Egyptian men need to regain their civilized views of women and cast off the Wahhabi thinking that prevents equality in the country, writes Egyptian author and veteran liberal activist Alaa al-Aswany.
What would you do if your daughter told you she wanted to marry a highly-educated, rich guy of good moral character and who is divorced but has no children? You would generally not reject him out of hand but tell yourself that he might not have been responsible for the failure of his first marriage.
What would you do if your son told you he was in love and wanted to marry a divorced woman? You would generally not even consider the matter because your knee-jerk reaction would be that your son is getting married for the first time and should be marrying a first-timer and not a divorcee.
The difference between the two cases reflects our real attitude towards a woman’s value. For all our fine words and wonderful slogans we still consider a woman essentially a body created for a man’s pleasure. Your anger at your son for marrying a divorcee is tantamount to that of a man who wants to buy a new car rather than a second-hand one, as he wants to be its first driver — just as you want your son to be the first man to enjoy the body of his bride.
There are two attitudes towards women: a civilized attitude whereby a woman happens to be a female person, just as a man happens to be a male person; a woman is completely equal to a man in terms of rights and capabilities; and her feminine side should be only a matter for her private life. A civilized man interacts with a woman as a person. Her attractiveness is only his concern if he is in love with or married to her.
Egyptian women have campaigned since the nineteenth century, making great achievements in the field of equality with men. They won the right to vote and entered universities, went into Parliament and became ministers. Moreover, in 1933 the whole of Egypt feted Lotfia ElNadi, the first woman to pilot an airplane in Egypt and Africa and the second most internationally famous after the American Amelia Earhart.
In the 1970s the price of oil doubled (as a result of the October War) giving the Gulf regimes unprecedented economic power. As these regimes are based on alliances between the ruling families and the Wahhabi clerics, the Gulf rulers found that the spread of the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam gave them political stability. Accordingly, they spent billions of dollars propagating this interpretation through the media and Wahhabi associations worldwide. In addition to this, millions of Egyptians worked for years in the Gulf and then came back to Egypt spouting Wahhabi thinking.
Wahhabis consider a woman to be a source of titillation, an instrument for sexual pleasure, a broodmare and a house-servant fit for little more than menial jobs. They also believe that a man should be able to marry a 10-year-old girl provided her body is mature enough for intercourse. According to their belief system, a woman, even if she does not want sex, must submit to her husband, and refusal will see her cursed by the angels.
It seems odd that until the 1970s Egypt saw only very rare cases of sexual harassment whereas now it is a veritable plague. What inhibited Egyptian men back then from molesting Egyptian woman in swimsuits, sleeveless dresses and short skirts? Paradoxically the largest number of women molested now are those wearing the hijab!
The reason for this is that our attitude towards women has changed. If you think about a woman as a person like you, it will be psychologically difficult to molest her. If you consider her to be a sex toy, and you are a young man who cannot afford to get married and you happen to be in such a crowded place that you can grab a quick feel and get away with it, you will not hesitate because you have already objectified her.
Bizarrely, the Wahhabis claim that it is a woman’s clothing that causes her to be molested, i.e. they excuse the perpetrator and blame the victim. That crude logic ignores the fact that acts of sexual harassment are more widespread in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan where the women are completely veiled. If we can bring ourselves to excuse a sexually-frustrated man for molesting a woman, then we can excuse someone for stealing a top of the range car just because he wanted it but did not have the cash. This logic would then lead us on to finding excuses for any and every act of larceny.
We Egyptians ought to try and regain our former respectable attitude towards women. There are many examples of our contempt for women, such as when we praise someone by saying “He’s a real man!” as if masculinity is a form of praise and femininity a byword for contempt. Often, when a dispute breaks out in one of the poorer districts of Cairo, it ends up with the loser shamed by being forced into women’s clothing.
Men in the East still take care to ensure that they are the ones to take their brides’ virginity on the wedding night. However every medical student knows that often the hymen does not tear during intercourse, not to mention sexual practices that leave the woman virgo intacta.
A man with respect for and trust in his wife would simply inquire about her previous sex life and leave it at that. However, the general notion here that women are such crafty and deceitful creatures means that a man will want to see those blood spots on the bed sheet to reassure himself that the merchandise he has purchased is sound and untampered with.
Years ago the Chinese examined eastern men’s wedding-night issues and came up with a “virginity membrane” which tears on first use and leaves on the bed those highly-prized blood stains. Arab men went into panic at the thought that a woman who had had pre-marital sex and could simply insert the membrane and dupe her husband. If only we could respect woman and consider them beings like us, men would not have to fear the Chinese membrane and women would feel no need to buy them.
Egypt is waging a battle for enlightenment against two retrograde forces: political authoritarianism and religious extremism. Egypt will only make progress when women are liberated and this will not happen unless we unlearn this reactionary Wahhabi thinking and give centre ground once again to our nuanced understanding of religion. Egypt will not make progress in this until we remove the dictatorship and establish a democratic state.
Democracy is the answer.
This text was translated from Arabic by Russell Harris.