Egypt: A Revolution in Women’s Rights Is Not Over
“In a lot of ways the needs of Egyptian women are the needs of all Egyptians.”
Connection Point Manager Yasmina Mrabet interviews Dr. Laura Bier, professor at Georgia Tech, about her thoughts on the role of Islamic feminism and the challenges and opportunities for women in post-revolutionary Egypt. Her responses are below.
Can you tell us a little about your personal background, how you became interested in studying Islamic feminism, and the role of women in Egypt particularly?
I was getting my MA in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago. When I started there I had almost no interest in gender history or the history of feminist movements. But it was 1993 and so much of the really exciting work in Middle Eastern Studies—in history in general—was being done in the field of gender history. All of the questions you could possibly want to ask as a historian—about social relations, about human agency, about the politics of culture, about the complicated legacies of colonialism for the region—were being asked and answered in new and fascinating ways, in Middle East gender studies. By the time I left the University of Chicago in 1995 to do a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern History at New York University (received in 2006), I was hooked. I had a lot of previous experience in Egypt—both as a study abroad student and as a tourist—and Egypt has a long rich history of women’s activism, so it seemed like a natural focus for me. So I came to an interest in Islamic feminism through an interest in secular nationalist projects and how they position women.
My research looked at the 1950s and 1960s in Egypt and how gender became central to the secular modernizing project of the Gamal Abdel Nasser regime. (This research has just been published as a book, Revolutionary Womanhood, by Stanford University Press.) What I came to find as I grappled intellectually with the legacies of the Nasser regime’s “state feminism” is that the normative practices and assumptions which had shaped the Egyptian nationalist project of modernity—and Egyptian feminist engagements with it—in the second half of the 20th century had also come to be embedded in interesting ways in Islamist projects. For example, Islamist prescriptions on veiling presume, rather than preclude, the presence of Muslim women in a heterosocial public sphere. The Islamist vision of the ideal marriage as focused on couples joined together on the basis of respect, affection, and companionability mirrors ideals of companionate heterosexual intimacy which have structured nationalist visions of marriage since the beginning of the 20th century. Lila Abu-Lughod’s and Mervat Hatem’s work comparing the gender politics of Islamism and secularism have been invaluable in helping me think about those issues. I’m interested now to see what sorts of things are novel about the ways in which activist Muslim women are engaging the present moment politically and socially.
What do you see as the current role of Islamic feminism in the context of the post-revolution climate in Egypt?
One of the things which I think is most exciting about what’s happening now in Egypt is that women activists who identify themselves in a variety of ways—whether that be secular or Islamic or leftist or nationalist or whatever—are actively working together in new ways to achieve political demands and to improve the lives of all Egyptians and Egyptian women in particular. I wouldn’t go so far to say we’re seeing a “post-ideological” moment in Egyptian politics, but I do think that if we focus too rigidly on those kinds of categories as the determining factor in women’s activism, we risk missing what’s novel about it, and we miss opportunities to learn from the example of Egyptian women’s activism, which has a lot to teach American and European women about ways of being inclusive and forging alliances across groups of women coming from diverse backgrounds with various perspectives and needs.
That said, I think Islamic feminism has a very critical role to play in the formulation of post-revolutionary politics and society. For the majority of Egyptians, faith is a fundamental part of both their identity and lived social reality. Any politics which is to be truly democratic, inclusive, and representative must take that as a starting premise. Interestingly, the changes which would allow the emergence of a powerful, grassroots discourse of women’s empowerment from within an Islamic framework have already occurred. Over the last fifteen years or so, Muslim Egyptian women have increasingly claimed the authority to interpret Islamic scripture outside the boundaries of the traditional, male-dominated religious establishment. One of the most public manifestations of that is the prominence of female writers and thinkers like Safinaz Kazem (who rejects the label of “feminist”) and Hibba Raouf Ezzat (who accepts it). Both couch their gender critiques of society and politics from within an Islamic framework. On a more grassroots level the women’s piety movement, which really gained momentum in the 1990s, has empowered tens of thousands of women to engage in the process of religious interpretation for themselves through Qu’ranic study groups led for women by women. These women have a pivotal role to play in helping to define what Egyptian society will look like and what possibilities for social justice will be available to women within the new order.
Given the gains made by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian elections, many are asking how this will impact women’s rights. What are your thoughts on the challenges and opportunities that women might face in Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood?
I think it’s still too early in the process to tell. I think the Brotherhood is evolving and changing to respond to a political and social landscape which is itself undergoing rapid and radical transformation. A lot will depend on the results of the election and where the Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party try to position themselves within the political landscape. The Muslim Brotherhood is no longer an outlawed organization operating in an authoritarian political landscape, but is an official political party in an emerging democracy that has to be accountable to the voting population in order to win elections. This may prompt them towards moderation on women’s issues, particularly if they chose to position themselves as a more moderate Islamic alternative to the Salafi Nour party. There’s a tendency to assume, just because the Muslim Brotherhood identifies itself as an Islamic party, that a Brotherhood parliamentary majority will signal some sort of death knell for women’s rights.
That kind of assessment begins with the erroneous yet all too common presumption that there is some fundamental incompatibility between Islam and rights for women, or that there is no way for an Islamic party to present a program which recognizes women’s civic and social rights or accords them any political agency. That’s simply not the case. Historically, the Brotherhood has advocated for women’s education, recognized women’s right to work, and promoted a vision of marriage as a relationship based on mutual respect and affection. Nor does the Brotherhood exclude political participation of women. One of the few women who will likely be seated in the new Egyptian parliament is a Freedom and Justice Party member, and the Brotherhood’s female wing, the Muslim Sisters, has been taking a more vocal and active role in the organization than they have in decades. It will be important to see if this translates to more women being accorded real leadership positions in the party and if they will be responsive in a meaningful way to the needs and demands of their female constituencies.
Whether or not the Muslim Brotherhood is in power, Egypt is still a patriarchal society. Do you think that challenges and opportunities would be different for women in Egypt if more secular parties came to power?
I think that’s a very important question, one which is not asked nearly enough in the mainstream American or European media. I think there’s a great risk, whether the Muslim Brotherhood gains a parliamentary majority or not, that the question of what women actually need to improve their lives will take a back seat to what women represent politically and ideologically. At moments of heightened political change gender issues often become politicized in ways which marginalize women and are profoundly disabling to a politics which takes the civic rights of and social justice for women as foundational.
The issue is not whether the winning party is secular or not, but will the voices of women remain center stage as they have been throughout the revolution? Does the emerging democratic order accord women—and all Egyptians for that matter—full civic rights, social justice and dignity, including the right to organize and to protest, to be free from extrajudicial detention and torture? We’ve seen over the last weeks that the state has targeted female protesters and activists for sexual assault and particularly gendered forms of humiliation. These are the challenges which Egyptian women will have to face, challenges which transcend individual political parties and lie at the heart of a process of democratization which is still very much contested. Also I think it’s helpful to keep in mind that revolutions take a long time. In some respects, getting rid of Mubarak was the easy part. The lasting, fundamental grassroots changess that are the revolution’s promise will take much, much longer.
What are the greatest areas of need for women in Egypt, and how can the global community help to support Egyptian women in meeting those needs?
In a lot of ways the needs of Egyptian women are the needs of all Egyptians. There needs to be a true process of democratization which includes the rights that I talked about above—the right to protest, to have their voices count in a substantive way in the political process, freedom from arbitrary arrest, freedom from torture. And those rights can’t only be on paper; they have to be an integral part of the practice of democratization itself. The challenges that women face in realizing and practicing those rights may be somewhat different than the challenges men face, but the needs are the same. The actions of the military council which is ruling Egypt have demonstrated that fundamental political changes are hardly a foregone conclusion. It’s important not to assume that the revolution is over just because Mubarak is gone. In many respects, the ancient regime is still in place. Moreover, given the vast social and economic inequalities and hardships which are the reality for the vast majority of Egypt’s population, political rights will loose a lot of their meaning without an equal commitment to social justice.
The case of South Africa is instructive. Apartheid is over and the system of racialized segregation and hierarchy has ended, but to a large degree, it has been replaced by a system defined by the informal barriers of class, wealth, and poverty. If the political system changes, but the economic and social system do not, then the revolution will have failed. The best way for the global community to support Egyptian women is to respect and support the process of democratization in all of its messiness. There are those who caution against true democracy in Egypt on the grounds that the strong showing of the Muslim Brotherhood would mean the oppression of women, Copts, and other groups. I’ve already pointed out the problems inherent in such a view. Instead of using a liberal vision of “women’s rights” as a marker of whether Egyptians deserve political freedom, we need to be asking Egyptian women themselves what they want and need, with the understanding that there’s no necessary agreement between Egyptian women themselves. Being in solidarity with Egyptian women and their revolution means doing the hard work of recognizing and valuing those differences.
If there was one thing you could highlight to the world about Islamic political movements and the role of women, what would that be?
This is a moment of great potential for women and women’s activism in the region. Islamic political moments, far from being a hindrance, have helped create the conditions of possibility for novel and potentially revolutionary forms of women’s agency, empowerment, and participation within an Islamic framework. For millions of women across the globe, Islam contains the possibility for radical, positive change and affirmation.
Follow the Connection Point initiative on Twitter: @Connection_Pt
The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.