Recently an Egyptian delegation attended the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women to discuss the issue of women’s rights and the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Soon after, the Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement:
The Commission on the Status of Women holds a conference in the period from the 4th to the 15th of March 2013 to approve a document titled (The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women), a deceptive headline that includes items [that] collide with the principles of Islam and its basic unanimous elements of Quran and Sunnah, destroy Islamic ethics, and seek to demolish the institution of the family, which the Egyptian constitution declared it as the building block of the society, and hence achieve the dismantling of the community, and end to the last step of the intellectual and cultural invasion, and eliminate the singularity that preserves elements of Islamic societies and its cohesion.
The statement immediately inspired a wave of attacks, accusing the Brotherhood of using religion to oppress women and worsen the situation of gender inequality in Egypt.
These critiques are problematic as they completely decontextualize and dehistoricize CEDAW and its place in modern Egyptian history. Many of these critics have failed to appreciate that this is not the first time Islamic law has been used to justify opposition to the Convention’s articles. Contextualizing CEDAW requires understanding how and why previous regimes have used Islam to reject specific articles in the Convention.
Under Mubarak’s “secular” government, opposition to CEDAW was based on the fact that it “contradicted the Islamic Sharia.” In addition, Egypt’s “cultural norms” and “religious values” were said to be in opposition to some of the Convention’s clauses.
One of the Mubarak regime’s main reservations to CEDAW concerned Article 2, which focused on the state’s responsibility to eliminate discrimination against women through legislation and policy. In its reservation to this article, the Egyptian government explicitly stated it could only implement it in cases where it did not contradict Islamic sharia:
The Arab Republic of Egypt is willing to comply with the content of this article, provided that such compliance does not run counter to the Islamic Sharia.
Another notable reservation was to Article 16, which addresses men and women’s rights to marriage, divorce, division of assets and other components of family law. Again, Egypt’s reservation was made on the basis of sharia:
This is out of respect for the sacrosanct nature of the firm religious beliefs which govern marital relations in Egypt and which may not be called into question and in view of the fact that one of the most important bases of these relations is an equivalency of rights and duties so as to ensure complementary which guarantees true equality between the spouses.
In short, the state drew on Islamic law and its stipulations about divorce to justify its opposition to an article that would grant equal divorce rights to men and women.
In 2010, an Egyptian delegation composed of representatives from the National Council for Women and other government ministries attended a meeting with the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Notably, the Egyptian delegation agreed with the reservation to article 16, although for different reasons. Delegation members argued that, because women sometimes benefited from differentiation based on gender under Egyptian law, they were still undecided about whether they would challenge the state’s reservation or not.
At the same meeting, concerns over other problematic areas of Egyptian law were raised. There was, for instance, no legislation on violence toward women, and the laws dealing with prostitution and adultery were harsher for women than for men. Rates of female circumcision remained high, despite prohibitions against the practice, and the ban on abortion was highlighted. The lack of female political representation and the treatment of migrant women were also brought up.
In sum, women faced a myriad of complex issues and forms of discrimination under Mubarak. This has continued through the post-revolutionary transition and under the president of Mohamed Morsi.
While I am completely in support of criticisms about the Brotherhood’s position on CEDAW as well as its lack of (apparent) commitment to fight gender inequality, it concerns me that many of those attacking the Brotherhood’s actions are silent about the role of the Mubarak regime in creating current barriers to gender equality. In fact, were we to look further back in history, we would discover that many of the problems facing Egyptian women today can be traced to the policies of Anwar Sadat, Gamal Abdel Nasser, European colonialism, and the Ottoman Empire. Of course, this critique has been entirely absent from current debates.
Historical analysis of this kind provides a more complex and representative picture of the problems facing Egyptian women today. It is not as simple as “women will suffer more under Islamic states.” In the Middle East, it has, in fact, often been self-identified secular states that have created the conditions under which gender discrimination is normalized and made unavoidable.
This brings us to the real dynamics underpinning attacks against the Brotherhood’s position. Yet again, Egyptian women and their bodies are used as symbols for a wider political debate. Those intent on demonizing and attacking the Muslim Brotherhood for any reason are screaming loudly about CEDAW and its purportedly negatively impact on Egyptian women.
The outrage once aimed at the Mubarak regime for policies that countered women’s rights often arose from a sincere commitment to gender equality. By contrast, current debates are part of a broader attempt to delegitimize the Muslim Brotherhood, and are less concerned with supporting women’s rights?
For some, “Islamists” are immediately assumed to have views toward women and gender that are worse than “non-Islamist” or “secular” governments. What seems to underlie this selective outrage is the idea that women’s oppression through religion is worse than through any other ideology.
This narrative downplays other forms of repression affecting women in the Middle East, such as economic, imperial, and political forms of discrimination. By claiming that Islamic states are more likely to oppress women, certain stereotypical narratives about Islam and the Middle East are deployed and the ways in which non-Islamic ideologies have been oppressing women for decades are ignored.
If the aim is to understand the situation of women in Egypt, how is it possible that so many analyses focus on religious and cultural problems (which are blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood or general “Islamic conservatism”) and ignore the role of neoliberal economic policies? It is impossible to discuss the role of women and poverty without addressing the effects capitalism and neoliberalism have had on the Egyptian economy. In times of economic crisis, it is often women who suffer the most. Alleviating economic inequality is rarely discussed, even though it would contribute largely to alleviating women’s suffering.
Selective outrage for the sake of personal or political motives is not going to help Egyptian women or the Egyptian women’s struggle. What is important is to understand the complex dynamics of how and why Egyptian women are suffering; not to make blanket statements about ideology. It is not enough to say that the Islamists are oppressing women without also explaining how, why and in what specific instances this is occurring.
In a recent press release, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights made the following statement:
We would like our governments to take into account that where there is any perceived conflict between States’ obligations to respect, protect, fulfill and promote human rights and social, cultural or religious norms, human rights instruments clearly state that the obligation to respect, protect, fulfill and promote human rights takes precedence.
This requires that our governments move away from an emphasis on religious and cultural specificity and relativism, and instead put their efforts to ensure restorative justice, inclusivity, and holistic policies that recognize intersectional spaces and identities women and girls of different backgrounds exist in.
This press release is an extremely important part of the women’s rights debate in the Middle East, and correctly points out that states often use religion and culture to justify the oppression of women. It should not be forgotten, however, that this has happened under self-identified secular regimes, as much as it has under Islamist governments.
Undoubtedly, the Muslim Brotherhood’s position on women’s rights is problematic, especially given its use of political violence and strong economic neoliberalist tendencies. The Brotherhood’s role in sidelining women’s participation in parliament and its emphasis on conservative gender roles must be problematized and countered. The group’s reliance on a homogenized view of what “Islam” is and its use of religious terminology to justify gender inequality is also extremely problematic. None of this is new, however. Islamists do not hold a monopoly over gender inequality.