Feminist Housewives: Is There Such a Thing As An Egyptian Feminist Housewife?
This is an ironic photo of the writer.
Earlier this week, I sat down with my neighbors, three generations of women, to watch the popular Egyptian TV show, The Program. Bassem Youssef, Cairo’s Jon Stewart, was devoting an entire show to sexual harassment. In a floral-print living room, Youssef joked — in all seriousness — about Egypt’s abysmal reputation for its treatment of women. According to Youssef, Egypt rates second only to Afghanistan when it comes to sexual harassment and abuse. Youssef showed clips from various self-proclaimed religious experts and talking heads. They referred to women as “exposed meat” (men as hungry cats), and claimed that women going to protest were asking for rape. They weren't the kind of women that good people knew, anyways. Everyone in the audience laughed at the infamy of it all.
Then, a famous Lebanese actress known for her beauty, did a skit acting the part of a violent Xena warrior princess, where in a fantasy future all the men are castrated. The women in the floral living room loved this joke. It was crude, but we laughed uproariously. If you considered the background of these women — religious, wearing matching black abayas (full-length black dresses usually worn with black headscarves), only two had finished school — you would imagine that you were sitting in a conservative home, one where the ideas of feminism might be antithetical to their culture. Representations of Middle Eastern women in the West are influenced by many things: Orientalism, racist representations of religious and sexual identity, ignorance, cultural constructivism. Feminism is a topic that is not often fairly treated by international media, but that’s not to say that it doesn't exist.
These neighbors are always asking me if I’m married, they want to know the extent of my relationship with my boyfriend (“What do you do?” “Does he clean!??!”), and they don’t understand why I don’t live with my mother. But then again, two of them are divorced, or simply abandoned, they laugh about their sorrows, and they have been doing fine for many decades without the meddling of someone else telling them what to do. They have raised children without a husband, and they are certainly not searching for a man to support them, because they've supported themselves, thank you, for many years. They are a family — a strong one — but they’re not the kind of family envisioned by the Islamist parties of this country.
Last week, the UN issued a document called “End Violence Against Women,” which included a number of principles to be upheld around the world. Egypt participated through a delegation, but the ruling Brotherhood party later balked at many of the principles intended to end violence against women because they would endanger the kind of family that the party envisions. On the party website, the Brotherhood published an article saying that principles aimed at improving the lives of women would: “lead to complete disintegration of society,” “decadent modernization,” and “paths of subversive immorality.”
The party then outlined ten reasons why they should condemn the UN document, which they inexplicably say is "euphemistically entitled 'End Violence Against Women' [rejected as revealing] what decadence awaits our world." They are:
1. Granting women sexual freedom (including freedom to choose your gender and your partner’s), raising the age of marriage
2. Providing contraceptives and telling women how to use them, legalizing abortion
3. “Granting equal rights to adulterous wives and illegitimate sons
4. “Granting equal rights to homosexuals, and providing protection and respect for prostitutes”
5. “Giving wives full rights to file legal complaints against husbands accusing them of rape or sexual harassment”
6. Equal inheritance
7. “Replacing guardianship with partnership, and full sharing of roles within the family between men and women such as: spending, child care and home chores”
8. “Full equality in marriage legislation such as: allowing Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men, and abolition of polygamy, dowry, etc.”
9. “Removing the authority of divorce from husbands and placing it in the hands of judges, sharing all property in divorce”
10. “Canceling the need for a husband’s consent in matters like: travel, work, or use of contraception”
The irony in the rejection of these principles by leading Islamic parties isn't that the parties are backwards, or even wrong. It’s that they are ludicrously out of touch. In a country where women are the primary breadwinners in two thirds of all households, where their salaries are necessary contributions to the remainder, where female illiteracy rates are still twice as high as men in some areas and where many girls don’t finish school, it is important to recognize that the Islamic principles responsible for preserving the “dignity of the family” are not protecting half of the members of this family. And this isn't a big secret. It’s understood, acknowledged, and subversively fought.
The law needs to change, because women should not need to rely on men to take what is owed to them. Women should not expect their brothers and their husbands to support them, should not expect that they will receive a dowry when they marry and when they divorce. They should not hope that their husbands do not assault them, or wonder if they could be divorced or neglected for another wife. They should demand these things. And they do. And yet they can only demand these things if the law supports them. By rejecting the principles of equality in this UN document, the Brotherhood not only rejects the idea of equality, but fails to protect individuals who remain disenfranchised by the legal system’s conception of women, not as individuals with self-determination and agency, but as individuals with guardians.
Feminism in this part of the world is alive and well, in the same way that it is alive wherever women live, work, raise children and navigate the complexities of their lives. It is true that patriarchy exists, and that women do not receive the same rights as men under the law. It is true that women have been raped and assaulted during protests, and it is true that things like virginity tests and genital mutilation are things that happen right now, and not fifty years ago, or 100. But women are fighting these things too, for themselves and for their children. And in the past few years, women are organizing like never before to contest the limits on their safety and freedom.
Women were part of the 18-day uprising, and they’re in it for the long haul. Not only are they taking to the streets to protest their rights, they’re putting their own bodies in danger to fight for their own freedom and the freedom of other Egyptians. In fact, you could say that despite the official government, patriarchal-religious discourse that takes up so much airtime, feminist activism is blossoming here in Egypt, in spite of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Salafi parties that stand with it on such issues. Social change is just going to take a little time in this transitional period. But change is coming.
A friend was on the metro a while back. As usual, the women in the females-only car pestered her about her husband. “Where is he? Why don’t you have one? Where did he go?”
This friend knows the story. She’s lived here for years. She said, “And where are your husbands?” The women began to cackle. They were divorced, all of them, caring for themselves, supporting their children, paying for their marriages, going to Tahrir. These things never change.