By Khaled Diab
Does a gaff about rural women's breasts belie the belief among Egypt's new Islamist leadership that women are the source of all society's ills?
Wednesday 13 February 2013
When it comes to confessionals, Egypt's unpopular prime minister Hisham Qandil has redefined the term “making a clean breast of things”. With the country in the grips of a new wave of protests and street clashes and the economy in tatters, the premier decided to get a vital matter off his chest during an open meeting with the media: rural women's breast.
“There are villages in Egypt in the 21st century where children get diarrhoea [because] the mother nurses them and out of ignorance does not undertake personal hygiene of her breasts,” he said, to the visible discomfort of his audience, especially the women in it.
Qandil's remarks have been met with widespread derision and mockery in Egypt's famously sarcastic social and independent media, with many requesting advice from the PM on other health and domestic issues. “A question to his eminence the prime minister,” one twitter user wrote, “can I wash my boy's clothes with his father's white galabiya or will the colours bleed?”
“Mum says she wants the recipe for Balah el-Sham in your next press conference,” another requested.
“Soon, they'll be broadcasting Qandil's press conferences on Fatafeat (a cookery channel),” one wit predicted.
There are other unexpected causes of the runs, one commenter revealed: “I'm the one who got diarrhoea when I realised you were Egypt's prime minister.” And this observer is not alone: millions of Egyptians view this former irrigation minister as Egypt's new secretary of state for irritation.
Although stage fright – or performance anxiety – caused by speaking before the tame cameras of Egypt's state television may have caused Qandil to confuse women's nipples with the teats of baby bottles, there is the possibility, however faint, that the prime minister is privy to some groundbreaking research which the rest of us humble mortals are unaware of.
After all, unlike the “ignorant peasants” he lambasts, Qandil has a master's degree and a PhD in agricultural engineering from two different US universities, though one is located in Utah, where his views of science may have been coloured by the local culture. If “creationist” pseudoscience can posit that the universe was created less than 10,000 years ago and advocate what I call the “Fred Flintstone” theory of the Jurassic age, why can't Qandil find a causal link between dirty boobs and the runs?
However, a cursory perusal of the scientific literature on breastfeeding uncovers no connection between the cleanliness of a mother's breasts and diarrhoea in her infant. In fact, mother's milk is described by doctors as “liquid gold” and is a good preventer of and antidote against diarrhoea.
Qandil's remarks confirm previous theories that denial truly is a river running through the minds of Egyptian officials.
But wouldn't life be so much easier for the new PM if his theory were correct? Then, instead of being forced to grapple with the problems his government has inherited from the former regime – poverty, pollution, unhygienic water supplies, poor nutrition, high illiteracy – he could solve the daunting challenge of high infant mortality in the countryside by simply going online and ordering millions of packets of antibacterial wipes or, more ambitiously yet, install a power shower in each rural mud-brick home.
The cynic in me suspects that this could be what is behind Qandil's gaff: the desire to divert attention from his government's failure to do anything constructive about, and find simplistic, quick fixes for the country's nagging socio-economic problems.
This interpretation would actually be a relief in comparison with the prospect that Qandil, a supposedly highly educated man, actually believes what he said. But I fear that the prime minister may well have been deadly serious.
His outburst is reflective of the new Islamist leadership's – and the conservative constituency they represent – obsession with women and the female body, and their apparent conviction that all society's ills can be traced back to a woman's breasts and vagina, and a family's and society's honour hangs on that flimsy thread known as the hymen.
This reality about Egypt's body politic was on full display during the recent controversy surrounding the nude Egyptian protester, Aliaa ElMahdy, whose naked body was transformed by conservatives into some kind of biological WMD – a dirty bomb – amid suggestions that she could singlehandedly obliterate Egypt's social fabric.
Interestingly, from a psychological perspective, is how religious conservatives appear to be obsessed by what they find most reprehensible, and fantasise, like the “Desert Fathers” did of Satan tempting them away from their solitude with sexual dreams, about the female body.
An extreme, and extremely warped, example of this was the infamous and widely condemned fatwa by a cleric of al-Azhar who creatively resolved the conservative conundrum over mixed workplaces by suggesting women breastfeed their male colleagues, thereby becoming their “mothers”.
Rather than the “penis envy” Freud developed, it would appear that Egypt, and patriarchal society in general, is obsessed with breast and vagina envy. Echoing the “War on Women” across the Atlantic, Islamists, particularly ultra-conservative Salafists, have launched a far more vicious offensive against Egyptian women, which has played itself out on the streets, in the form of violence, including the rape, of female protesters and then blaming the victim for the crime she endured.
But Egyptian women and their allies have not taken this passively, and have been out in force demanding their rights – and granting them full equality will be good both for women and society as a whole, despite the anxieties of the patriarchy.
This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 7 February 2013.