My mother gave me a long hug and a kiss at Heathrow’s terminal three – it had been nine months since I had move backed to London and I hadn’t seen her since. Putting her bags onto a trolley and heading towards my car, we barely reached the parking levels in the lift before I asked the question I always ask every time I speak to someone who has just come from Umm el Donia (mother of the world): “Has anything changed?” emphasising that the word “change” was open to interpretation. She was not to know, as neither did the countless other Egyptians I have asked that question, but I was less interested in the “main events” that currently dominate Egypt’s headlines than whether anything had changed “on the ground” since I had left. The traffic situation, new buildings, and small but not necessarily minor incidents that would never see the flashing lights of television cameras or the black and white of print were what I was interested in. My mother duly delivered.
“Wallahy ya Ahmed” (honestly, Ahmed), she began, “I never thought I would have fewer rights in my own country at the age of sixty than I did when I was twenty.” I nodded as I drove off from the busy airport car park and waited for her to elaborate.
“Last week your sister and I went to visit your aunt in hospital. We were waiting in the Reception area for the lift – one lift wasn’t working and so there were many of us waiting for the only functioning lift. It finally arrived and your sister and I were edging closer to the lift doors as it began to fill up rapidly, and then before we knew it a man came around the side of the queue, pushed in front of us and took the last bit of remaining space. Your sister didn’t say anything but I shouted at the man for his indecency. He waved me off like I was a fly and no one else in the lift said a word. Your sister reacted to his indifference towards me and told him he should apologise, to which he replied, ‘Don’t talk to me until you cover your hair.’ The lift doors closed. We were still standing in Reception, and he was gone.”
Needless to say as a son and a brother I was indignant. I was appalled as a Muslim who was taught by Muslim teachers and Islamic doctrine that a woman’s decision to veil is her choice and hers alone. To veil or not to veil should not bring about any advantage or disadvantage in a woman’s standing in society. But as I thought about my mother’s anecdote later that evening, I realised I was also appalled on a fourth level: as a man.
The anecdote is not about the veil – it is much deeper than that. It underscored a very tangible and terrible reality of the underlying chauvinistic, misogynistic complex that exists in the psyche of so many Egyptian men across every social class. If you even vaguely follow events in Egypt you will know that sexual harassment appears to be reaching epidemic proportions and it seems that a day does not go by without reading of a horrifying new account of a poor girl or woman being sexually assaulted as they go about their daily business.
And women’s rights in Egypt are not confined to freedom from sexual harassment. My sister was not sexually assaulted – she was rebuked for speaking to the man for the mere fact she was a woman who did not adhere to what he believed to be the “proper” image of a woman. That’s right; I’ll say it again – the “proper” image of a woman.
As I let the story of my mother and sister at the hospital marinate, I started to think about Egypt’s history in the twentieth century and the key figures who dominated that period started to press forward for my attention: Saad Zaghloul, King Farook II, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sayyid Qutb, Naguib Mahfouz, and a host of others. I thought about my teachers who told me of their achievements, or the history books that dedicated thousands of pages to them. And these men all had one thing in common – whether considered heroes or villains to Egypt’s socio-political demographic, they were also representative of Egypt’s male- dominated arena. Where were the women?
Ask yourself, just as I have asked myself, how many Egyptian men would be able to tell you who Hoda Sha’rawi, Nabiywah Musa, Doria Shafiq and Zainab al Ghazali were? I’m not even going to give you a caveat that I am only referring to some and not all Egyptian men – but in actual fact I’m going to do the opposite: last week I asked twenty Egyptian men, all in their mid to late twenties, from a range of lower to upper class backgrounds about the women listed above and three out of twenty knew who they were and loosely listed their achievements or aims, while fourteen answered honestly that they had no idea who they were, with three declaring that they had “heard of al Ghazali.” To make sure I wasn’t limiting their scope, I also told them to write down the names of famous Egyptian women in the twentieth century. I got the same name from every single one – Suzanna Mubarak – while four also offered Jehan Sadat – both women, of course, being famous first and foremost as the wives of men rather than in their own right. I then jokingly asked all of them if they had heard of Saad Zaghloul and King Farook II, and they were able to reel off a list of facts or stories about both men.
You might think my small experiment was unfair. You might argue that the Egyptian men I listed earlier made their contribution not to the advancement of a single gender, but for the entire country, and so hardly comparable with women who were “only feminists” or women’s rights activists. But you would be wrong. Sha’rawi offers a concise example: She played an instrumental part in mobilising women across Egypt in the country’s fight for independence from British Imperialism, working side by side with Saad Zaghloul and setting up the Wafd Women’s Central Committee. In essence, she, along with her peers, were tasked with rallying half of the population, and dare I say, without women’s support, the quest for independence would at the very least been delayed. Yes, Sha’rawi is famous for her work in women’s rights, but that should not exclude her from also being a national hero in a national cause.
And that brings me to perhaps my most important point: In many homes across the country women may be subservient, and indeed the man in that lift put pre-conditions on my sister before she could even speak to him, and so it is a public space problem as well, but women are not a minority, and while subservience is wrong in all its forms, it makes even less sense when the subservient group in question is just as prominent and populaced in the country as the dominant group. I concede that the answers I received from the twenty Egyptian men far from qualifies as empirical data, but I do defy anyone to argue that women in Egypt, past and present, are treated the same way as men are treated. They’re not.
For all the arguing about constitutional clauses protecting women’s rights and all the media exposure on the countless incidents of sexual harassment we read and hear about daily, we are perhaps further away than ever from both understanding and preventing the continuation of Egypt being a “male dominated” society. My mother’s sentence echoes in my mind: “I never thought I would have fewer rights in my own country at the age of sixty than I did when I was twenty.”
I leave you with the brilliant academic, teacher, and twentieth century women’s right activist, Nabiywah Musa, exemplifying the bravery, wit, and tenacity of so many Egyptian women, past and present, in responding to a male reporter at the Al Ahram newspaper who challenged her decision not to wear the veil: “Sir, you claim that men are wiser and more rational than women. If women are not seduced by your faces, and some of you indeed are handsome, how could you men who are more rational be seduced by women’s faces? You should be veiled and women should be unveiled.”