In his new book, “On the State of Egypt” (Vintage; paperback, $15), popular Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany doesn’t mince words when going after Islamic extremists for their treatment of women. In an essay titled, “Why Are Religious Fanatics Obsessed with Women’s Bodies?” Aswany decries an incident in Somalia in which extremists arrested a woman and whipped her in public for wearing a bra. To the fanatics, wearing a bra is un-Islamic and a form of fraud and deception. Why? Because wearing a bra presents a false image of a woman’s breasts.
An apt comparison, Aswany says, is an accusation of fraud against a merchant for concealing defects in his goods or for making false claims about their quality in order to make a sale.
“The idea here,” Aswany writes, “is that a woman who accentuates her breasts by using a bra gives a false impression of the goods (her body), which is seen as fraud and deception by the buyer (the man) who might buy (marry) her for her ample breasts and later discover that they were ample because of the bra and not by nature.” Not the least of the disconcerting aspects of this case, Aswany says, is how the extremists found the grounds to arrest the woman when she was fully covered.
Although Aswany is little known in the United States, he is a best selling writer in Egypt. His 2002 novel “The Yacoubian Building” depicting life in an apartment complex in Cairo was a hot seller for five years. It was adapted into a film and television series, and was followed by another best seller called “Chicago,” the city where Aswany studied dentistry. He is both a dentist and a novelist, and his books have been translated into 25 languages.
Aswany also is longtime proponent of democracy and was a critic of the authoritarian regime of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. His latest book, a compilation of previously published essays, is full of his thoughts on the Egyptian presidency and its succession, social justice, free speech, state repression and women’s rights. The titles of the pieces suggest the author’s uncompromising stance: “Who Is Killing the Poor in Egypt?” “Piety in Front of the Camera,” “Does Rigging Elections Count as a Major Sin?”
In the essay on fanatics’ obsession with women’s bodies, Aswany asserts that Egypt is not immune, pointing out that extremists require women to wear not only the niqab but also gloves to ensure no passions are aroused if a man and woman happen to shake hands.
Aswany outlines four reasons for the extremists’ obsession. First, among Islamic fanatics, women exist only as bodies and instruments, that is, for men’s pleasure or temptation and for producing children. In fairness, he notes that the commodification of women’s bodies also occurs in the West in porn and prostitution markets.
Second, in the extremist view, women are “the source of temptation and the prime cause of sin,” Aswany writes. Though men and women commit sin together, it is the woman who is held primarily responsible.
Third, religious fanatics insist on strictly requiring women to cover their bodies which, Aswany contends, allows them to focus their attention on women and their bodies rather than on the facts of despotism, corruption and religious hypocrisy.
Fourth, Aswany condemns fanatical religious ideology that, he says, assumes “humans are a group of wild beasts completely incapable of controlling their instincts.” A little will-power and ethics will go a long way, he points out.
Finally, Aswany is saddened by the way extremists tarnish the reputation of Islam on matters relating to women. “Anyone who reads the history of Islam fairly,” he writes, “has to be impressed by the high status it accords to women, because from the time of the Prophet Muhammad until the fall of Andalusia, Muslim women mixed with men, were educated, worked and traded, fought, and had financial responsibilities separate from their fathers or husbands. They had the right to choose the husband they loved and the right to divorce if they wanted. Western civilization gave women these rights many centuries after Islam.” In other words, fanatics have perverted the original teachings of Islam.