Among the most important phrases heard today is “women’s dignity,” which has not received the appreciation and attention it deserves.
Women have recently become the focus of concern. We speak of “women’s rights,” “women’s liberation,” “gender equality” and the like. All these things are important and desirable.
However, “women’s dignity” means all of the above and more, granting women their rights, acknowledging their contributions to humanity and working to empower and liberate their lives.
The concept is thus both more comprehensive and more precise than these other terms. Moreover, it does not only apply to women, as to strive for women’s dignity is to strive for human dignity as well.
Women’s dignity means the protection of women and of society as a whole. A man who respects women is one who does not treat them as inferior or as less important than men.
He does not harass them in the street or at work, and he never treats them violently at home. He opposes child marriage and would never marry off an underage daughter of his own. Nor would he deprive a daughter of her rights to an inheritance or an education.
The proper application of the principle of women’s dignity would put an end to the dangerous problem of domestic violence. This not only harms women, but also harms the whole family as well, especially children who can suffer from lasting psychological and emotional disturbances as a result of witnessing such violence.
The respect for women inspires women to respect men, and it is the foundation of their empowerment.
The latter, as I understand it, means that women are able to exercise all their rights and are therefore able to freely perform their duties and responsibilities to the best of their ability and in a manner that best serves society.
Whether at the office, in the factory, at school or in the home, women shoulder enormous responsibilities which require the conscientious application of a range of cultural values.
After all, women form the minds of children as much as by what they do as by what they say, especially given how instrumental they are in shaping the domestic climate and family relations.
Empowering women to perform their duties and responsibilities effectively is not quantifiable, however. The number of women in this post or that is not what counts.
What matters is that women are not deprived of positions or promotions for which they are qualified merely because they are women.
Competence, diligence, relations with colleagues and other criteria of this sort should govern selection processes for appointments and promotions, regardless of gender or other matters.
At the same time, the concepts of women’s dignity and empowerment oblige women to perform their duties and responsibilities as conscientiously as possible.
They mean that women should respect themselves and manifest this at the workplace through their diligence, commitment, punctuality, integrity and professionalism and other modes of behaviour that inspire respect.
The best way to prove that women are capable and professional is for women to demonstrate that they are indeed so.
Depriving girls of the right to education and the activities that build their intellects and depriving women of the right to work or to engage in sport (which inculcates team spirit and fair play) deprive the nation and the family of virtuous and vigorous wives and mothers.
The ignorant illiterate woman who is the victim of domineering, abusive and disrespectful behaviour and therefore lacks a sense of dignity and firmness of character is not well equipped to raise children and shape their future.
Indeed, they may often harm their families, as is illustrated by the tragic incident of an illiterate mother who fed her child a spoonful of poison by mistake instead of cough medicine.
Women’s dignity and empowerment are not just essential human and family rights, they are also prerequisites for social development. Women have crucial roles to play in overcoming major problems in Egypt, among them the population explosion which consumes the fruits of development.
Women who subscribe to the culture of small families can work to convince their husbands of its benefits.
Women can also help to combat waste and the excess consumption of resources including water, energy and foodstuffs. Women have a crucial role to play in regulating domestic consumption.
Women can also help deal with environmental problems such as waste disposal, since they have a crucial role to play in domestic hygiene and the recycling of waste.
Women in Egypt are sometimes compelled to raise families on their own, especially in cases of divorce or desertion, death or incapacitation of the husband, or the husband’s loss of employment.
According to official statistics, 38 per cent of Egyptian families are supported by women who perform duties as mother, father, breadwinner and housewife.
This is one of the factors that inspired Article 11 of the Constitution, which is dedicated to women and the need to protect them.
A mother, sister or grandmother who supports her family is able to do so because she has herself received an education and has managed to find work. In other words, women’s education and employment are not frills or marginal issues.
They are of vital importance to society. Safeguarding women’s dignity involves safeguarding a woman’s right to a dignified livelihood.
Respect for the dignity and prestige of women is also an authentic part of all Egyptian faiths. It is virtually a religious duty and not just a desirable principle.
It is part of our ancient heritage. Numerous poems on love, marriage and the family have come down to us from antiquity, and world-famous museums such as the Egyptian Museum in Turin, the British Museum and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo all house documents that confirm that pharaonic culture promoted marital relations characterised by love, affection and mutual respect.
The husband had specific social, legal and material responsibilities towards his wife, and women had the right to marry whom they pleased, with their parents’ approval, together with the rights to divorce and the custody of their children.
But what about men? Do women’s rights detract from men’s rights? Does attention to women come at the expense of men? Will the day come when we hear cries of “men’s lib,” I wonder?
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under headline: Guaranteeing women’s dignity