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Women in Egypt Heed Warning From Iranian Women PDF Print E-mail


Last week, tens of thousands of Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square in Cairo on the one-year anniversary of the 2011 revolt. With Islamists winning nearly half of the seats in Parliament recently, some Iranian women caution their Egyptian counterparts to learn from their revolution, after which they say they lost rights with the formation of an extreme Islamic state.

by Dina Sadek Reporter, Thursday - January 26, 2012

CAIRO, EGYPT – Sanaa Roshdy, 54, a housewife in Cairo, Egypt’s capital, was one of many Egyptians who watched a premonitory YouTube video that began to circulate last year named “Message From Iranian Women to Tunisian and Egyptian Women.”


The video features pictures of the life of Iranian women before and after the Islamic revolution there in 1979. Depicting a reversal of women’s rights with the implementation of Islamic rule after the revolution, the video warns women in Egypt and Tunisia to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to them after revolutions in both countries a year ago and Islamic groups looking to assume leadership.


“I’ve heard people talking about the resemblance between the Egyptian revolution and the Islamic revolution many times,” Roshdy says. “It never made sense to me until I saw this video.”


The video shows women’s participation just as well as men’s in the overthrow of pro-Western Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Iran. But according to the video, the women were the first to be oppressed afterward in a variety of ways, including strict standards of dress.


During the time of the shah, there had been no dress code for women in Iran, as photos in the video portray. But soon after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had been a prominent political leader during the revolution, took over, he made mandatory the hijab, the headscarf worn by Muslim women


Roshdy says that, like in Iran, women in Egypt were also freer to dress in the past.


“As a woman in my 50s, in my youth things were different,” Roshdy says. “We were all about fashion. How we dress was never about having to cover every piece of our bodies.”


But she says dress has already become more conservative in Egypt throughout the years. Validating the video’s message, she says that this will become more extreme if radical Islamists gain control of Egypt.


“Nowadays, you have to be fairly covered to walk around the streets of Egypt, and that is just because of the social standards, let alone if the country is ruled by radical Islamists,” she says. “Not that we wear scandalous clothes anyway, but it has to be a choice, not a law.”


When the Arab Spring sparked in the beginning of 2011, women’s rights and dress were never the focus. In Egypt, the focus was on what people really wanted and demanded in their protests: “bread, freedom and social justice.”


Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the Egyptian uprising. Islamists celebrated what they deemed was a successful revolution and success in recent Parliament elections. But thousands of protesters voiced disagreement, chanting instead that the revolution isn’t finished yet and demanding the removal of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the body of military officials that has been governing Egypt since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

Iranian women warn Egyptian women to learn from what happened after the revolution in their country in order to avoid losing rights, such as freedom of dress, with the growing power of Islamists. The debate over the implementation of Shariah, Islamic law, in the next constitution has already been causing controversy in Egypt. Women worry how this will affect their rights, which they say have declined during the past generation. Still, there are some positive signs of women taking active steps to secure equality as the country’s future takes shape.


The Arab Spring revolution began a year ago in Tunisia, followed by Egypt. In the same order, the Islamists have since won majority in the parliaments of both countries.


The Freedom and Justice Party, Egypt’s leading moderate Islamic political party that was founded by the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s most influential Islamic group, won more than 45 percent of Parliament’s seats in recent elections. In second place was the even more conservative Islamic Salafi party, the Al-Nour Party. The liberal Al-Wafd Party came in third place.


Military leaders plan to step down after presidential elections by late June, but protesters are pushing for earlier elections to bring in civilian rule sooner.


With the unprecedented winning of the Islamists in Egypt, some have been using the Iranian revolution as an example for the impact this could have on women’s rights.


Dr. Susan Rakhsh, an Iranian feminist and anthropologist from the University of Oslo, talked at a lecture last month in Cairo about her experience participating in the downfall of the shah in Iran’s revolution. Rakhsh, who was an anti-shah activist, escaped Iran shortly after his removal.


Rakhsh is currently writing a book about the impact of the political changes on women’s movements in Egypt and Iran. She describes the similarities between both revolutions as “uncanny.”


“During the time of the shah, women’s independent movements were banned,” she says. “Then came Ayatollah Khomeini. He was very active and very modernized. People left and right supported him. Then the shah fell, and Khomeini came back with a hijab compulsory order.”


Iranian women fought against the mandatory veil, as 15,000 women protested in Tehran, Iran’s capital.


“We weren’t a part of a revolution that will take us back 200 years back, but people started calling us whores in the streets,” Rakhsh says. “Women’s rights weren’t important at this stage. People from left and right didn’t support us.”


She says that Khomeini’s response to the protests was that Iran was an Islamic country, so women should cover themselves. The fight lasted for a year until it became a law.


In Egypt, Sobhi Saleh, a leading figure of the Freedom and Justice Party, announced in a rally last month that the party would implement Shariah law. This Islamic legal system demands modest dress and prohibits alcohol. Once a girl reaches puberty, she must cover her entire body with the exception of her face and hands.

Mohamed Roshdy, who is not related to Sanaa Roshdy, says this won’t help the country politically. A waiter in a five-star hotel, he also says it would hurt tourism, which is Egypt’s main source of income and has been down since the outbreak of the revolution.


“Yes, banning alcohol and asking tourists to cover up will really help our politics,” he says sarcastically. “If any of Egypt’s political problem was by any chance related to banning alcohol, I’d be the first one to ask for it. But it is not. In fact, it is a source of income to many people in the industry.”


Saleh says that tourism can thrive under Shariah. “Tourism doesn’t mean nudity and drunkenness,” Saleh says.


The implementation of Shariah has been the most controversial issue between political parties for the past year. Shariah is a part of the current Egyptian constitution, but not all of its clauses are enforced. Islamic fundamentalists want to keep Shariah when a new constitution is written this year to preserve the Islamic frame of the country. But some Liberals are fighting to remove it in order to ensure rights to minorities such as Coptic Christians and women.


Some aren’t waiting for a new president or constitution. A group called the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice emerged last month, modeled after the Saudi Arabian religious morality police, to enforce Shariah. The group was first linked to Al-Nour, but the Salafi party denied any connection to it.


The self-appointed commission announced on its Facebook page the need for male volunteers, preferably strong, bearded ones. According to some reports by Egyptian media, the group has raided shops for selling indecent clothing in its quest to enforce “God’s law” on Earth, a statement that has drawn criticism. 


“It is a middle-aged Muslim men society,” says Magy Mahrous, who lost in the recent elections for Parliament. “Most of the politicians who won in this elections are middle-aged Muslim men.”


Mahrous says women have lost their rights throughout the years because the generation of currently middle-aged adults prioritized stability.


“They just didn’t care enough,” she says. “Everyone lived in their own bubble. Every day, something was taken from us until one day we woke up to find that we don’t have anything – no freedom, no dignity, no voice, nothing.”


She says this differs from the older and younger generation who made and are making women’s rights a priority. Mahrous says that women are fed up with everyone telling them how to be religious. She criticized Arab culture, referencing examples such as TV advertisements for Thursdays as “Ladies’ Movie Night” on MBC4 channel.


“I always wondered, Ladies’ Night as opposed to the boys doing what?” she asks. “Girls sitting at home watching a romantic comedy, meanwhile the boys are doing whatever they want in the streets.”

She says that affirmative actions must be taken now by creating new and activating current laws that support women.


“We need a state that guarantees equal human rights, doesn’t matter the differences,” Mahrous  says.


There have been some positive signs of women asserting their rights.


Calling for equality between men and women in the society, Nawal Al-Saadawi, a prominent Egyptian feminist established the Egyptian Women’s Union last year. She says that the union’s  goals are to unite women and men from all sectors of the society, to establish a secular constitution and to raise awareness on how Egypt can be truly liberated and form a democracy.


“The union wouldn’t get any rights until we are unified,” she says. “Half of the people in the union are men.” 


Samira Ibrahim, 25, sued the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces last year for conducting a virginity test on her after arresting her and others for participating in a protest. The military council said the tests were necessary so the women couldn’t accuse officials of raping them in detention. Thanks to Ibrahim, an Egyptian court banned virginity tests on female detainees last month. 


She says women are also prepared to fight for their equality on other fronts as well, such as laws on dress.


“Don’t underestimate Egyptian women in the rural areas,” says Ibrahim, who is from one such area. “They would beat up those who asks them how to be religious.”


She says she will defy any future laws that make the hijab mandatory like in Iran post-revolution.


“If the Islamists ever reach power, I will take off my veil,” Ibrahim says. “If it is mandatory, then it will be a case of stubbornness for me.”

Global Press Institute
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