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Getting On : All My Politics

Islamic Feminism in Egypt

from AnnaH - Tuesday, October 24, 2006
accessed 1128 times

This is a paper I wrote two years ago for a Middle Eastern Studies class. I was recently reminded of it by someone's comment about the veil and thought it was relevant enough to post. Since the paper was to be graded by my Turkish Female Muslim teacher, it has a bit of an anti-american tone and makes some sweeping generalizations about Americans so I apologize if anyone is offended.

Over the past couple weeks, whenever I tell someone that I am going to be writing a paper on Islamic Feminism, they ponder that subject for a moment and then ask, "Isn't that an oxymoron?" Of course, this is the very reason I decided to approach the topic: because most Americans see a woman wearing a headscarf or a veil and look at it as oppression, and it is this headscarf or veil that Americans, and westerners, focus on more than anything. They assume that the hijab, or Islamic dress, is forced on them by men and their religion, when in reality it is women that are choosing to don this dress more and more frequently. They group all Middle Eastern countries in the same fundamentalist category as Iran and Saudi Arabia which forces women to wear hijab and ignore that in many countries it is a choice, that's not to say that in Iran and Saudi Arabia many women would not choose to wear it. Many women describe it as part of an expression of their own identity and an allegiance to their religious identity, and for some even as an act of defiance to the Western world of cosmetics and tight clothing, which they see as even more oppressive than a scarf. Such is the case in Egypt, a country which has seen radical feminist groups and fundamentalist ones, where many women cite these reasons for wearing hijab and demand that feminism not be about rejecting their roles as wife and mother to be like men, but embrace them and celebrate them as part of their feminism.

First of all, many people blame the Koran for oppressing women with their rules but this simply isn't exactly true. Veiling is not simply a Muslim tradition or phenomenon. High-class Persian women often veiled as a sign of status long before Mohammed came along, so veiling was a privilege. If a slave or servant had the audacity to veil she would be severely punished. The prophet Mohammed was among the world's greatest reformers on behalf of women. He abolished sex-discriminating practices as female infanticide, slavery, and levirate (marriage between a man and his brother's widow). He also introduced concepts guaranteeing women the right to inherit and bequeath property, and the right to exercise full possession and control over their own wealth. In fact, he did not even believe all women should veil; that was exclusively for his wives.

Mohammed was believed to have nine to twelve wives, most of which were widows, two of them were daughters of his enemies and the alliance caused peace between them. There was much contention between his wives' families and rumors going about and they faced unwanted fame in their public lives, so as a result Mohammed had separate chambers built for them (he did not have his own but stayed in each of theirs on different nights) and told them to veil when going outside to avoid harassment, "O ye wives of the Prophet! Ye are not like any other women (Surah XXXIII 34)…Tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close around them (when they go abroad). That will be better, that so they be recognized and not annoyed" (Surah XXXIII 53). There are actually a few instances in the Koran of women choosing not to veil: Mohammed's favorite wife Aisha, Bint Talha, Asma(Aisha's sister), as well as nieces of Aisha.

As for powerful women in the Koran, Mohammed's first wife Khadija was a successful businesswoman and much older than the prophet. Aisha, after Mohammed's death led troops into battle against Ali, and Mohammed's daughter Fatima was an important political figure. A couple centuries later, seclusion and degradation had progressed significantly. Many Muslim women believe that gender equality is outlined in the Koran but is not enforced in reality because of misinterpretation of hadiths, or Islamic verses.

What this has to do with feminism in Egypt is the difference between two major feminist movements: the Egyptian Feminist Union and the Muslim Women's Organization. The Egyptian Feminist Union was started by Huda Sharawi in 1920. In 1923 after attending an International Women's conference in Rome, Huda Sharawi landed in Alexandria, took off her veil and never wore it again. By 1929, women were unveiling all over Egypt. The Muslim Women's Organization, also known as the Muslim Sisterhood, the women's arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, was quite different. Founded by Zeinab Ghazali, once a member of the Women's Union founded by Huda Sharawi, its feminism was more geared toward Islam and the overthrow of Nasser and Sadat. Her feminism worked within the bounds of Islam, and she believed women's first priority is to be a mother and a wife, and if they have time left over than they can participate in politics. At the age of 75, in an interview with Jan Goodwin she quoted that, "The role of women has deteriorated because of so-called modernization in the West. Your fashions, short skirts, dancing, women having boyfriends and not husbands, having babies and not being married—this is unlawful. It is also against all women. The Prophet said that women are sisters to men, women fought in wars with men, women work like men. Islam does not prohibit women from working, but the rules…the rules, these must be followed. The door to the room must never be closed, a man and a women must never be alone together. In this way the thoughts of sex are prevented from forming."

It's this point of view that seems to be the most popular in Egypt today. More and more women are preferring Islamic feminism to the previous fad of westernization and unveiling. One women described it, "It [hijab] forces men to deal with my mind and not my body. I feel more like a woman when I wear the hijab and not like the type of woman you see on billboards." For many, hijab allows to have a private space within public, like an invisible bubble between them and men. It also gains respect from both women and men and gives women more freedom to go places on their own without worry. Not wearing hijab subjects them to all kinds of assumptions from outsiders and unwanted attention. With the hijab women do not have to fear sexual advances from men, most of the time. Many Egyptian women say hijab is a way of getting your own way in the family, which is patriarchal, so you can work or continue school, which is also an important part of Egyptian feminism.

More women are entering the work force; while it is a choice for all, for many it is an obligation if they want to live a decent life. However, as hard as it may be, many women say that work strengthens a woman's position. Though women may be expected to stay in the home, there is nothing in Islam that says a woman cannot work. Like veiling, the prophet's wives were special and of course were not allowed to work. But the prophet knew this was not feasible in many people's homes and women often had to work to support their families. Mohammed did not object to this. So returning to the work force is beneficial for women. The woman who works doesn't have to beg her husband money to buy what she needs or wants. Although many women would like to stay at home they realize that working is a necessity in their home to support their children and they do receive benefits for it such as free maternity health and family planning centers.

Women in Egypt enjoy more freedoms than we westerners care to think about. The problem in this miscommunication lies in that American women and Egyptian women simply have different ideas of what it is to be free. A lot of American girls would think being able to wear a miniskirt and low-cut tops is being free, but in Egypt they might ask what kind of freedom is that, to be looked at by men sexually. They could make the same argument that our makeup and ever-changing fashion is our equivalent of hijab, that we are confined everyday by a society practically forcing that upon us. What it comes down to is we know who we are, and they know who they are and why they dress the way they do and do the things they do, and Americans should respect that and know that feminism is not simply about dress and behaving like a man, but about embracing the things that make us feminine and celebrating that.

Reader's comments on this article

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from conan
Tuesday, October 31, 2006 - 01:42

It’s interesting to me that the professor for who’s class you wrote this essay is Turkish. I lived in Turkey for several years while in TF and the twist on the headscarf there is rather unique. It is optional there and has been for as long as Turkey has been a republic (80 some odd years I believe) thanks to the founder of modern day Turkey; Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He abolished caliphate rule, introduced the modern language of Turkish from Anglo-Saxon/European roots, and secularized the nation on a scale that no other Muslim country to date has seen.

In an attempt to be accepted by the Western world, he went so far as to outlaw the Fez, (which is the little round red hat with a tassel that you see in some early James Bond movies and just about any film that involves Egypt or Turkey) and, while allowing for women to be involved in politics, made it ILLEGAL for women to wear the head scarf or Hijab if they held a government position. This has recently created some controversy there as there was a case a while back where a female member of parliament was told to remove her head scarf while they were in session or be arrested. To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember quite how this turned out for her but I know that it started a wave of demonstrations to loosen the constraints and make it optional no matter where you work or what your occupation.

That being said, what Dan brought up about their general mentality toward scantily clad women is entirely valid. I lived in Muslim countries for over 10 years in TF and saw the way that they are often viewed as “pieces of meat”, as out illustrious Australian imam has so rudely stated, and treated as inferior or subservient.

There is of course the other side of the spectrum where they give them their rights and place in society. There are several Muslim nations to have had female premiers, and, while not always in power long, they were usually fairly popular.

Of course, pussy-whipped is available in all cultures and religions too!

(reply to this comment)
from uncovered meat
Thursday, October 26, 2006 - 19:13


SYDNEY, Australia (AP) -- Australia's most prominent Islamic cleric will not give sermons for two or three months, but will not face censure from his mosque for a sermon comparing women who do not wear head scarves to "uncovered meat," the mosque's spokesman said Friday.

The board of the Lakemba Mosque Association met late Thursday with Sheik Taj Aldin al Hilali and decided afterward to accept his apology for the comments, which triggered a storm of protest.

Association president Toufic Zreika said the board was "basically satisfied with the notion that certain statements made by the mufti was misrepresented and the mufti was misinterpreted."

"Obviously those comments have been made, but he provided us with an unequivocal apology for saying so," Zreika told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.

The decision prompted further condemnation. "I think this is a slap on the wrist," Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward said on Friday, a day after she accused Hilali of inciting rape.

Hilali triggered outrage after comments reported Thursday comparing women who do not wear a headscarf to "uncovered meat" who invite rape.

Hilali denied he was condoning rape when he made the comments in a sermon last month, and said Australian women were free to dress as they wished.

Other Muslim leaders, Australia's sex discrimination commissioner and political leaders condemned the comments.

Hilali was quoted in national newspaper The Australian as saying in the sermon: "If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside ... without cover, and the cats come to eat it ... whose fault is it, the cats' or the uncovered meat's?"

"If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred," he was quoted as saying, referring to the headdress worn by some Muslim women.

Goward said Thursday that Hilali's comment was an incitement to rape and that Australia's Muslims should force him to stand down. She also called for the Egyptian-born cleric who arrived in Australia in 1982 from Lebanon to be deported.

"This is inciting young men to a violent crime because it is the woman's fault," Goward told television's Nine Network. "It is time the Islamic community did more than say they were horrified. I think it is time he left."

Prime Minister John Howard also rejected the comments as unacceptable.

"They are appalling and reprehensible comments," Howard told reporters. "The idea that women are to blame for rapes is preposterous."
Earlier controversy

Hilali is the top cleric at Sydney's largest mosque, and is considered the most senior Islamic leader by many Muslims in Australia and New Zealand.

He has in the past served as an adviser to the Australian government on Muslim issues, but triggered a controversy in 2004 for saying in a sermon in Lebanon that the Sept. 11 attacks were "God's work against the oppressors." Hilali said later he did not mean that he supported the attacks, or terrorism.

The latest furor comes at a time when relations between Australia's almost 300,000 Muslims and the majority Christian-heritage population are tense following riots last December that often pitted White gangs against Muslim youths of Middle Eastern decent.

Howard offended some Muslims recently by singling out segments of their community as extremists who should adopt Australia's Western liberal attitudes to women's rights.

Many Muslims say they are increasingly treated with suspicion since the Sept. 11 and other terrorist attacks. Waleed Aly, a member of the Islamic Council of Victoria state, said Hilali's comments would result in more antagonism towards Muslims.

"I am expecting a deluge of hate mail," he said. "I am expecting people to get abused in the street and get abused at work."

Hilali said in a statement he was shocked by Thursday's reaction to his sermon.

"I would like to unequivocally confirm that the presentation related to religious teachings on modesty and not to go to extremes in enticements, this does not condone rape, I condemn rape," he said.

"Women in our Australian society have the freedom and right to dress as they choose, the duty of man is to avert his glance or walk away," he said.
Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
(reply to this comment)

from dan
Thursday, October 26, 2006 - 03:18

to wrap your cloaks about you is a far cry from wear a hajab. is it for discretion or for modesty? sounds like he told his wives to wear rock star sunglasses and a hat to not be recognised. should we all wear masks? that would make recognition even harder.

watch the bathrooms anywhere that girls are flying from Kuwait, Saudi etc they all go in in black and come out in low riders. they do it cause in their culture the men are such pigs that to not have it on is asking to be raped. men considered the women's fault for tempting them with their evil selves. all women are sluts and want it all the time so if she is not wearing the hajab she wants me. when these same women get somewhere that rape by their uncles is not the norm and where there their is rule of law protecting a woman's right to live, the dress how they want.

in the ghettos of Paris woman are flocking to the veil.... why? gang rape. gang rape has become the norm by the masses of unemployed Muslim men from Algeria and the likes. women wear the veil in the hope that it will buy them a modicum of security and in the age old "don't have to outrun the bear , just have to outrun you."

when Muslim men are punished for burning their sisters to death for disgracing the family let the community say they have the woman's best interests in mind. until that day they don't have a leg to stand on.

you will find that women from the predominantly Muslim countries that call themselves modern are very strong terrific women. these are able to over come. these women would rise to the top no matter where they are. what about the women of less strength? you have to be a Titan to live your own life. i have lived in the region for years and know many women here and they are all in the grand matriarch style. we can't ask all women to be amazons.

Yet one more cult allowing for the degradation and subjection of women. religion has always looked to dominate and control the many by the few. the few have majorly been men and the many every one else. if you control the men and the men control the women then you have a stick to beat them with.

and yes the strong first, older wife of Mohammad said screw that veil shit. his younger less strong, innocent wives wore it.
(reply to this comment)
From AnnaH
Thursday, October 26, 2006, 10:55


Oh, and Mohammed would have been nothing without Khadija. She was the merchant and the reason for any wealth he might have had before he came up with all that prophecy shit. I always wonder what she thought about that. If he was slaving trying to support a family he might not have had time to make up a religion. She was also the one to ask him to marry her.

Aisha was Mohammed's youngest and favorite wife, and she chose not to veil. She was very headstrong and had a lot of influence on him. She went to war with Ali(or was it Omar? I forget who's side she was on) and actually fought in it after his death. (reply to this comment

From AnnaH
Thursday, October 26, 2006, 10:41


Hijab varies from region to region. In India and Pakistan many muslim women don't cover their faces, and may not even cover their heads. They may only do that for religious activities and not everyday dress. In Afghanistan they have the burqa, in Saudi Arabia the chador, and many places only really practice covering the hair and neck with a head scarf. Actually in one book I read by Geraldine Brooks called "Nine Parts Desire" she says that in the United Arab Emirates women wear sort of bird-like masks as part of their hijab. I've searched online and found no examples of this, it seems they wear head to toe black like most women in the arab and muslim world.

Also, a islamic berber tribe in North Africa called the Tuareg is known for the men veiling and not the women. Geraldine Brooks also mentioned that the women enjoy promiscuity. I also haven't found any evidence of that, but the tribes are matrilineal, meaning children identify with their mother instead of their father like most cultures do. That kind of goes along with her claim, because obviously it's easier to know who your mother is than your father.

Everything you said was very true. Hijab is probably mostly used out of fear in most of the muslim world, however in the US and some slightly more progressive muslim countries women choose to veil despite the freedoms they are offered. The main point in posting this article was to get people realizing that not all muslim women are the oppressed victims we may think they are. (reply to this comment

From Eric Cartman
Thursday, October 26, 2006, 18:10

Do we really misunderstand the muslims? Or are our "misunderstandings" really understandings?

Can't really say when their leaders like Sheik Taj Aldin al-Hilali are making comments like the below.

"If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside ... without cover, and the cats come to eat it ... whose fault is it, the cats' or the uncovered meat's? The uncovered meat is the problem. If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred,"

So a woman walks around without the hijab, and she's uncovered meat, asking to be scavenged, raped. to this comment
From AnnaH
Thursday, October 26, 2006, 19:53


And I'm sure Sheik Durka Durka speaks for all Muslims all over the world.

Of course he doesn't. Granted, his might be a popular view but it certainly isn't necessarily Islam's fault. If you read my article you'd see that Mohammed didn't require that all women veil, only his wives. For his time, he was pretty liberal about women. The problem, like with most religions, comes from the misinterpretations of the Koran.

In Somalia they practice female circumcision as part of their Islamic beliefs and they could probably pick out some obscure verses and twist them to advocate that.

I'm sure he also doesn't realize how he's insulting men by saying that they are alike to animals who can't control their urges. But that's what sets men apart from beasts: the postponement of desire. (reply to this comment

From Oddman
Thursday, October 26, 2006, 20:16

I understand your point AnnaH, and agree with some angles you wrote. One thing though.

It doesn't really matter what Mohammed, or Moses, or Jesus, or Abraham ever said. It doesn't matter what the bible, quran or torah says. What current believers follow are the interpretations by their clergy. Their spiritual leaders. Priests, Bishops, Rabbis, Sheiks. These are the mediums that connect the common follower to the writings. Everything lies in the interpretation. The Media spreads only the most sensational interpretations, showing every religion in the worst possible light. If some sheik somewhere made a comment about equality, no paper would spread that news. It's no wonder there is misunderstanding and fear. And the USA and her allies need that fear, in order to justify spending more tax cash and young blood on the war.

I totally agree with your last comment though. That statement this sheik made is very insulting to us men.(reply to this comment
From Rain Child
Tuesday, October 31, 2006, 03:24

But you do have to understand that this man is like the equivalent of a Catholic Cardinal, he holds a huge amount of influence over the Muslim community in this country. If even he, so close to the top, can publicly say things like this, (And it wasn't just the media's interpretation, he repeated it and stood by his statement)then just imagine the kind of things ordinary Muslim men teach their sons about women in this country. We've already had gang rapes and riots. In both cases the victims reported that the Muslim boys told them they were "Aussie pig"s and "Australian Sluts". I don't think we can be in any doubt that this kind of thinking is routinely taught. Especially considering the background we have, where we looked at "systemites" the same way Muslims look at "Infidels".(reply to this comment
From AnnaH
Thursday, October 26, 2006, 20:39


You're completely right about that. We need to dehumanize and demonize muslims so America can feel good about killing thousands of them in the name of liberation. I bought the hype for a while and then I went to college(my college has a huge number of muslims and before 9/11 had the highest enrollment of arabs of any school in the country) and just seeing them around school helped immensely. You see that they're just students like you, they have the same concerns and issues as you do, maybe more so because they have to deal with the stigma of being a muslim in a country that hates them.

What Muslims need to do, and what many are doing, is getting rid of the middle men, like you said. They are educated and are reading the Koran for themselves free of someone's else prejudices. I would encourage people in all religions to do the same. (reply to this comment

from openmind
Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - 20:26

very nice post AnnaH
(reply to this comment)
from steam
Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - 08:35

Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5(Agree/Disagree?)

I think this part of the article is very revealing. "I feel more like a woman when I wear the hijab and not like the type of woman you see on billboards. Not wearing hijab subjects them to all kinds of assumptions from outsiders and unwanted attention. With the hijab women do not have to fear sexual advances from men, most of the time."

From my perspective this shows the dangers of the Hijab in those societies. Basically they admit that if a women chooses not to wear one, she will be perceived as being "one of those type you see on bilboards" (a disparaging context in this text) and having "assumptions" made about them that one can assume from the context are that they are "loose" and legitimate targets for sexual advances. This shows even in societies where it is "voluntary" there is strong societal coercion. Another source said it help women advance their desires within the family, this actually implies additionaly pressure as there is a carrots/sticks relationship to choosing to wear one. Bottom line even in this promotion of an alternative viewpoint are the arguments against it are encoded. By the way I have lived in Egypt myself. The point in my mind is that it would be very rare in an Islamic society for a women to feel there would be no negative consequences to choosing not to wear a Hijab. Those who do make this choice, are choosing to suffer in some respects, to resist what to them is a suppressive symbol.
(reply to this comment)

From Rain Child
Wednesday, October 25, 2006, 15:44

Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5(Agree/Disagree?)
You're right about that, Steam. When I lived in India I saw for myself the kind of assumptions that are already there about all western women, no matter how they dress. In our family home, we were not allowed out of the house unless we were thoroughly covered, normally in traditional Indian dress. But even then, as soon as Indian men realised we were 'Western' (I say this with a touch of humour as India is West of my home country) they would automatically assume all kinds of things about us. we would constantly be groped while out walking, and blatantly stared at and propositioned. Our 'home shepherd' explained that they have pornographic movies that are made in America especially for the Indian market, and that all the common people in India watch them in the theatres and think that that is what all western women are like all the time. Of course that is a huge generalisation, but I have known many Indian people who have confirmed for me that they are taught growing up to stay away from western women, and that they are women of loose morals, etc. I have also met Muslim men and witnessed their attitudes to western women first hand. I think it is quite unlikely that these prejudices are not passed on to their women in much the same way we as children were taught against 'Systemites'. And these women talking about how happy they are to wear the Hijab reminds me all to poignantly of our shining little faces declaring enthusiastically how happy we were to be born into the best Family in the whole wide world.(reply to this comment
From Samuel
Wednesday, October 25, 2006, 16:10


That's right! You go, girl!(reply to this comment

From AnnaH
Wednesday, October 25, 2006, 15:17


You're probably right about that.

It's hard to hear their point of view and resist thinking that it's just a rationalization of something they don't feel they have the power to change and don't necessarily want to try. It's much easier to just accept it, find something positive in it and live for that.

I have a sneaky suspicion that the women who did adopt western dress at the initial stages of the feminist movement and got rid of the veil found it a lot harder to be accepted once it came time to get married and no one wanted a liberal feminist for a wife. So wearing it, as you said, is a compromise.

However, at least they are making some advances, even in it's in the bounds of their religion. Our own feminist movement took time and until the 20th century the advances were slow. It was also helped by the fact that we had a modernized society and the social history of men and women in our country had improved so much that giving women the right to vote was inevitable and the rest that followed. it didn't happen all at once, it's taken almost a hundred years and we are still fighting. First these third-world muslim countries need to modernize and then the politics of feminism will follow. (reply to this comment

From Samuel
Wednesday, October 25, 2006, 16:13


Actually, Anna, that 'You go, girl!" was meant for you. I moved too quickly and didn't realize I was responding to Rain and not you.

By the way, in case you didn't see, they're projecting the Democrats are going to take over the House of Representatives in November. You must be happy about that.

Talk to you later. I've got to study.(reply to this comment

From AnnaH
Wednesday, October 25, 2006, 16:46


Haha, thanks Samuel.

I'll be happy when the pro-lifers are defeated in the next election. If the House of Representatives has anything to do that than I'll be even happier. (reply to this comment

From Samuel
Wednesday, October 25, 2006, 18:23


But the Senate will probably stay in Republican hands. Which tells me they're going to spend so much time bickering at each other that nothing is going to get done over the next two years.

The Projections are: Republicans- 50, Democrats- 48, and 2 Independents.

Suppose the Independents decided to join the Democratic ranks, then Dick Cheney will cast the deciding vote.

For security purposes it seems they are not going to let Cheney bring his hunting rifle into the Senate chambers : o )(reply to this comment

from Removed
Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - 00:52

[Removed at author's request]
(reply to this comment)
From AnnaH
Wednesday, October 25, 2006, 15:29

Thanks Sara, that means a lot to me. (reply to this comment

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