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A Complicated Matter: The Role of Women, Patriarchy in Egypt

26 September 2012 4 Comments

Nadine Ibrahim

Nadine Ibrahim
Cairo, Egypt

“Morsi’s conservative stance on the place of women in society is empathetic to the predominant Egyptian family model, but it is unrelated to the mounting mistreatment of women in the public sphere.”


A young Egyptian artist participating in a public art workshop put up posters around the city–one in Tahrir Square on the eve of elections–of an Egyptian man and woman holding hands and smiling. In each case, she returned to find that the posters were vandalized or torn down. Why? The friendly couple was mixed. In each image, one person was dressed in conservative religious Egyptian clothing and the other was dressed in liberal, yet still modest, Western clothing.

The poster depicted two individuals from different segments of society mingling in a way that is not only uncommon, but also frowned upon.

Amidst many shades of in-between, these are the two most visible lifestyles in Egyptian society. Moving from one neighborhood to another, colorful pants, skirts, t-shirts and cardigans replace dark colored abayas and white galabayas. The traditional, religious family model emphasizes different gender roles in order to create a harmonious life, one that is balanced between the inherent strengths and weaknesses of men and women. Such a life allegedly brings one closer to God, and will lead men, women, families, and arguably an entire country away from sin. Other family and lifestyle models, more common amongst the wealthy, are increasingly liberal and open to Western influences. In this subset the belief is that traditional religious gendered family roles can often be restrictive.

The poster of two people from very different walks of life is representative of how many parts of society are interacting in a new way during the current period of political transition after the January 25th Revolution ousted President Mubarak in 2011. The result of this transition was the election of Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist candidate. President Morsi now must represent all these walks of life in Egypt, including conservative and moderate Muslims, Islamists, the Coptic Christian population, and liberal Western secularists. A highly emotional reaction to a convergence of spheres often occurs along gender lines. The reactions, like angrily tearing down a poster of a smiling couple, can be less than positive, and can even have violent or destructive undertones.

Tahrir Square, cast as Egypt’s main stage, is the most visible example of this emotional reaction, which has often taken the form of repeated sexual violence against women.

Episodes of sexual violence in Tahrir Square carry political undertones. Groups of baltageyya, or “thugs” hired by the government, have been caught infiltrating the Square, posing as protesters, and then brandishing weapons in a state-sponsored attempt to disperse crowds. According to the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR), agents of the state, including police, also specifically target women as subjects of violence. This is a well-documented phenomenon throughout Mubarak’s 30-year presidency, and many believe that these same thugs still enter and commit horrific crimes of sexual violence. Unfortunately, these crimes are not limited to thugs: on-duty military doctors, police officers, and organized groups of men intent on dispersing crowds of women are also guilty of sexual violence against women. The end result?  Dismantling the security and unity in the square, a regime-threatening symbol of Egyptian unity, while using women as a tool to destabilize dissenting voices.

Part of a vast mural on Mohammed Mahmoud St off of Tahrir Square, Egypt

This overt violation of a woman’s body is prevalent not just in crowds or in the minds of individuals, but in policy. Female genital mutilation (FGM/C) is a long contested procedure that–for reasons of chastity and honor–aims to suppress a woman’s sexual appetite. FGM/C, in reality, is an invasive and traumatic experience that does not succeed in its stated purpose; rather, it deprives a woman of sexual pleasure––leaving that as a masculine domain alone. Although it is illegal in Egypt, some politicians–notably some female politicians–support the practice, calling it a matter of “family decision” and “beautification.”

In the transition period, one popular sentiment among secular or non-Islamist leaning voters was a strong fear that Morsi’s election will solidify the rise of Islamists in power. This would, in turn, encourage what are often viewed by this subset of individuals as restrictive traditional religious gender roles. In typical gendered fashion, the fear and tension was most visibly expressed as a concern for the future status of women’s rights in Egypt under a majority Islamist government. After the Revolution, and particularly after Morsi’s election, women’s issues came to the forefront of the discussion. There were marches against sexual harassment, groups and organizations created to combat the prevalence of abuse, and support systems to create safe zones in risk areas like Tahrir Square. It is easy to attribute this increase in women’s rights activism as purely a reaction to the rise of Islamism and its perception as a threat to women, but this belies the complexity and depth of the issue; patriarchal attitudes towards women are anything but a recent development and are far from exclusive to Islamism.

Abuse and mistreatment of women is deeply entrenched in Egypt’s history, as it is in much of the world. To echo the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the revolution has not created tensions but merely brought to the surface hidden tension that is already alive.

This patriarchy can be traced back to times even before the rising social influence of Islamism, which began to flourish in the 1970s. Since then, it has been propagated by successive Egyptian regimes that categorically cast themselves in stark contrast to the Islamists. No Egyptian government has had adequate representation of women. Historic attitudes towards women have resulted in a society in which the prevalent view of women as occupying less-than-equal footing as men still pervades, largely unperturbed, today.

The ECWR elaborates:

Women’s right to lead a life free of violence is not widely internalized within Egyptian society, resulting in lack of reporting by victims of violence, lack of perpetrators’ awareness of the criminality of violence, lack of response from police and the legal system supposedly tasked with enforcing laws prohibiting violence, and perpetration of violence by authorities themselves against women in order to pressure their male relatives.

Almost all women in Egypt have felt this imposing patriarchal sentiment in spheres of their daily life. Many women are all-too-aware of the risks involved in being in large crowds. Many live in a society in which the greater burden of honor rests on the women, and where a situation in which a dishonorable woman’s death can restore a family’s tarnished reputation is a reality. Some reports claim that as many as 60% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women in Egypt have experienced sexual harassment on the street, and while others may blame the woman for provoking these attacks, it is well documented that the attackers harass regardless of hijab, niqab, or jeans and a t-shirt. Section 60 of the Egyptian Criminal Code allows judges to waive punishment for men who abuse their wives “in good faith.” The influential state media complex has also been complicit in perpetuating victim-blaming and promoting negative attitudes. There are many proposed explanations for this often highly visible disregard for women’s rights and none of them inherent to Egyptian culture or Islam. On an individual level, perhaps these men take the liberty to violate women–both local and foreign–to overtly remind them that they are not welcome, that their voices are not on equal footing with those of men.

Part of a vast mural on Mohammed Mahmoud St off of Tahrir Square, Egypt

As I understand it–and I can’t claim to fully understand the mentality of those who seek to directly undermine the autonomy of a woman–this maltreatment stems from a patriarchal notion that women do not have an equal place in the public sphere. Where participating in the public sphere can add to a man’s level of respect, for women the implications are flipped. A woman in public, mingling with strangers, yelling, chanting, and protesting can be looked upon with disdain.

In the aftermath of the January 25th Revolution, I felt afraid, in part because of a lack of sympathy, to be a woman in public. However, for me and for millions of other women, my fear did not end there; my fear empowered me to speak out, to be angry. The bubble burst. Decent women should not be outside doing such vulgar things as protesting, but here we were. Almost in response, women were mass gang raped in Tahrir Square, reports were filed of police officers sexually harassing or at best turning a blind eye to horrific sexual abuse, the virginity of female activists was forcibly tested, and one of many nameless victim protesters was stripped of her conservative abaya, dragged down the street–­–iconic blue bra exposed. The moment before a soldier’s foot came stomping down on her ribcage a photographer snapped a historic photo.

With mounting fear comes a refusal to accept the status quo. Reminiscing on the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., voices against the mistreatment of women are louder than ever before and public awareness of the issue is reaching a tipping point. The strong presence of women’s issues comes at the time of Morsi’s nascent presidency, but it is important not to conflate the two issues: the rise of political Islam and the fall of women’s rights.

Indeed, the political Islamic agenda pushed by the Muslim Brotherhood has a tangible effect on expectations of women. The Muslim Brotherhood has for decades led by pious example, and Morsi has several times expressed his commitment to women’s issues. While he does not talk about things like free birth control and abortions, he speaks of making life easier for the working mother, or the divorced/widowed ex-wife. Morsi’s conservative stance on the place of women in society is empathetic to the predominant Egyptian family model, but it is unrelated to the mounting mistreatment of women in the public sphere.

The problem is with a system, society, and government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it. Women’s voices are struggling to be heard, and when they yell from behind a state-sponsored, police-enforced, and popularly supported wall they are faced with adamant, often violent and shaming, opposition.

Like the thought-provoking posters of a happy mixed Egyptian couple in contrasting garb, speaking out against the status quo can often provoke a highly emotional and destructive rebuttal. The current friction of different spheres of Egyptian life is proving a rough transition of its own, but hope for progress is strong.

The restrictions on women are slowly becoming less acceptable to an increasingly informed public: political figures are backpedaling on lenient views on female genital mutilation and the first veiled woman was allowed to broadcast the news on State TV. Women are marching, writing, chanting, and exercising their right to personal freedom without penalty. This is not a time for misunderstanding; this is a time of empowerment.

Nadine Ibrahim lives in Cairo, Egypt, where she works as a freelance public health journalist and assists at a local medical clinic.


Other articles by Nadine Ibrahim:

In Egypt, the Complicated Politics of Circumcision

Nadine’s Blog

Follow Peace X Peace on Twitter (@PeaceXPeace)

The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.

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4 Comments to “A Complicated Matter: The Role of Women, Patriarchy in Egypt”
  1. patricia smith says:

    Thank you, Nadine, for your clarity in explaining this complex (and distressing) social situation. You give courage to others, and information to all of us.

    • The social situation is often impossibly confusing to even those of us who live in it. Thank you, Patricia, for reading and showing your support. It is so important to understand the complexity of the environment––in any country––in order to dismiss the flouting theories that can rely on hate, bias, and misconceptions.

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