In the second part of DiA’s exclusive coverage of International Women’s Day, Cardiff University Journalism students Sara Maranon and Sandhya Kannan investigate how the revolution in Egypt is transforming the role of women within society. They spoke with Aya Faissal Abdel Dayem and Islam Sharaf, both of whom work for the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women, an NGO based in Cairo.
Aya Faissal Abdel Dayem is a young Egyptian woman wearing a veil, she makes her presentation emotive, soft and in relative quietness, but when talked to face to face, her voice is noticeably stronger and determined. Her ideas on women rights are focused in teaching women how to fend for themselves in their communities and how to individually make them aware of their rights and teach them how to demand them.
In the race for equal rights for women, in what position are we right now?
“We are in the middle, there’s a lot to be done right now, but it has to be pursued and have to ask for more because when you ask for more you preserve what you have. And then (I’m talking about Egypt) there are still laws that discriminate between men and women, discrimination on the work level and even on educational level. There’s a number of women who are illiterate, they make them drop out of school and their families use them to bring money, bring income to the family.
On the other side, they send boys to school. They force women, girls, to marry someone they don’t want to, whereas the men or boys are free to make a decision and marry the one they choose. That on many levels we need to work a lot, because women didn’t get what they wanted, we just want equality, not even more.”
Right now Egypt is living a time of change. Is that going to affect the women’s situation?
“Of course, they have already started. We used to have a lot of harassment in the streets, it’s like a tradition, we feel and men feel that women are weak so they harass her in the streets and bother her. Now, when we had the revolution in Tahir Square, there was no one, no women who reported even one case of harassment. It was really great. Everyone telling “be careful there is a woman, don’t touch her, ok?” So they started with this in the revolution to respect women, to respect them being not behind them but beside them, asking for freedom and asking the old regime to go out and asking to have an end. So I think it has already started, the revolution to have a progress in their rights, and afterwards they will have more respect and more freedom in the coming years”.
We ask Aya not only about the revolutionary current but also about the direction the Egyptian society was taking towards a more traditional view on religion, ways of life, and with it, women’s position in society and the veil.
Egyptian culture is still very linked to tradition and a more recent return to religious values. For Aya, despite her out-of-the-box ideas in other areas, these are still touchy subjects:
There has been a comeback of the veil within young women in Egypt, do you think is the signal of the return of more traditional values? And if so, will this affect the women’s rights?
“First I think it is a free choice. If it is a free choice, I’m a hundred per cent with it. If she’s forced to put the veil on and is truly against it…it is nothing to do with women rights. There is a huge religious awareness happening in Egypt, I respect women who wear the veil with all belief, if she believes in it let’s do it, if not, no. But you are right, now you go to Egypt, you go to Cairo and you find everyone, every girl having the veil. But sometimes it’s a tradition, in some levels of society it’s more tradition that obeying a religious rule”.
So are traditional values indeed coming back?
“I am not against tradition. If you find your tradition it’s a part of your identity, I think it has to do with identity nothing to do with women’s rights. Because I’m veiled as you can see, I studied in France, did a masters degree, moved to Lebanon…and then I’m here with you, without my family or anything. I don’t think it is effecting women’s rights, if she chooses to do it by her own, not forced”.
Trying to find a compromise between the more progressive ways of thinking and the adherence to tradition and religious values. Religion and conservative views on society have traditionally been linked to the position that women had in the society, a secondary role, at best. But it seems like the Egyptian society might be learning to separate both. Only time will tell if society will be able to manage both a return to its traditional roots and a more respectful and caring view on their women.
Do you think that traditional ways of thinking can be a threat to the progress of women’s rights?
“Sometimes yes. Because there’s traditional rules against women that have no logical reason. It’s just a tradition that we can skip, we don’t have to follow it, just think about it, we don’t have to follow it. Sometimes there is a misconception with Christian or Muslim or Islamic religion that they think it’s a rule, but that’s a misconception. And sometimes when you stick to tradition without thinking about it, yes, of course it affects women’s rights”.
Islam Sharaf unlike Aya came in touch with the organization in a professional context. He has his own story of how he came to care for the issue of women’s rights in his country:
“It was a good salary and a good position so I said ok, I’ll join the organization, I wasn’t totally convinced with women’s issues but by the time, when I started, I saw women in the communities, witnessed how are they suffering and the bad circumstances surrounding them I started to convince of what I’m doing. I saw myself changing from just having to work, to earn and to get money – to supporting the organization. Now I can say I fight for women’s rights with my heart.
Because I found this suffering in the communities, hidden in the communities; let me tell you a very important thing: I saw with my eyes how a girl, 16 years old was raped by her father, her brother, her uncle…and she didn’t even report to anyone. So yes, she has to find someone to make her fight. I was moved to be a very strong supporter”.
Sharaf went for sustaining a relatively traditional position on women’s rights to campaigning for them, still, even such a forward man like him cannot escape some traditional views on the subject of women’s work.
Here, before, we have heard a gentleman saying how he believed that women can’t do the same work as men, and how positive discrimination has left men hanging unprotected in society, what is your take on this issue?
Sharaf looks uncomfortable for the first time, although he still smiles:
“As I was saying, for myself, now I believe in women, they can do everything. However in the Middle East the situation is very hard. That women cannot do some jobs like men when you ask even in Egypt for Egyptian women, yes they can be Ministers, but they cannot be president.
It’s our thought maybe that women have, I don’t like to say ‘ a limited qualification’ but we used to, over hundreds of years, see women in certain places like a teacher… but I can’t imagine my president as a woman, for me, even me, with the Middle East mentality of now a days. Why? Because we are used to seeing government as a man, my father, had upper hand in the house, in most families. But I believe in equality, that women have a chance to have a job, a good income, to be in a very good environment. Of course! Even in the nature of woman I believe she can be a doctor, a contributor…but I can’t see her as president or in a field as a military”.
A revolution is being lived in Egypt right now; do you feel this is going to represent a change for women?
“Yes, because when you see girls in this square shouting and they have a loud voice, they say we don’t need this, we need our freedom. Yes, yes”.
“Yes they do, this way, I can’t imagine, let me tell you that we have protests in Egypt and we have very strong girls supporting, shouting at the policemen and saying ‘No’, and even organizing small protests. But to see such girls, specially girls not women, of like twenty or so, who believe in the issue, and believe that Egypt can change to better, I can’t believe that we have such girls in my country.
I didn’t want to join the protesters, but I joined them when I saw young people, girls and boys joining there with no fear. I told myself ‘A girl is in Tahir Square and you are not? You have to go. So yes it motivated and inspired me to do what she’s doing”.
There is a strong will for change to be perceived from both Egyptians, with enough contradictions thrown in between to suggest that Egyptians don’t want, need or are ready to let go of tradition. But why should they. Is it a bad or a good thing? Should Egyptians be forced to accept western views on the role of women in society, or is it better that they learn to accept and consider women with in the mind framework of their own tradition without disregarding but evolving into their own culture? Can westerns accept and respect that potential for growth without trying to smother it along with their culture? There is indeed evidence of such potential in Sharaf.
You have told us that overtime you changed your views on women, about them having jobs and good salaries. Do you feel that in the future, as you find out more you might get to see a woman even as a president?
Sharaf laughs and opens his arms: “Why not? For democratic life and the new institutions, why not? If she represents her vote well and has a good agenda for the country I might change my mind. Why not?”
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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