7-2-2012By Christiana Renfro
Human Rights Defenders
Who, exactly, is “Egypt’s everywoman?”
A June 28th New York Times profile suggests that she is Naglaa Ali Mahmoud, wife of newly elected Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi. Mahmoud’s history and path to the position of Egyptian first lady make her a bit hard to pin down.
At first glance, she appears wholly conservative: the veiled wife of an Islamist, she was married to her cousin as a teenager and prefers to be called “Um Ahmed,” or Mother of Ahmed, one of her five children. As the Times notes, some fear her with her veil, she will be an embarrassment when greeting world leaders—a “comic scenario”—and that her image runs counter to aspirations for a modern, cosmopolitan nation.
Yet upon closer examination, nuances emerge: she studied English at university, lived for years in Los Angeles, and frequently appeared with her husband during his campaign. Furthermore, Morsi once stated publicly—breaking with traditional customs of privacy—that his marriage to Mahmoud was “the biggest personal achievement of my life.”
Egyptian feminist Dina Wahba, a graduate student in Gender Studies, disagrees “fiercely” with the notion that any woman could represent the female population of Egypt. “There is no one image of Egyptian women,” she said in an interview with Human Rights First. She argues that the oft-cited dichotomy between conservative, working-class veiled women and the secular, wealthier elite is wholly false.
The heated discussion over Mahmoud among Egyptian women reflects a broader anxiety as they enter a crucial period in the struggle for equality. The extent to which women will play substantive roles in the new Egypt is uncertain given the lack of a constitution and, due to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a parliament. As we’ve documented, women had lackluster results in the initial parliamentary elections, but Morsi has promised that one of his picks for the Vice Presidency will be a woman.
In any case, the institutional and societal challenges facing Egyptian women are deep indeed.
Pressure from family: As the Egyptian organization Nazra for Feminist Studies recently reported, familial pressures and obligations are a significant constraint upon women interested in political participation and advocacy. In a June 27th research paper, the group documents the case of a female worker involved in negotiations with a major trade union association whose husband forced her to resign. Wahba notes that Egypt’s “patriarchal political culture” often “overrides” otherwise promising efforts by women to get involved in governmental politics.
Negative associations: Under the previous regime, the feminist cause was taken up by Suzanne Mubarak wife of then-President Hosni Mubarak. Her advocacy for women’s rights—particularly in the context of marriage, divorce, and childrearing—may have benefitted Egyptian women, but today many use the association of feminism with the Mubarak regime as a means of slandering the movement, as a female professor at the American University in Cairo notes.
Poverty and illiteracy: Nearly a third of Egyptian women are the primary earners for their families; for most households, survival and well-being depend on their income. Yet roughly fifty percent of Egyptian women are illiterate. These two forces present a lethal combination for groups seeking to expand female participation in political and social justice arenas.
Lack of perceived importance: As we’ve documented, many women voting in the recent elections noted that women’s rights were not their primary concern, eschewing them for more general political and economic issues. In November of last year, the Times reported on this phenomenon, noting that many young female activists were rejecting the feminist agenda in favor of other political causes. “I think I am too socialist to be a feminist,” Ola Shahba, a political activist, remarked. Hoda Badra, founder of the Egyptian Feminist Union, criticizes the Muslim Brotherhood for similarly encouraging its female members to drop their identities as a woman and conform to the ideology of the party.
The debate over women’s rights in Egypt is rancorous—and essential. While none of these problems will be easily solved, none are insurmountable, either.