By: Alexandra Kinias
The women of ancient Egypt lived in equality,freedom and enjoyed rights that were denied and envied by women of neighboring countries. Over the millennia, Hatshepsut, Nefertiti and Cleopatra reigned over the throne of Egypt. Two thousand years after the death of Cleopatra, her daughters are fighting once again for their rights.
Egypt, infected by the contagious Wahhabism virus transferred from behind the sand dunes of Arabia, is standing at crossroads. While the country is skating on thin ice, women are watching in confusion and uncertainty the dark clouds of conservatism gaining momentum. They are fearful of a future that might hijack their freedom of dress and choice, segregate them from their male peers and confine them back in their homes.
These fears were asserted after a televised interview with the potential presidential nominee Hazem Abu Ismail who promised, if elected, the implementation of Sharia law (Islamic law), reinstating relations with Iran, arresting tourists in bathing suits, outlawing drinking alcohol in public, closing down casinos and forcing Egyptian Christians to pay a separate tax for not converting. In the same interview he acknowledged that one of his first duties would be to push the idea through the appropriate channels to force the Islamic dress on all womenand expressed his wishes to see the television commentator veiled!
Abu Ismail’s comments awakened the ghosts of the Iranian revolution and left the apprehension of a gloomy future hovering over the heads of millions of moderates, liberals and women. The saga of the Iranian women is still vivid in everybody’s mind. They had supported the 1979 revolution with the assumption that the rights they had gained up to that date would not be tampered with, but the unpredictable reality after the dust had settled was grave. Just like in Iran, the revolution in Egypt would not have succeeded without the women who challenged all social taboos and demonstrated by the side of men to topple the regime of Hosny Mubarak. Yet today the rights of women are questioned as the voices of the Islamists are rising against them and continually pushing them to the side.
The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights reflected in its last report the effect of the political situation on women and affirmed that their rights are dwindling after the revolution. There is a consistent attack from Islamists against the meager rights that women had gained in the last decade. Their loud voices are calling to revoke the laws that allowed women the right to divorce and for their retreat from political life. While women had expected more political participation after the revolution, it came as a disappointment when only one woman was appointed in a cabinet post. They were left out from holding offices as mayors, governors or city councilpersons. They were also excluded from the constituent assembly appointed to draft the new constitution. Clearly this came as a blow to their faces and contradicted the spirit of the revolution that promoted equality and human rights.
In The Women’s Forum for Society and Economy 2011 in France, the renowned human rights activist and 2003 Nobel Peace Award winner Shirin Ebadi reminded the women of Egypt and other Arab countries not to forget what happened to the women of Iran.“Look at Iran”, she told them, “Do not repeat our mistakes.” When she saw images of the protestors in Syria, Yemen, Tunisia, she saw them demanding democracy. “Did anyone say we are against polygamy? That we want divorce rights? That we are human beings and need equal rights? You are making the same mistake Iranian women made. We thought we could demand women’s rights after the revolution”, she said. The Iranian women who participated in the 1979 revolution wanted to overthrow the Shah and end a dictatorship. They didn’t demand to end polygamy or the right to divorce. It was taken for granted that these rights could be negotiated later.To combat the patriarchal system that interprets the Sharia from the point view of men for their benefit, Ebadi advised women to push for women’s rights during the struggle. “Don’t wait for the victory. Choose your allies. Dictate these conditions before the alliance”, she said.
There are a lot of lessons learned from the outcome of the Iranian revolution. Just like the Iranian women of 1979, their Egyptian counterparts are at crossroads today. Their issues and rights are not priorities for decision makers while the future of the country is still in peril. However, while everyone is watching the changes happening in the country, social justice, democracy and human rights will never materialize in a society where women’s rights are ignored.