On International Women's Day, the contrasting stories of two sisters sheds light on the status of women in Egypt.
The tension between the traditional and modern was almost palatable across the dinning table, which was stacked with a sumptuous, mouth-watering array of dishes.
In some ways, the two sisters couldn't be more different, despite their obvious similarities of education and sociability, I reflected. One sister was dressed in trousers and light blouse, the other was covered demurely in a conservative headscarf and dress. One sister was a gentle, motherly housewife; the other was a tough-talking, jet-setting feminist activist, divorcee and single mum. The traditional sister doted over her guests with a dedication which was making the feminist sister, myself and my wife feel a little uncomfortable, mostly because she would not hear of us helping her.
The husband of the traditional sister dressed in modern clothes, had a high-flying business career and had once believed in love matches until disappointment and a broken heart led him down the road of tradition and matchmaking. I gazed at the daughters of the two sisters, both just shy of their teen years, both intelligent, strong-willed, charming and sensitive, particularly the daughter of the traditional mother. I wondered what would become of them as they matured into women and how they would handle the familial and societal pressures to conform to an increasingly conservative norm.
In fact, around that dinner table sat a microcosm of Egyptian society and the challenges facing it. The tug-of-war between the genders and the varying visions of their status in the public and private domains. Which vision would succeed in the long-term: will the current tugging Egypt towards conservatism eventually give way to a more progressive egalitarian outlook for women? Would the two girls grow up in an Egypt that gives them more room to thrive or will they find their freedom curtailed?
On International Women's Day, such questions are bound to arise in the minds of egalitarians. As a staunch advocate of women's rights, the issue of gender equality in Egypt, the Arab World and other Muslim societies is of grave concern to me. Is the position of women today better or worse than a generation ago? Is it improving or deteriorating? What are the prospects for the future?
Patterns and patchworks
In Egypt, there is an incredibly complex patchwork of opinions and realities to contend with.
Kecia Ali, a professor of religion, makes a similar point in her book Sexual ethics and Islam: “Muslim women are so diverse in terms of class, geography, ethnicity, age, marital history and education that generalisations about our ‘status' are meaningless.”
There is a relatively small subculture of secularised believers in complete and total gender equality. There is a larger subculture who believe in gender equality within an Islamic context. There is the mainstream which recognises men as the official head of the household, with women wielding major, if more discreet, authority. Then, there is the ultraconservative rearguard which contends that a woman should neither be seen nor heard.
Trends can also be defined, but not exclusively, according to socioeconomic background. The biggest spilt is probably the urban-rural one, but with runaway urbanisation overtaking the country, this is narrowing. Women in cities tend to be better educated and more likely to have a job than her cousin in the countryside. Wealth is also a factor in a woman's education level and employment. However, some conservative and old-fashioned corners of the upper echelons pride themselves on the fact that their educated womenfolk have no financial need to work and can stay at home demurely raising the next generation of leaders.
The biggest successes women have scored in Egypt over the past century have been the massive strides in their education level and the millions who have joined the workforce. In a growing number of specialisations at university, women are top of the class and girls tend, on the whole, to perform better at school than boys. Women have penetrated every profession, although they have failed to make similar headway among the political leadership of the country, judging by the shamefully low number of female parliamentarians and ministers.
Many Egyptian women have gone out to work out of principle; legions more have been allowed to work out of economic necessity. But whatever the reason, the rising profile of women in the public, professional and political spheres has gone a long way to wresting many much-deserved rights from the jaws of the patriarchal lion. No matter what conservative ideals some people may still profess, the presence of women in every walk of life and their growing financial clout have created a different reality on the ground.
However, this success has come at a price. Too many men, finding their traditional spheres of influence gradually being encroached upon by women, have defended their position in the home jealously. Egyptian family law, despite some recent reforms, has failed to keep up with the times. While men can divorce with apparent impunity, women need to go through lengthy court proceeding before they stand a chance of ridding themselves of an unwanted husband. The controversial khula law – whereby a woman gives up any financial claims in return for a divorce – has done little to redress this problem. In addition, women still need their husband's permission to receive a passport and husbands can force their wives to return to the marital home with a court order.
The academic and professional liberation of Egyptian women has not been matched with an equivalent amount of sexual liberation. Although consent in marriage is a generally accepted principle and rape a crime, female virginity is still valued in many circles and this means that premarital sex carries a fairly heavy price tag. However, the old-fashioned practice of holding out a bloodied white cloth does not occur in Egypt anymore, except perhaps in remote villages. However, Katleen, my wife, discovered, during a visit to Algiers, that this practice is still common, even among educated urbanites in Algeria.
Of course, there is a yawning gap of unknown size between societal ideals as espoused in moralistic soap operas and reality. Legions of Egyptian women will have had sex by the time they get married: some through a belief in their sexual liberation, but most in simple response to a natural biological need. A small group will go out and procure a hymen restoration, gift-wrapping the illusion of virginity for people who entertain the stupid belief that a non-virgin is ‘damaged goods'! Most will find a partner who is privately sympathetic and a few will find someone who openly does not give a flying fuck about virginity.
This imagery of a wife as some kind of merchandise echoes the old Islamic view of marriage as some kind of exchange of property. “In Islamic jurisprudence… dower [mahr] constitutes compensation paid by the husband for exclusive legitimate sexual access to his wife,” Ali writes in her book. In fact, several classical ulema refer to the payment as ‘thaman al-bud'a', i.e. ‘the price of the vulva'. Nevertheless, there has always been an emphasis on the woman's right to sexual gratification.
It seems to me that it is this ancient idea that a woman ‘sells' her sex to her husband that has, at least subconsciously, held back the sexual liberation of women by attaching a value to the sexual act that does not exist for men. (That is, of course, in addition to the higher potential biological price of sex for women in the pre-contraceptive pill era).
Although I have evolved a secular outlook on life, I have often wondered, coming as I do from a society where religion is still important, how much of the sexual and marital status of women has a basis in Islam and how much of it is tradition and social custom. Female genital mutilation is a clear-cut case which is unfounded in Islam and derives from ancient Egyptian and African practices.
However, premarital sex is a far more complex issue – both for men and women. The Quran prohibits zina (however, it is not illegal in Egypt and many Muslim countries), i.e. sex outside of the legal framework of marriage – which is a real spanner in the works for those Egyptians awaiting the sexual revolution.This suggests that sexual liberation will probably have to take a secular, non-theological path. However, for those in search of a theological way out, the enormous burden of proof required under classical Islamic jurisprudence could illuminate a possible route: the act of ‘illicit' sex needs to have been seen by four eyewitnesses, each of whom must have witnessed the actual act of penetration. In addition, any accuser lacking such compelling evidence, could themselves be found guilty of the serious crime of qadhf, or slander.
Just like some reformists have argued that the strict rules of equality amongst wives set for polygamy are a subtle way of phasing out this pre-Islamic practice which was popular in the classical world, the same could perhaps be argued for zina – which carried a heavy penalty in pre-Islamic Arabia, Greece and other parts of the Mediterranean.
More plausibly, as Kecia Ali argues, marriage as we know it was not the only ‘licit' form of relationship known to Islam. The idea of a lifelong, unbreakable bond is a Christian belief. And, in order to overcome that, western society drifted away from the institution of marriage. However, Islam has had a far more pragmatic view of human relationships. A quiet, Islamic sexual revolution is occurring in the gradual emergence or re-emergence of temporary marriages. The Shia'a have mut'a, a time-limited marriage contract, and zawaj al-misyar (‘marriage in transit) is emerging in some Sunni countries, including Saudi Arabia. Egypt has been hit by a tidal wave of urfi or informal marriages, often entered into between boyfriends and girlfriends to give their sexual relationships a sheen of legitimacy.