The recent electoral victory by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has elicited much political analysis. The nation’s internal tensions (between the army and the civilian government) and foreign relations (with Iran and Israel) deserve much attention, given Egypt’s influence in the region.
However, few have scrutinized the implications of the Brotherhood’s victory for roughly 40 million Egyptians – namely, women.
Prior to the June election, the Brotherhood stood for women’s rights. Yet, it maintained that only a male Muslim could serve as president. A few candidates of the Freedom and Justice Party (the political arm of the Brotherhood) made controversial remarks about female circumcision, opposing its criminalization. In May, Egyptian human-rights groups protested the offer of free female circumcision by a roving medical clinic in a village south of Cairo. The clinic was operated by local members of the FJP, although the Brotherhood denied authorizing the project. In addition, one of its high-profile female candidates, Azza al-Garf, has questioned the right of women to divorce.
In her powerful Foreign Policy essay “Why do they hate us?” Mona Eltahawy lays bare a number of uncomfortable truths about the status of women in Egypt (and other Arab societies). In her Egyptian homeland, more than 80 per cent of women experienced sexual harassment according to a 2008 survey. Let’s not forget the humiliating “virginity tests” inflicted by the army on female protesters in the spring of 2011. According to last year’s Global Gender Gap report (which measures how well countries divide their resources and opportunities among their male and female populations), Egypt ranks 123rd out of 135.
Does the Brotherhood have a program to address these glaring inequalities? According to S ondos Asem, senior editor of the Muslim Brotherhood’s official English-language website and high-ranking member of the FJP, the answer is yes.
While sharing Ms. Eltahawy’s concerns, Ms. Asem believes that the roots of misogyny must be addressed through a holistic approach. Illiteracy and poverty are the drivers of so many ills; reduction of these twin blights is a high priority for the FJP. At the same time, the government must enforce legislation to eradicate female genital mutilation, and protect women from widespread harassment. The FJP platform, according to Ms. Asem, encourages female entrepreneurship, since economic security for women is essential for societal change. The FJP also aims to counteract the negative perception of women’s political participation by promoting the active participation of women.
President Mohamed Morsi has made good on this promise by announcing that a woman will be named to the position of vice-president, commenting to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour: “Women’s rights are equal to men … There shouldn’t be any kind of distinction between Egyptians except that is based on the constitution and the law.”
It remains to be seen whether the Brotherhood will indeed advance the status of women, given the conservative nature of the organization. Or, if it will acquiesce to hard-liners who seek to control women’s choices.
The situation of women won’t change overnight. Yet, the overall health of a society is inexorably linked to the status of its women. A nation that ignores this reality does so at its own peril. We can begin by complementing political analyses of the world’s hot spots with a comprehensive view of the prognosis for women. Ignoring half the population is never a good idea.