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Egyptian women fret as 'modesty' becomes election issue


lizzy

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http://www.jpost.com/MiddleEast/Article ... 45559&R=R1

CAIRO -- Marwa and Heba are polar opposites, at least outwardly. Both 23 years old, Marwa, a recent university graduate and unemployed, is veiled, while Heba displays her hair in a pony-tail uncovered. Both take drags from their shisha (water pipe) at a local café.

Yet, in spite of their appearance, both are frustrated at the campaign promises being touted by leading politicians over how women should dress and act. A lengthy elections season has begun in Egypt, with legislative polling starting November 28 and continuing in stages until March, followed by a presidential vote in 2013. And, freed from the strictures of the Mubarak era, politicians are pushing forward on an Islamic agenda.

“It’s so frustrating,” says Marwa, who told The Media Line that she wears the veil in part because her mother wants it and partly out of the conviction that “it was the right thing to do.” But at the same time she is critical of politicians “who would dare tell a woman what is appropriate. That is un-Islamic.”

The two are typical young Egyptian women, who participated in the January and February uprising that forced out president Hosni Mubarak and put the country on the path toward democracy. But with elections just two weeks away, they are lamenting how women are being left out of the dialogue and discussion of the future of the country.

“We were at the front of the protests, getting beaten and supporting the future of Egypt,” recalls Heba. But now, she says, “Women are not being heard from and this is causing a lot of frustration among myself and my friends who want the ability to choose our lives and what we do.”

The role of women in Egypt's transitional government has been very limited, and no women were included on the committee that drafted Egypt's transitional constitutional declaration. The new elections law does away with the Mubarak-era quota, which allocated 64 seats in parliament for women. The new law requires that at least some candidates be women, but some have complained that their parties are assigning them spots on election lists that will make it hard for them to win a seat in parliament.

The controversy over the status of women in post-Mubarak Egypt came to a head at the start of November after Hazem Saleh Abu Ismail, a leading presidential candidate and Muslim cleric, gave two television interviews in which he outlined an Islamic future for the country that would impose Saudi Arabian-style dress and behavior on the public.

In an interview on the 90 Minutes television program, Abu Ismail said he supported what he called “Islamic dress” for women, meaning the hijab, or veil. Asked about what would happen to a woman wearing a bikini on the beach, he responded, “she would be arrested.”

Days later, he went on the Biladna Bil Masr program and lashed out at the show’s popular TV host, Reem Maged, and all other unveiled women in the country. He declared al-tabarouj (the failure to cover one’s hair and of wearing makeup) a “mortal sin” and said he would make such actions “criminal,” citing his interpretation of Islamic law.

He told Maged he wouldn’t have agreed to the interview at all because of her dress but said that in politics “things are different” and he has to meet with people from all walks of life.

To underscore his point, a Facebook-based Salafist news outlet re-aired the interview with Maged’s head and face covered by a dark filter to “veil” her.

“I desire for you what I desire for my sister, and I admire your courage during the January revolution and I wish the next time we meet, things will be different,” Abu Ismail told his host inviting her to cover her hair.

Around 12% of Egypt’s population are Coptic Christians and do not veil. Nor do a small percentage of Muslim women in the country. But even among those who are veiled, Abu Ismail’s comments have left many worried about the rising power of the Islamists in the country.

Heba laughs at Abu Ismail’s declarations, but her worries come through when she begins discussing the widespread support Abu Ismail and other conservative Islamic leaders enjoy.

“We have to take these people seriously, especially people like Ismail who are extremely popular among the rural population,” she says. “I fear that women in this country are being brainwashed because we don’t have proper education and critical thinking,” she says, pointing to the growing number of Facebook groups that are calling on women to veil and wear more modest clothes.

In nearby Tunisia, which like Egypt has a largely secular elite, the moderately Islamist Ennahda Party won more than 40% of the vote for a constituent assembly last month, making it the dominant power in the country’s emerging democracy. In Egypt, 67% of those polled by the Pew Global Attitudes Project last April said the country’s laws should strictly follow the Quran's teachings. Another 27% said that they should follow the values and principles of Islam.

Marwa is quick to criticize what she calls the “error of this thinking.” She points to her friend’s clothes -- jeans, a long-sleeve shirt and a scarf. “Isn’t that modest enough? What do they want? I think these people, because they are predominantly male, want to take over a woman’s right to do anything because all they think about is sex and this is what women are to them, objects.”

That’s part of the problem, says Nawal Al-Saadawi, one of the Arab world’s best-known feminists and Egyptian. “Women in any society are the key to the future, so when they are seen as objects the whole society loses. This isn’t the Egyptian way,” she told The Media Line from her middle class neighborhood of Shobra recently. “The success of women can be seen in any revolution. You can’t have a revolution without women.”

If elected, Abu Ismail has promised to apply Islamic law to other realms of Egyptians life, which would mean closing down casinos, outlawing the drinking alcohol in public, forcing Copts to pay a special tax for not converting, and punishing women who would wear “immodest” clothes.

For now, it is an uphill battle against the conservatism that has risen in Egypt since July, when the Salafists – those who adhere to what they call a literal interpretation of the Qur’an – converged on Cairo’s Tahrir Square in the hundreds of thousands, demanding an Islamic state for Egypt. Women saw this as the beginning of the struggle for their rights.

For Marwa, Heba and other women in the country, it is a fight for women’s rights. “We must stand against this sort of thing, whether we are veiled or not,” says Heba, “because freedom of choice is important for Egypt’s future.”

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This scares me. Look at some pictures from Iran in the 70's. Women look like any other women from a western country. I really hope Egypt doesn't go down the same path.

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I live in a part of Detroit with a lot of muslims. Some wear skin tight jeans and crop tops...and veils. I guess I don't understand the whole veil for modesty thing if you can wear skimpy shirts and jeans with it. But, to each her own and if they're happy wearing it, then I don't see the problem. But, forcing everyone else to wear them? Not cool.

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I would be planning my exit. Nothing good for women is going to happen there.

Ditto. Although, having been there last year, I already had the feeling that women were completely objectified. Despite being modestly dressed (long skirt, long shirt, no makeup), I was harrassed continuously. It was virtually impossible to walk anywhere outside my hotel, without being pawed at (literally). I was so happy to get to Israel where I felt like I could blend in & just enjoy the holiday.

I don't see any of the Arab uprisings being beneficial to women. The governments will all likely be replaced with more conservative regimes.

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Ditto. Although, having been there last year, I already had the feeling that women were completely objectified. Despite being modestly dressed (long skirt, long shirt, no makeup), I was harrassed continuously. It was virtually impossible to walk anywhere outside my hotel, without being pawed at (literally). I was so happy to get to Israel where I felt like I could blend in & just enjoy the holiday.

I don't see any of the Arab uprisings being beneficial to women. The governments will all likely be replaced with more conservative regimes.

I agree. I was there this spring for a few weeks and traveled alone half of the time through the country, from Cairo to Aswan and Luxor to Alexandria to Saint Katherine's. A few things: 1) I always wore full jelbaab or abeya with hijab at all times, particularly when traveling alone. I faced little harassment, whereas my friend faced significant harassment as she was dressed in modest (covered neck to wrist to ankle) clothing that was Western. There were a few times - only in Luxor, though, that I faced harassment/advances. I would not have felt comfortable travelling alone (in the types of places I did) without jelbaab/hijab.

2. It's a little bit different for the tourists that visit Egypt and stay in the very Western places and stick with their large tour groups. Women in those groups (American and French women, I'm looking at you!) tend to dress very immodestly and this gives *all* western women a bad name. (I have very specific stories about this, but won't give all the details.) The one thing that irked me the most was a woman in a spaghetti-tank top, short crop shorts....and a cross necklace. Because the Copts in Egypt don't have enough problems without help from American "Christians."

3. Egypt - and most of the ME - has become significantly more conservative in women's dress over the last 30 years. As was mentioned above, if you look at pictures of the college campuses there from the 1970s, a majority (I'd say 60-70% or more) of the women were unveiled. Now, it's completely the opposite. Some people would say it's the women who are choosing to identify more with their traditional religious clothing in a stand against decadent Western society; some say it's more due to political pressures. Most of the women in my age to whom I talked about it, however, had two main reasons for wearing hijab: their parents required it or they wanted Allah to love them more. (Verbatim....and, yes, this is anecdotal and not scientifically collected at all. N = 15.) Sad.

4. I agree that it doesn't seem that the Arab spring will turn out to be beneficial to women, for several reasons. One, much of the impetus for the uprisings were economic reasons - and it is the burgeoning class of young men who have been raised with the pressures of getting a job to support their families before they get married; not as many women in as many classes are raised with that expectation and requirement that they must provide for themselves before getting married. (And there is *supposedly* no sex outside marriage for those young men, but with no jobs, then no marriage, and....). Two, there is also an Islamic undercurrent to the revolutions, particularly in Egypt. This comes from several factors, not a small part is the hatred of Israel and the rejection of American interference; this leads to a rejection of Western/Christian influence which can tend to make the secularization of the country more difficult. You also must recall that Al-Misr is an Islamic nation by order of its Constitution and it is just reasonable to assume that that part of the Constitution would be overturned. Three, although women did participate in the Jan 25th movement in Egypt (and the other Arab Spring protests) they did not form a majority...and when you are looking at raw democracy (or a military dictatorship) those in power make the rules. Fourth, women do not represent a significant economic power currently in Egypt (or at least, not as significant as the men). It is very much a man's world; even in the traditional family, men tend to have even more of the final say of where the money goes than in a similarly conservative traditional Western family. (This is, of course, a very broad generalization and is not true of all families in all classes and all places in Egypt.)

5. Tl;dr? I will just close with: أحب مصر وشعبها. أدعو لهم كل يوم.

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I hope that Egyptian women become more free. There are women who were part of the protest (ex. Gigi Ibrahim) and they deserve to be recognized and given their rights. I don't like when government and religion mix because there are some people who would make religion political (if you get what I mean) and everyone loses then.

That being said, I wish that Egypt will become democratic (it will be a long process, I think). I have many relatives in Syria (my family is from there) and the situation there is really frightening..last time when I talked to my uncle, he had barely escaped the gunshots & many children have been taken. You know what the Syrian police force said to the men whose children were taken by them? "Sleep with your wives and have more. If you are infertile, bring your wives here and we'll sleep with them". Assholes. This was on the news last night. I'm patiently waiting for the day that Syria is free because not a day goes by without there being people killed (double digit numbers).

Sorry for ranting about the situation in Syria, I'm just so worried about my cousins,uncles and aunts there. So forgive me.

To the article, I say it's a legitimate worry that the women have and I hope that Egypt becomes democratic, real democracy. I think it will because many people don't want extreme Muslims in power in Egypt. (I also agree with what you said , QuoVadis )

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I went backpacking in egypt with a friend 3 years ago. One redhead and one blonde girl, oh well... let's just say we got a lot of attention. It's seriously annoying over time, and we DID dress modestly, with long skirts and no bare shoulders (minus in Hurghada).

One time, a guy jumped into a taxi and followed us. He went from friendly to scary in seconds.

Egypt is a fascinating place historically, and I really liked it, but the men need to understand what century we live in. I don't see any justification for that kind of culture.

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Ditto. Although, having been there last year, I already had the feeling that women were completely objectified. Despite being modestly dressed (long skirt, long shirt, no makeup), I was harrassed continuously. It was virtually impossible to walk anywhere outside my hotel, without being pawed at (literally). I was so happy to get to Israel where I felt like I could blend in & just enjoy the holiday.

I don't see any of the Arab uprisings being beneficial to women. The governments will all likely be replaced with more conservative regimes.

I had a totally different experience.

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2. It's a little bit different for the tourists that visit Egypt and stay in the very Western places and stick with their large tour groups. Women in those groups (American and French women, I'm looking at you!) tend to dress very immodestly and this gives *all* western women a bad name. (I have very specific stories about this, but won't give all the details.) The one thing that irked me the most was a woman in a spaghetti-tank top, short crop shorts....and a cross necklace. Because the Copts in Egypt don't have enough problems without help from American "Christians."

I don't think how a "western" woman dresses gives anyone a bad name. People are individuals. And I don't think a woman should have to dress a certain way just to appease an oppressive, patriarchal system. Saying that women should dress modestly there is no different than what American fundies say. I can see if it's a safety issue, but if that's the case they shouldn't be visiting such a violent part of the world anyway.

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I had a totally different experience.

Who were you travelling with? I was travelling with another female. I've heard that if you travel with a male you're less likely to be harrassed.

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Women in those groups (American and French women, I'm looking at you!) tend to dress very immodestly and this gives *all* western women a bad name. (I have very specific stories about this, but won't give all the details.) The one thing that irked me the most was a woman in a spaghetti-tank top, short crop shorts....and a cross necklace. Because the Copts in Egypt don't have enough problems without help from American "Christians."

I take exception to this. You're just blaming the women again. We can't fucking win.

ETA: Deelaem posted while I was writing this. I was considering paging her. :mrgreen:

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I went backpacking in egypt with a friend 3 years ago. One redhead and one blonde girl, oh well... let's just say we got a lot of attention. It's seriously annoying over time, and we DID dress modestly, with long skirts and no bare shoulders (minus in Hurghada).

One time, a guy jumped into a taxi and followed us. He went from friendly to scary in seconds.

Egypt is a fascinating place historically, and I really liked it, but the men need to understand what century we live in. I don't see any justification for that kind of culture.

Again, A red head here didn't have these issues. I did have these issues in Morocco though in areas that are less seen by tourists. But in Cairo and the other places I was good.

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The governments will all likely be replaced with more conservative regimes.

I disagree. Maybe in some places it will but there is talk going on there that the conservative regimes are what lead to all the economic and societal problems. There have been some protests in Saudi Arabia but I don't know why they never show videos of it. My hope is that the whole region becomes more democratic. Till now, I think maybe Lebanon is the most democratic (it's also called the Hollywood of the Middle East, all Arab singers live there even if they're not from there)

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I take exception to this. You're just blaming the women again. We can't fucking win.

ETA: Deelaem posted while I was writing this. I was considering paging her. :mrgreen:

Ah.

See... I'm with QuoVadis.

It * shouldn't* matter. But it does, oh Lord it Does. Imagine living in Iran, where as a man in your early-mid twenties you have very little socially to so with women and society is generally segregated. Turn on your illegal cable and watch MTV - it can be like watching soft core porn. Where does it come from? The West.

You know how every culture as perceived "traits" about their women - you know most of them: Middle Eastern women are oppressed; East Asian women are submissive etc... Well, the grand narrative about western women is that we are easy; that we'll put out; that we're sluts.

Every tourist who walks into a conservative culture in a tank top reinforces this narrative. Every woman who has a fling with an random man while backpacking in Jordan/India/Egypt.. gives fuel to the myth and inspires another 100 men to try their luck - just in case.

It's not the fault of the individual women; of course - no one should be judged on the basis of their clothing, ever.

But it matters. It really, really, really does.

And every scantily dressed tourist makes it SO MUCH HARDER for local women to dress less modestly, or get an education their family doesn't want them to have etc (see, you're becoming like those depraved sluts) and for those western women who are resident in said countries (hey - you're just like those depraved sluts!).

There isn't a moral judgement in this, but having spent lots of time in conservative countries - it would have been so much easier to be taken seriously/treated respectfully if we could have sent those people who wanted to flaunt local custom. you're not being edgy or making a stand for women's rights. You're just making it worse for everyone else, especially for local women of your faith background, or those who are "pushing the envelope" for women within their country.

It's worth noting to that our perception of the individual as not necessarily representing a whole is very much the product of our incredibly individually centric cultural worldview. More communally oriented cultures see individuals in the context of their group membership. One women dressing a certain way is a statement about the whole. The judgement isn't right or wrong; it's just how things are.

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I'm not saying it doesn't matter. I'm saying people are still blaming the women.

but of course.

they do.

all the time.

always.

here.

there.

constantly.

there is no way round it.

how does the hippocratic oath go? if you can do no good, at least do no harm? that should be our motto whenever we interact across culture. tourists, if they work really hard at it, might manage "do no harm". given the world is imperfect, shorts and a tank in egypt =/= do no harm.

Edited to translate:

Of course they blame the women. Every culture blames the women.

Even so, women and men wearing clothing that is culturally inappropriate are not blameless - they're shitting on the efforts of local minority groups and reformers, and on the culture that they are visiting (wether or not the cultural norm is question is "good" or "bad").

They are not "doing no harm" and it's not simple blame for pointing that out. It would be great if we could wear whatever we want without consequences, but as tourists, that consequence often falls on people other than ourselves. It's important to be cognisant of than when you're in conservative (indeed, even in simply different) cultures.

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