A woman of principles
March is women’s month. March 8 is International Women’s Day; the 16th is Egyptian Women’s Day; and the 21st is Mother’s Day in Egypt. Leaping from first to first, Egyptian women have come a long way from being segregated
, deprived of education and excluded from public life as they were at the beginning of the 20th century, to being public servants, professionals, career women, politicians and artists in the 21st. Today Watani is publishing an interview with the first woman to teach in military academies in Egypt, professor of political sociology Dr Hoda Zakariya.
Professor of political sociology Hoda Zakariya is the first woman to teach in Egyptian military colleges. Despite her obviously strong national loyalties, her bold opinions have earned her scathing criticism from the political and feminist elite. Dr Zakariya, however, looks to mainstream Egyptians as her strongest allies. “I have no use for politicians or activists,” she says. “It is the people of Egypt, the authentic carriers of the Egyptian culture who I hope will soon make a comeback, that are my focus. I am working on a project, ‘We Egyptians’, that calls for the indivisibility of Egyptians; it endorses the concept of the single all-encompassing Egyptian essence which manifests itself in various forms: Muslim, Coptic, or any other,” she explains.
Dr Zakariya has not joined any political party nor seeks a political post. She is too engrossed with her enlightenment role which, she says, warrants her full attention.
Watani talked to Dr Zakariya
Why did you choose to teach in the Military College, becoming the first woman to teach there?
This was pure coincidence. The story goes back to last year’s 6 October celebrations. [The date 6 October marks that day in 1973 when the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal and made headway into the Sinai Peninsula, which had been under Israeli occupation for six years. The crossing regained Egyptian self-esteem and allowed Egypt to negotiate a favourable peace agreement with Israel in 1979.] Members of the military research authority invited me to give a lecture on democracy after they had watched me talk on a TV show about the science of military sociology. I have been teaching military sociology as a branch of political sociology for the past 25 years. I believe this science is very important since the army represents a social sector governed by special laws. Members of the military body who leave the military and go back to being civilian influence the community and are influenced by it.
Lieutenant General Sedqi Sobhy, the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, attended the lecture. I spoke about how, historically, Egypt had embraced diversity even before the West. Early on, Egypt realised that embracing various religions, as in the three heavenly religions for instance, was her destiny. Egypt granted all her children equal rights. Egyptians believed in religious pluralism without seeing it as a form of division or religious animosity. This was not the case in Europe where wars raged between the followers of different Christian sects for 130 years. The mainstream Egyptian was smart enough to say that “all religions worship God”. The folk saying goes: “Moses is a prophet, Eissa [Jesus] is a prophet, Muhammad is a prophet; let everyone who believes in a prophet bless him.”
Following this lecture. Lt Gen. Sobhy asked me to teach military sociology—which some thought was new—to all military departments, and thus participate in forming the minds of young officers in the military colleges.
Does the new presence of women inside the army institution represent a shift in its thought vis-à-vis women?
Our army has always been progressive. President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who came from among the military and who was president from 1954 to 1970, believed in the Egyptian woman and granted her social empowerment. During his time women were granted equal rights to men, such as compulsory basic education and equal job opportunities. The first woman minister was during Nasser’s time. The whole community, as well as the military institution, took to treating women as equal to men.
It was the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) despicable activity, which began by exploiting community service, that dealt a blow to Egyptian women by covering them up with the hijab—the half face veil—and the niqab—the full face veil—under the pretext that as such they were being ‘good Muslims’. The MB treated women as though they were a disgrace that should not be seen and whose activity should be restricted, again under the pretext of Islamic teaching. They propagated this ideology ever since the 1960s. In the 1970s, they started sowing sedition against Egypt’s Christians.
What about the Egyptian identity?
Studies in sociology have revealed that Egypt’s Christians were the ones who preserved the social fabric of the Egyptian identity. Many Muslims went to work in Arab States starting from the 1960s, and were influenced by the Bedouin, conservative Islamic cultures. Christians, however, remained on Egypt’s soil and preserved their unalloyed Egyptianness.
Do you think the Egyptian community has been divided into religious factions? And why?
The Egyptian identity is essentially liberal by nature. It tolerates religious differences but does not tolerate cultural differences when it comes to general culture, clothing and language. Egyptian culture was targeted through the different dialects and the different vestments. Deceitful religious teachings were used to destroy the features of the Egyptian identity and erase the people’s national memory. They were not merely aimed at working ‘division’ between the sectors of the community; they were attempts at nothing less than dismantling the community. However, they all royally failed. They function with the principle of treachery and exploit the ignorant. We are trying to combat any re-emergence of this alien culture through the media.
After two revolutions, have the social segments in Egypt changed?
Segments of the community only change as a result of drastic decisions, such as free education for all, or the 1960s law of agricultural reform which reallocated land ownership and spread it out. These two decisions altered and developed segments of the community. Contrariwise, Sadat’s policy of economic openness allowed some social groups to lay hold on capital, and this led to the retreat of other social segments.
The 25 January revolution which led long-time president Hosni Mubarak to step down in 2011 and brought in a new political order worked no social alterations. I believe, however, that a decision by Marshal Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi to run for president would trigger social change since it would, once and for all, give precedence to Egyptian national issues.
Why are you so outspoken in your support of the Egyptian army? Don’t you worry about being attacked for adopting this position?
Yes, I unashamedly support the military. We are now living at a time of political, social and security chaos. The community is in need of ‘militarisation’, meaning that it needs to be disciplined and cured of the prevalent chaos and laxity. We need to ‘militarise’ the community until we reach the required discipline.
It is not that I blindly support the military. Egyptians were always opposed to the military before Egypt had its own national army. They hated the Ottoman and Mamluk armies who treated them as inferior and oppressed them, as they did the French and British occupier armies. But ever since Egypt formed a national army in the 19th century, Egyptians were never once opposed to their army. The military today are our own men: our fathers, brothers, and sons. They protect, not oppress us. Those who shout, “Down with the rule of the military”, should understand the real role of the Egyptian army; then they would in all probability keep their mouths shut.
According to a recent study by Harvard University, “the army should protect constitutional democracy.” The West preaches this but does not endorse it elsewhere.
Is the claim by some politicians that Egyptians are still learning the basics of democracy true or false? And why?
This is sheer ignorance. There is an attempt to erode Egypt’s memory. History books were meddled with to obscure certain concepts, among them that Egyptians never had anything to do with democracy. Just as the Christian era in Egypt’s history was subdued in history books, giving precedence only to ancient Egyptian and Islamic eras. The nation’s history was meddled with for political reasons.
After two revolutions and with all the social changes, can Egyptians choose a better president?
This is not a difficult task. People are happy to carry out their political role. Nasser once said that the people are the master and the teacher. People go by their instinct.
Is there any difference in the way the Egyptian woman now demands her rights following the 25 January 2011 Revolution? Is there any change in her personality?
The Egyptian woman has not changed. Even before the 2011 revolution, she was suffering from a continuous attempt to absent her mind, to persuade her that she was a mindless being whose thoughts should not go any further than family, home, and sex. During the 25 January 2011 Revolution, however, Egyptian women who normally shied away from political participation blossomed with political awareness and went back to being their patriotic selves.
The community exploits women; during the times of crises women withstand gunfire, beatings, abuse and all sort of ill-treatment for the sake of supporting the national cause, but when it is time for giving credit where it is due, women are disregarded and condemned for exceeding their natural role as wives and mothers. This is a social ill fired up by religious address.
What do you think about the Constitution not including a quota for women in Parliament? Is this a disregard of women’s role?
Politics is not my main concern now. What use is it to grant women seats in Parliament and then fill them by women like Azza al-Garf [former MP in the 2012 Islamist-majority parliament during the time the MB were in power, who never supported national or women’s issues]? The power of women that we call for is not in their mere physical presence rather in an intellectual, cultural and social presence. We first have to create a liberal social foundation, and after that we can aspire to have women in Parliament. Only then will women be really effective.
This is what the military institution is starting to do; the military college accepted a class of young women, and now here I am, a woman teaching men in the army. Isn’t this a real step forward? What is the use of women MPs if there is neither progress nor openness? We need openness in social thought before politics.
What should women do in the upcoming stage to win back their rights?
Egyptian women must re-educate the community on liberal thought. They must spread the intellect and culture of the noble Egyptian heritage.
What do you foresee in terms of women’s issue and laws that do justice to their ambitions?
In general, things are looking up. I hope that women’s strive to call for their rights reaches an upside too. Women must go forward on a steady foot and be inspired by the history of Egyptian women. They must be well aware of their problems and the rights they demand. The feminist elite is as disappointing as the political elite, because it always looks out for the Western model when it calls for women’s rights. This elite lacks social depth and is quite removed from Egyptian women and their requirements. Even when the pioneering feminist Hoda Shaarawi called upon women to drop the then-prevalent face veil in the early 20th century, her move was hailed as a progressive step since it echoed Western standards and emulated Western women. However, if we look at the Egyptian peasant woman, we can see clearly that she never wore the veil and never kept to her home, but actually worked hand-in-hand with the male members of her family. She never looked up to Western women to attain social prestige. The Egyptian peasant woman was always one step ahead.
16 March 2014