Egyptian women and Mohammed Morsi: Women as a Cultural Battleground / Sara Salem
Sunday 1 July 2012, by
Feministschool: The Egyptian uprising that began on the 25th of January 2011 has gone through several important stages. The 18-day revolutionary moment led to the resignation of then-President Hosni Mubarak and the temporary shifting of powers to the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). Since then, there have been many notable incidents that have demonstrated the reality of an on-going process of revolution rather than a short, finite event. The periodic clashes with the military and security forces, the Port Said football massacre and the tragic events at Maspero have all demonstrated that the revolution is far from over and that the old regime is still in place. Moreover, the past few months have seen a concentrated effort from the old regime to regroup and re-enter Egyptian political life. The clearest indication of this is the fact that Ahmed Shafiq, an ex-Mubarak minister, was one of the main presidential candidates in Egyptâ€™s first elections after the revolution.
The first round of presidential elections led to a second round run-off between Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq. One was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the other a part of the old ruling party, the NDP (National Democratic Party). The elections led to a number of differing views. Many Egyptians were torn between voting or boycotting, others voted one way out of fear of the alternative, and others voted because they identified with one of the candidates. Morsi won the election by a slim margin, and is now President of Egypt. His first few days in office have already been eventful. He banned portraits of himself in public spaces, asked for minimum security when moving around Egypt, met the families of the martyrs and guaranteed them access to him directly, and has announced that his two vice-presidents will be a woman and a Coptic Christian. These moves have already impressed many both inside and outside Egypt, and are a welcome change from Mubarakâ€™s reign. An important point is that Morsi won the election because he was supported by a variety of social actors, including activists, revolutionaries, youth groups, and Egyptians who did not want a member of the old regime to win. This means that Morsi has a lot to prove. He knows that he would not be President without the support of Egyptians who do not necessarily identify with or support the Muslim Brotherhood or their ideals. The pressure on Morsi is immense, and the expectations endless.
Many in the media have asked what will happen to women now that Egypt has an Islamist president. Questions of whether Egypt will turn into Iran or Afghanistan are everywhere, and the jokes about wearing burqas, not being able to drink beer, and throwing away bikinis are all over social media sites. It is important when confronting the question of â€œwomenâ€ to separate Islamophobic and Orientalist comments and analyses from ones that actually constitute constructive critiques of political Islam and gender. While it is important to question the Muslim Brotherhood and their politicians about their views on women, gender, sexuality, and minorities in general, it is equally important not to get caught in the current frenzy of Islamophobia and fear-mongering. There has been an age-old obsession with â€œIslam and womenâ€ present in the Global North that makes one wary of questions about how Morsiâ€™s presidency will affect women when they come from Western or Western-based commentators and journalists. These writers and speakers usually do not critique specific policies, statements, or discourses coming from the Islamists, but rather focus on vague assumptions about what an Islamic state would look likeâ€”usually based on their stereotypes of countries such as Iran and Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, it is important as Egyptian women to be critical of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Cultural, social, and political battles are often fought on the bodies of women. Women have regularly been used as symbols that signify and reproduce nations, cultures and religions; and the norms and values that constitute these. When the French colonized Algeria, for example, they used the status of women (as if it is a homogenous fact) to â€œproveâ€ how backwards and uncivilized Algerian (read: Muslim) culture was, and therefore as justification for their civilizing mission. The fact that (some) women were covered, for example, supposedly showed the need for the French to liberate them â€“ a discourse that still exists in France today and is encapsulated in their law banning the burqa.
As mentioned previously, Orientalism has often used women to show how backwards Islam or Arabs are. However, Islamists have often resorted to the same tactic. Frequently symbols related to women have been used to signify resistance to imperialism, and often women are seen as in need of protection because they symbolize the nation. Moreover, laws or movements that are seen as trying to â€ liberateâ€ women are usually branded as western and imperialistic, and therefore â€œunIslamic.â€
Moreover, Islamists do not act within a political or social vacuum. When applying laws that they say are derived from the Shariâ€™ah, they often do not explain why they have used one interpretation over another (often the stricter one is used). When religion mixes with politics, it is important to be alert to the way specific interpretations will be favoured over others, and the way power becomes an integral aspect of many policies and discourses used by political actors.
A final point I want to make is that although Egypt has been a â€˜secularâ€™ country in name since independence, Egyptian laws that apply to women and the family have usually been derived from Islamic law. Therefore we must question the idea that Egypt was a paradise for women before Morsiâ€™s presidency.
Will Egypt become another Iran? I would answer no, because the factors that combined and intersected with one another in Iran in 1979 are different from the ones that are currently intersecting in Egypt. However, that does not mean that we cannot learn from each other and build solidarity between one another. As many Iranians have pointed out, Khomenei made many promises after becoming the leader of Iran, including the infamous one that women would not be forced to wear hijab. Rather than take Morsi for his word now, at the beginning, Egyptians must be alert to laws, discourses, and ideas coming from those currently in power that could have a negative effect on not only women and minorities, but Egyptians in general.