Touch us women, in much of the Middle East, and you touch the essence of life. This is how entangled our story has become with that of politics and culture and religion.
Two episodes back-to-back — Alia Magda al-Mahdi’s nude stare beckoning a challenge to Egyptians and their uprising, and the beating of columnist Mona Eltahawy in the Interior Ministry that smacked of sexual assault — have thrust women back into Egypt’s burning arena after months of fade out.
Eltahawy’s is the very old and depressingly familiar story that Arab women have been living on the streets, at home, in the fields, at work, in jail…: sexual intimidation or violence for the specific purpose of humiliating, demeaning, and finally dehumanizing. Of course, this is an argument that almost every society has long had with its women; in some places the method is restrained, in others it is ferocious. But Arab society’s spat with its own comes with a nasty twist. Call it the female and the question of identity.
Which makes Alia’s subversive act among the most provocative — and frankly weird — instances of the Egyptian revolt. If the attack on Mona jolts us backward, the unusual audacity of Alia is egging us forward. She might not belong anywhere in the political fervor of Tahrir Square, but she certainly has crashed the party and forced the supposedly revolutionary discourse to take notice.
She poses naked; her expression is neutral, almost childlike. There is no come-hither look, no call for quick love — just a nude model’s posture playing its part for the lens. Only the red hair clip and shoes are a concession to color in an otherwise black and white world, as if she is harking back to a forgotten past.
At first look, Alia’s mischievousness seems self-indulgent, distracting. And yet, the remarkable boldness of the photo and its author compel a second look. The picture is at once a statement against hypocrisy — “Put on trial the artists' models who posed nude for art schools until the early 70s, hide the art books and destroy the nude statues of antiquity”— and a combat-ready attachment to “freedom of expression.”
Through the photo alone Alia has reminded us of the very generous meaning of revolution — and our own very stingy definition of it.
Among Egypt’s liberals, there is as much rage against Alia as there is against the SCAF. And therein may lie her point. That sexual harassment has become a particularly acute problem in an increasingly conservative, if not down-right Islamicized Egypt is one of Islamism’s most bitter and telling ironies. But there is not much to debate about female nudity with the Muslim Brotherhood. There is, however, plenty to mine and expose in a liberal’s fury. Alia transcends politics and reaches for Egypt itself. She is speaking to life’s many tyrannies, of which politics is but one.
I really doubt the saboteur in her will go far. Not now. Not here. Alas, she is way, way, ahead of her time, and with that, history has taught us, comes a very heavy price.
These are the incidents surrounding Mona Eltahaway and Alia, and they are just the latest in a series that, combined, tell the fascinating story of the modern Middle East and its women, a story that is at its most nervous in Egypt and its most daring in Iran.
You could tell by the evening’s debris that Tahrir Square on that day, March 8, was not in the mood for liberation. Strewn here and there was the litter of a demonstration gone wrong. On some placards, the furious in the crowds wrote “Not Now,” on others, they settled for shoe prints and the X sign. Had you been there earlier, you would have heard words and witnessed behavior to match the harsh verdicts on those posters.
Out in Tahrir, in rather small numbers to mark International Women’s Day and declare their cause a daughter of the Egyptian revolution, women activists were heckled, harassed and then chased out of the Square. A few were cuffed and sent off to jail. “Go back home and cook mahshi!” (stuffed Zuchini), was the stalest of the insults. A forced virginity test for the arrested single women was arguably the most alarming, not to mention demeaning.
The implication of the encounter was clear enough: yet again, women were called in for a people’s freedom and called out for their own. This revolution would leave her behind, much like revolutions before it. And, of course, because of who and where we are, no revolution is resonating louder to the skeptics today than the Iranian one of 1979. For the power of the Persian example lies not only in that initial inspired moment that brought the Pahlavi dynasty down, but in the three decades that came after it, a time as emblematic of radical change as it is of retreats and let downs, none more so than for the daughters of Iran’s uprising.
So, now that it is our turn in the Arab world to flip the page, eyes look back at Iran as they In truth, the real high stakes were in the web of canons and precepts and customs and caveats that intertwine to define a woman’s position at home and out. For these, personal status laws became both shield and sanctuary look now at Egypt for any hint of what might come. Because serious as the differences are between the two countries — and they are serious — at first look the similarities are one too many, especially on that incessant question of women and identity.
Much is at stake here, and not only for Egypt’s female gender. As revolution’s pendulum threatens to swing everywhere in this East, nervous talk of counter-revolution is actually outpacing upheaval itself. Egypt is standing at the door of an Arab reformation as it has at that of every contemporary Arab cause — good or bad. The way Egypt goes, so very likely shall many in the region.
Touch us women, in much of the Middle East, and you touch the essence of life. This is how entangled our story has become with that of politics and culture and religion.
Call it destiny, the way we find ourselves, willingly or not, at the center of our societies’ passionate quest for identity. In a century of existential struggles, large and small, real and imagined, we could be the clearest expression of a beleaguered people’s thirst for a sense of self. In times during which practically every argument of consequence has been with a much too domineering West, we could be at once a symbol of resistance to colonial cultural theft and a measure of resilience against its encroachments. Still more, we could be deployed by the conservatism that envelops us -- or indeed offer ourselves -- as the first line of defense against the very temptation of modernity. Such has been the importance of this fight that the narrowest interpretations of Islam would always be invoked to imbue earthly purpose with heavenly intent.
Colliding ideologies thus found common cause against a common enemy: the West. No less significantly, the pseudo-secular state and ascendant Islamists clashed over practically everything but agreed over the finer sex, the “weakest link” in embattled societies. Tradeoffs were sealed: politics in exchange for family.
The veil - imposed or freely taken up - became the public face of this debacle. Multitudes of women covered up and “stood emancipation on its head.” But, in truth, the real high stakes were in the web of canons and precepts and customs and caveats that intertwine to define a woman’s position at home and out. For these, personal status laws became both shield and sanctuary. Meddle with them and you would be meddling with much more than the old way of doing things; you would literally be opening the backdoor to foreign conspiracies. Worse still, you would be challenging the word of God himself.
However diverse the histories of women in various countries of the area, this same story more or less played itself outwherever they lived. It did in Egypt.
Between 1919, when Egyptians revolted against colonial Britain, and 2011, when they rid themselves of Mubarak, is close to a century of activism for and against women’s rights. Every victory came with a pack of setbacks and a throng of accusations; and change, when it happened, was always hard fought and piecemeal.
As the 21st century drew its first breath, Egypt yielded some more and finally allowed its women to apply for a passport or travel without permission from a male guardian (2000), to give citizenship to children from foreign husbands (2004), to become judges (2008)…
Still, if you were to stack up the results, the tally for those sympathetic to the cause is sure to be very disappointing. The discriminations are not only spotted in the huge gap between the “in principle” and “in practice,” but in the actual paper trail itself. Exceptions and conditions come with every established right. While Islamic jurisprudence qualifies the “equality” of women in citizenship, the penal code is no less bold about its prejudices even at their most ridiculous, as they are in Article 277 of the penal code which states that the “man is guilty [of adultery] only if he commits the act at his marital home, a woman is guilty regardless of where the act takes place.”
To be sure, some aspects of this protracted struggle for gender equality echo others, East and West, against entrenched patriarchy. And yet, from the outset, here, in this angry patch of the earth, the issue has always been just as much about fortifying “Muslim” identity and safeguarding indigenous tradition against perceived Western assaults as it has been about preserving male privilege.
It is in fact this shared sense of injury and indignation against an imperialist West that rallied Iranian leftists and secularists of most stripes behind Khomeini before the revolution — at last the dawn of an “ethical Muslim society,” they thought. Certainly, it is what rendered them mute when, immediately after toppling the Shah, Khomeini moved to topple the freedoms women had gained under him. Whatever was achieved under a despotic regime backed by the US became the kiss of death. As Janet Afary explains in Sexual Politics in Iran, “For the Ayatollahs, the modern woman was a source of ritual pollution; for the radical lay thinkers, the apolitical westernized woman was a duped agent of imperialist cultural hegemony…” (p.237). And hence, as Iranian women, in the tens of thousands, descended on the streets of Tehran on March 8 and 12, 1979, to protest Khomeini’s flurry of edicts and actions, the left demanded that they put their claims to rest. “Not Now,” was the message.
Khomeini issued his pronouncements, much like one ticks off along overdue to-do list: On February 26, he suspended the Family Protection Law; on March 3, he put a stop to decrees appointing women as judges; on March 4, he deemed divorce solely the man’s prerogative; on March 6, he froze women out of the army; on March 7, he brought the veil to the workplace; on March 29, he segregated sports; on May 21, he banned co-education; on June 3, he told married women they could no longer attend regular high school; on June 13, he shut down daycare centers, admonishing working mothers to quit their jobs and attend to their households.
By 1981, the ground rules were all set. For those women who had hoped for a freer life, the new constitution and penal code coalesced as bars do in a prison. For those who enjoyed so little to start with, Khomeini’s blessings and tokens, though few and miserly, were enough to win more legroom in very oppressive environments. From the start, the revolution would crow about and rely on its own female cadre.
But it [the electoral rise of Islamism] doubtless owes just as much to a relentless, decades long hammering of civil society by oppressive regimes that cynically shored up Islamism at the expense of all other trends. If Islamist Iran stood in 1979 as a spritely promise, in 2011, it stands as a feat with a few gray hairs in its beard: thirty two years as telling about the limitations of Islamism as they are about civil society’s own remarkable bounce.
Today, austere as the regime still is, women are walking around with fewer shackles. In fact, they can pretty much tick off their accomplishments over three hard decades, much like Khomeini ticked off his strictures at the beginning of them. They are:
Iranian women have yet to sit on the bench or run for the presidency but they are in parliament. By 1986, their participation in the formal sector fell to 9%; by 2010, it had climbed back up to 14%. In the 1980s, they presided over a trickle of publishing houses; in 2005, they boasted 100 of them.
To the state goes the credit for embracing literacy and health care, especially in the rural areas. Everywhere else, applause has to go to the tenacity of Persia’s women who ran with every windfall and opportunity: a devastating Iran-Iraq war that changed the dynamic of marriage and family; the harsh economic realities that made it easier for them to go out and earn an education and a living, a tired Islamist idea that gave way simply because it had to...
On their own, these strides may seem modest — and they are if measured against ambition and possibility. But they tower when compared to where it all began back in 1979. This, in an Islamist state that, as recently as 2006 declared with a straight face that feminists along with “mystics, dervishes, devil worshipers, journalists, bloggers, secular students and intellectuals, reformists, as the main threats to the national security of the country.”
At present, Iran may well be post-Islamist, as Assef Bayat describes it. You can tell by the constant jostling for space between system and society that the ruling elite is well aware that after “a phase of experimentation, the appeal, energy and sources of legitimacy of Islamism” have been “exhausted even among its once-ardent supporters.”
What Now for the Women of Egypt?
We are barely through the first stage of Egypt’s parliamentary elections and the triumphant Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists, having clinched well over 50 percent of the vote, are already rhapsodizing about the beauty of democracy which was to the Salafists — until, when was it, yesterday? — a Western concoction alien to the spirit and letter of Islam.
Many are already in a panic. And with good reason. Widen the lens to the larger Middle East and you will very quickly discover that, left to its own devices, Islamism is never in the mood to engage. Witness Iran since 1979, Sudan since 1989, Gaza since 2006… With a majority in parliament, Egyptian Islamists could easily decide there is nothing really to discuss. But what makes these examples uniquely revelatory is the one feature they all share: domination of the state and its tools of coercion by the ruling party.
Egyptians fretting about their liberties should keep this foremost in their calculus. That, so far, the Muslim Brotherhood is having to argue its case all the way to the altar does suggest that Bayat’s post-Islamist realities have already started creeping into Egypt, but what it also reflects is the MB’s keen awareness of the imperatives of accommodation in a country in which it has considerable reach and influence but one which it does not control — yet. If only for this, Egypt’s future promises to be different from Iran’s or any of these other Islamist polities.
Juxtapose revolutionary Egypt and Iran if you like. You don’t have to peer too closely before the disparities begin to impose themselves. Note how the left quickly sublimated its beliefs to Khomeini’s, and watch the reticence of Egypt’s leftists and liberals, however disorganized they currently are. Register how Iran’s army was swiftly kicked out of the political arena in ‘79, and how Egypt’s very likely will retain much of its heft in Egyptian politics. Mark the fact that Iran’s youth gave all, in awe to the presence and charisma of the septuagenarian Khomeini, and how Egypt’s are just not buying in a marketplace conspicuously empty of such overpowering men.
But, most of all, remember that Egypt’s victorious Islamists will soon populate a government that has already incorporated quite a bit of what they preach, whereas Khomeini had to start practically from scratch. That’s the road Mubarak paved so nicely for his Brothers, and if things turn out badly, that may well turn out to be his most enduring legacy.
But if religious conservatism brings Iran and Egypt together in many social mores and legal codes, so do the years that have tested the solutions of political Islam itself. On that fundamental matter of piety alone, the sure rewards in Iran have been as mocked by burgeoning prostitution and rampant drug abuse as they have been by widespread sexual harassment in Egypt, where close to 80% of adult females are veiled.
The electoral results appear to argue against such talk; after all, how much skepticism can there be in a landslide? And yet, it would be pure folly to assume that the numbers confirm an outright, wholesale embrace of fundamentalist convictions. There is much to disentangle in this unfolding Egyptian story, and we are still on the very first page. What’s more, we all know that only a few of its authors are Egyptian and only some of the events likely to impact it will be homegrown.
As Pankaj Mishra points out in a recent piece, the electoral rise of political Islam may owe much to the Arab people’s deep comfort with Islamic principles as ultimate guidelines in politics as in life. But it doubtless owes just as much to a relentless, decades long hammering of civil society by oppressive regimes that cynically shored up Islamism at the expense of all other trends.
In any case, we soon will find out, as Mishra puts it, “…whether and how the new Islam-minded rulers of the Arab world will enshrine [diversity and pluralism] in legal and political institutions as opposed to declaring that the Shariah contains all that you need.”
Needless to say, the quintessential test will be how these rulers proceed on the question of us women.
The moment, as unnerving as it is, calls for extreme vigilance and grit, not panic and fear.
The Egyptian revolution has forced the political playing field wide open. It is crucial that it remain so. Just as this new climate has already challenged SCAF, it shall the MB and Salafists. How these three antagonists-cum-allies interact in this crucial stage is, of course, of serious consequence for the future of a democratic Egypt, but without control over the state’s tools of coercion and violence, the Islamists can neither unilaterally impose their will nor circumvent the judgment of future ballots.
Alas, for Egypt’s women, the path forward will be full of pitfalls and setbacks and insults and assaults and groping. The violence that women have been subjected to in Tahrir Square before anywhere else stands as a sad marker of the misogyny that unites many an oppressor and revolutionary. But Egyptian women need only recall Iran’s in reassuring themselves that tenacity and ingenuity can beat even the worst of odds.