in Egypt, with legislative polling starting November 28 and continuing in stages until March, followed by a presidential vote in 2013. And, freed from the strictures of the Mubarak era, politicians are pushing forward on an Islamic agenda.

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“It’s so frustrating,” says Marwa, who told The Media Line that she wears the veil in part because her mother wants it and partly out of the conviction that “it was the right thing to do.” But at the same time she is critical of politicians “who would dare tell a woman what is appropriate. That is un-Islamic.”

The two are typical young Egyptian women, who participated in the January and February uprising that forced out president Hosni Mubarak and put the country on the path toward democracy. But with elections just two weeks away, they are lamenting how women are being left out of the dialogue and discussion of the future of the country.

“We were at the front of the protests, getting beaten and supporting the future of Egypt,” recalls Heba. But now, she says, “Women are not being heard from and this is causing a lot of frustration among myself and my friends who want the ability to choose our lives and what we do.”

The role of women in Egypt's transitional government has been very limited, and no women were included on the committee that drafted Egypt's transitional constitutional declaration. The new elections law does away with the Mubarak-era quota, which allocated 64 seats in parliament for women. The new law requires that at least some candidates be women, but some have complained that their parties are assigning them spots on election lists that will make it hard for them to win a seat in parliament.

The controversy over the status of women in post-Mubarak Egypt came to a head at the start of November after Hazem Saleh Abu Ismail, a leading presidential candidate and Muslim cleric, gave two television interviews in which he outlined an Islamic future for the country that would impose Saudi Arabian-style dress and behavior on the public.

In an interview on the 90 Minutes television program, Abu Ismail said he supported what he called “Islamic dress” for women, meaning the hijab, or veil. Asked about what would happen to a woman wearing a bikini on the beach, he responded, “she would be arrested.”

Days later, he went on the Biladna Bil Masr program and lashed out at the show’s popular TV host, Reem Maged, and all other unveiled women in the country. He declared al-tabarouj  (the failure to cover one’s hair and of wearing makeup) a “mortal sin” and said he would make such actions “criminal,” citing his interpretation of Islamic law.

He told Maged he wouldn’t have agreed to the interview at all because of her dress but said that in politics “things are different” and he has to meet with people from all walks of life.
To underscore his point, a Facebook-based Salafist news outlet re-aired the interview with Maged’s head and face covered by a dark filter to “veil” her.

“I desire for you what I desire for my sister, and I admire your courage during the January revolution and I wish the next time we meet, things will be different,” Abu Ismail told his host inviting her to cover her hair.

Around 12% of Egypt’s population are Coptic Christians and do not veil. Nor do a small percentage of Muslim women in the country. But even among those who are veiled, Abu Ismail’s comments have left many worried about the rising power of the Islamists in the country.

Heba laughs at Abu Ismail’s declarations, but her worries come through when she begins discussing the widespread support Abu Ismail and other conservative Islamic leaders enjoy.

“We have to take these people seriously, especially people like Ismail who are extremely popular among the rural population,” she says. “I fear that women in this country are being brainwashed because we don’t have proper education and critical thinking,” she says, pointing to the growing number of Facebook groups that are calling on women to veil and wear more modest clothes.

In nearby Tunisia, which like Egypt has a largely secular elite, the moderately Islamist Ennahda Party won more than 40% of the vote for a constituent assembly last month, making it the dominant power in the country’s emerging democracy. In Egypt, 67% of those polled by the Pew Global Attitudes Project last April said the country’s laws should strictly follow the Quran's teachings. Another 27% said that they should follow the values and principles of Islam.

Marwa is quick to criticize what she calls the “error of this thinking.” She points to her friend’s clothes -- jeans, a long-sleeve shirt and a scarf. “Isn’t that modest enough? What do they want? I think these people, because they are predominantly male, want to take over a woman’s right to do anything because all they think about is sex and this is what women are to them, objects.”

That’s part of the problem, says Nawal Al-Saadawi, one of the Arab world’s best-known feminists and Egyptian.  “Women in any society are the key to the future, so when they are seen as objects the whole society loses. This isn’t the Egyptian way,” she told The Media Line from her middle class neighborhood of Shobra recently. “The success of women can be seen in any revolution. You can’t have a revolution without women.”

If elected, Abu Ismail has promised to apply Islamic law to other realms of Egyptians life, which would mean closing down casinos, outlawing the drinking alcohol in public, forcing Copts to pay a special tax for not converting, and punishing women who would wear “immodest” clothes.

For now, it is an uphill battle against the conservatism that has risen in Egypt since July, when the Salafists – those who adhere to what they call a literal interpretation of the Qur’an – converged on Cairo’s Tahrir Square in the hundreds of thousands, demanding an Islamic state for Egypt. Women saw this as the beginning of the struggle for their rights.

For Marwa, Heba and other women in the country, it is a fight for women’s rights. “We must stand against this sort of thing, whether we are veiled or not,” says Heba, “because freedom of choice is important for Egypt’s future.”

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