Thursday, December 27, 2012

Humanism, Feminism and the Egyptian Constitution

I don't often comment on international stories, because there are other blogs that do so more comprehensively and with more depth. I try to keep my focus local, but sometimes I feel the need to branch out, and my recent participation in Amnesty International's Write-for-Rights campaign got me interested in several cases of international human rights violations (as well as a few in the United States.)

It is within the framework of my Humanism that I approach the subject of the new Egyptian constitution, signed into law yesterday by President Mohamed Morsi after being adopted under controversial and suspect circumstances by the Constituent Assembly. Of particular concern to Humanists should be the provision that guarantees "freedom of religion" to believers in the three Abrahamic faiths: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Non-believers under this constitution have no rights.

There is also a prohibition against blasphemy in the form of "insulting the prophets" rather than a protection of the right to free speech.

Also, feminists and women's rights activist are upset that their voices were not heard during the writing and ratification of the new constitution. Though there is some language in the constitution that might be regarded as establishing some form of equality between the sexes, such as:
Citizens are equal before the law and are equal in general rights and duties without discrimination between them based on gender, origin, language, religion, belief, opinion, social status or disability... The State is committed to taking all measures to establish equality between women and men in political, cultural, economic and social life and all other fields without prejudice to the provisions of Islamic Sharia.
...the State provides mother and child services for free and guarantees for women health, social, and economic care, inheritance right and adjustment between her family duties and work in society.
The first statement doesn't go far enough and the second smacks of paternalistic protection and a promise to marginalize women into traditional and culturally accepted roles.

The protesters chanted, “A woman’s crown is her liberation!”
Mona Abd al-Radi, the secretary-general of the Union of the Women’s Organization of Cairo, and one of eight who cut her hair, said that the action was a reference to the daughter of Pharaoh Akhnaton, who cut her hair in grief that the priests were persecuting her father and had struck him blind with their spells.
It is possible that some of these demonstrators were Coptic Christians and were referring to Corinthians 11:2-15, which says a woman’s hair is her crown. They were rejecting this sentiment. They are said to belong to the organization, “Daughters of Egypt.”
They were upset by the passage of the new, Muslim Brotherhood constitution, and also by reports that fundamentalists stopped some women from going into polling stations to vote in the referendum on it.
They carried posters saying, “Your constitution is invalid,” “Don’t you dare try to marginalize the role of women,” and “A woman’s crown is not her hair, a woman’s crown is her liberty.”
Inna Scevchenko and Alia al-Mahdi
This brings to mind another protest by the "radical" group FEMEN, who posed naked outside the Egyptian Embassy in Stockholm to protest the ratification and signing of the Egyptian constitution. Anti-Islamist Egyptian female activist Alia al-Mahdi posed naked with a prop labeled "Coran" and the words "Sharia is not constitution" painted on her body. She also held an Egyptian flag. One of the other women posing with Alia is Inna Scevchenko, a leader of FEMEN France.

I chose to protest this way because of the ideas that say that we do not own our bodies and that we are public property, as people are the ones who decided what should be done with our bodies.
Aside from the predictable outrage and dismissals from conservative Islamist and Egyptian sources there is also a substantial backlash from more liberal voices.
Mahmoud Afifi, spokesperson for Egypt’s liberal April 6 Movement described Alia’s nude protest as “obscene,” saying in a Twitter post that she was “misleading” people by claiming to represent all those who oppose the constitution.

Egyptian singer Amr Mustapha lamented Alia’s nude protest, saying it would only help President Muhammed Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood group win the constitutional referendum.
These are political considerations. The question is not so much as whether Alia and FEMEN's message is right as it is with how the message was expressed. What we are talking about here is messaging, and whether the tone and means of delivery are helpful rather than hurtful to the cause of a more secular constitution. The fact is that empowered women, naked or clothed, are a threat to a conservative Islamist sense of a good society. Part of living in a free and open society is that occasionally some people will put forth messages or adopt messaging strategies that offend or are in some way distasteful.

Sara M. Salem takes her critique into deep feminist waters in her article, FEMEN's Neocolonial Feminism: When Nudity Becomes a Uniform. Salem's centers on the idea that FEMEN seems to think that their version of feminism is the only true feminism, and that their insistence on rejecting the veil and hijab are in some way neo-colonial. European women are once again telling Arab and Islamic women how they should dress, think and behave under this analysis.

Honestly, I have issues with Salem's piece. First, I'm not so sure that FEMEN considers themselves the only way to press for feminist issues. They are merely louder than most. Beyond that, though, I think many of the same arguments Salem uses against FEMEN and in favor of the veil could be used to justify all manners of other repression against women, including female genital mutilation. Why should European women, after all, be allowed to impose their standard of intact genitalia on women from other countries?

In truth, there is little difference between Mona Abd al-Radi's protest, in which she cut her hair, and Alia al-Mahdi posing nude. Both are radical acts, the only difference is the context. In some places, a woman revealing her face, or even a bit of her forearm, might be considered a radical act, worthy of being stoned to death. In cutting her hair, Mona Abd al-Radi was rejecting traditional female hair styles. Sure, her protest had a mythic resonance when she brought up the daughter of Pharaoh Akhnaton cutting her hair in grief, but she was also challenging gender stereotypes.

Alia al-Mahdi is doing the same thing. Cutting her hair while living in exile in Stockholm would not be the least bit newsworthy. Her story would have gone nowhere, and her voice ignored. But posing nude, revealing what society deems must remain hidden as a political protest over the control of women's bodies, was her choice of speech.

There is some coverage of the new Egyptian constitution that deals with its critical lack of human rights protections, but more focus is being being brought to bear on the political consequences for President Morsi than on the broken promise of political power for women, secularists and other marginalized people.

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