Apr 30, 2011

Opportunistic Islamists and women rights in transitional Egypt

As the revolution managed to throw down Mubarak’s dictatorship, women rights activists find themselves facing yet another threat to the status of women in Egypt. Activists have long been fighting the bureaucracy and the patriarchal culture, now they’re facing a brand new enemy.

Multiple protests have been recently staged in protest of the parents contact law which regulates the rights of divorced parents to see their children. The law allowed women to have custody of their children upon divorce up until the children turn 15 years old then gives the children the right to choose their parent afterwards.

The protests were organized in several places such as The Ministry of Justice, the Azhar, and the Journalists Syndicate with hundreds showing up in protest of this particular law. Several new movements have organized the protests such as “Saving the Family” “Egypt’s Men Revolution” movements and they included hundreds of fathers. The protests also included many Salafis, (members of a hardcore Islamist group).

According to the protesters, the divorced fathers can only see their children for 3 hours a week in a public place and if the mother decline holding the visit, there are no legal punishment for her. The protests called for a chance for the parents to see their children for a longer time and to change the age of mother’s custody to 9 years for girls and 7 years for boys.

The organizers and participants of the protests accused two institutions, namely the National Council for Women and the Ministry of Family and Population of corrupting the social life in Egypt and demanded prosecution of different female figures that were previously responsible for these institutions including Suzan Mubarak.

The dangerous thing is the language used during the protests calling for an Islamic state and full implementation of the Islamic law as they called for scrapping what they called “Suzan Mubarak laws” in referral to women-promoting laws introduced during Mubarak era after years of campaigning from civil society activists, but it’s now carrying the stigma of the old regime. The protesters described these laws as corruptive of family nature, increasing divorce rates, and promoting women’s promiscuity!

In reaction to the protests, the grand mufti of Egypt has announced that this law will be reconsidered according to religious jurisprudence. Also, the Justice Minster’s deputy has also announced that the contact law will be amended so that fathers can host their children up to 48 hours; and banning the travel of children from divorced parents unless both parents consent.

These statements have outraged women rights activists calling these demands for revoking the laws as opportunistic and unfair. They argued that despite the flaws, these laws did their own good and helped promote women’s status in society. It’s also argued that these laws were imposed on the society as a whole as there was no proper legislation process in place during the old regime’s rule. The activists demanded the laws remain in place until the legislative bodies in Egypt restore their function and have a proper process of debate and discussion.

While I was always critical of the way such women rights institutions worked whether in terms of corruption or the way they used to introduce laws without properly addressing the community’s culture and concerns, many of the laws that were introduced under Mubarak’s rule as important and necessary steps towards women and children’s rights. Different rights were granted by these laws, such as facilitating women’s ability to get divorced, to pass on their nationality to their children, to issue birth certificate for their children even if the fathers decline paternity, protection against FGM, rising the age of marriage to 18 years old.

The deeply seated patriarchy in our culture causes many to see some of the rights in negative light and feel they’re corruptive of society. The association between institutions that created these laws, whether governmental or NGOs, to foreign donors enforces the negative image they have in some corners of the society.

It is notable to note that patriarchy here isn’t attributed to Islam as many in the West like to believe. It permeates in all layers of Egyptians, whether Muslim or Christian, however patriarchy usually uses religion as an excuse to perpetuate its values.

These laws and issues affect the society in so many ways. I am hopeful that this critical transition period will not cause any compromise in women’s status. Rightly, this is not the proper time to change any laws as we do not have a parliament yet. I am hopeful that the New Egypt would allow for more discussion and debate and that more moderate voices will join and support promoting the rights of women in Egypt.

Apr 17, 2011

Prophet Mohamed and Child Marriage?

Today, I was in Cairo University participating in a youth event for NGO employment and volunteering opportunities. I was happy to see so many youth interested in the reproductive health awareness initiative we’re doing. We were distributing booklets and flyers about those topics and things were going great and smooth until that guy showed up.

One of the flyers was on child marriage explaining the social and health implications of such practice. I never thought it could provoke people because family planning and HIV were the foremost topics that do. The guy asked me how come I want people to delay marriage until 18 while it is completely natural, and his own sister is married at the age of 12! He went on to say that old people used to marry at this age and no one ever complained, wondering why we want to change “the nature” of the society. He even said he’s engaged to a 15 year old and they are about to marry soon. He said that the practice is common in his hometown (rural lower Egypt) and that they marry without issuing official papers until they turn 18 then they declare it legally.

Away from rural Egypt, I took the discussion to twitter, I was even surprised by another Egyptian living in Canada who found increasing marriage age to 18 was exaggerated and unnecessary. He said that early marriage has no health or psychological implications. He even said that world suffers from many problems because of delayed marriage! It’s scientifically known however that early marriage jeopardizes the health of both mothers and children, causing more risk of abortion and maternal mortality.

Back to the rural person, what made me unable to argue with him was the fact that he used Prophet Mohammed as a justification for early marriage as it is known that he married his wife Aisha at a very young age. That was basically why he believed such awareness efforts were corruptive of “good societies”. He said he saw Prophet Mohamed as a role model for life and that all Muslims should take this view. While I tried to argue that there’s no comparison between that day’s society and ours, etc it evidently seemed useless.

This conversation made me think of culture and how it impacts people. While this person is educated, he still thinks that all those practices are natural and pose no health threat. He places no value to science over what he was raised to. Is it that his perception of health concepts is limited? What about the rights of those girls? Their right to freely choose their husbands, to finish their education, and to happily live their adolescent years. These are all necessary factors to form a woman able to raise healthy children.

Yes, the conditions rural Egyptians live in are different and women carry more responsibilities from an early age which make them mature earlier. The community there sees women’s sole function is to marry and raise children; however I can’t help but see it as a violation of these young girls to develop themselves fully.

I’d like to think that these two guys were an exception, however studies show that 11% of currently female youth in rural areas were married before age 16, and 30% before 18.

There is a law against marriage before age 18 and awareness efforts taking place, but these kinds of attitudes have to be dealt with carefully since they’re deeply embedded in the culture. Religious leads have to play a key role in countering such beliefs and attitudes.

Child marriage is obviously declining in Egypt, there’s more to be done, much more!

Apr 1, 2011

The Shackles of Virginity

Egypt and a lot more Arab countries are now witnessing an unprecedented case of vibrancy and mobilization in what is called the Arab spring. As I said before such state of revolution are not only political, but transcend it to personal barriers as well. It is at times like these when we should reconsider where we stand and where we want to be in the future.

Patriarchy is one of the biggest problems we have and it affects the lives of women and men alike. Women are controlled in different ways. They have limited options; their bodies are under control; which manifests itself in various forms, ranging from dress style to female genital mutilation.

Another way to control women's sexuality is keeping their virginity. An incredibly huge amount of pressure is placed upon women to stay virgin. Society has constructed several methods to make sure that women stay virgins until marriage.

In Egypt, a practice called dukhla baladi used to and still exists in some parts of the country, especially remote rural areas. On the wedding night, the bride and groom are accompanied by members of their family. The bride is usually held down and a woman inserts her finger in the vagina after folding her finger with a piece of cloth to receive the blood that results from the breakage of the hymen. This blood is usually called the blood of honor.

Although this practice is on the wane, other practices exists to ensure the virginity of female on their wedding night. The bride prepares a white piece of cloth, commonly called al-mahrama, is placed beneath her during the first intercourse.. The blood received on the cloth is later displayed to family members of the husband and wife, as a proof of virginity.

What's interesting is that it doesn't only place pressure on women, but also on men. It proves the man was virile enough to do his task. It is not uncommon that men do not perform well on the wedding night due to all the pressure, the lack of experience and sexual education.

Sometimes the girls do not bleed, not because they lost their virginity but because the hymen could be elastic or has pores which allows penetration without significant bleeding. This could cause serious troubles. In many cases the bride is taken to a gynecologist to check on her hymen and if it was "used" before. This test can determine the bride's fate forever. Either her dignity is restored or she's tossed to a life of shame, and in some cases it results in "honor crimes".

I was struck when I talked to family members that this tradition is alive and well, even among upper class and educated people, perhaps more commonly in Upper Egypt, where more conservative gender values exist.

What struck me though is to find origins for such practice in the Jewish tradition. In The Bible, Deuteronomy 22: 13-21 recounts how men should handle whether finding out their wives were virgins or not. It also mentions using a piece of cloth to prove the bride's honor but in this case, it is shown in front of the elders of the town.

What disturbs me most is the extent to which such personal and delicate affair can become the center of attention of the whole family. Such interference undermines the will of the newly married couple and can sabotage their private relationship. I personally believe that these matter should be only handled within the couple themselves.

Society should realize that it is not the hymen that determines honor. Honor is a broader concept that entails honesty, integrity and trust. Women can have sex without losing their hymen. Also, The society must stop the double standards about male and female virginity. While female virginity is a necessity, men are forgiven if they have pre-marital sex.

It is now up to the young generations to revolt against those traditions and choose to have their private sexual life, away from the interference of the old guardians. They should be able to discuss and share their feelings and concerns.

Once again, revolutions are not only political, but also personal!