Monday 18 November 2019

We should now heed the Islamic sisterhood

The bravery and determination of Muslim women in their fight for equality has Carol Hunt in awe

'I love the new social," said Nawal El-Saadawi in an interview with the New Yorker last week. "Things happen so fast." And certainly the nature of Facebook, Twitter and other social networking tools provide the perfect context for women to connect and to mobilise quickly in times of political crisis.

Saadawi is the infamous 80-year-old Egyptian political and human rights activist whose iconic presence recently in Tahrir Square was an inspiration to so many. During the protests, which led to the fall of the Mubarak-led government, women were front and centre, often accompanied by their children, and bloggers such as Leil Zahra Mortada with journalists like Jumarad Youngis risked their safety by telling the rest of the world what was going on in Cairo.

Watching the scenes brought to us daily from Tahrir Square made it impossible to deny that women were crucial to the success of this revolution. Yet they are now being betrayed by the very men they supported and protested with.

Last week El-Saadawi, with Nehad Abo Alomsan, was one of the organisers of the "Million Woman March" timed to commemorate International Women's Day.

This march, advertised by Egyptian women through Facebook, was to highlight the fact that the post-revolution committee appointed to revise the constitution was all-male, and, as El-Saadawi put it: "The blood of the women killed in the revolution was still wet, and we were being betrayed."

Abo Alomsan said: "We marked the celebration to salute all the martyrs, men and women and to remind the society of the role played by women during the revolution. Women stood shoulder to shoulder by the men, but post-revolution when it comes to the decision-making progress they were excluded."

All manner of women turned up in Tahrir Square last Wednesday -- young, old, veiled, unveiled, Christian, and in particular Muslim women. It didn't go down well with the boys though. The mood quickly changed from celebratory to fearful as women were harassed, jostled, sexually assaulted and told to go back "home where they belong". "They said our role was to stay home and raise presidents, not to run for president," said journalist Farida Helmy.

Jumarad Youngis reported: "The women's chants calling for an 'Egypt for all Egyptians' were drowned out by retaliations such as 'No to freedom' ... many women were dragged away by small groups of men who attacked them."

Egypt has a chronic sexual harassment problem, with women being routinely sexually harassed, and worse, if they dare to walk the streets freely.

Yet they are determined to press on, risking life and health, saying, "There is no freedom for men without freedom and equality for women."

Watching the determination and bravery of these, predominantly Muslim, women made me question the jaded complacency we seem to suffer in Ireland when it comes to gender equality. This is especially so when it comes to the equality within our political system -- particularly after the shafting of Labour's most

able finance spokesperson, Joan Burton, last week, on what would seem to be grounds of gender: a man wanted the job. Yet we still believe that, compared with the docile, veil-wearing women of the Islamic world, we in the West are emancipated, powerful, and post-feminist -- standing shoulder to shoulder with our men.

Of course, a quick look at our parliament should immediately quash any ideas we have about this country being a place of equality. Yet many will still make the excuse that women choose to be excluded from public life, pretty much as Islamic patriarchal cultures tell us that women are "naturally" the "second sex": docile, sensual, needing male protection and preferring to remain in the home. It's all nonsense, of course. Islamic women are fast becoming the most dynamic feminist group globally, and Irish society needs more women in government.

Naomi Wolf said last week: "What is true for Egypt is true, to a greater and lesser extent, throughout the Arab world. When women change, everything changes, and women in the Muslim world are changing radically."

For far too long, we in the West have been blind to the risks Muslim and Arab women take every day to uphold their beliefs in equality and justice. And we are far too complacent about rights that our own home-grown feminists won for us. Irish women would do well to remember it is not so long since contraception and divorce were illegal, etc -- and we still have that infamous statute in our constitution concerning a woman's "place within the home".

El-Saadawi has spent most of her life fighting for political, education and health rights of girls and women in Egypt. The misogyny of the culture she exposed -- forced marriages, honour killings, incest, clitoridectomy -- has shocked many other Islamic women into rising up against the predominant patriarchal culture.

And other Islamic feminist writers and activists have kick-started a drive for equality. In Bangladesh, Iran, Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia and other predominantly Islamic countries -- women are challenging the interpretation of Islam that they see as misogynistic. Instead they argue that it is male-dominated culture -- not Islamic scripture -- that has placed women in such a subservient role; consequently, it can be changed.

Reports from Dhaka say that it is "bloody as riots begin to curtail any movement to give women equal rights as men". Yet still the women continue their protests.

Women in Tunisia have declared their opposition to theological government and protested against the new proposed patriarchal constitution.

Last week the women behind the Campaign for Abolition of All Misogynist Gender-Based Legislation & Islamic Punitive Laws in Iran issued a warning to their sisters in the Middle-East. "We Iranian women didn't clearly formulate our demands during the 1979 revolution... After the collapse of the Shah's regime, women's demands and issues were forgotten."

We made those same mistakes during our own revolution. After Irish suffragettes were persuaded to shift their attention to the Nationalist cause, they were betrayed by the men whom they had supported. Women's working rights were attacked. Married women were barred from public-service employment by the end of the Twenties and from National School teaching in 1932. The new male leaders of Ireland made it clear that a woman's duty was to "stay home and raise presidents, not to run for president".

If we didn't have such short, selective memories we could identify with our Arab and Islamic sisters who are facing similar challenges with bravery, intelligence and determination. And they are protesting in cultures where violence and sexual abuse against women is tolerated, even encouraged. They need our support. And we could learn so much from them..

Sunday Independent

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