What will Mohamed Morsi’s presidency mean for Egyptian women? That seems to be the question on the minds of many following the election this past week.
A Muslim Brotherhood president seems to be cause for overwhelming trepidation for feminists, specifically, Western feminists. So the announcement that Morsi will appoint two vice presidents – a Coptic Christian and a woman – is being met with cautious optimism. We think the Muslim Brotherhood is basically a bunch of misogynists, so there must be a catch, right?
Morsi’s wife, Naglaa Ali Mahmoud, has also been the focus of confused media scrutiny. Mahmoud, who dresses according to Islamic tradition and does not hold a college degree, is the exact opposite of how we, in the West, like to see the wives of foreign leaders. Without the designer glamour and advanced degree, she must be oppressed, right?
The liberation of women in Egypt will be a test for the Arab Spring, for Egypt, for democracy – this is what we are all convincing ourselves. But as the pundits and mega-news commentators sound off, the test really seems to be how we view women in Egypt.
Mahmoud, after all, seems quite liberated. She was a working woman, volunteered in her community, making her relatable to most of the women she will now represent. She still retains her maiden name, which is in conformance with Islamic tradition. Both she and Morsi have publicly spoken of their fondness for each other, with Morsi saying that marrying her was “the biggest personal achievement of my life,” and Mahmoud gushing, “I like everything about him.” She seems down to earth and even has a sense of humor about herself, telling a reporter who requested to take a photograph, “Only if your photos make me look younger and thinner.”
So why do we assume Mahmoud is backwards or that Morsi must have some pre-determined vendetta against women?
Part of the issue is that all most of us know of women in Egypt is the stories of the physical and sexual assaults in Tahrir Square, the incidents of government officials issuing virginity tests, the false reports of necrophilia laws, and so on. We hear or read of these stories daily. The follow-up reports, though, not so much. So the retaliatory protests by both men and women against the police who brutalized women in Tahrir Square, the judicial ruling that virginity tests were illegal and the corrections to the farce “corpse-sex” law are not discussed as much.
The most recent example of this can be seen with the reports of sexual assault in and around Tahrir. On June 13, 2012, the group Nazra for Feminist Studies released a report featuring three anonymous but highly emotional testimonies of sexual assault victims who were allegedly attacked on June 2. The report also states that in response to these examples and countless other unrecorded assaults, a protest was held on June 8, where the collective harassment was repeated.
The story that has received the most media attention, though, has been the British reporter, Natasha Smith, who alleges she, too, was assaulted in Tahrir. In her blog account of the incident she insinuates that her blonde hair and foreign appearance must have provoked her attackers, as women in “burkas” stood by and watched. She goes on to congratulate herself on her keen appreciation of Egypt and Islam while simultaneously expressing a not-so-subtle disdain for Egyptian culture.
In an interview, Smith points out that her story will receive attention because she is British and young, but that her experience is representative of what many Egyptian women have to go through. The problem with that is twofold – 1) with attention focused on Smith, her flawed analysis undermines her actual stated cause – Egyptian women’s rights and 2) the assumption is being made that Tahrir is a reflection of Egyptian patriarchal culture.
The fact is, indigenous appearing women with head covering have been assaulted in Tahrir, as demonstrated in the Nazra report. All the reports, including Smith’s, mention that with each attack they faced by one group of men, another group of men tried to protect them until it got out of control. Further, Tahrir, seems to be reflective of the predatory nature of massive crowds more than specific culture.
As David DiSalvo points out in Forbes Magazine, this outrageous and dangerous phenomenon is consistent with patterns of behaviors found in large crowds. From football games to concerts to rallies, large crowds tend to be breeding grounds for sexual assaults and violent behavior regardless of religious or cultural persuasion. The attacks start with small groups of men targeting specific women, usually trying to separate them from their group. As the women scream and try to fight the attackers, other men join in, either mimicking the initial attackers or attempting to fight them off. The women end up repeatedly assaulted.
This is not by any means to downplay the severity of the reported attacks on women in Tahrir or to dissuade women from participating. But reducing each occurrence of gender violence to barbaric culture leaves women vulnerable, unable to strategize practical solutions.
So what does the Morsi presidency mean for Egyptian women? It means going through the shared struggles of women across the world — establishing a true and gender equal democracy, fighting to end discriminatory and unjust laws and sometimes, fighting for their lives. The revolution’s success will be demonstrated only through the extent of the unification and harmony between Egyptian men and women.
Hopefully, it will be Morsi and Mahmoud’s strength as a couple and Morsi’s strategic partnership with women and minority groups that will begin to finally quell the mobs in Tahrir.