Part I : Secular Feminist Voices in Iran and Egypt
Images of Tahrir square this year brought déjà vu to the minds of Iranian women. After the Iranian revolution in 1979 and protests in 2009, Iranian women saw an absolute reversal of women’s rights under Islamic real and the Ahmadinejad regime. When Iranian women look at the revolutions in Lybia, Tunisian and especially Egypt, they see references to their own pasts; and all they can do is send a message to revolutionary women of the Arab Spring: Don’t let history repeat itself.
This message was widely circulated last year in the YouTube video entitled: "Message from Iranian Women to Tunisian and Egyptian Women." There were and still are undeniable links between the oppression that ensued after the Iranian revolution and what is happening in Egypt today. Upon seeing this video, Egyptian women fretted over history – the woman’s experience in the Iranian and Egyptian revolutionary moment are unquestionably similar.
In the Iranian revolution, women participated alongside men, viewing an opportunity to gain more rights under a democratic rule. But, in the post- revolutionary moment, women were the first to be oppressed. Dress codes changed, Sharia law took hold and polygamy surged.
Like in Iran, before the revolution Egyptian women felt free to dress how they liked. However, an Egyptian woman commented on what she is seeing today: "As a woman in my 50s, in my youth things were different," Roshdy says. "We were all about fashion. How we dress was never about having to cover every piece of our bodies." According to her, Egyptian dress has gradually become more conservative and she warns it will become even stricter as radical Islamist groups gain control of Egypt’s decision-making bodies.
Just last month, the face of the Freedom and Justice Party, Sobhi Saleh, announced that his part of implement and enforce the Islamic legal system of Sharia law. This includes strict dress codes, prohibition of alcohol and family law. Sharia has always been a part of the Egyptian constitution but has been weakly enforced. Radical Islamic parties, seeing an opening for their parties, want to maintain and reinforce Sharia law in the new constitution.
Secular Feminists Fight Back
In 2009, wife of Iranian reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, Zahra Rahnavard was hailed by Western Feminists by her outspokenness
concerning the status of Iranian women. From the end of the revolution to the elections in 2009, women’s rights had been chiseled at until they were almost nonexistent. The election in 2009 was largely viewed as a turning point for women; or rather, according to Sanam Anderlini, a Washington-based consultant on
international women’s issues, “women were the turning point for the election.”
Female leaders like Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi reinforced their commitment to reversing the destruction to women’s rights that had happened
under the Ahmadinejad male-centric agenda. Women protested in the streets of Tehran, clashing with police and even some were killed. In 2006, police clashed with a women’s rights demonstration, violently attacking some female demonstrators. This only ignited the fervor of the Iranian women’s movement, leading to the One Million Signatures Campaign to grant women equality under Iranian law.
Feminist politics are hardly new to Egypt have a long, arduous history too.
Women have fought for independence (twice) alongside men in the hopes of gaining rights under Egyptian democracies. The early colonial Egyptian women’s movement was rooted in the nationalist, independence movement, so the first priority of the women’s movement and the nationalist movement was independence. While women were calling for an end to colonialism alongside their male counterparts, colonialism also represented a patriarchal state dominated by colonial masculine discourse. However, men did not see women’s involvement in the independence movement as a fight against the patriarchy but rather as integral to the ‘protection of the Egyptian Home’ from foreign rule.
Yet, after gaining independence from Britain it became clear that men who were previously proponents of women’s liberation turned their attention to their own
political careers and no longer saw it necessary to integrate women into public life. Despite the crucial role in independence, which men encouraged and welcomed the male liberation rhetoric for women’s equality was forgotten and women were expected to return to the home.
The early twentieth century saw the birth of the Egyptian secular women’s movement, which saw a fluctuation of women’s rights with each new regime.
Secular Feminism in Egypt today
In the wake of the Egyptian revolution of 2011, women who demonstrated in Tahrir Square alongside men have channelled their women nationalist’s
ancestors; and likewise have the same fear that this revolution will be another false alarm – where they demand their equal rights but nothing materializes.
“Muslim societies are trapped in a battle between two visions of Islam: one legalistic and absolutist that emphasizes the past; the other pluralistic and more inclined toward democracy.” These conflicting worldviews characterizes the women’s movement in Egypt today.
Nawal Al-Saadawi, a prominent Egyptian secular feminist founded the Egyptian Women’s Union this year in an effort to unite women and men to draft a secular
constitution that is promotes gender equity and equality. A truly liberated Egypt means both women and men get to share equally the benefits of a democratic
Young women are fighting back against a conservative transitional regime. Samira Ibrahim, who was arrested last year for participating in a protest, is suing the
Supreme Council of the Armed Forces for forcing a virginity test to allegedly prevent her from accusing detention officials of rape. This is a very strong and
courageous step to take on the part of Samira Ibrahim and represents the strong determination of Egyptian women today to prevent a reversal of women’s rights in post-revolutionary Egypt.
A defiant Ibrahim stands by her rights as a citizen of the new democratic Egypt and promises to not let Egypt follow the path of Iran: "Don't underestimate Egyptian women in the rural areas…They would beat up those who asks them how to be religious….If Islamists ever reach power, I will take off my veil.”
By Amy Bisno
Amy is a volunteer at Make Every Woman Count, she holds an MSc in Violence, Conflict and Development from the School of Oriental and African Studies, specializing in women, peace and security. She holds a BA in political science from Wellesley College where she became an active advocate for women's rights and issues facing women and young girls worldwide
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