Portraits of Mona Izzet and Fatma Khafagi
Dina Kabil - 10/07/2012
Tahrir Square. 8th March 2011, International Women’s Day. That is, 24 hours after the fall of the head of State. Crowds of women were gathered in front of the journalists’ union brandishing the same slogans of the revolution: freedom, democracy and social justice. The protest was quickly nipped in the bud by the violence and the provocations of a band of Salafists and henchmen acting with the blessing of the military authorities. This should have put an end to this action especially with the increasing calls not to separate the issue of women from general political demands but feminist activists have become more tenacious. They were convinced that the movement’s unity and good organisation would be their only way of salvation.
Mona Izzet and Fatma Khafagi are both struggling on all fronts. They represent two types of Egyptian activists. Mona is a young journalist active in many associations. It is as if she was concerned to extend the revolutionary impulse to all areas of life. She is active in the “New Woman Foundation” (NWF)[i] established in 1986 by a group of leftists of the 1970’s. Fatima Khafagi is a professor of planning. She has worked with UNICEF for twenty years and also founded the “League of Arab Women” in 1986.
They both participated to the 18-day sit-in in Tahrir Square and then to the "Free Women" protests where women were assaulted, dragged to the ground, battered and beaten in front of the Council of Ministers. They were present at the demonstration that was held on the 8th of May 2012 and during which the movement has succeeded in mobilising the masses around the women's demands and the condemnation of the virginity tests denounced by Samira Brahim. They have also protested on the 16th of March on the occasion of the Egyptian Woman’s Day. It is as if the successive incidents aiming to tarnish the image of women and to break their morale had reinvigorated the feminist movement. It seems that the extremists’ attempts to marginalise the feminist movement have helped strengthen it.
Women here and now:
According to Mona Izzet, one of the biggest challenges faced by Egyptian woman is the rise of religious movements, especially those who have members in parliament and those who stand for the presidency. These political currents are exploiting the misogyny they are known for to attack other liberal forces. In this atmosphere, Mona Izzet is not surprised that the feminist protesters could have been the target of educated people who believe that their claims were elitist. “This is normal and this is precisely what we want to change.” Mona says enthusiastically before explaining: “There is a culture that has always favoured violence and discrimination against women. We heard voices arguing that women's issues should not be on the agenda and that the democratic option would be enough for the time being. Today, after the great revolution of January 25, we demand that the status quo be reviewed because, in the absence of parity and change, humiliation against women will persist. They will persist just as sexual harassment and all forms of social complacency towards violence against women. We will eventually end up accepting the discrimination that prevents women from taking part in politics under the pretext that they are not capable and that they cannot govern. How can we call for a moratorium on the issue of women after a revolution whose slogans were freedom and dignity? Of which dignity are we talking about and which social justice can we envisage when the problems of half the society, at least 49% of the population, are deferred?”
Fatma Khafagi explains how the women's issue is part of the movement of history itself: “Women have always taken part in revolutions. They participate as citizens just like men but at the end of the revolution, they are always invited to return to their homes.” Like the women of her generation, Khafagi knew that the revolution itself would not bring democracy or equality for all and that one has to literally tear one’s own freedom. The question is mainly how to deal with reactionary forces such as the military or religious extremists such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists. Khafagi adds “the military spirit and the Muslim Brotherhood have always looked at women in the same way. Let’s say that the military spirit and feminism are diametrically opposed, because an [Egyptian] military officer never deals with a woman in his professional life. For him, the woman is the person he left in the kitchen at home. She can play no other role. As for the Muslim Brotherhood, they see the woman as a mere source of sexual desire to keep away in order to prevent her from exciting male instincts.”
Khafagi states that many obvious signs corroborate this flagrant decline of the role of women: the comments on the revision of the Family Code, the dismissal of the only woman minister in the first government after the revolution, the cancellation of the quota in parliament and even the barriers to women's access to parliament. According to Khafagi, as soon as the Muslim Brotherhood took over the parliament, their deputies began to present spongy bills that mark a real decline in women's achievements such as the prohibition of khul[ii]. These bills are related to the cancellation of the legal age of marriage that they want to set at puberty, that is, from 11 to 12 years and the cancellation of premarital medical examination.
1 A form of dissolution of Muslim marriage which comes at the initiative of women. One of the conditions is that the women has to give her dowr back.
Translated from French by Elizabeth Grech