Commentary | Women in Egypt

The case for a secular state

“It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.” This quote, often misattributed to Che Guevara but belonging to Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, is quite a popular one. The message is certainly admirable, but most who trumpet it do not follow through. Yet now, throughout the Arab world, the demeaned and abused citizens who for so long were savagely dominated by oppressive dictators are rising up and resisting. Men and women together, fighting for their basic human rights, are unified and motivated. Their actions are courageous and should be applauded. However, a disturbing question looms over the masses of angry citizens. When the dust settles, the dictators fall, and a new period in history begins, will the women who so bravely participated in the revolution be forced back to their knees?

This question is particularly important in Egypt. Mubarak was ousted at a remarkable pace due in part to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic fundamentalist organization. While the part the Brotherhood played in Mubarak’s removal cannot be denied, its potential role in the “new” Egypt should be viewed critically by all people, and more specifically women. The Brotherhood has a notorious reputation for its misogynistic views, in part inspired by its strict adherence to Islam. Makarem El Deiry, the only female candidate representing the Brotherhood in 2005, claimed, “We [the Muslim Brotherhood] oppose battling against men’s superiority to women.” She also asserted that women in the West suffered from violence because they “have forgotten over there that men are superior to women.”

The likelihood of the Muslim Brotherhood controlling Egypt is uncertain, but it seems that if they are to attain power, Egypt’s legal system will most likely be made-up by Sharia law. In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Company, when asked if “it is still the primary aim of the Islamic Brotherhood to create an Islamic state in Egypt based on Sharia law?”, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Kamal El-Helbawi, stated, “[The Muslim Brotherhood] will promote that aim and objective.” This is particularly hypocritical in relation to an earlier statement where El-Helbawi claimed, “We are after a society that is built on, and a political system built on democratic values, freedom and equal social justice, equal opportunities and the dignity of human rights and the respect of human rights.”

A literal comprehension and application of Sharia law is not compatible with the type of society El-Helbawi describes nor with equality for women. Shaista Gohir, the British advisor on Muslim women, summed up the effect of Sharia law claiming, “Although Islam gives women numerous Islamic rights, many Muslim women would fear discrimination due to patriarchal and cultural reasons.” This fear stems from laws seeking to cement women in submissive roles in society and in the home. An example is the stance on female rape victims propagated by a fundamentalist interpretation of Sharia law which seeks for victims to be punished for their “adultery.”

In the 2008 movie Religulous, Bill Maher said, “It worries me that people are running my country… who believe in a talking snake.” What Maher refers to is fundamentalists, and while it is foolish to view all people of faith as being unable to participate adequately in government, Maher’s paranoia of a state which bases its laws on the platform of fundamentalist lunacy born out of the belief in fables put across by religion is completely justified. The presence of a secular government in Egypt, while only a part of the overall solution required, would allow for women to move a few rungs up the menacing ladder of oppression that they have climbed on for centuries, toward equality.

Davide Mastracci is a U0 Arts student. He can be reached at davide.mastracci@mail.mcgill.ca.


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