As the world marks International Woman’s day on 8 March, and Egypt celebrates Egyptian Woman’s Day on 16 March, how are Egyptian women faring?
Come March and with it several dates—Egyptian and international—that honour women; the words ‘March’ and ‘women’ have thus become intricately linked.
Egyptian woman’s day falls on 16 March, a date that was set to commemorate the first female demonstration ever in Egypt, when women took to the streets to support the nationalist 1919 Revolution. Given that those were days when women were confined to their homes and were never allowed in public, the event was in itself revolutionary. It heralded in a new age for women when they could honourably be in the public eye, building their country hand in hand with their fellowmen, and maturing into citizens with full citizenship rights—and duties.
But come March this year, how is one to send good wishes or flowers to women in Egypt while they are being insulted and humiliated, and their dignity degraded more harshly by the day?
Egypt marks Egyptian Woman’s Day this year while women are being rejected from school curricula; political activism is being denied to them; and their photos in textbooks are removed since they are seen as ‘a disgrace’.
The deliberate omission last January of the photoraph of the Egyptian feminist and patriot Durriya Shafiq (1908 – 1975) from this year’s school textbooks exposes obvious contempt for women’s struggle and trivialisation of their rights. Shafiq was a staunch nationalist and among the pioneering figures in the Egyptian movement for the liberation of women in the 1930s to the 1950s. She was famous as the founder of Cairo paper Misr Bint al-Nil (Egypt, Daughter of the Nile), and the feminist movement in the same name. She spearheaded the call for full political rights for Egyptian women who finally gained them in 1956. Shafiq authored and published several books, among them a large body of poetry, as well as translations of the Qur’an into French and English.
What makes the photo ommission incident so ominous is that the official reason cited was that Shafiq was not wearing hijab, the Islamic veil. The incident exposed the alarming fact that those in charge of educating our young hold narrow-minded, degraging views of women.
Women as human beings
Paradoxically, during the years of the [hated] Mubarak regime, the National Council for Women used to issue many publications that celebrated Egyptian women, elite and modest alike, and championed their causes and rights.
Among these publications, which were expertly produced and included invaluable information and very attractive pictures, were many that paid tribute to nationalist and feminist activists and to the female pioneer figures in Egypt. They celebrated, to mention but a few, Hoda Shaarawi (1879 – 1947) the nationalist and activist who is now famous as the first Egyptian woman to take off the veil in public; Ceza Nabrawi who was Shaarawi’s right-hand assistant and carried on in her footsteps; Durriya Shafiq, as well as the legendary diva Umm Kulthoum (1902 – 1975). A few weeks ago, the statue of Umm Kulthoum in her home province of Mansoura was recently adorned by an Islamic full face veil, niqab, put on by Islamist men.
In the Mubarak years which are today branded as corrupt, we struggled to refine textbooks and filter hidden messages that could implant gender discrimination such as pictures of the mother cleaning the house while the father comfortably reads his newspaper. The sad truth is that we were not aware of the luxury we could then afford. We were striving to improve the quality of life for women, today we are struggling for survival: for merely being regarded as human beings.
Veiling the soul
In other times, we cared to promote media coverage for girls who excelled in arts or sports. The aim was to send implicit messages of gender equality and to encourage families to be as proud of their daughters as they were of their sons. Today, the Alexandria teenager Heba Mohamed al-Ali Gad who won a school championship in Karate was denied, by her school headmistress, the basic honour of a commemorative photograph for the mere reason that she was not wearing the veil. As though the veil has become the one and only important issue of significance where women are concerned.
In every sense of the word, we are now living the age of veiling the soul and the intellect. What then can I offer Egypt’s women on their day but lament and commiseration?
17 March 2013