21 March 2010
March is the month for women. The eighth day marks International Woman’s Day, the 16th Egyptian Woman’s Day, and the 21st is the widely popular Mothers Day.
To honour the successive women occasions, the NGO Partners in Development for Research, Consulting, and Training (PID) held a seminar to discuss “The Egyptian woman: Caught between bigotry and partnership”. As the title implies, Egyptian women while being required to partner with men in actively shouldering the responsibility of building the community, are the targets of debilitating bigotry. The duality frequently proves hard to bear, and—apart from, or because of, the emotional and physical hardship involved—is altogether counter productive.
Violence in all forms
Several questions which begged answers were placed before the participants in the seminar. How are women viewed in our community? How is their role in life determined, and how does society define the division of labour between men and women? What cultural and social values determine this division, and what cultural and social restraints hold back women? Is it possible to put an end to discrimination against women? What are the most urgent issues, where women are concerned, that need to be addressed today, and what hope is there for the future of women in light of the apparent escalating chauvinism in our society?
If this appeared to be a tall order, it did not alarm Hoda Zakariya, sociology professor at Zagazig University. Full of zest, Dr Zakariya held her audience captive as she embarked on a comprehensive analysis of the sorry state of Egyptian women and the systematic violence she is subjected to. To start with, Dr Zakariya reminded of the United Nation’s definition of violence against women as: “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life”.
With this definition in mind, Dr Zakariya said, there are several cultural and legal impediments to full women rights in Egypt, all of which constitute flagrant forms of violence.
Falsifying female awareness
First and foremost among the prevalent violence forms is a culture which considers violence against women not only natural, but also necessary for her proper upbringing. Dr Zakariya had the audience in stitches as she cited folk wisdom which extolled the virtue of violence against women and ensured that no harm—rather plenty of good—can come out of it. “Break a girl’s rib and she’ll grow 24 ribs instead”, one saying goes. Worse, she said, we have reached the point of “falsifying female awareness” where most women see violence against them and other women as thoroughly natural, justified, and positive. This violence does not stop at verbal and physical abuse, but may assume other forms such as imprisoning a woman at home and banning her from seeing her parents or friends. Sexual exploitation within the marriage, female circumcision, condoning honour crimes, and exploiting female labour are other forms of communal and domestic violence that is almost never frowned upon, Dr Zakariya said. A research she had conducted on the reasons for divorce revealed that most common is physical violence—in many cases resulting in compound fractures or mild disability, depriving a wife of necessities such as food or medicine, and seizing a woman’s wages to spend on cigarettes, drugs or women.
Selective religious address
It does not help at all, Dr Zakariya said, that the predominant religious address today is a selective, extremist, Wahabi one which sees women as inferior. Wahabi clerics endorse Qur’anic verses which extol male dominance and recommend beating wives and “abandoning them in bed” if a husband harbours fears that his wife would be ‘disobedient’.
Even though Islam does grant women several rights, women are frequently grudged these rights or denied them outright. “When the law was amended some seven years ago to include a provision for khula, a woman’s right to divorce her husband provided she gives up all her rights for a settlement, the media took up the issue with the utmost mockery and disrepute,” Dr Zakariya said. “The provision was branded as a call for broken homes.”
The predominantly male-oriented culture has placed the burden of such societal all-important issues such as chastity or family planning squarely on the shoulders of women, even if this may be detrimental to their health. Female circumcision and contraceptive methods say it all.
It should come as no surprise then, Dr Zakariya said, that such violence should spill over into our streets and workplaces in the form of rampant harassment of women, a preference of male workers, and inferior pay and benefits for women. And even though studies have shown that most harassers are married men, the media is fond of explaining away harassment as the result of sexual deprivation due to the inability of young men to get married because of tight economic conditions, thereby again justifying male chauvinism.
Coming a long way
Chauvinism again rears its ugly head in the media, Dr Zakariya said, where women are depicted as household and sex objects, a woman who demands equality with men is invariably portrayed as unattractive, and men are excused for womanising since their wives are too busy to pamper them properly. “The figure of the mainstream mother and wife who faithfully cares for her family, works hard successfully inside and outside her home, is supported by a fond understanding husband, is—sadly—totally absent from our media.”
Despite the thoroughly realistic study presented by Dr Zakariya, “the picture is not that bleak,” commented Amina Shafiq, the journalist and member of the National Council for Women.
“Women emancipation began early in the 20th century at the hands of Qassem Amin,” Ms Shafiq reminded. Back then, she said, town women did not work outside the home, but peasant women worked hand in hand with their men in the fields to support the family. This was unpaid work, and not recognised as official labour. Today, women form a significant portion of the labour force and many have reached high-ranking positions.
“Socially,” Ms Shafiq pointed out, “and no matter that there is a general feeling that women have gone backward not forward, undeniable improvements have been achieved on certain fronts. Some twenty years ago, I remember attending a gathering with prominent writer and feminist Amina al-Saïd, which focused on the problems of women. I remember we blushed and looked away when the subject of female circumcision was brought up. Today the topic is being unabashedly broached and, when on a recent visit to Upper Egypt, I found billboards portraying attractive, determined faces of girls declaring ‘No to female circumcision’”. This is coming a long way, she said.
“I feel sure there is no going back,” Ms Shafiq insisted.
It was heart warming to see that the men in the audience could not agree more. “To those who say we are going backwards,” one young man remarked, “How do you explain the demonstrations against the banning of women from sitting as judges on the State Council court?”
Another man who appeared to be in his forties, demanded the revision of laws which discriminate against women or which hinder her from playing the dual role of home-maker and career woman. “How can it be legal that a woman on a temporary contract loses her job once she gives birth?” he said. “We ought to be supporting not penalising her.”
But the words of one particularly enthusiastic man caught everybody’s attention. “Some think of women emancipation as some western initiative,” he said. “Our Egyptian heritage, however, is replete with texts which highly respect women and place them on the same footing as men. And today, in Egyptian villages where the old names persist, girls are given names such as Sitteddar and Sittabouha, literally Lady of the House and Her Father’s Lady. Women in remote villages are frequently vital in the decision making process which concerns the family. A common remark when a man is buying land in Upper Egypt is: ‘Let me consult first,’ meaning he is consulting his wife before taking the crucial decision whether or not to purchase the land.”