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We should not only be concerned about the position of women after the Arab revolutions, says writer Petra Stienen. A political revolution in the Arab world can only succeed if the relations between men and women change drastically as well. She gives her own personal reflections based on her recent encounters with men and women in Egypt.
By Petra Stienen
Zeinab is one of my closest friends in Cairo. We studied together at Cairo university in the late eighties. Zeinab is Muslim, in theory, in practice she is more secular than religious. Zeinab has been a single mother for a long time and wants a new relationship. But that is not easy, certainly not openly, because if the neighbours suspect she receives men overnight, they might complain to the vice squad. Zeinab is quite desperate about the chances that she will meet a man, as she is past forty and meets only married men who want her as a mistress. She would love to go to a Gulf state to make more money, but the father of her son Hamid does not allow her to take him with her. Yet Zeinab is still in a pretty good position compared to many other Egyptian women. She has her own income, and her apartment is small and scanty, but in a reasonable neighbourhood. According to statistics, about 12 percent of Egypt’s households are headed by a single mother. Zeinab is upset by the attitude of the Muslim Brothers and Salafists. ‘They keep complaining that women should be good mothers and stay at home, to prevent them from taking away the jobs of men. Have they ever looked around and seen how many women have no husband to take care of them?’
The revolution has not yet made a major impact in her daily life. ‘The changes at the top of the pyramid have contributed hardly anything to what should happen as well: a revolution in the minds of people, a total change in how we interact. There are still lots of small Mubaraks around, in the office, at home and on the street. Only if I can be free to do what I want as a single woman with child, the revolution is successful for me.’ Zeinab is concerned about her son’s future. ‘I’d like to give him more space because ultimately he will become the husband of a wife. I hope that he will be good to her, that he will be a loving partner. But don’t forget that our society pushes boys into a role pattern. He must take care of everything, the wedding, the dowry, the house. Because there are many women who still do not want to marry someone who does not. And so we stay trapped in the shackles of tradition, culture and religion.’
For a while Zeinab thought of wearing a hijab as protection from the increase of nasty comments in the streets of Cairo. As in many streets of the Arab world, it is difficult for a woman walk freely without being harassed in one way or another. In Egypt, for instance, sexualized violence and harassment against women on the streets had already reached epidemic proportions before the 2011 revolution. According to a 2008 study by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights, 98 percent of foreign women and 83 percent of Egyptian women encounter sexual violence. Interestingly, 62 percent of men admitted themselves guilty of such behaviour. The treatment of women has not improved after 2011 – the Supreme Military Council even condoned sexualized violence against women to prevent them from going back to demonstrate. Zeinab still hasn’t decided about the headscarf. ‘Somehow it upsets me that I am responsible for supressing somebody’s lust and desires in my choice of clothing, so for the time being I will stay as I am, a proud woman who can show her hair and still be respected’.
I think of Zeinab at the opening of the Regional Conference for Women, organized by El-Karama. This organisation has invited women and a few men from the whole Arab region to speak about the opportunities and threats for women after the revolution. Having learned from previous experiences in Algeria and Iraq, it is clear that a backlash on women’s rights after the Arab revolutions might happen here as well. Especially since the former first ladies of many countries, such as Suzanne Mubarak of Egypt and Asma al-Assad of Syria had appropriated the subject of women’s rights, thus changing the subject into something associated with the old regime.
During the conference, the agenda focuses on three issues: how to increase political participation of women, how to achieve better legal guarantees of women’s rights and the role of women in the media. Tahany Gebaly, the first female judge in the Constitutional Court, explains why she does not wish to run for president. ‘In my present position I have more power, because ultimately the new president has to adhere to the constitution.’ Bouthaina Kamel, a former tv presenter tells why she wants to run for office anyway. ‘Although I stand no chance in this male-dominated society, I just want young girls to get used to the idea that a woman can hold the highest office.’ An Iraqi activists has a passionate story of an Iraqi activist about the struggle for women’s rights in Iraq , from her own experience as a lawyer under Saddam Hussein and during the American occupation.
Later that day, I find out that sometimes theory and practice for feminist activists are two different things. It turns out to be even difficult for some female activists to keep an open mind when meeting women who have a different vision on the role of women in society. We are invited to a BBC Arabic debate on women’s rights after the revolution. The design of the program is a bit outdated: five men of different political trends, from liberal to strictly Islamic, will debate with our group and a group of female students of the religious Azhar University. The bus cannot get into the narrow streets of the populous and conservative Faisal area, so we have to walk ten minutes to reach the TV studio. The Muslim Brotherhood has a large constituency in this neighbourhood. Looking at my new friends I see them clinging to each other to avoid tripping on their heels. Despite all the good intentions of the conference, their lives are miles away from the women in these neighbourhoods, where poverty is rampant and violence can be found behind many doors, where women are hindered in obtaining a dignified life by illiteracy and Having too many children.
Upon arrival, a few women in our group are upset with the format of the show, even more so when confronted with a group of fully covered niqab wearing female students. Without much discussion, they turn around to leave us and go back to the bus. The young Lebanese BBC producer looks desperate, not knowing how to deal with this situation. Two women in niqab and black gloves approach us. ‘Are you afraid of us?’ To be honest, I find it difficult to communicate with someone when I only see their eyes and there’s no way to read their body language to check if we understand each other. But I suppress my own reluctance, and ask the girls what they think of us and the way we look. ‘You are like a rose,’ she replies with a glint in her eyes. It is almost as if she is flirting with me. ‘Therefore it is good that a woman is protected, so you will not fall prey to men who want to break your beauty. And it helps to cover yourself, so that men will not be tempted.’ I try a different approach:
‘You are studying medicine?’
‘So you want to be a doctor?’
‘Yes, very much.’
‘Do you like to get married? And have children?’
‘Absolutely, preferably immediately after my studies.’
‘So then you will be a doctor, wife and mother. And a friend, neighbour, daughter, sister and someone who loves to read?’
The eyes light up. ‘Yeah, sure’.
‘But habibti, my dearest,’ I speak to her sisterly, ‘then you are much more than only a body that needs to be protected …’
Suddenly I see something changing in her eyes, something of a new idea that there is another world out there, different from hers. Finally we stay with less than twenty women from the conference to continue the rather disorganised debate. We even manage to create a cordial atmosphere and a sense of sisterhood among the women themselves. And we team up against the five men in the panel telling us what the role of women in society should be.
The evening takes an unexpected joyful end, resembling the end of a school trip when we have to share the bus back home. A Dutch male journalist is having the time of his life, being surrounded by so many different women discussing marriage, sexuality and division of labour between men and women at home. The laughter and fun make me forget that I still can see only the eyes of my new friends. At night I realise that despite all the new insights, there are still many unanswered questions in this conference on how women raise their kids, especially their sons. In many families it is the mother that tells the girls to serve their brothers and father and put themselves in second place. Where are the stories of fathers encouraging their daughters to study and use their talents, if they want to? And when it comes to sexual harassment and violence in the streets, where are the voices of political leaders who say: ‘Our women can safely walk the streets and travel safely in buses and trains?’
During a visit to Egypt in the spring of 2012, the theme of sexualized violence against women comes up in every conversation. A conspicuous advertisement for viagra on the front page of Almasri Alyoum, a popular Egyptian newspaper, catches my attention. The price per pill has been reduced from 27LE to 10LE (from € 3,50 to € 1,30), a significant reduction, especially in a country where the average income is often no more than a hundred Euros per month. I ask an Egyptian businessman whether this development is a positive outcome of the Arab Spring. He responds seriously: ‘Do you realize that in this country, young men have huge sexual problems? Many women in Egypt, Muslims and Christians, have undergone genital mutilation, nobody has had decent sex education and fun in the bedroom is unknown to many. You bet they like to use those pills’. Other Egyptian friends are less outspoken about the ad. According to them, sexual pleasure is not really a priority in times of revolutions and economic malaise.
The Egyptian-American Mona Eltahawy thinks otherwise, according to her article ‘Why do they hate us’, published at the end of April 2012 in the American magazine Foreign Policy. She argues that the political revolution in the Arab world can only succeed if a social, cultural and sexual revolution takes place as well. According to her, the fear of female sexuality and the hatred of women halts the progress of the whole society. I think she is right that political freedoms will never take root without personal freedoms. Fundamental change requires an active strategy of politicians, media and educators to ensure that men and women can interact with each other as equal partners in every field of life. This will certainly take time, given the conservative nature of Arab societies.
Zeinab and many other Arab friends have told me that this is what they appreciate in the way relationships are formed in Europe: the equality between partners. As Samir, a Syrian friend, once said to me: ‘It is a dream to just fall in love with each other, to be able to walk in the park and build a future together. Without being controlled by our parents, the state or a religious figure.’
Petra Stienen is a writer and Arabist.
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