Monday, June 11, 2012

Women in Egypt

There is a recent story that had been popular on the internet recently about how women who were protesting against street harassment in Egypt were attacked by a violent mob that chased them, groped and tried to beat them.

There is no denying that Egypt has a problem with street harassment, the article quotes a study by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights that said two-thirds of women in Egypt experienced sexual harassment on a daily basis. Personally, I've seen the leering that men directed towards my sister when she was a sixteen year old blond girl walking around in Egypt. While some would argue that this is a result of Arab, male-dominated culture or even religion, I argue that this sort of action is grounded much more deeply in the economy and politics.

Egypt is a relatively young country with just over thirty percent of the population below the age of fifteen and a median age of twenty-four (compared to the United States with twenty percent and thirty-six, respectively). It's also a relatively poor country and one that has not seen economic improvement in a long time. Additionally, the average marrying age is also pretty young, about twenty-five for most Egyptians. What this all means is that Egypt has a very large group of unmarried, unemployed young men with very little to live for, especially before the protests last year. Unfortunately, things like harassing women on the street tend to be common when you have groups of single, unhappy men with nothing better to do. To put this into perspective for a Western audience, think about the stereotype of women walking by a construction site or walking past a group of teenagers on the streets, getting jeered at and catcalled by these groups would not be incredibly surprising either and that is what is going on in Egypt. Talk to a lot of Egyptians, especially young men, and they will tell you about their struggle to find a job in the country and their inability to afford to get married. I have personally had many family members leave the country just to find a decent paying job in Dubai or Germany. 

The protests in Egypt showed a different side of the country. Women in Tahrir last year reported that they finally had a space where they were free of harassment and claimed that about fifty percent of the crowd was women. The military and the police force, backed by Mubarak's regime did their best to discourage women from being among the protesters. They beat women as they did the rest of the protesters but they also forced some of the women who had been arrested to undergo "virginity tests" as a way to humiliate and shame them. Last year during a mass women's protest of up to ten thousand women, a picture of a woman being nearly stripped in the street and being stomped on the chest in the middle of the streets went viral around the world. These actions against women are not happening from the protesters or even from the average people in Egypt, they are happening by the former government and those that are controlled by the former government, including the military. These are political tactics done to scare women to get them out of the streets and to minimize the amount of protesters.

This also is not unrelated to the fear surrounding the Muslim Brotherhood gaining control in Egypt. There has been a very large campaign by both the liberals and the supporters of Shafiq, the candidate from Mubarak's regime, to argue that a win for the Muslim Brotherhood means the complete deterioration of all rights of minorities in Egypt, especially women and Copts. Unfortunately, this fear of the Brotherhood has led more people to vote for Shafiq which considering his role in Mubaraks government and their actions against those very groups during the protests, seems to be even worse than the option of the Brotherhood. At the very least the Brotherhood has shown itself to be swayed by public opinion and the strong influence that women in the Brotherhood have shows that even a win by an Islamic party would be far better than the thirty years of divide and conquer tactics used by the dictatorship. Additionally, it is important to focus not only on the rights that affect women exclusively because the actions that are taken to better Egypt as a whole and to get not only the women in private and government employment but also their brothers, husbands and sons in those positions as well.

The women in Egypt have proven themselves a force to be reckoned with in the country. The fact that they are being seen as a threat by those in power can be seen as a good thing. And as long as they continue to have the support of the Egyptian people as a whole, they can continue to be a part of the change and the move forward for the entire country. 

Monday, April 30, 2012

I've been thinking a lot about the way that Muslim women are portrayed in Western media and the prevalent need for them to not only talk about the women but also to "unveil" and rescue the women from their oppressive societies.

This article describes the things to avoid when discussing gender in the Middle East. According to the article, one of the problems that the tendency of western journalists and commentators is to generalize and fail to distinguish between the Middle East,” “the Islamic World” and the “Arab world” [which] do not refer to the same place, peoples, or histories, but the linkages between them are crucial. These generalization also tend to relate the issues of Muslim women in the West to the Middle East and conflate the two as though women in the West, by virtue of being Muslim, are now more connected and constructions of the East instead of the society that they live in.  

The recent murder of local Iraqi woman, Shaima Al Awadi, brings up these issues of the way Muslim women are portrayed in the media and in the surrounding discourse. When the case first broke, there was outrage as a woman was brutally killed in her own home and the initial evidence, a note saying "go back to your own country, you terrorist", made it seem like it was a hate crime. However, soon after news reports began to point to new "evidence" and claiming that because the family was having problems and seemed unstable, it was likely that the woman was murdered by her own family, either because her daughter did not want to have an arranged marriage or because her husband did not want to divorce her. There are two main issues surrounding the Shaima Al Awadi case and the way that it has portrayed the Muslim family. The first is the focus on the private life of the family as evidence and the furthering of Muslim stereotypes and the second is the impact on the rest of the Muslim American community and the minimization of racial tension in the surrounding community. 

Familial issues and disagreements do not constitute evidence of abuse and murder. The story that the mother had previously picked up her daughter from the police station after she had been found in a car and then her daughter tried to commit suicide by jumping out of the car can in no way be construed as evidence that her daughter would want to have her mother murdered. The daughter's sex life being seen as important to the murder case is only noteworthy is because it goes against the dominant discourse of Muslim women being sexually controlled and oppressed. That a family would be so disgraced, or so broken up, over their daughter having sex or not wanting to marry a man, that they would resort to murder plays into the stereotype of Muslims as barbaric and violent. 

I come from a practicing Muslim family with parents that raised their children to believe that their morals and their actions should be rooted in religion. I say this because when I talk about my familial experience as Muslims, many would be quick to argue that my experience as an empowered feminist and activist is despite my religion and not directly because of it, something that in inherently untrue. When I read stories that discredit the suffering of a family that lost their mother because they had problems, I have to think what would happen to my own family's reputation if some violence would befall us? Would my relationship with a white man be considered evidence that there was some great tragedy in my family? Because common discourse about Muslim Arab families presents them as obsessed with their "purity" and culture and it would be easy to assume that my parents would follow such stereotypes. That would explain why the first question people ask me when they learn about my relationship is, "do your parents know?". 

If the case does end up proving that the family was involved, the media will be quick (as they already have) to label it a "honor killing" instead of domestic abuse and continue to separate domestic abuse against Muslim women from the abuse against other women. According to the Domestic Violence Resource Center, three women are killed each day as a result of domestic violence and yet American men and families are not portrayed as inherently violent towards women. Violence against women is never acceptable and needs to be combated in a comprehensive way. This can't be done when it's divided by religion and culture since if it's an Arab problem is is also an American problem. 

On campus a few weeks ago there was a student-led vigil for the death of Trayvon Martin, Shaima Al Awadi and Kendrick McDade, all victims of racialized crimes. During the event Muslim students gave testimonials of the times that they were harassed because they were Muslim women or when they witnessed Muslim women being harassed. The very real discrimination and violence that is perpetuated towards Muslims and particularly Muslim women is one that they deal with on a daily basis. For many Muslim women, especially those in the San Diego area, the killing was scary and shocking and reminded us that we may never be safe from racial violence against us. There is also a concern that if the killing was not racially motivated and was done for other reasons, it will make actual victims of crimes against Muslim's less likely to be recognized. Minorities are already often seen as "making up" or being "overly sensitive" to racism and if someone would be sick enough to not only kill a family member but to make it seem like it was a hate crime, the entire Muslim community is negatively affected. 

The media has been clumsy with the way that it has handled the killing of Shaima Al Awadi. By relying on stereotypical racist and sexist tropes about Muslims and Arabs, they have continued to perpetuate a negative image of a marginalized community in America.