Male. Egyptian. Feminists. Three words you seldom find amalgamated together. But they do exist, I assure you: I for one, am one. Nice to meet you.
If you ever wanted proof that the January 25 2011 Revolution raised not only intrinsic political awareness and a mushrooming of political discourse and participants, but also raised social awareness of problems that have for far too long laid buried in contradictory and restrictive social constructs and taboos, then women’s rights is a prime example.
Whether it be the unprecedented attention sexual harassment has received from domestic and international media over the past two years, or the fact that the fight against political Islam was often framed through the argument that it would oppress women’s rights - one way or another, Egyptians, and not just Egyptian women, are talking about women.
Male Egyptian feminists are of course in the minority among the Egyptian male population. That is not to suggest that those who are not feminists are by proxy misogynists (let’s drop false and restrictive binaries, please) - but the number of men who openly state and strive, where possible, to bring women’s socio-political levels into parity with those of men, are on the increase.
Take actor Waleed Hammad as an example, who earlier this year dressed up as a woman to both personally experience, and publicly document, the levels of sexual harassment on Egypt’s streets that women must endure almost daily, if not daily, according to many women I have interviewed. One interviewee paralleled sexual harassment to bullying in school “where every day you fear going to school because of that one student who makes your life hell. Except this isn’t school and I don’t get to leave once I graduate - this is my life and my country, and every morning I start my day with apprehension or fear, depending on my recent experiences.”
While Hammad represents a recent example, Egypt has a long and controversial history with male feminists, most notably starting with Qasim Amin, who in 1900 wrote the controversial book The New Woman. Amin was controversial in his own period because he was advocating the liberation of Egyptian women that went against strict patriarchal private and social constructs. After his death, he remains controversial and much criticised - this time not by men but by Egyptian women. Many women argue that his model for The New Woman was based on a European or pro-western construct that sought to impose a specific notion of liberation that ignored key nuances and elements of the identity of Egyptian women - a quasi mixture between imperial feminism and Orientalism, even if Amin himself was Egyptian.
Perhaps the most talked about Egyptian figure in the past half century, yet almost never discussed in relation to his feminist discourse, is Gamal Abdel Nasser. While debate on Nasser remains almost exclusively centered on his domestic political policies and foreign policy, the feminist academic Mervat Hatim (1992) argues that Nasser’s reign also saw “state sponsored feminism” where the promotion of women’s entry into public employment and contribution to the economy would also see Egypt as a whole elevate itself and progress. Of course, Nasser did little or nothing to change the infamous personal status laws that outline the rights, or lack thereof, of women’s rights at home, such as divorce - clearly suggesting that Nasser was in fact less of a “genuine” feminist. But he did see women as playing an integral role in creating an economically stronger Egypt, and consequently consolidating his power.
Back to the present. Any open declaration on the part of a male to declare himself a feminist is far from straightforward, as he meets opposition from both men and women. From fellow men, the obstacles are obvious. Whether it be from minor teases such as “you want to be a woman, or something?” (reinforcing this idea that being a woman is worse than being a man), or outright opposition to the idea that women should be given the same rights as women (often argued that this would see the collapse of “the family”), male feminists have much to deal with from their own gender.
For their part, women who also consider themselves feminists often ask, “how come you are so interested in women’s rights?” I say, if we are ever going to achieve gender parity before law and society, women’s rights must evolve from “a woman’s movement” to a “national movement” which includes men.
But they say, “I can never understand” the feminist cause properly. There is of course much truth in that. I have never been sexually harassed, and if I were married, I would face far fewer obstacles because of my gender if I wanted to get a divorce. But think of Tahrir Square - if there were only men, or only women in the Square, the numbers that Tahrir has reached would be automatically halved, and have far less impact. In 2013, there are Egyptian men, many more than are visible, who genuinely see women’s rights as crucial if the 2011 Revolution is ever to succeed.
Indeed, the access of female feminists to the men they wish to educate on female oppression is very limited. Thanks to the existing social taboos and customs regarding the way men and women can interact, men have far more access to other men than women. Logic dictates, then, that a more inclusive women’s movement that targets men, just as it does women, might have a significant impact on how quickly and successfully gender equality will be achieved.
Try to imagine a packed Tahrir Square chanting not for the removal of Mubarak or Morsi, but men and women standing shoulder to shoulder demanding that the personal status laws be abolished. Male feminists are out there, some willing or less willing to openly state it, as well as many more waiting to be educated - and how well they are targeted will be crucial to whether or not women’s rights stay on the agenda and yield positive results in Egypt’s revolutionary upheaval.