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Women's Status in Egypt

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Women’s Status in Egypt

Women’s Status in Egypt
Modern Egypt is like its dynastic counterpart, drawing sustenance from the Nile River. Today, as in the ancient period, most of the country’s population is concentrated along the river, fully 20% of it around Cairo. Modern Egyptian society is identified not with the ancient civilization but with the Arab culture is overwhelmingly identified with Islam, the religion followed by 90% of Egypt’s population (Library). Much about women’s position in modern Egypt can be traced to a famous verse of the Koran:
Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because the support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband’s) absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next), refuse to share their beds, (and last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means (of annoyance): for Allah is Most High, Great (above you all) (Koran 4.34)
Islam is strongly implicated in the generally inferior and subordinate social position of women. Particularly among the rural and lower socioeconomic classes – largely illiterate – an ethos of patriarchy predicated of Islamic law, or the sharia, has long been standard custom and practice. Over the course of the 20th century Egyptian women achieved education and status as working professionals and by 1982 women comprised 14% of all workers in Egypt (Library). There is also a history of women’s political activism in Egypt reaching back to 1919, when men and women, mainly of the middle class, both alike mobilized against British colonial rule. Women obtained the right to vote in 1956 (Wassef and Wassef 72).
But suffrage did not end women’s inferior social standing in Egypt. Since 1956 only 64 women have ever been elected to Egypt’s parliament; currently they comprise only 2.5% of all MPs in the country. Marriage and divorce laws, which customarily “favored the social position of men” (Library), have been particularly vexed, even though women have figured into efforts by indigenous Egyptians to encourage nation-state independence via- the West.
Thus if women’s status has improved in modern Egypt, it nevertheless is plainly subordinate to that of Egyptian men, and it remains in constant tension with the strands of profoundly conservative religious, political, and social views associated with Islamism. That is the subject of this research.
Al-Ali (87ff) identifies evidence of tension between feminism as a discrete concept and the varieties of Arab nationalism that emerged over the course of the 20th-century transition of the Middle East into a postcolonial geopolitical structure. The question of whether women should have an autonomous sociopolitical purpose in the public, political sphere or subsume their interests under a nationalist program when domestic Egyptian life is so attached to patriarchal norms is the core of women activists’ concerns. Al-Ali suggests that to create a dichotomy between the progressive secular sphere and Islamism is to oversimplify, or “westernize” the discourse of women’s position in Egypt. However, Al-Ali (25) also cites “the divided loyalties, interests, and contradictions…of secular-oriented women activists in Egypt.”
There is compelling evidence that, from the point of view of ant colonialist Egyptian activists who worked with middle-class Egyptian women against the Condominium and the pervasive western imperialist presence in the Middle East in the first half of the 20th century, the women were seen as instrumental to the independence project but not as essential to its success. In any case, their independent agenda was not given primary importance once the British had been obliged to leave the Suez. Booth argues that the priorities of the emerging Egyptian nation-state were repeatedly privileged before women’s issues. Thus despite achievement of the vote in 1956, there emerged “competing constructions of a ‘woman’s place’ [that] exemplified conflicting notions of what that state should be” (Booth 282). And repeatedly, Islam emerged as the decisive element of thought. Booth cites the context of Egyptian discourse of women’s place in Egyptian society as “privileging the patriarchal family,” which inheres in political activity that “takes place within a set of assumptions instituted by those who see sacred law as the sole and incontestable basis of nation-state” (Booth 308). Especially since the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat by Islamist extremists, Islamist activists have sought to “incorporate the sharia into the country’s legal code” (Library). This is consistent with Campbell’s designation of Islamic tradition as “a transcendental order untouched by the realities of time (438). In that line of thought, Islam has hegemony over life and escapes “the so-called laws of the nation’s [that] are but delusions, affliction all in whose hearts the light has not yet dawned” (Campbell 439).
One result of this set of affairs is that, in Egypt, there is no consensus about what “being modern” means, especially for women.
Focusing on the complex trajectories of individual lives may offer possibilities to women that contradict or transgress the boundaries they appear to set. Texts may prescribe a certain kind of modernity – whether nationalist or Islamist – but can they regulate?” (Booth 309).
This kind of confusion helps explain the record of instability and indecisiveness of family law in Egypt. Marriage laws were liberalized in 1979, giving wives the right to divorces husbands who took a second wife, to petition a court to consider a case irrespective of interests of an extended family, and to obtain custody of the children of the marriage. In 1985, under Islamist pressure, those provisions were formally reversed. In 1994, a feminist named Nawal Sa’adawi “left the country after the Egyptian government shut down her women’s association and Islamic group put her on its hit list” (Lief 39).
In Egypt, the Sudan, and Somalia, the practice of female circumcision is enforced routinely (Library). In 2000, owing to pressure from persistent feminist efforts, women regained many- but not all – divorce rights, and rights they do have are not exactly equivalent to those of men (Schneider A16). As for female circumcision, also called female genital mutilation (FGM), an estimated 97% of all females of childbearing age undergo the procedure. Reportedly, 82% of women – chiefly in the lower socioeconomic strata – supported FGM, with the 15% either opposed to it or abstaining from and opinion (Rafaat, et al 5ff).
Meanwhile, highly traditional “gender norms” exert influence on day-to-day experience for Egyptian women, in a variety of ways (Waszak, Severy, Kafafi, and Badawi 197ff). The valorization of patrilineal kinship structures and women who (a) are virtuous and do not stain the all-important family honor and (b) bear more than one son is one aspect of this: “A women was at the peak of her power when her sons were married because she could then exercise influence over her sons’ children and wives” (Library). This argues that women may feel the obligation to reproduce historic family patterns but that, given the pressures of modernity, may suffer anxiety on that account. In families not identified with the elites or middle classes, where social activism was manifest during the postcolonial transition, the greatest power a woman could achieve would be in the sphere of the home. Yet male prerogatives regarding marriage, divorce, and family life persist. The 2000 liberalization of family laws for women did not outlaw the ability of husbands to divorce their wives by means of a simple declaration; women have to petition the courts (Schneider A16).
Further, Islam continues to be a factor in the daily relationships between men and women. One study of economic behavior of women in Egypt shows the highly variable effects of economic development and social change on different classes of women. Hoodfar’s research examines of the coping strategies of women in working the elite classes owing to economic transformation in Egypt. Cited is the extensive migration of men of all classes out of Egypt an into the Arab oil-producing countries. Working-class women (i.e., housewives) were put in the position of being de facto heads of household. One consequence of this fact was that the women assumed responsibility and authority over household budgeting and practices and, significantly, more access to their husbands’ income (Hoodfar 96). The logistical practicality of the working-class response to male migration was not matched among the middle, elite, and bureaucratic/professional classes. Male Egyptian migration out of families belonging to these classes, distinguished by the wage-earning status of the women in them, decreased wives’ access to their husbands’ income. Migration in the class “had re-instated the hierarchical structure of family relations and re-affirmed the traditional gender roles.” That is perhaps striking enough; however, in order to combat the perception of social retrenchment and regression, the middle-class wives sought out recourse in traditional Islam:
[M]any sought strategies, including adherence to Islam and family ideology [i.e., in the injunction to men to protectors and maintainers of women], to reverse the trend or, at the very least, prevent further erosion of their rights… [That] is a further reminder that in the economic world where men consistently find greater opportunities than women to increase their income, claims of equality between them have to be based on a broader front than participation in the wage market. Given that any fundamental change in the sexual division of labor will come about only very slowly, Egyptian women, especially those with more education, have learned to value their traditional, religious, and legal prerogatives such as the right to exercise control over their own income, and to demand material support from their husbands. At the same time they are manipulating traditional, religious, and legal rights in order to promote their interests in the face of rapid social and economic changes in a time when structural adjustment polices have tended to eradicate the benefits brought by the earlier process of modernization (Hoodfar 97).
Hoodfar’s analysis shows the limits of essentializing experience in Islamist cultures by way of “orientalism,” a practice associated with Western scholarship. On the other hand, Al-Ali (23) makes the point that Egyptian and other non-Western commentators have had a tendency to “reify” and “Occidentalize” the West and much less likely to be challenged for doing so. This points up the difficulty of definitively analyzing the extent to which women may have been manipulated by Islamist nationalism on one hand, or the extent to which they have been able to exploit Islamic Legalisms to help them retain such social gains and everyday freedoms as they have acquired.
The status of women in Egyptian society eludes precise definitions. Evidence of the resilience of traditional (Islamic) norms must be set beside evidence of a persistent, though isolated, voice for social reform and female social autonomy. What makes the status of women in Egypt so difficult to identify after undertaking research is that so many factors of analysis, which overlap and converge where they do not collide, present themselves: secularization, modernization, religious values, indigenous class structure, postcolonial resentment of longtime Western control of Egypt, the politicization of Islam in the Middle East. Further to this point, it specifically and programmatically anchored in eighth-century norms, in the mindset and daily practices of contemporary Egypt. In this Egypt, pulled between two ears that are not the age of the Pyramids and the Information Age, there is a different story is being told and by whom. Especially in the context of militant and missional fundamentalist Islam working its will where it can in Egypt, a new consensus about the appropriate view of the future status of women in that country has not been arrived at.

Al-Ali, Nadje. Secularism, Gender and the State in the Middle East: The Egyptian Women’s Movement. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 2000.
Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology. New York: Viking/Penguin, 1978.
Hoodfar, Homa. “The Impact of Male Migration on Domestic Budgeting: Egyptian Women Striving for an Islamic Budgeting Pattern.” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 28 (Summer 1997): 73-98.
Library of Congress. Egypt. Country Studies. Washington, DC: Federal Research Division, Area Handbook Program, sponsored U.S. Department of Army, 1990.
Lief, Louise. “An Old Oasis of Tolerance Runs Dry: Egypt’s Women Face a new Islamic Backlash.” U.S. News & World Report 29 August 1994: 39-40.
Refaat, Amany, Lotfy, Galal, and Kamal, Akram. “Introducing Female Genital Mutilation to Medical Students.” Proceedings of the Ninth International Congress on Women’s Health Issues (June 1998): 1-12.
Schneider, Howard. Women in Egypt gain broader divorce rights. Washington Post 14 April 2000: A16.
Wassef, Hind, and Wassef, Nadia, eds. Daughters of the Nile: Photographs of Egyptian Women’s Movements, 1900-1960. Cairo: American U in Cairo P, 2001.
Waszak, Cynthia, Severy, Lawrence J., Kafafi, Laila and Badawi, Isis. “Fertility Behavior and Psychological Stress: The Mediating Influence of Gender Norm Beliefs Among Egyptian Women. “ Psychology of Women Quarterly, 25 (September 2001): 197-208.

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