Get Your Hands Off Women
by Maha Al Aswad
Get your hands off women[i]
When the sparks of the Egyptian Revolution started to fly, friends of mine abroad interested in human rights and justice started to express their concerns openly about where the situation in Egypt was taking us. In the wake of most revolutions in the modern world, women have always ended up getting the short end of the stick. It is as though revolutions are historical records of chauvinist tales brimming with heroic feats that men alone have accomplished. Eventually, the moment of truth comes when those men gather together. Barring women from their closed council, they issue orders from on high and decide what rights women may or may not receive.
My Egyptian female friends and I disregarded their worrisome comments. After all, we were down in the streets and the squares. We never felt, not even for a second, a difference between our role as female revolutionaries and that of our male counterparts: the mission was one, the way was one, and the goal was one.
Our friends abroad were right, though not because the Revolution itself had taken power and discriminated women; rather because the elements that ended up taking power after the Revolution are two of the most powerful types of Fascism the world has known: military fascism and religious fascism. Sadly, the Revolution did not govern; those who know nothing about the Revolution’s principles have taken power. In the simplest terms, what ended up happening was a re-birth of the old regime. The military (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, SCAF) took control the day Mubarak resigned. Thereafter, the first signs of discrimination started to appear. The first hint of things to come is enshrined in the constitutional amendments proposed concerning the Article stipulating the conditions for presidential elections of the Egyptian Republic. Initially, the bill clearly indicated that men alone would be able to run. Although it was later modified, it still reflected public opinion on the role of women in public affairs in the ‘New Egypt’. Following this disconcerting pattern, the case of forced virginity tests of female protestors happened, what might as well be called misogynist inquisition-like trials. In effect, this event confirmed the historical, chauvinist conception of women: women are only bodies, whose honor – as far as society is concerned – is predicated on their reproductive organs; from these several centimeters of flesh they can be either pardoned or condemned to death.
Elections came as a definitive alternative to revolutionaries’ incapacity to organize themselves and present a strong alternative for the military in running the transitional period. Most groups within the revolutionary vanguard refused to participate in parliamentary elections and those from the revolutionary front that did participate are out of question in terms of their patriotism and belief in the revolution principles, the most important of which being the equality for all Egyptians before the law.
Be that as it may, life is not a bowl of cherries. The Revolution failed to get enough votes and the revolutionaries remain under-represented in the People’s Assembly. The Islamists won the majority. Remaining parliamentary seats won by non-Islamists do not necessarily represent revolutionary opinion. If one follows the current course of affairs, it is obvious that the principles called for and carried by the revolution are and will be absent from most debates, decisions, and laws passed in Egypt’s Parliament.
The First Signs Appear
Take, for example, Muhammad Umda, a respectable Member of Parliament (MP) in the People’s Assembly. Umda is not affiliated with the Islamists, which is quite surprising, as we shall see. A former member of the Wafd Party, Umda ran for Parliament as an independent. Yet it is Mr. Umda who spoke in Parliament, not only in the name of his constituents – both men and women – from Aswan, but also in the name of the Egyptian people and demanded the repeal of Article 20. Known as the Article of al-khul’, the right of a woman to seek divorce according to Islamic law, Article 20 (Law no. 1, year 2000) pertains to the some of the judicial conditions and litigatory proceedings in personal affairs (i.e. family court).
According to a report published in the paper Shorouk dated Saturday, March 17, Umda declared that Article 20, “allows women to end their marital lives independently, without oversight or the slightest consideration for the rights of family and society.” In fact, when I read this sentence I broke out in hysterical laughter, a hardy guffaw for the sake of Schadenfreude.
Up until 2000, the husband was the only partner with the right “to end his marital life independently, without oversight or the slightest consideration of the rights of family and society.” All he had to do is say three simple words: I divorce you. That is it. Just these three magical words anytime, anywhere, for whatever reason he deemed fit. Yet no one asked themselves over the decades why husbands alone should enjoyed this right. Egyptian women, themselves packed like sardines into the hallways and corridors of family courts, did not demand for their rights; Egyptian mothers did not even appeal for the rights of their children who are taken away from them by court order.
For women seeking divorce, the average length of divorce proceedings lasts between 3-8 years. It is quite difficult for a woman seeking a divorce to prove that her husband has mistreated her. After all, most abuse occurs behind closed doors. Therefore, there is seldom any witness of the purported abuse to justify a wife’s application for divorce. Article 20 – the Article al-khul’ – was passed as a means by which wives could free themselves of this endless oppression.
The mere proposition of Umda’s bill is tantamount to a serious impairment of women’s rights as citizens in Egypt. It is an attempt to deal with women as though they were second-class citizens. In an addendum to Umda’s statements printed in Shorouk, Umda is quoted as saying: “What if a wife actually applies for divorce (khul’) on the grounds that she is no longer in love and afraid of God’s divine punishment, but that in fact all she wants is to be rid of her husband just because he refuses to let her travel abroad.” The question here is: Why does the law allow a husband to have control over his wife to this degree? Isn’t marriage in its most basic understanding an equal partnership, wherein both spouses look out for each other, a relationship based on compromise, as well as care for each other’s benefit? Or has it devolved into a contract for buying a slave-girl, whose master controls her and forces her to stay with him against her will? When a husband resorts to courts to ban his wife from travelling, or forces her to do something, or invokes his right as her guardian, in that moment the notion of a mutual partnership and compromise dissipates. Life thereafter becomes impossible. The most appropriate solution is for them both to separate honorably.
In another statement, Umda is quoted as having said the following: “What if a wife decided to leave her husband and kids to run off with a rich man who has seduced her?” Here, I stop at the word “seduce”. This is the same stone-age mentality that looks at women as creatures in need of being placed under the custodianship or watchful eye of some man even after she has reached the age of maturity. According to this logic, the custodianship of a woman is transferred from the family to the husband precisely because she is a naïve creature, incapable of understanding what is good for her welfare. The logical conclusion to this argument is that she needs someone to make decisions for her. But even an unscrupulous person could easily sell her to a rich man.
Simply put, if the wife resolves to end the marriage for whatever reason she deems fit, and decides that life is no longer tolerable with her husband, the husband can still rely on the law to force her to stay in this unbearable situation. This state of affairs is paramount to the decline of individual honor and the rise of a husband’s authoritarian power. Sadly, this situation is in fact enshrined in Egypt’s legal code. According to Egyptian law, a husband has the right to marry more than once and end a marriage whenever he pleases.
Perhaps we can excuse Umda for his position. After all, based on his statements it seems that he bought a wife according to a marriage contract and, by extension, anything bought can easily be re-bought or sold! But the situation itself is still incredible. Umda, as he stood on the floor of the People’s Assembly and made his statements, effectively flirted with the Islamist Parliamentarians. In 2012, well after Egypt’s dignified Revolution had run its course, Umda argued that men should have custodianship over women. This is not surprising in light of additional information, however. For example, in other news it is reported that MP Umda is trying to gather enough signatures from his fellows MPs to run for President of the Republic; Umda has thanked the leaders of the Salafist Nour Party for giving their members the unfettered freedom to chose whom they want for President.
The dawn of the ‘modern state’ ushered in the legal state, the latter being a governmental system that treats its citizens – both male and female – equally. No one is to have custodianship over anyone else who has reached the legally recognized adult age. Under such a state, different levels whereby one can or cannot receive his/her full rights should not exist. Unfortunately, most people reject, if not outright seek to avoid, attempts to build such a state in Egypt after our honorable Revolution. These people want to send Egypt back into the Dark Ages, without a chance of return.