It’s ironic that the turmoil directed against the Egyptian Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni regarding his recent statements about the veil coincides with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, as designated by the United Nations to be November 25 of every year. A problematic issue worldwide, violence against women is not unique to a single religion or civilization. If physical violence is what is meant, surely it is worth dedicating a day to it, however what we now face is a new kind of violence against women in the Arab world. There is a violence in the argumentation and discussion of every detail concerning women; her work, clothes, political participation, voice, where and when she goes out and comes home, her body and her mind, and on and on to the point where the issue veers off the essence of the problem and off its natural course to become a card that is played by the different political trends and governments in the Arab world. This casts another kind of veil on the issue, one that conceals the real matter and makes the debate that surrounds the hijab in and of itself a veil that prevents us from seeing the truth.
Disregarding the fact that the minister of culture’s statements were blown out of proportion to become a political crisis that traveled far and wide beyond Egypt’s borders, prompting preachers in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere to express their views on the issue. Even an imam in a New York mosque launched an attack on Hosni, which indicates the presence of a climate that thrives and sustains on searching for crises such as these, feeding on concerns that retain the heat and ‘freshness’ of issues related to the Muslim identity, furthermore revealing a need for a constant vigilance to protect it – which keeps the protectors of the Muslim identity active, influential and the masters of the scene. For who else would lead the ranks armed with the weapons of rhetoric and statements when the sanctity of Islam is threatened!
Regardless of all these circumstances and observations, the real women’s issue from my point of view, is our embroilment, with all the complications entailed, concerning her role and ‘definition’. Is she a being with full rights and duties? Have we reached a cultural and social equality that makes us gratuitously accept, without any force, women as complete beings who can naturally do everything a man is capable of in public life through their naturally inherent capabilities and without the imposition of phallocentric measures and regulations on them? They are imposed on them in a way that makes them deliver manly speeches about women perhaps even harsher than those made by men. However, we also see ‘educated’ women who propagate and advance the notion of the incapacity of women and their inability to engage in political action or contribute to public work – this from women who graduated from American and European universities. In cases like these, the situation reaches the state of a tragic self-attack.
But let us set aside the arguments over the discrepancies among Islamic jurists regarding hijab and niqab, and even the study of the hijab and its contexts, the social, historical and perhaps even environmental, even though it is a rich and compelling study. The main emphasis will be on the generic ‘status’ of women, including those who are veiled in public and political life, for example.
In the Bahraini parliamentary elections, which were held only a few days ago, not a single woman emerged victorious except one who stood unopposed and won by default – almost by mere chance! [Lateefa al Gaood won her seat before the polling began after her two opponents withdrew from the race, making her the first woman to serve in an elected parliament in the Gulf]. This failure to be voted into parliament marks a second for Bahraini women; the first being the elections in 2002. What is remarkable, according to an Asharq Al-Awsat report, is that their failure this time is more glaring, since women managed to reach the runoff and had a bigger chance in the previous election and only lost the vote by a small margin. During this past election, however, women failed to reach the runoff, which indicates that they lost the vote by a ‘knockout’, as the report stated. Furthermore, what’s interesting is that the number of registered voters in Bahrain, 295,000 voters in total, of which slightly over half were women and yet these women did not vote for the candidates of their same sex. Clearly, the reason is that these women were either restricted by the directives of their ‘patriarchal guardians’, or they have actually reached a truly tragic state in which they are opposing their own cause and themselves by refraining to vote for even a single woman. Some might deem this an exaggeration and claim that women in our societies vote for the candidates with the best programs, regardless of their gender, which is an elevated level of electoral maturity and political awareness that I do not think we have attained as of yet. Likewise, the same applies to the recent Kuwaiti parliamentary election, the first to include women as candidates and voters, and what was the outcome? Null!
Why? Why are women cancelled out of social and political structures, and from public life? If the problem – and it is indeed that ¬– is that some Arab countries lack the laws that can allow for women to exercise their political rights, then why haven’t things changed in the countries where these rights were granted and this legislation passed? Some might say ‘do not jump to conclusions; it is still the beginning and the experience needs time,’ to which I would agree and hope that it would be an experience that bears radiant fruit rather than just dry foliage. It is worth noting that only parliamentary elections have been singled out, and that we would have been confronted by poor results for women in the Arab world, not just the Gulf region, if we had considered other domains such as municipal, student or trade union elections, or even women’s status in public work positions.
It is also true that there are some women who assumed high-ranking positions in the Arab world, however we know that it is not by virtue of genuine social reinforcement but rather to serve higher political ends and supreme decisions, as in the case of Mona Jassem al Kawari, who was appointed as the first woman judge in the Supreme Civil Court by the king of Bahrain – and yet still, the Bahraini women failed to win a parliamentary seat in two elections. The situation is much the same in Qatar where a woman was appointed as the dean of the Shariah faculty [Aesha al Manaaei at Qatar University in November 2003], but when it comes to the political arena that is a result of popular election, they have not achieved anything. The same applies to Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and undoubtedly Saudi Arabia.
It is a real problem that lies in rectifying the course and reforming the whole women’s issue that causes us all distress; not just the fundamentalist trends but all of society as a whole. Everything related to the issue of women affects everyone. Take the example of Dr Suad Salih, a woman who specializes in Islamic jurisprudence [she is professor of comparative fiqh and former dean of the women’s college at Al Azhar] who just a few weeks ago said that the niqab is not a duty that women should follow and that the female ‘sahaba’ [companions and contemporaries] of the Prophet (pbuh) did not know of that tradition. This caused a campaign against Dr Suad led by those who were the protectors and advocates of women’s causes, and mind you, she’s a professor in Islamic jurisprudence unlike Farouk Hosni whose critics proclaim his lack of knowledge in the field. But the matter is not about the level of knowledge in jurisprudence – it’s about banning discussion about women unless it is confined within limits.
I am also reminded of the stances and views of Al Azhar’s late Sheikh Abdul Halim Abu Shaqqa which can be found in his monumental encyclopedia ‘Tahrir al Mar’ah fi ‘Asr al Risala’ (The Emancipation of Women During the Prophet’s Time), in which he demonstrates that women did not wear face veils during the Prophet’s (pbuh) time and that they mingled with society and were not – as some would want today – isolated and only preoccupied with family and wifely concerns.
What was indeed astonishing was the statement issued by an intellectual woman from the Egyptian golden age of enlightenment, Dr. Zeinab Radwan, deputy speaker of the Peoples Assembly who was nominated for this post over a Muslim Brotherhood candidate. When asked to comment on the criticism that Farouk Hosni’s was being subjected to by her MP contemporaries, particularly when she herself is not veiled, she said: “They were expressing their opinions on the matter.” Regarding the statements made by intellectuals and human rights organizations which criticized the manner by which the MPs had discussed the views expressed by the minister of culture, she said, “Everyone is free to express their opinion.” When asked whether she felt embarrassment for not wearing a veil, Dr Zeinab said, “It cannot be an accusation of exposure inasmuch as a man not wearing a fez is exposing himself!” Undoubtedly, the answer suggests the deputy speaker’s embarrassment and her inability to come up with an answer to save her from the situation – so she just gave an irrelevant one.
This is where the matter leads to the importance and priority of social, intellectual and educational reform – it is the most urgent discussion that precedes all else. Time will tell what the responses of Kifaya [a major Egyptian oppositional political party] and the civil society organizations, all of whom stood in the same trench with the Muslim Brotherhood in the battle against the incumbent regime – as they see the Brotherhood leading the street, parliament and the press – and even the members of the ruling party – to a position that contradicts their enlightened approach regarding women, or so we assume. What will they do!
‘Women, women’, a huge headline among the deep and genuine reform in Arab and Muslim societies – so when will this great mission be accomplished?