The Global Scene: Egyptian Women: From elections to a blue bra – and beyond

Date:January 2012

The Global Scene:
Egyptian Women: From elections to a blue bra – and beyond

A single Egyptian woman, stripped, stomped on, and brutalized by Egyptian police was video-taped in her blue-braFirst female protest march of the Egyptian revolution

Thomas Paine called the winter of1776 “the times that try men’s souls.” The winter of 2011, hard on the heels of the Arab spring, seem like times to try women’s souls. A single Egyptian woman, stripped, stomped on, and brutalized by Egyptian police was video-taped in her blue-bra. This was a tipping point in indignities suffered by women who were sidelined – despite their robust participation in the revolution – and inspired the first female protest march of the Egyptian revolution. On December 20, 10,000 women protestors turned out on the streets of Cairo -though expectations were in the hundreds. Why this sudden upsurge I wondered? And I had a flashback to Hoda Sha’rawi, who in the anti colonial demonstrations of 1919 challenged existing norms. She stripped off her abaya (headscarf), establishing the precedent for Egyptian women’s activism on their own behalf – a first in the Arab world. So, almost ninety years later, it should not surprise us – – to see Egyptian women on the streets, day and night alongside their male brethren, putting their bodies on the line in the transition from dictatorship to democracy.

But, if we put things in perspective, the trend line is still not exactly optimistic on women’s rights in Egypt at this moment.

Iman Bibar, Cairo based VP of Ashoka and a friend, has been fantastic in apprising her network of developments in the revolution, starting January 25, 2011. Immediately after the first round of elections in Cairo in December, Iman emailed her friends: “too many (liberal) candidates, too few votes, and not enough strategic wisdom to win.

Many of my friends in the US fear the ascendance of the Muslim Brotherhood not to mention the Salafis – who are considerably more conservative. But a recent Tom Friedman column reminded me of how the history of the Middle East parallels early elections post World War II in Germany and Italy. The first free elections in these countries were won by the Christian Democrats – anti-secular parties not unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, which were faith-based, traditional counters to the dictatorships that preceded. Friedman saysGiven the way that the military regimes in the Arab world decimated all independent secular political parties over the last 50 years, there is little chance of any Arab country going from Mubarak to Jefferson without going through some Khomeini.” What worried me as much is that attacking women is no longer a bright line for the military rulers. Mona Eltaway, an outspoken Egyptian- American journalist was attacked by the police in Cairo. They broke her arm even as she continued covering the news for CNN. See video

Not everyone is disheartened. Wael Ghonim, the Google guy, a key protagonist in the Egyptian revolution, speaks to his optimism for Egypt which he attributes to the younger generation, IT, mass media, the emergence of civil society and the youth bulge – 50% of Egyptians are under 25! But still, I’m very anxious.


Things at home are a bit more “theater of the absurd.”

The latest existential threat to America appears to be “All- American Muslim” — a Reality TV Show. The show focuses on a Muslim policeman, a football coach and newly weds. It attempts to portray Muslims as more American and less as the “other.” But beginning with Lowe’s Home Improvement and, 25 companies which were advertising on the show cancelled – though Home Depot and Campbell Soup refused to follow suit.

As best I can tell, this threat largely exists in the feverish brain of David Caton, a born again Christian, founder of Florida Family Association and its sole employee. Prior to becoming an Islamphobe, Caton focused his energies on attacking homosexuality. He claims he had to launch his attack on the reality program because “if you look at the logo for ‘All-American Muslim’ it has the symbol of Islam in the ‘e,’ in the ‘a’ of ‘American,’ or in the ‘c’ of ‘American,the symbol of Islam and the symbol of American. You start watching this program and you realize they’re trying to persuade the public, the general public that all Muslims are all American and all Muslims in America are like this.”

Samina AliSamina Ali, a prize winning author of “Madras on Rainy Days” and a good friend, has a very different take on the program. Far from seeing it as painting an artificially rosy picture of American Muslim life, she argues that what’s important about the program is that it reveals a lot about how far some Muslims in the program have yet to come – particularly the men, whom she argued show hypocrisy and a denigrating attitude towards the women.

But while David Caton may be alone in seeing reality TV as a major national crisis, he is not alone in seeking to make Islam a convenient political football. As the election season in Iowa got frenzied, New Gingrich decided that the major issue facing overwhelmingly native borne and Christian Iowans was – shariah law! (Yes, coming here in Des Moines.) Gingrich alarmingly warns: “stealth jihadis use political, cultural, societal, religious, intellectual tools; violent jihadis use violence… replace western civilization with a radical imposition of shariah law.”

There are some seriously worrying things out there. The Iranian nuclear program and threats of a possible war over oil. Or the authoritarian and patriarchal strands that seem to be winning out in the Egyptian military. But Reality TV? Shariah in Iowa? I just wish I was lucky enough to worry about fantasies like these.

As 2012 dawns, I turn to Jamila Afghani, an Afghani NGO leader for inspiration and her mantra: “It is better to light a candle than to curse the dark” – Jamila Afghani

To you and yours a Happy New Year and may 2012 bring peace to troubled lands.

This blog is inspired by Khadijah, Prophet Muhammad’s first wife. Khadijah is the quintessential role model for Muslim women. She was the first convert to Islam, the first Muslim woman entrepreneur, a globalist and a feminist.

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