Doaa Abdelaal is an Egyptian Feminist specializing in producing knowledge, networking and lobbying for women’s issues. She has worked extensively with women in politics in the MENA region and is also a board member of Women Living Under Muslim Laws Solidarity Network. You can follow her @DoaaAbdelaal.
Egypt has an elected president as of June 30, 2012, Mohamed Morsy. Some Egyptians are happy, others are not, but the common sensation is worrying because the newly elected president belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) group and was nominated by its political party, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). Both present a conservative and right wing ideology. Officially banned, the group has worked for years underground, although it has never stopped nominating candidates for parliamentarian elections even during Mubarak’s time.
Morsy has been receiving congratulating telegrams and phone calls from different sides of the world. I will try to avoid in this article presenting my disappointment in national and international analysts who introduce the election as a good step for Egypt, ignoring the fact that the political scene is manipulated by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SACF) which has been running the country since February 2011, and continues to do so after dissolving the parliament elected by the constitutional court a few days before the final results of the presidential elections (Morsy has just reinstated it which is now creating huge confusion). The legislative responsibilities are in the hands of SCAF now, leaving the Executive branch to the president and the to-be chosen cabinet.
In the midst of this chaotic scene, a heated discussion about Morsy’s wife started. Many articles and blogs (I could list at least twenty) discussed her way of dressing, others discussed how far she represents Egyptian women, a third group compared her to Suzanne Mubarak, the ex-First Lady. As a reply to people who mocked her veil, many said, “She looks like my mother or the neighbor next door;” others adopted a very clear classist critique calling those who criticized her representation of Egyptian women “the bourgeois created by Mubarak regime,” although I would not say she belong to the low or poor class. Najlaa (her name) is married to a university professor who studied for his PhD in the United Sates and a mother of five children, four of whom are educated to university degree and one of whom is in high school. The comparison between her and Suzanne Mubarak focused on the dressing style, the type of education received and the political affiliation. Najlaa belongs to the MB group although her specific role is unknown. When interviewed by AP she emphasized that she doesn’t want to be the First Lady but better to be the First Maid.
Personally, I could care less about the discussion. She is not the elected figure and I have the same feelings towards this conversation as I have towards the different news stories replicated through international media about Morsy possibly appointing a woman Vice President. I don’t believe that the position holder will be of any substantial effect if the chosen “woman” comes from any other political groups or the FJP or even from within the Muslim Sisters (the female wing of the MB). It is a consultive role and the president could displace them at any time as it s not an elected position. But it will be funny if discussions then will focus on how she is dressed rather than on how she will contribute to the change of things.
I find such discussion evolves towards a dangerous direction which is stereotyping the position of the “First Lady”. This happened with Suzanne Mubarak, who headed every initiative and work related to women in Egypt since 2000 with the establishment of the National Council of Women which she headed as well. All laws and decrees related to women under Mubarak are tied to her and accordingly for the last months the conservative groups as the MB called to abolish them using this argument: Mubarak was corrupted; his wife was the same, so the laws issued are all corrupted and do not suit Egyptian society. The fact that these laws was the results of research and advocacy work of women groups was always ignored and laws of Nationality, combating FGM, divorce laws and others are all attributed to the “First Lady”. Simply because when it was time to issue the laws the real work of women groups were ignored and her vision and the women who looked like her was the only one considered.
Suzanne promoted an image of women that are urbanized, sophisticated and well endowed socially and financially, and the focus on Najlaa could promote the image of the “Good/Ideal Woman” that the MB and the FJP would like to sell: the image of an obedient wife, a dedicated mother and a committed Muslim. Both images put “ALL” women in one type, ignoring the diversity of the Egyptian society.
In a time as Egypt is witnessing, Egyptians are revising their value system and challenging it. Therefore it is very dangerous to present any “ideal” images or types. For decades, the state in Egypt sold this to the society, if you want to be a “good/ideal” citizen you should follow the rules even if they are enforced by a corrupted regime. The image of a good woman was the “Suzanne” and the ladies of the ex-ruling party, the National Democratic Party. No other women could be seen next to her, other women could only be shown as the recipients of her good work in introducing “women” laws, they could be seen as the house heading females receiving small loans from organizations she headed, and women ministers or parliamentarians looked mostly like her. There was no space for other examples from the Egyptian society.
The continuing revolution in Egypt since January 25, 2011 is a message from and to the society that “The People Create The Rules” and the regime should negotiate and compromise. It is very important that the focus of discussion is on developing the democratic scene in Egypt. The constitution drafting could be jeopardized due to the fact that its committee is working away from the media attention because the media is busy with the First Lady’s wardrobe. The parliament is dissolved and no one knows what will happen to a large network of laws and policies that harm the Egyptian citizens more than working for their benefits, including family and personal status laws.
The women’s movement in Egypt is working hard to deepen the discussion, focusing on how women’s choices are perceived. Women and precisely the young generation who participated and orchestrated the toppling of Mubarak and the fight against militarism are teaching the society that freedom of choice is the core of human rights. The movement doesn’t want to lose the minimum it struggled for years to get and was claimed to be given to them by Mubarak’s regime. It wants more and in the course they also work against the images of the “Ideal Woman” imposed by the FJP women or their “charitable” methods in dealing with women’s rights.
It is not a simple struggle and the way to achieve the requested demands and many others will be full of ups and downs but I assume the results will be well-deserved. Focusing on finding a “Lady” for the revolution or for the state will harm the struggle. We are not looking for a face but our well-deserved space; let’s focus on this.