In November 2011, a group of Islamists affiliated with a Salafist party in Egypt held a rally in Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city.
A small fountain with four partially nude mermaids holding up the water flowing from its center was deemed grossly offensive and the Islamists covered it up. Al Masry Al Youm published photos of the mermaids before and after they received their burkas. Twitter users mocked the covering. “Forward to the 7th century,” wrote @RachidH. Others were angrier, calling the action “sick” and noting that a banner placed on the fountain said women should “dedicate time for their husbands.”
For some women in Egypt, the fate of the mermaids was symbolic of the fate that awaited them in 2011 after Hosni Mubarak was ejected from power and it appeared the Muslim Brotherhood would be the main beneficiary of the protests and chaotic transition toward democracy that followed. For Egyptians, it was not a conflict between the secularism of the West and Islam, but between what kind of Islam would be dominant in the country.
In 2007, Hamza Hendawi of the Associated Press noted that conservative Islam was embraced by the vast majority in places like Alexandria. “The only women in Alexandria who don’t wear the Islamic veil are Christians and a small minority of Muslims. Women have long stopped wearing swimsuits on the city’s famous beaches.” Restaurants, bars and nightclubs were closing. It was a “far cry” from the Alexandria of old as seen in movies and photos. A Pew Poll published in July 2016 showed that 74% of Egyptians prefer making Shari’a law the official law.
The reality is more complex. Dalia Ziada of the Liberal Democracy Institute of Egypt is a member of the young generation that was on the streets in 2011 when Mubarak was overthrown.
She describes 2011 and 2013 as two different revolutions.
“It was tough under Mubarak,” she recalls. “They claimed they supported civil society, but they didn’t.” Like many Egyptians, she is critical of Western media’s one-dimensional depictions of Egyptian society.
“They say people revolted because they wanted food, but we were revolting against corruption. We thought it would be perfect after 2011.” She ran for parliament and didn’t win. “We realized we were rushing things.”
So Ziada and others went out to teach and work with younger activists who wanted to go into politics.
The problem Egypt faced in 2011 was that although the old regime had been overthrown, it wasn’t clear what would replace it. The Muslim Brotherhood was the best-organized opposition party. Like other Islamic parties, whether Hamas campaigning among Palestinians, Morocco’s Justice and Development Party, Tunisia’s Ennahda, Indonesia’s Prosperous Justice Party or Turkey’s AKP, the Brotherhood promised an end to an era of political corruption and bureaucratic stagnation. Islam was not the forefront, but change.
“We didn’t vote for Islamists to come and take power, we wanted democracy and women’s rights. It was the opposite; from day to night they wanted to apply Shari’a, and they incited the far right Salafists.”
In complex and multi-phase parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brothers received 37% of the vote and the Salafist Al-Nour got 27%. New Wafd, a national liberal party, won 10% of the vote. The old Mubarak era National Democratic Party was dissolved prior to the vote. In presidential elections in May and June 2012, the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi won 51.7% in a run-off.
It was clear by that time that Egyptians were already disappointed with their brief flirtation with Islamist parties.
Ziada, who wears a hijab, says the fear of many Egyptians was that the Brotherhood sought to denationalize them, to assault their identity and history. Egyptian civilization dates back 6,000 years and is a point of pride for many people. It is the symbol of Egypt.
This dual aspect of Egypt as an ancient civilization and primarily Muslim country can be seen on the Egyptian currency. Each bill has a mosque on one side and an ancient Egyptian monument, such as the Sphinx, on the other.
They wanted to “encourage fatwas, to destroy Pharaonic monuments and culture and how people dress. We thought our identity was being stolen,” says Ziada. In June 2013, millions poured into the streets and the military under General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi removed Morsi from power.
For those like Ziada, the issue of women’s rights is integral to the struggle for the future of Egypt. She has been fighting against female genital mutilation for more than a decade.
“I started when I was eight years old.”
Struggle against this practice has gained greater attention in recent decades. In 2001, the US State Department reported that a USAID study found 97% of women had undergone a form of FGM. It was “common among both Muslims and Coptic Christians.” Women had suffered the “excision [removal] of the prepuce [clitoral hood] and the clitoris together with part or all of the labia minora.” Yet the study claimed support for the practice was declining and it had been banned in 1996 – although the ban has been widely ignored.
In recent years, the government has approved of public campaigns against the mutilations. A 2015 Egyptian Health Issues Survey found that seven in 10 women between ages 15 and 19 had been impacted. Unsurprisingly, it found that education and literacy were a key factor in reducing the numbers. However the survey revealed that 59% of men and 54% of women supported FGM. This was a decline from the USAID survey, 14 years before, which found that 75% of husbands thought women should have the procedure.
Al-Shorouk reported in September 2016 that Sisi was seeking harsher penalties for those accused of subjecting women to FGM. Maii Magdi, an Egyptian businesswoman, says that numbers have “decreased impressively” and that despite a slight resurgence under the Brotherhood, they may be as low as 50% today.
Driving around Cairo and outlying areas, one very rarely sees women without a head scarf, and the sight of women in full face-covering black niqab is not rare. Conservative dress among modern Egyptians is as ubiquitous as the little statues of Nefertiti, the Egyptian queen and wife of the Pharaoh Akhenaten.
I brought up the absence of visibly secular Muslim women with an assistant to the head of the Protestant community in Egypt, which numbers around two million people. It seemed 90% of women cover their hair; what about Christians? “Ninety percent of Egypt is Muslim,” he said, and Christians don’t cover their hair. Magdi argues that the head scarf is more a social custom than a religious issue.
“Hijab became the working-class trademark, especially those who worked [abroad] in the Gulf.” Ayman el-Khatib, a former teacher, says that he has seen an increase in hijabs in Cairo, but says it’s not like in 2013.
“Near my old apartment back then there were numerous women holding up signs saying ‘Yes to Shari’a law.’ It was the most illogical and bizarre thing I have seen.”
Like other ostensibly secular countries in the region, the presence of hijab among elite women and women who represent state institutions is still seen as a sign of change. When Sisi emerged from the shadows and took power, Al-Arabiya and many on social media commented on his wife, “seeing her wearing the Islamic head covering known as the hijab, and silently sitting next to her strongman husband.”
Suzanne Mubarak, Jehan Sadat and Tahia Gamal Abdel Nasser didn’t wear a head scarf. This was symbolic of the “secular” image of the regime that came crashing down in 2011. EgyptAir was also a symbol. In 2012 flight attendants won the right to cover their hair. The same year Fatma Nabil became the first woman to appear on state TV in a hijab.
The right to wear a hijab could be seen as a step forward in women’s rights, just as conversely the state-mandated enforced wearing of them, as in Saudi Arabia or Iran, is a step backward.
Magdi agrees. “The choice to wear hijab is a right granted.” The real question she says should be asked is whether society accepts and embraces different lifestyles.
For the National Council for Women, which was established by presidential decree in 2000, the status of women in Egypt is a success story with challenges. A group made up of former women diplomats, members of parliament, academics and journalists, the NCW argues that Egypt’s main problem is not the pervasiveness of Islam, but rather local subcultures and poverty. Egypt has women judges, female police officers, high-powered businesswomen, and on February 16, the first female governor of a province, Nadia Abdo, was appointed.
High rates of unemployment and illiteracy among women are a barrier to independence. A presentation developed by the groups says inadequate attention is paid by policymakers to the impact that social and economic policies have on women. There is even an absence of “actual and accurate gender statistics.”
For Sisi, slow reforms relating to women’s rights are hampered by other institutions and lobbies in the country.
At a speech in late January, he suggested a change to divorce laws in Egypt.
Currently the law for Muslims, which is rooted in Shari’a, allows men to divorce their wives verbally. The Egypt Independent noted, “He may initiate and conclude all the legal procedures himself, informing her of the divorce at the final stage.” In short, divorce is in the hands of the husband, who can end the marriage with a relatively simple act.
Sisi suggested that the law should require both the husband and wife to be present in person. His reasoning was that it would cut down on the rate of divorce, which has increased in recent years. Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars, the leading Islamic institution in the country, said the verbal divorce was in line with the faith, but that the government might legislate a “deterrent punishment” for men who didn’t document their divorces on paper.
The divorce-law story highlights one way media has a misleading perception of Egypt. While polls look at how many people support Shari’a law, the reality is that part of family law is already rooted in Shari’a. When people say they “support” it, that doesn’t necessarily mean they support the Muslim Brotherhood’s version of it.
Egypt is also struggling with encouraging greater representation of women in parliament. An article in Watani following the 2014 parliamentary elections noted that although a record 87 female MPs would serve in Egypt’s 568-member parliament, the numbers were “not good enough.” Anele Reda, the article’s author, noted that women had secured seats not only in “upscale, liberal Cairo districts,” but also in rural constituencies. Egyptian law requires that 30% of party lists be made up of women, but 75% of the seats are not chosen via these lists. Sahar Osman of the General Union for Egyptian Workers, told media that “the outcome of the parliamentary elections this round appears more in favor of women only owing to the quotas imposed on the coalition lists.”
Writing in the popular daily al-Ahram in early February, author Amina Shafik noted that it’s not enough to empower women at the elite level.
“We need to empower the broad base of women in the field, factory, shop and management. This year we must reach out to women in the workforce.”
The solution, as Ziada sees it, also boils down to education and activism.
It is about changing the view of society on women so that women don’t need to ask for their rights and freedoms.
“Women’s rights are not something that is given, they are a right. Period.”