This piece was initially published in The Globe And Mail
On Saturday in Cairo, a young Egyptian female activist, Mervat Moussa, was slapped to the ground by a member of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood. Her only crime was demonstrating in front of the Brotherhood’s main headquarters. Rather than apologizing for the appalling behavior of one of its members, some officials from the Brotherhood went on the offensive, claiming that their headquarters was attacked by “a number of demonstrators who devoted their efforts to insulting and cursing the Muslim Brotherhood and its leadership using the dirtiest swear-words, provoking our young people in front of their headquarters.”
The incident occurred only a few days after the Brotherhood released a strong statementcondemning a draft United Nations declaration calling for an end to all forms of violence against women, claiming that it would lead to “complete disintegration of society.”
The two episodes are closely interlinked. The Brotherhood apparently thinks it is okay for a husband to rape his wife and asserts the need for his consent before she can travel or even use any form of contraception. It also seems to view Egyptian girls and women who protest their rule as bad Muslims – that is, Muslims who dare to challenge the social code of conduct that the Brotherhood wants to impose on society.
Despite their facade of modernity and their self-described “renaissance project,” the Brotherhood has always held very regressive, even misogynistic views on social and women’s issues. Apart from offering loud rhetoric of equality and freedom, the Brotherhood has never put serious effort into tackling violence or discrimination against women, and has viewed with suspicion any perceived efforts to address women’s problems – such as deriding the UN Declaration’s proposals to protect women as “misleading calls to decadent modernization and paths of subversive immorality.”
Rather than embarking on a serious mission to reconcile Islamic values with the contemporary challenges that Muslim women face, the Brotherhood opted for an easier path of using its female members on two convenient fronts: Locally to garner support among female voters; and abroad as part of its media offensive to improve its image in Western countries and paint an illusion of moderation, even liberalism.
The appalling assault on Ms. Moussa, a conservative Muslim who wears the Islamic headscarf, has finally exposed the myth that the battle for women’s rights in Egypt is between liberals and Islamists. In reality, it is a battle between one camp that uses religion as a tool and another one, equally pious, that wants to detach religion from the political equation.
Mervat Moussa did not head out to the Brotherhood headquarters to reject Islam, or to demand sexual freedom, but to protest the Brotherhood’s arrogant alienation of other political parties and its oppression of political debate. The slap on her face, in a way, symbolized a bigger slap and a sense of betrayal felt by a wide section of society. Egyptians witnessed how their elected Muslim Brotherhood president and his party have opted for domination rather than consensus in their gallop to consolidate their power, and in the process have adopted many of dictator Hosni Mubarak’s policies. Egyptian women were the first to bear the brunt of those policies.
Since the collapse of the Mubarak regime, the Muslim Brotherhood has not made a serious attempt to confront any of the mounting challenges that Egyptian women currently face; instead, it has used these challenges as weapons in its battle against its opponents. For example, with regard to thesexual violence that has become a daily peril for women in Egypt, the Brotherhood blames the opposition parties for failing to secure their demonstrations and allowing “thugs” to attack women.
In addition, the Brotherhood has refused to condemn other Islamist parties that went even further, instead blaming the women themselves for the harassment, claiming that women go to Cairo’s Tahrir Square not to protest, but to be harassed.
The differences between the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties, such as Salafists, are merely tactical, not ideological. The Islamists may allow women to wear colored garments and to expose their face (as opposed to the all-concealing niqab demanded by the Salafists), but beneath the surface, their core values and attitudes do not differ fundamentally.
According to a Brotherhood family expert: “A woman needs to be confined within a framework that is controlled by the man of the house.” He also added: “If a man beats his wife, she shares 30-40% of the fault.” Such views are endorsed and affirmed by various Salafist groups, and they confirm the fears of many that women will be the first to pay a hefty price for the rise of the Islamism in Egypt.
Ironically, Saturday was also National Women’s Day in Egypt; on that day in 1919, 300 women led by Hoda Sha’arawi joined the revolution against British occupation, and saw the death of Hameida Khalil, the first woman to die in the uprising. Four years later, on the same day, Hoda Sha’arawi called for the first Egyptian Women’s Union.
It took Egyptian women years to gain their full rights, and they have no intention of giving up on them. Nor do they have any desire to conform to a new oppressive social code that is based on twisted misinterpretation of Islamic values.
Islamists can slap one woman or denigrate others, but sooner or later, they will have to come to terms with the simple fact that Egypt is bigger than their project, and most of its tenacious women will continue their fight against all form of discrimination.3