Watani talks to Amna Nosseir

11-01-2013 02:26 PM

Samia Ayad

Egyptian women in their majority feel they have been dealt a severe blow by Egypt’s new constitution which has outright disregarded their rights. The only mention of woman in the new

constitution is in her capacity as mother. Child rights are mentioned vaguely in a manner that allows for loopholes upon application—among other things its provisions do not allow for the banning of marriage of teenage girls, human trafficking, or child labour—all of which heavily victimise women.
Seculars are especially worried that the clause in the previous constitution: “there shall be no discrimination among Egyptians based on gender, ethnicity, language, religion, or creed” has been removed from the current one, which could open the door to legislation that discriminates against women, children, and minorities.
Given that the constitution has now gone into effect, what chance do women in Egypt stand to be treated as citizens with full citizenship rights? And given that women’s rights are more often than not curtailed under the Islamic pretexts, Watani took the issue to Amna Nosseir, professor of philosophy and Islamic theology at al-Azhar University and member of the National Council for Women’s Rights.
The pre-revolution National Council for Women (NCW) has been given a bad name [on account of its alleged endorsement by Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of Egypt’s previous president] and was branded as ineffective. What of the current council? What is its agenda regarding women’s rights?
I really don’t know much about the previous women’s council. When the new council was formed following the 25 January 2011 Revolution, I was among its members, despite advice by some not to accept membership, on account of the council’s previous image. But I reassured those who told me to decline that I would never change, and that if ever I find within the council anything that conflicts with my principles or with Islamic sharia, I would immediately walk out. 
But in truth, when I joined the National Council for Women I discovered that the council cares about women, especially those who toil as breadwinners for their families. I wish to remind that the previous, badmouthed NCW had helped some five million women obtain national ID cards, thus empowering them to gain their civil rights. This was no mean feat, since families in rural areas frequently overlooked registering their baby girls with the national civil register, with the catastrophic result that these girls grew up as non-citizens, with no rights or obligations. The ID cards they were able to get through the efforts of the NCW then meant that a whole new world opened before them.
Serious attempts have been and still are underway in Egypt to combat women’s illiteracy which runs up to some 60 per cent in the lower classes. This is a national disgrace for Egypt in respect of its women. How can we allow that while we have thousands of education experts and millions of teachers?
If the NCW is so positive, why is it coming under fire?
I don’t know why the NCW comes in for fire and criticism. Is it because some people think that it was part of the old regime, and a reminder of it? I really can’t understand this animosity towards the NCW. People should learn to be constructive in their criticism. Let’s put a stop to the strategy of destruction for the sake of destruction.
Do you think that the NCW is being undervalued because of the rise of radical Islam and the calls to diminish the value of the women?
The danger of these radical Islamists is that they look at woman from the very narrow perspective of her as a child bearer, housekeeper and leisure commodity that should just listen and obey. What is even more serious is the idea of marrying off young girls so that their husbands can tame them as they like inside the marital home. They only look at women as a biological being; and overlook the moral, cultural and emotional aspects that make of her a good partner in life.
This narrow perspective that does not accommodate modern-day variables insists on seeing women within the culture of past eras. Women in Egypt are always pictured as inadequate and thus not entitled to look beyond the parameters determined for them by men.
What is your opinion on the constitution regarding women?
The constitution articles that concern women are rather patronising, especially since they base these articles and all articles that concern the family upon literal doctrines of Islamic sharia and traditions of the Islamic forefathers. Islam, however, has left the door open for Muslims to endeavour interpretations of their own, to take into account the changing times. Yes, I do admit that we have inherited a magnificent heritage of Islamic jurisprudence from our early Islamic ancestors and scholars, but this heritage needs the additions of our endeavours as well as the novelties of modern times. 
Issues such as organ trafficking, cloning and electronics were all non-existent at the time of our ancestors and jurists.
We are a moderate State, so why do we overdo it and adopt extreme opinions? Why do we restrict Islamic thought in dealing with human cases to one school of thought, that of Ahmed Ibn-Hanbal who, if he were still among us, would issue different fatwas? Why isn’t all this taken into account when broaching family-related issues?
The constitution restricts women to their role as child bearers. A radical scholar is reported to have told women, “Go back to your homes, and be honoured.” This reflects his lack of conviction regarding women as doctors, writers, scientists and public servants, even though in the early days of Islam, women participated with men in making history, and made their imprint on Islam.
In light of the studies you made on Salafi ideology, and your PhD on Mohamed Ibn Abdel-Wahab, how do you see the Salafi thought regarding women today? 
The ‘Salafis’ in Egypt today have imported ideas from places such as Saudi Arabia that are different from our culture, civilisation and history. Unfortunately they found fertile ground for their ideas in Egypt, because of rampant poverty and ignorance. It did not help at all that moderate Islamic thought championed by institutions such as al-Azhar was being pushed into the shadows. Radical, extremist thought came to us like an alien body, unfamiliar with the nature of the Egyptian fabric formed by Muslims and Christians together over the ages.
Why are all the laws related to child and women’s rights within the family branded as non-Islamic?
Any law that ever granted women their rights was badmouthed and attributed to Suzanne Mubarak, which is a stark distortion to the truth. What did Suzanne Mubarak have to do with an issue such as khula, which is Allah’s legislation and figured in the Qur’an and Sunna? Whereas Islam grants a man the full right to unilaterally divorce his wife—khula is the Islam-stipulated right of a woman to divorce her husband if she gives up all rights to any settlement.
The NCW worked hard to have the right of khula passed as a law, and is taking a firm stand regarding it since, despite the fact that it obliges a woman to relinquish her dues, it frees her from a marital relation that enslaves her and from which she can never otherwise be free. The legislation of khula put a stop to the abuse of women in many cases. 
The NCW has also taken a firm stand in regard to child and mother rights where custody and visitation rights are concerned. 
There is a suggestion within the council that NCW members go to the governorates and suburbs to lecture and talk at public seminars in order to enhance women’s awareness. We are working on offering family counselling, and on erasing female illiteracy.
How do you see Egypt’s future?
I pray to God for Him to preserve Egypt. I don’t see that serious or adequate concern is given to Egypt’s real problems, which is the responsibility of the ruling establishment. Unfortunately the ruler does not realise that the nature of Egyptians has changed drastically. Egyptians have become stubborn, and President Mursi should have been aware of that and should have performed as a true president of a country at crossroads.
Are you optimistic about the future?
I’m very cautiously optimistic. I can see divisions and extremism on the Egyptian scene, but I have hope Egypt will finally overcome.
WATANI International
13 January 2013
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