The feminine critique
In Egypt, the scaling back of women’s liberalization shows successful reform must include cultural change
For the first time in Egyptian history, a female anchor on state television has covered her hair with a head scarf. Under the Mubarak regime, women were forbidden to wear a head scarf on state television in order to depict a more modern appearance; however, current President Mohammed Morsi, who is supported by the Muslim Brotherhood, has lifted the ban. Thus, women are now allowed to wear a head scarf on state television if they chose to do so.
This incident has caused a stir among Egyptians. In the past, qualified women were often denied the opportunity to become an anchor because they chose to cover their hair. Sally Zohney, who is part of the organization Baheya Ya Masr which advocates women’s rights, stated, “My concern now is the growing factor among viewers that this is how a woman should look like in order to be respectful or modest — this is what is scary. I’m against discrimination completely, but that does not mean society should start harassing non-veiled girls.” Of course, just because a woman wears a head scarf does not mean she is oppressed, nor does it mean that she wears it unwillingly. The fact that the Egyptian government no longer controls whether or not they choose to wear a head scarf appears to be progressive at least at face value. Furthermore, the topic of head scarves brings up the larger issue of women’s rights in Egypt, post-Mubarak.
Considering the fact that President Morsi is backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, there might be some validity to concerns regarding women’s rights, especially since the Muslim Brotherhood has consistently been conservative in its views. Morsi has sent some mixed messages on the subject since becoming president. In the past, he was an advocate of banning women from running for president. In addition, he himself has also claimed that a woman’s role is to be a wife and a mother. At the same time, he has vowed to protect the rights of women. In fact, Morsi promised that he would elect a woman as one of Egypt’s multiple vice presidents, yet he has failed to do so. So far, he has selected three women as a part of his team of 21 aides. The phrase “protecting women” is in and of itself a bit ambiguous because President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood could “protect” women by limiting their rights and opportunities. They could easily claim that women would best be protected and served by staying at home and taking care of their husbands.
In addition, there have also been efforts in the parliament to revoke some of the laws implemented under Mubarak’s regime that gave women more rights. Some of the proposals regarding women include revoking their right to divorce as well as decreasing the marriage age for girls to 14. In past parliamentary elections, out of the 133 seats the Muslim Brotherhood claimed, only three were occupied by women — they were the wives of Muslim Brotherhood members. Moreover, lecturer Abou Salama from the organization Family House, sponsored by the Muslim Brotherhood, has reiterated more conservative ideals regarding women including the fact that women should always obey their husbands, and that they are incapable of making successful decisions by themselves. The fact that the Muslim Brotherhood fully sponsors Mr. Salama’s organization indicates they share similar views.
The most problematic aspect of Salama’s lecture, however, was that women in the room listening to the lecture actually nodded their heads in agreement. Interestingly enough, a survey CNN’s Dalia Ziada conducted while reporting in Egypt found that all 1453 respondents opposed the idea of a female president. The survey included 634 women. There is an interesting point to be made here. While there have been no significant legal restrictions on women since President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have been in power, the psychological pressure and reinforcement of traditional religious values is perhaps even more effective. A law physically restricts women, but such lectures change the way women think about themselves. If a woman can be convinced that she is inferior, then laws to physically restrict her are hardly necessary. Furthermore, one could have progressive laws, but it is equally important for there to be a shift in the perception of women within the society.
To change an entire society’s view of women is not an easy task. Women have often been restricted throughout Egyptian history, especially under Islamist rulers. Religion has often been the tool to justify the oppression of women, and to limit their opportunities. The notion that women are inferior has practically been ingrained in the cultural and traditional system.
Despite beginning the article with a discussion of head scarves, the issue here is much bigger. It is about women having the same rights as men in a society that has held the opposite view for a long time. In order for women to gain the same opportunities as men and be treated as equals, a more secular society is necessary in shifting the traditional perception of women.
_Fariha Kabir’s column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at