The 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women at UN headquarters (4-15 March) which ended with an Agreed Conclusions was particularly eventful, with a group of countries, including Egypt, attempting to roll back some hard-won rights.
On March 14th 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt issued a statement condemning the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) draft declaration to end violence against women.
The declared rationale of the condemnation was that the CSW document consists of “articles that contradict established principles of Islam, undermine Islamic ethics and destroy the family… [and] would lead to complete disintegration of society, and would certainly be the final step in the intellectual and cultural invasion of Muslim countries.” Admittedly, “saving Muslim women” has been a battle cry since colonial times, and more recently during the military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and has been manipulated to justify invasions. Conversely, the cultural specificity argument of “our women are different” as well as “we must protect our values” has also been the battle cry of authoritarian Muslim regimes to justify human rights violations and the suppression of rights. The rhetoric is painfully familiar and the aim continues to be the same: using scare tactics to silence your opponents and divert attention from the real issues at stake.
So what are the issues at stake here? I argue that it is a fight over women’s rights and dignity in particular, and the rights and dignity of all citizens in general.
The Muslim Brotherhood statement consists of 10 objections to the CSW declaration. Commentators have already noted that some of the points are irrelevant as they consist of very narrow interpretations or misinterpretations of the CSW document. Other points, such as the one regarding equal inheritance rights, can only be seriously discussed with detailed reference to complex juridical interpretations. I will focus on five selected points on the list of objections, which I believe encapsulate the principal issues at stake right now, and which the MB declaration is all about.
“-Giving wives full rights to file legal complaints against husbands accusing them of rape or sexual harassment, obliging competent authorities to deal husbands punishments similar to those prescribed for raping or sexually harassing a stranger.
- Replacing guardianship with partnership, and full sharing of roles within the family between men and women such as: spending, child care and home chores.
- Full equality in marriage legislation such as: allowing Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men, and abolition of polygamy, dowry, men taking charge of family spending, etc.
- Removing the authority of divorce from husbands and placing it in the hands of judges, and sharing all property after divorce.
- Cancelling the need for a husband’s consent in matters like: travel, work, or use of contraception.”
The key word uniting all the points above is control, and the principal objections revolve around the notion of “replacing guardianship with partnership”: the MB idea of Muslim specificity is that men should have absolute control over women. The basic assumption is that women are legal minors (like children) and are incapable of taking responsibility for their lives and future. The logic of the statement does not recognize women’s agency and undermines the very idea of female citizenship. Women must be controlled by their husbands who always know what is best for them and their families. And while male children grow up and at some point come of age and can assume responsibility for their lives, women are locked into a permanently infantile state. I cannot help recall here the following insight, that: “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”
But, as far as the MB is concerned, if women attain the most basic rights over their lives and their bodies, all hell will break loose. The Muslim family will disintegrate if women are able to divorce their husbands (by going to court!) and if husbands are not allowed to divorce their wives on a whim (without going to court!), which is the case in most Muslim countries.
All hell will break loose if women become their husbands’ partners and not their chattel. All hell will break loose if women travel or go to work without their husband’s permission - bearing in mind that almost 30% of Egyptian households are female-headed, with women as the primary breadwinners. All hell will break loose if men are asked to share in family chores. And all hell will break loose if wives can take their abusive husbands to court for domestic violence. And if we ask: why should men get away with abusing their wives? The answer can only be: because they are men stupid!
Do the Muslim Brotherhood views on gender relations represent the beliefs and practices of all Muslims in Muslim majority countries? This is a tricky question. The MB has from its very inception been a political group, and after the 25th of January revolution in Egypt, has come to power with the election of a President from its ranks, with the Freedom and Justice Party gaining the majority of seats in parliamentary elections, and with the appointment of a pro-MB government headed by Hisham Qandil. They definitely represent a section of society that is conservative and espouses their views. Do they, however, represent the majority of people in Egypt? Those who subscribe to this view, namely, that the MB represents the majority in Egypt, limit the democratic process to elections and formal practices of politics rather than focusing on substantive democratic rights , and they choose to disregard the irregularities and fraud that have marred and continue to mar the formal political process in Egypt. They also choose to ignore the mass street protests that triggered the regime change in Egypt in the first place, and which now continue against the new dictatorship of the MB, chanting “Down with the rule of the Murshid” , or down with religious rule. The MB are not the voice of Egypt and definitely do not represent the main aspirations of the mass revolts, which they joined belatedly, demanding freedom, dignity and social justice.
However, the battle is not over. The continued unrest on the streets of Egypt is a battle against the metamorphosis of the Mubarak regime into an authoritarian religious garb. Women continue to be at the forefront of the battle for freedom and rights. Women activists and groups are raising their voices inside their countries, and also trying to make their voices heard by the international community. At the CSW, the Arab Caucus published a strong statement to expose the role of some of the leaders of Arab countries in trying to block the statement that condemns violence against women.
But the CSW declaration and the wording of the riposte is not the main reason why I find the MB statement offensive and deplorable.
I deplore the manipulation of religion and the just principles of Islam, to justify human rights violations and oppression.
I deplore Muslim politicians who distort and tarnish the image of a great universal message.
I deplore the persistent abuse of a rights agenda for political gain.
I deplore the continued exploitation of women’s bodies as political battlefields.
I deplore the unethical political practices that are gradually chipping away at our dream, an Egyptian dream, for a better world.