THE BIZARRE AND DEPRESSING POSITION OF EGYPT’S MUSLIM WOMEN ON WOMEN RIGHTS
In the previous article, I talked about the Egyptian Muslims’ opinion on the position of women in society, which was revealed by the Pew Research Center which was conducted in Egypt in 2011/2012 and published in 2014. The result was depressing: most Egyptian Muslims hold no much respect for women, and do not believe they should be treated equal to men.
The study which included 1798 Muslims included both men and women. And the results that I included in the previous article are representative of both women and men. Reading these results without separating views according to sex may be misleading. One would expect women to be keener about women’s rights than men. Is that right for Egypt’s Muslims’ women?
I will rely on the same Pew survey and on the UNESCO’s report on female genital mutilation to assess the position of Muslim women in Egypt on women rights.
FIRST: THE PEW SURVEY “THE WORLD’S MUSLIMS: RELIGION, POLITICS AND SOCIETY” (2014)
As mentioned in the previous article, the survey asked four questions: Must a wife always obey her husband? Should a wife have the right to divorce her husband? Should women decide for themselves if they wear a veil in public or should it be imposed on them? And should sons and daughters have equal inheritance rights? The questions were asked to both men and women. The survey managed to classify the answers by gender in two questions (the veil question and the equal inheritance one); and studying the gender differences in these question is of paramount importance to tell us about the position of the Muslim women on these issues that are strongly related to al woman’s freedom to choose for herself (the veil question) and to equality between men and women (the inheritance question).
Let’s study the answers:
- Should women decide for themselves if they wear a veil in public or should it be imposed on them? Only 46% of Egyptian Muslims said a woman should be free to decide whether she wear a veil in public or not: the majority (54%) do not think women should have that freedom. The graph shows the answers given by Muslims in 39 countries, including Egypt.
Now, let’s study the following table that divides opinion according to gender:
Although the difference between Muslim women and Muslim men is statistically significant (+15%), only 54% of women said that veiling in public should be left for women themselves to decide whether to wear or not. It’s worrying that 46% of Muslim women believe that the veil should be imposed on them by others. Egypt’s Muslim women forfeit their freedom to choose whether to wear or not wear a veil in public.
- Should sons and daughters have equal inheritance rights? Only 26% of Egyptian Muslims answer positively. 74% do not think daughters should be given equal share to boys.
The graph shows that only 26% of Egyptian Muslims (men and women) believe that a daughter should inherit on equal basis to a son. This is very bad result. But do Muslim women score higher on this issue? Is there any indication that they are more for equality between women and men on this issue at least? Here is the table that shows the gender difference:
The result is shocking: the difference between Muslim women’s opinion on this and Muslim men’s opinion is not significant (only a +4% difference): more shocking is that only 28% of Egypt’s Muslim women thought a daughter should inherit equal to a son; and 72% said a girl should not inherit of her father the same share like her brother. Here, Egypt’s Muslim women forfeit their right for equality in inheritance.
SECOND: THE UNESCO REPORT ON FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION (FGM) (2013)
The UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) published in July 2013 its Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A statistical overview and exploration of the dynamics of change, and found that the prevalence of FGM in Egypt was 91% in women between 15 and 49 years. Egypt had one of the highest prevalence of FGM in all 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East where FGM was concentrated. It was also the country with the most girls and women with FGM (27.2 million at least). You can read my study on this by visiting here.
What do Egyptian women think of FGM? And how many of them support FGM, and do they differ significantly from men in that? One would expect women who are the victims of this barbaric procedure that harms them enormously to be overwhelmingly against it. But, is it? Look at the following table that shows the comparative support for FGM in the age group 15-49 years, who have heard of the procedure, between boys/men and girls/women:
|FGM should continue||57%||54%|
|FGM should stop||26%||35%|
You can immediately see the depressing figures: there is no real big difference between men and women on their support for FGM: more men tend to support it, but the majority of women in Egypt (54%) do too. Only 35% of women in Egypt want the barbaric procedure to stop. On this support/no support for FGM issue, Egypt joins Gambia, Somalia, Sierra Leon, Guinea and Mali.
FGM of course is also prevalent within the Copts, and I have explained in previous articles 1 and 2 how that was introduced into Coptic society in the Middle Ages of Egypt as a matter of societal pressure from the Muslims, whereas in the Muslim society the procedure relies mainly on the Traditions of Muhammad and the religious teachings of the two prevalent mazhabs of fiqh in Egypt: Shafi’ism and Malikism. Within the Copts, there is no religious element to this shameful procedure. While 92% of Muslim women 15-49 years had FGM, 74% of Coptic women of the same age group had it. The future is brighter for the Copts, though. The support for FGM in the age group 15-49 years in boy/men and girls/women who have heard of the procedure is much, much less. Here are the figures for the Copts:
|FGM should continue||20%||22%|
The Egyptian Muslim women, who experience discrimination and oppression, pose us with some difficult questions. As I said, one would expect them to be overwhelmingly against any restrictions on their freedoms and equality with Muslim men. The sad reality is that they are not. Only a minority of Egyptian Muslim women aspire for a freer and equal society that treats men and women alike. These are the ones that continue the great women liberation movement in Egypt that started in the beginning of twentieth century. The majority of Egypt’s Muslim women are resigned to their lot, and accept their inferior position within society, influence in that by Islam.
This is sad on two fronts: first, it is sad as it means Egypt’s Muslim women will continue to be deprived of the type of freedom and equality their men enjoy; second, it is sad because, as I repeatedly said, women’s rights in Egypt are intertwined with that of the Copts: a progress in women’s rights in Egypt means a progress of Coptic rights – and vice versa.
How can one explain the position of Muslim women in Egypt on their rights? The example of the slave, who is reduced by his slavery to a wretched condition in which he loses the confidence in himself and his own worth and entitlement to the same dignity and rights as his master’s, comes to mind. Alternatively, it is the toxic effect of religion that makes a woman accepts her inferior position in society without questioning.
If our rights as Copts and liberal Muslims are to be advanced – nay if Egypt is to progress and become a modern country for all – women’s rights must be respected. But, for the time being, it seems that the worst enemy (or second worst at least) of women’s rights are Muslim women themselves.