I have recently reread the essay Women in Egypt by Angela Davis, which is available in her essay collection Women, Culture and Politics. The article was originally written in 1985 and published in Women: A World Report.
This essay is an account of Davis’ trip to Egypt and the discussions with women’s rights activists in the country. It also includes her reflections on how to work in solidarity with women’s movements in developing countries without succumbing to the sensationalism, paternalism, and sometimes downright racism of Western feminist movements that claim to want to “liberate” and “save” women in developing countries from their sexist male counterparts. Western feminists often do this without knowing much about the societies in question and not taking into consideration the dignity and agency of the women they claim they want to help. As Davis writes:
When I initially agreed to travel to Egypt for the purpose of documenting my experiences with women there, I did not yet know that the sponsors of this project expected me to focus specifically on issues relating to the sexual dimension of women’s pursuit of equality. I was not aware, for example, that the practice of clitoridectomy was among the issues I would be asked to discuss. Since I was very much aware of the passionate debate still raging within international women’s circles around the efforts of some Western feminists to lead a crusade against female circumcision in African and Arab countries, once I was informed about the particular emphasis of my visit, I seriously reconsidered proceeding with the project.
As an Afro-American woman familiar with the sometimes hidden dynamics of racism, I had previously questioned they myopic concentration on female circumcision in U. S. feminist literature on African women. The insinuation seems frequently to be made that the women in the twenty or so countries where this outmoded and dangerous practice occurs would magically ascend to a state of equality once they managed to throw off the fetters of genital mutilation or rather , once white Western feminists (whose appeals often suggest that this is the contemporary “white women’s burden”) accomplished this for them. (Davis pages 117-118)
It is important for those reading this essay to know that Angela Davis is politically positioned on the left and so most of her encounters are with Egyptian women who are also politically on the left. However, Davis is very frank about the fact that she is meeting mostly with women who are from the socio-economically privileged and urban classes and regrets that time and language barriers do not permit her to connect more with peasant and working class Egyptian women. Just as Western societies are complex so are non-Western societies, so assuming that the perspectives of the most privileged of a society are the norm is counterintuitive.
Davis has an opportunity to meet with several of Egypt’s prominent progressive intellectuals and writers such as Sherif Hetata, husband of Egyptian Feminist, novelist and founder of the Arab Women’s Solidary Association (AWSA), Nawal el Saadawi; artist Inji Eflatoon, one of Egypt’s first socialist feminists to link gender and class oppression, who we learn has painted a portrait of Davis; Dr. Latifa al Zayyat, who wrote the acclaimed novel Open Door (that was turned into a film starring the legendary Egyptian actress Faten Hamama (ex-wife of the more internationally renowned Egyptian actor Omar Sharif-he converted to Islam in order to marry her); Fathia al Assal, one of Egypt’s first female playwrights and head of the Progressive Women’s Union.
Davis emphasizes the economic oppression experienced by Egypt’s women, particularly after Sadat’s reforms to Egypt’s economy moving it from Nasserite socialism to free market capitalism. This has resulted in increased unemployment in Egypt. This process was called Infitah. As Al-Ali explains:
Infitah not only constituted the declared economic policy of privatization and open markets, but its laissez faire undertone also extended into the realm of the government, administration, migration, foreign policy etc. (Ayubi, 1991). In other words, infitah did not exclusively refer to economic liberalization, but also entailed a neoliberal reform of the state sector and a realignment of international alliances, that is, a rapprochement with the United States.
As Davis and most of the Egyptian women she interviews are Marxists, they constantly link Egyptian women’s oppression to Sadat’s economic liberalization and the forces of global capitalism. For readers who are sympathetic to Marxism this connection might seem forced. However, I recommend the readers reflect on the fact that several Middle Eastern countries that are well-integrated into global capitalism and have strong ties to the United States are also incredibly behind in terms of women’s rights, for example Saudi Arabia, where women are not permited to drive, and Kuwait where women only got the right to vote in the last few years. Capitalism and close political ties to the West do not equal women’s empowerment or liberation.
Davis and the women she encounters also see that sexual liberation does not automatically equal women’s liberation. Davis reflects on the West’s sexual revolution due to the availability of The Pill and how although this made it easier for women to control their reproductive health it did not necessary create equal romantic relationships. Davis reminds Western readers that women in the West still face many barriers and this is humbling and helps the reader see the Egyptian women Davis writes about as equals who we can learn from and not victims to be pitied. I think we in the West need to consider the ways in which sexual liberation without real political and socio-economic liberation for women have actually put women at a disadvantaged and played into patriarchy.
It is clear that it is impossible to focus on Egyptian women’s sexual oppression without addressing their socio-economic and political oppression. The fact that several of the women activists Davis interviewed had been imprisoned under Sadat for their political dissidence makes it quite clear that women’s oppression in Egypt goes beyond sexual oppression based on religious fundamentalism.
Angela Davis was visiting Egyptian women activists during a pivotal moment, as it was during the 1980s that women’s organizations developed out of politically leftist organizations in Egypt. As Al-Ali writes:
In an article on feminist activism in the 1980’s, Akram Khater argues that the movement was divided into two main camps: Nawal El-Sa’dawi and the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (AWSA) on one hand, and Fathia Al-Assal, the head of the Progressive Women.s Union, on the other (Khater, 1987). However, the narratives of several women activists involved in forming a coalition at the time provide evidence of a much broader spectrum and more diversified movement than that described by Khater. The coalition called Committee for the Defence of the Rights of the Woman and the Family consisted of leftists, Nasserists, Wafdists, enlightened Islamists, women from the Arab Lawyers. Union, AWSA and other interested individuals (Hi-jab, 1988). The committee included mainly party affiliates and independent organizations, while charity groups have been increasingly absorbed into the growing NGO movement.
The very act of forming the emergency coalition, when the constitutionality of the Personal Status Law was challenged in 1985, represented a break from prevalent nationalist- and liberal-modernist discourses in Egypt that only focused on women’s rights in the public sphere as part of creating new societies. (Hatem, 1993:42).
Davis was visiting Egypt at a great moment for observing Egyptian women’s political engagement on women’s rights issues. The resistance of Islamist social and political forces to the amended Personal Status Law, which manifested into a challenge to the amended laws constitutionality, created an opportunity for Egyptian women’s rights activists to directly challenge women’s oppression in the private sphere. The Egyptian Personal Status Law had been amended officially in 1979, the first major amendment and revision since 1929. As Al-Ali explains:
Under the influence of the president’s wife, Jehan Sadat, reform of the Personal Status Law (governing marriage, divorce, custody, etc.) was proposed. The reformed law, labelled Jehan’s Law, granted women legal rights in marriage, polygamy, divorce and child custody; it was implemented in 1979 by presidential decree along with another law that introduced changes to women’s representation in parliament.
In 1985, women’s rights activists had to fight to maintain these amendments as the Mubarak government was being pressured to scrap the amendments due to the Islamists’ challenge to its constitutionality. Egyptian women’s rights activists would end up winning this battle as Al-Ali explains:
The early years of the Mubarak regime were characterized by a search for stabilization and consolidation. In 1985, the Personal Status Law, which had been at the centre of the debate on the state.s legitimacy, was amended due to strong opposition from the Islamists who perceived it to be anti-Islamic. The revised law abandoned many of the rights that women had attained in the earlier version (Bibars, 1987). A strong women’s lobby used the 1985 Nairobi Conference.marking the end of the decade for Women.to protest and pressure the government to refor-mulate the law. Two months after its cancellation (just prior to the Nairobi Conference), a new law was passed that restored some of the benefits the 1979 version had provided.
Unfortunately, it would take the death of 12 year old Badour Shaker during her circumcision at the hands of a doctor for Egypt to offically ban female circumcision in 2007.
This essay is a great introduction to the secular leftist Egyptian women’s movement in the mid-80s and give interested readers some direction in pursuing further studies into Egyptian and Middle Eastern women’s movements.
The Woyingi Blogger’s Personal Reflections:
As a veiled practicing Muslim woman, the only real difficulty I had with Angela Davis’ essay was the dismissal of women’s engagement in religious leadership as a way of promoting women’s rights. I believe the fact that Davis and the activists she most closely identifies with are working from secular ideologies is a barrier to them truly engaging with the diversity of Egyptian women. (It is important to note that Egypt does not only have Muslims, although they are the majority. There are also Christians and Baha’is. Egypt also used to have a significant Jewish community but with the escalation of antagonism between Egypt and Israel, many Egyptian Jews were forced to leave Egypt.) Although Davis and her Egyptian counterparts connect the wearing of the veil/hijab with middle and upper class conformity because they observe that many peasant and working class women do not veil, they seem to underestimate their own class privilege and its influence on how they perceive the veil. My own personal experience with Egyptian and other women and men from Muslim majority countries has been somewhat challenging as they often equate my wearing of the veil with ignorance, lack of education, and lack of career ambition. Davis, through how she recounts her exchanges with veiled students, seems to connect wearing of the veil with a desire to stay at home and not work. I don’t agree with this and I don’t believe that the achievements of veiled Muslim women in academics and various careers around the world supports such a connection.
That said, there are obvious limits that taking a religiously based approach to Muslim women’s rights will impose and many of these limits cannot be tolerated in a truly free society. For example, an issue that has arisen in several Middle Eastern countries, most notably Lebanon, is a Muslim woman’s right to marry someone outside her faith. This is forbidden in Islamic Law, however it is a reality that women are doing this. Only a secular approach could address a reality like this. However, with the issue of female circumcision Islam can and has been useful in its eradication, particularly in Muslim diaspora communities. For example, when members of the Somali communities began to immigrate and meet other Muslims from countries where female circumcision is not practice it became clear that the practice was not religious but cultural and therefore not a requirement. I must note that female circumcision is not only practiced by Muslims but also by several other non-Muslim communities in Africa such as the Kikuyu of Kenya.
The veil is not inherently oppressive I believe. However, it is not inherently liberating either as some Muslim women have attested. I believe that the symbolic significance of wearing the veil changes based on one’s national, political, social, and economic context. As a Muslim woman living as a suspect minority in the West, my wearing of the veil could be interpreted as a form of resistance against Islamophobia and the pressures of Western conformity. However, if I were living in a country in which the veil was mandatory and one was forced to wear it by the government, this would not be the case.
The Women’s Movement in Egypt with Selected References to Turkey by Nadje S. Al-Ali (study available online)
Website of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (AWSA)
The Hidden Face of Eve by Nawal El Saadawi
Daughter of Isis: an Autobiography by Nawal El Saadawi, translated by Sherif Hetata
Western Eurocentrism and Perceptions of the Harem by Leila Ahmed (Essay available online)
Review of Latifa al-Zayyat The Open Door by Al Ahram Weekly available online
Check out my page on Egyptian Literature
Website for Women Living Under Muslim Laws
Website for Women’s Islamic Initiative for Spirituality and Equality (WISE)