Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first civilian president, was sworn in on June 30, 2012. The build up to the event involved many dramatic moments, including a Twitter controversy surrounding his wife, Naglaa Ali Mahmoud. Mahmoud, who prefers to go by the name Umm Ahmed, a traditional Egyptian way of referring to mothers, has come under fire from both Western commentators and Egyptian elites. The Western comments, revolving around Islamists and gender, are unsurprising as they reproduce all-too-familiar stereotypes about how Islamists oppress women. On the other hand, the comments made by Egyptian elites are interesting as they show the deep class divides within Egyptian society, and reveal how Western stereotypes about Islamists have been internalized by many Egyptians.
The New York Times article on Umm Ahmed stated:
For some, she represents the democratic change that the revolution promised. She is a woman in the presidential palace who looks and lives like their sisters and mothers. But to some in the westernized elite, she stands for a backwardness and provincialism that they fear from the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The latter have been especially prominent on Twitter, where a barrage of tweets about Umm Ahmed has emerged during the past week. Some tweeted that they did not appreciate that an “oppressed woman” was now representing Egyptians, while others talked about how embarrassed and ashamed they were that Egypt would be identified with someone who “looked like her.” During one of the Tahrir demonstrations following Morsi’s victory, tweets commenting on the beards and veils were prominent. Some observed that Tahrir now looks like Afghanistan, while others said things along the lines of “I bet Tahrir smells so good right now.”
These tweets are significant for their focus on Umm Ahmed’s dress, through which a number of assumptions about her personality, beliefs, and values are made. Due to the type of veil she wears, various Egyptians concluded that she came from a lower social background. This then led to tweets questioning whether she could read and write, and whether she was educated enough to hold such an important political position.
Other tweets focused on the fact that Umm Ahmed was married to a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. This led to tweets generally assuming she was oppressed and querying whether she would ever be able to leave the house. This classic Orientalist discourse assumes that Muslims generally and Islamists especially oppress their wives, daughters and other family members. Umm Ahmed spoke about this problematic stereotype in the New York Times article, saying that if she were to go out a lot people would compare her to Suzanne Mubarak, but if she were to stay home, people would say that Morsi was hiding his wife because he is an Islamist. It seems that she just can’t win either way.
What the attention on Morsi’s wife demonstrates is the convergence of Western Islamophobia and Orientalism with its local forms. One of the major characteristics of colonialism in Africa was the creation of an elite class favoured by the colonizers. The members of this elite internalized many of the racist and imperialist attitudes Europeans expressed toward “the natives.” Moreover, this elite class was often created in order to continue the colonial period’s economic, social and political system after decolonization. This explains why the elite class in Egypt, for example, continues to embrace capitalism and perpetuate severe policies of inequality. At a social level, the Egyptian elite also holds many views that are termed Orientalist when coming from the West. The Twitter storm surrounding Umm Ahmed is but one concrete example of this.
While the tweets about Umm Ahmed’s appearance are Islamophobic, there is another aspect that has been overlooked. When approaching any issue, it is important to see how various identities intersect with one another to produce a specific reality. The same should be done in this case. It is not only Islamophobia that leads to the Egyptian critiques of Umm Ahmed. These views are also deeply linked to elitism and class-based discrimination. If Umm Ahmed’s veil were Gucci or Chanel, would the reactions have been the same?
In other words, would Egyptians who tweeted that Umm Ahmed embarrassed them have done the same if she were veiled but visibly part of the elite? Many of the tweets were a combination of Islamophobia mixed with elitism, which are different from comments from the West, which were purely Islamophobic and Orientalist in nature.
The attention focused on Umm Ahmed’s appearance and dress is nothing new. Patriarchy has often meant that women are judged based on their appearance rather than their intellect, beliefs, and values. The reality is that while we know little about Umm Ahmed many have already judged her. This brings to mind Carla Bruni, Nicolas Sarkozy’s wife, who also experienced an inordinate amount of media attention because of the way she looked and dressed. She was judged for looking a certain way, and this somehow reflected on Sarkozy. When Sarkozy lost the last French presidential elections a few months ago, many jokes focused not on him, but on Bruni. Again, as in Morsi’s case, we see attention lavished on “their women” rather than on these men. Moreover, the attention is not on specific substantive statements made by Bruni or Umm Ahmed, but rather on their appearance and the assumptions drawn from how they look.
In short, it is clear that the reaction of many Egyptian elites must be problematized from both a class and Orientalist perspective. These responses not only assume that a veiled woman married to an Islamist should not represent Egypt, but also make many offensive comments about her social class. There is no need to point out that Umm Ahmed resembles more Egyptian women than Suzanne Mubarak did, or that she seems to be kind and intelligent. This type of logic and these types of attacks need to be rejected strongly as they reproduce what feminism has been fighting endlessly: the tendency to judge women based not on their actions or their words, but rather on their appearance alone.
*Sara Salem is an Egyptian PhD student at the Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands. Her interests include colonialism, neo-colonialism, feminism, geopolitics, and the Middle East.
 The consistent references to Afghanistan and Pakistan in a derogatory manner when discussing Islamists & the Muslim Brotherhood, is another problematic aspect of the tweets that came from Egyptian elites.