Despite not being one of those who surrender easily to the craze for international days or other special days to commemorate various events, I find myself fascinated by the International and Egyptian Women’s Days on 8 and 16 March, respectively.
However, my fascination comes from untold stories rather than from those that occupy the pages of the newspapers and the TV and radio programmes. It also derives from faces different from those that find their way onto the covers of glossy magazine or widely watched talk shows.
This is because in fact women’s days are every day of the year. We all know this instinctively, even if we may not care to admit it, take it for granted, or even ignore it.
There is a long list of prejudged ideas that colour how women are viewed in the Egyptian context, ranging from traditions that can view women as inferior to men and therefore treat them as such to the current invasion of fanatical religious ideas and a love-hate relationship towards women that expresses itself in its crudest form when it is protected by traditions and crooked religious interpretations.
Women in Egypt have seen and endured a lot.
Much is said when women are celebrated about what they have achieved, lost, fought for, been subjected to, or are dreaming of. And much of this revolves around sexual dynamics, and with the #me_too breakthrough in the West, Women’s Day has become even more about sexuality this year.
However, for women in Egypt there is nothing new about such sexual dynamics.
The status of women in Egypt has been becoming more and more sexualised, divided along social lines, and expected to carry the burdens of present upheavals. It is often said that in times of change women manage to shape new landscapes.
Along with the differences in their bodies, women tend to be more creative and resilient than men, especially in times of turmoil and disruption.
A recent UN Women study entitled “Understanding Masculinities” looked at ideas of gender among men and women in the Middle East and North Africa and found that both men and women in the region see women as being tangled up in traditions, extremist religious ideas, and the male interest in maintaining the inferior status of women.
According to a 36-year-old truck driver from Minya in Upper Egypt quoted in the study (a man), “femininity is a woman at home. She is queen of the home and of food and drink. She cares for her husband and children. This is what we are told.”
A 41-year-old gas salesperson from Cairo (a woman) said “a man is someone who does not abuse or humiliate his wife or children.
He is someone who earns an income even when things are tough, and not from illicit activities. A man is clear and sticks to his word. Yes means yes, and no means no. This is masculinity to me.”
“If we applied the teachings of our religion correctly, men would have a status and women would have a status. But as long as men and women do not follow their religion properly, everything is a mess,” said a 37-year-old man from Minya.
“The new laws that support women have made them very hard to control. They can argue and fight with you, because you know that they are protected. Right now, if you talk to a woman she could go to the police and say you are harassing her and then you would get into trouble,” said a 64-year-old man from Cairo.
The study sheds light on how men and women view women’s participation in politics and leadership positions.
Asked if there should be more women in positions of political authority, 29 per cent of men and women agreed there should, and 68 per cent disagreed.
74 per cent said women were “too emotional” to be leaders, while 53 per cent said that women who participate in politics or leadership positions cannot be good wives and mothers.
35 per cent said they could be both. 57 per cent said that women should leave politics to men, while 40 per cent said women could be involved in politics.
Many of these opinions referred to religious interpretations for justification or for references that could not be questioned. To a lesser extent, some men and women looked for authority on gender matters to tradition.
In 2018 it seems strange that many of us are still discussing whether women should leave their homes to work, whether their faces should be uncovered, and even whether they can think rationally or not.
My own view is that when 14 per cent of families in Egypt, some 3.3 million families, are supported by women as the main wage-earner, according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics, this is enough evidence that women can think. I also think that when the government includes six female ministers, this is also evidence that women can think.
Men cause more car accidents than women. They cause more traffic violations and are responsible for a greater proportion of car accidents in the US, according to the US Census Bureau.
Such statistics are not available in Egypt, but judging by the many road accidents we witness daily on our roads, the majority of them caused by male drivers, it is strange, to say the least, to complain about women’s driving.
The idea of the femme fatale is another strange phenomenon marking Egypt. Women became the victims of it in the aftermath of the invasion of extremist ideas that started in the early 1980s, and they are still sometimes regarded as untrustworthy or overly sexualised.
Does being covered in layers and layers of clothing, but still being viewed as sexual creatures, seem a paradox?
Yes, because it seems to mark a clear contradiction, and no because a great deal of imported versions of religious interpretation in fact revolve around sex and temptation. It is this imported extremist socio-religious discourse that can be held responsible for much of Egyptian women’s subordinate status.
As we celebrate Egyptian Women’s Day, we should remember that our six beautiful, hard-working, high-achiever female ministers are at one end of the Egyptian women spectrum and that there are millions of other Egyptian women at the other end.
Our six ministers look and act like many other Egyptian women, perhaps most other Egyptian women, did until the late 1970s when extremist ideas began to enter the country. But many younger Egyptian women may not realise this.
They may not know that Egypt, which some might have seen as “not religious enough” or “not conservative enough” in the 1970s, was a better and safer place then than it is today when an atmosphere of frantic religiosity and extreme conservatism rules.
Sexual harassment then was not as current as it is today. Ethics and manners were not as poor as they are today. Women were not viewed or treated as sexual objects under layers of dark cloth as they are by some religious extremists today.
To all the women of Egypt, Happy Women’s Day. Good luck with your attempts to rediscover yourselves. Let us hope our male counterparts can leave aside their sexual obsessions for long enough to join us in our attempts to rediscover our common humanity.
The writer is a journalist at Al-Hayat newspapaer.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly