No revolution for Egyptian women

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By Marwa Rakha

Despite the political earthquake that has rid Egypt of its patriarch-in-chief, attitudes to gender remain largely the same. Now women must stand up for their rights.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

As a woman, I would like to be realistic about my expectations after the revolution. Nothing changes overnight or over a few months. People’s perceptions, attitudes, and behaviour are very difficult to change.

Yes, we had an iconic revolution where a corrupt regime was toppled, but did that affect how men view women? No, it did not. Despite the fact that women stood next to men on Tahrir square chanting against corruption, men still do not see women as their partners – I do not like to use the word ‘equal’ to describe the ideal relationship between men and women.

Before the revolution, women were objectified and treated as things that should be covered up or eye-candy that should be exposed to please men.

Before the revolution, women were the victims of sexual harassment on the streets and on public transport. It is ironic how they were also blamed for it.

Before the revolution, your average Egyptian would not trust a political opinion voiced by a woman. “Women know nothing about politics and should stay out of the political arena,” they advocated.

Before the revolution, female political and public involvement was kept down to the bare minimum – in the parliament and in the judiciary system, for example.

Before the revolution, young girls were still subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) – even though there is a clear law against the practice.

Before the revolution, a mother’s most important concern was marrying off her daughter “before it is too late”.

Before the revolution, married women were subjected to emotional and physical abuse in the name of “obeying God”.

Economic factors cannot be ignored when talking about Egyptian women – many of them are dependent on ‘a man’. Social factors also play a role – no one wants to be the single spinster or the divorcee.

The secularists and the conservatives are two faces of the same coin when it comes to women. Most of the politicians in both currents objectify women – one side want to cover us and lock us up, while the other wants to strip us naked and show us off. Show me a party that does not focus on gender and I will listen to them with more interest.

During the revolution itself – those three weeks that made history – such points were eliminated. They just disappeared. Men and women stood together, hand in hand – as Egyptians regardless of their gender – and won the battle against corruption.

Now the revolution is over and everything is back to normal. Attitudes towards women have not been affected by the historic victory. After the revolution, how many girls decided to move out of their family homes and become fully independent? How many abused women ‘revolted’ against their abusive/negligent husbands? How many more women decided to pursue further education? How many additional women decided to join the workforce? How many men were able to link their personal revolution against a dictator in power and a potential revolution at home from their wives?

On 8 March 2011, many women’s rights activists marched through Tahrir Square – the same place where men and women stood together for three weeks – and demanded equality. They were attacked. Men chanted slogans against them like: “Men want to topple feminists” and “Since when did women have a voice?” They were asked to go home and obey God.

They were let down by the average Egyptian man and woman alike. Their demands simply did not ring any bells with the ‘submissive’ women who got used to being used and abused. Personally, I was against this march. I am against fighting for women who would not lift a finger to fight harassment or abuse.

As for sexual liberation, political and economic uprisings are in one box and social and cultural revolutions are in another box. The two boxes are so far apart that you can barely see one when you are standing on the other.

Patriarchal values, religion, and traditions are not as easy to topple. It was easier to break free from Mubarak’s regime than to break away from decades of preaching. Virtue, honour, and integrity lie between a woman’s legs – this is the subliminal message that propagates through sermons, movies, songs, novels, or shows. The woman who has premarital sex is doomed and we get to see her suffering in whatever medium that message is disseminated.

Men, on the other hand, are reprimanded gently for their promiscuity and when they repent, they are rewarded by getting married to the pure, untouched, innocent virgin. Such hypocrisy and duality is a fact of our society and it will take more than a revolution to bring about sexual liberation, autonomy, and freedom of choice.

For real change to come about, it must come from within … from a woman’s own self-respect and self-esteem. Change will only happen when women have more faith in themselves, get a better education, have goals and interests other than men, and become more involved in the community.

This article is based on an interview with Marwa Rakha. Published here with her consent. ©Marwa Rakha.

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Who wants to be a millionaire? I don’t (know)

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By Christian Nielsen

Yes, it’s a famous Cole Porter song but an even better ambition for a fading socialist of the 1980s kind.

15 October 2010

Tis easy to have socialist leanings in your youth because you’re usually broke and life hasn’t dealt you enough blows to know the difference. You write off your conservativevoting gene pool as misguided and scorn Gordon “greed is good” Gekko, the devil of Wall Street personified.

You pack up your Renault 12 with all your belongings and move to the city to study LawArts (because just Law could be misconstrued). There, you find kindred spirits. Rich and poor kids grunging it up (or down), railing at inequalities and injustice the full length of Islington.

You get political. You get more ideas. You read other people with ideas, and you pick up the language of action, the language of change. University ends. You’re broke and can’t afford to keep studying.

So you take up a crummy entry level job out of university and the bosses are all bastards growing rich off your sweat and toil.

You sleep on just the mattress, because it’s down to earth, and the Batik wall hangings smell distinctly like stale paraffin and incense. Your friends still pop over unannounced and your repertoire of conversation pieces and quotes include Kundera (most used: “A worker may be the hammer’s master, but the hammer still prevails.”) and a fistful of foreign film titles that you claim to watch sans sous-titres.

Miraculously, you get to work on the stroke of 9 am every morning and then count the hours till your hangover wears off, while inventing evermore creative ways to power nap in the office. Successful methods are shared with compatriots. Favourites include the paperclip caper (PCC), postoffice pass (POP), and the dodgy Somali sauce slip (SSS).

PCC is simple yet ingenious. Spread paper clips liberally under the desk, close your office door fourfifths (fully closed = something to hide), snuggle into a pocket under your desk and nap until revived. If you hear the distinct footsteps of your boss – languid and leather-soled – commence paper clip pickup and bump your head deliberately on the desk as you act startled by his presence in the doorway.

POP works a treat when you really have to join your housemates at the free Tibet demonstration. Pull out the registered mail slip you keep in the drawer and wave it liberally until the secretary and several colleagues have seen it. Then casually leave, saying: “I’ve got to pop out’ (details smell of deceit). Take as long as needed, and claim killer queues for longer stays.

The triple S is the young socialist’s equivalent of a bad prawn at the quayside brasserie, and can be deployed with no backstory or preparation for those moments when the Cheinspired sangria just won’t stay down. It draws ample sympathy and no suspicion as your breath smells of uncooked garlic from the guacamole, not telltale booze fumes.

[You might wonder why young socialists have to be so ‘creative’ with their skiving. This is because the bourgeoisie classics, like letting a tradesman into your house, don’t work when you rent and don’t have any white goods or renovations to worry about.]

You’re 20something and eager to change stuff about the world, about your neighbourhood, about your self. You talk about career like it is social climbing, and you slip in something existential at least twice a week – even if just to say the word – to remind yourself that you are ‘existential’. That the silk tie isn’t you and that being quite good with spreadsheet databases is a handy skill for, say, protest mailouts.

But something is wrong. You forget to send your apologies to the monthly union meeting, again. Your friends pop over as usual and you’re a bit annoyed because you rented a video cassette. And one Monday ‘the man’ calls you into his office. You think the PCC game is up and prepare to deliver your rehearsed ‘fyou’ speech. But it’s worse than you thought: instead of dismissal, he deals your ideals a body blow by giving you a promotion.

Of course, you know deep down your left leanings are straightening out when you catch yourself complaining to a fellow middlingmanager that your staff is punching the clock instead of pulling their weight. Still, you haven’t faced the 4AD music with your friends.

You don’t tell them about the next promotion, either. But soon a work car appears on the scene – much harder to conceal. Next thing you know, you’re eating with friends and their partners at a Thai restaurant. As the bill comes you lift a cheek [of course you’re sitting crosslegged at the table and can’t reach your wallet otherwise] and deftly pull out a credit card.

“You can’t pay for it all!” they protest. Still, noone makes more than a halfhearted attempt to stump up. Then a mate quickdraws his own credit card, then another has one out. Now you start to protest, pulling your trump card… you’ll expense it. Everyone goes quiet.

The broke mate who’s doing his second masters, this time in election monitoring, breaks the silence: “I’ll get it next time,” he says deadpan.

Everyone cracks up laughing. Socialism gets its death knell… and the relief to all in the room is palpable. Bring on the High Society.

©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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We don’t need no age segregation

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By Khaled Diab

Segregating school students by gender, or grouping them according to age simply doesn’t make sense.

April 2009

The fears of generations of parents appear to be unfounded. A new study suggests that it is girls who have a bad influence on boys rather than vice versa – at least when it comes to language. The research found that boys perform worse in English when there are a lot of girls in the class. This female factor can knock as much as 10% off a boy’s grades in the subject.

That boys get all tongue-tied around girls may seem self-evident. They blab and blag with the lads but, once in the company of the opposite sex, their speech rapidly devolves. In fact, for some, the presence of a girl they fancy triggers the kind of recessionary pressure that causes their vocabulary to shrink faster than the economy.

The researcher behind the study, Steven Proud of Bristol University, attributed the discrepancy in performance to the realisation among boys that the girls are better than them at English. This probably acts as a demotivator, especially when coupled with the need to appear cool and nonchalant in class. It could also be that teachers gear their teaching approach to girls when there are more girls than boys in the class, Proud contends.

“The results imply that boys would benefit at all ages from being taught English with as small a proportion of girls as possible,” Proud observes, arguing that this presents a strong case for single-sex English classes. Personally, I went to a mixed primary school and a single-sex secondary school, and I don’t recall any perceptible difference in my performance – but then I was good at English and so perhaps articulate girls failed to intimidate me.

Other experts are doubtful of the value of Proud’s suggestion. “This is one study, among many, which detects very small differences between boys and girls. But you can’t say that it means boys or girls should be separated,” says Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham.

Smithers has a point. The gap between boys and girls in different subjects, such as science and languages, is actually smaller than the differences within each gender. In addition, splitting up boys and girls can lead to a growth in awkwardness in social interactions between the two sexes in later life. It can also revive the traditional idea that gender differences are real and enormous, rather than marginal and often socially programmed. For instance, boys are more likely to be rebellious, to have learning disabilities and to express their emotions less because of the way they are forced more than girls to wean themselves off their mother’s affections before they are ready.

My own view is that we need to group pupils according to ability and not segregate them according to gender – or even age.

There is no compelling reason for age segregation in our education systems, since children tend to mature mentally and physically and different rates. But schools are still widely regarded as some kind of education or knowledge factories where you input generic child at one end and output an educated person at the other, and we desperately need to move away from this production-line model and towards more customised learning.

By basing education primarily upon ability rather than age, pupils will be able to study at the level and speed that suits them. To customise the learning experience further to their abilities and needs, schoolkids should be streamed for ability in each individual subject, not according to their overall “intelligence”. So a pupil who is strong at literature but weak at French will study the former at a higher level.

The possible downside of such a system is that you will have pupils of very different ages in the same class, and a youngster who is academically accomplished isn’t necessarily mature enough emotionally and socially to study with older peers. In addition, there is the chance that younger kids will get picked on and older pupils will feel embarrassed.

But the current age segregation in schools has its drawbacks, too, with seniors often lording it over juniors. With time, the greater contact between pupils of different ages will corrode the bizarre age discrimination in schools, and the tribal cliqueness where kids can act like they live in different centuries not study in different years.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 25 April 2009. Read the related discussion.

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