By: Mohamed Kouta
How do I, as a man, introduce an issue about women and their struggles against patriarchal oppression without partaking in it?
These – and others – are the questions I faced while putting this special issue together.
Over the past year, I have become increasingly aware of my position as a male feminist and how at times, this phrase in of itself can be contradictory.
I recently penned an editorial about how men continue to benefit from their oppression of women regardless of their belief in gender equality.
I now question what I’ve done to overcome this and how I’ve actually contributed to feminism, if at all.
I don’t yet have an answer, but what I do know is that I’ve become more aware in my day-to-day interactions about how the things I say, the things I do, and the way I move are all gendered processes.
I can now talk about gender theory from Foucault to Lacquer, but that matters less to everyday women who suffer from their oppression, and the men who continue to oppress them.
And the reporters saw this first hand. Most were not formally educated in gender and women’s studies and received very little guidance from the editorial team.
Yet through their reporting, the position of women in a very masculinist state and society became all the more clear.
For this reason, this issue has been organized and conceptualized in terms of struggle. And this is not to downplay the achievements many women have achieved in Egypt – for there are many, and these continue to grow – but more so to highlight the structural nature of their oppression.
And this is also not to deny their agency. In many of these articles, we see women taking the lead and navigating the patriarchal conditions they face.
The WOMAN’S Battleground
Around the world, women are locked in contestation with what has become a predominantly male world order.
Sometimes they win, sometimes they don’t. But the least we can do is bring them into the spotlight. The least we owe them is to recognize their voices in a world determined to silence them.
I was always troubled when we spoke about women’s progress. This is not to say that women have not made in substantial advancements history, but rather that framing them as ‘progress’ precludes a more nuanced narrative.
Women’s rights are not a question of going forward. In many instances, women had ‘more’ rights historically than they do in the present day.
We should not therefore look at the history of gender rights as movement from A to Z, but rather as a series of battles fought out in both the public and private spheres that respond to new challenges.
This dynamic is considered in the first article which addresses both the highs and the lows of President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi’s ‘Year of the Woman.’
While a number of women now occupy high positions in government, including ministerial and cabinet posts, the everyday women who spoke to The Caravan claim that they have not felt the impact of gender rights themselves.
This brings into focus the central question informing this issue: whose feminism?
SPEAKING OF WOMEN
State feminism and grassroots feminism are often opposed to one another, but where does that leave the non-partisan woman?
This raises the conundrum of how society has addressed ‘the woman question’. The issue looks at two cases to demonstrate the diversity in communicating rights to the people: Islamic feminism and sex education.
Islamic feminism emerged as a movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as an attempt to re-articulate gender rights within a religious framework.
Proponents of Islamic feminism challenged masculinist interpretations of the Qu’ran and Sunnah and called for the reopening of ‘Bab al-Ijtihad’ – the jurisprudential legal tool used by medieval Muslim jurists to create new rules of Islamic law.
Islamic feminism continues to this day with public figures and journalists advocating for more gender-sensitive and contextual interpretations of religious codes.
But with the secularization of the state, we see the subordination of gender and sexuality. They were rebranded as social taboos.
A number of influential women, such as Mona Mounir, are currently attempting to push a bill through parliament to make sex education mandatory in public schools.
Recent research found that education is key to combating sexual violence in Egypt, and to promoting reproductive health and safety among women.
THE MASCULINE STATE
The dominance of men in the public sphere is both a reflection and a cause of a patriarchal and masculinist state. The proclaimed objectivity and neutrality of state institutions falls apart when one looks at its very gendered processes and implications.
Women experience the heaviest effect of this organization as each sectarian group uses gender and sexuality to control and manage their populations.
Here in Egypt, we see the patriarchal state in a couple of key episodes: women in debt and marital rape.
Nourane Selim’s Victims of Poverty article explores how working-class women often find themselves in debt as they struggle to make ends meet and are imprisoned for failing to meet their dues.
A number of local organizations have taken steps to release as many women as possible, but little can change in a society that fails to address women’s most basic concerns.
Sara Mohamed in Legal Prisons returns to the non-objectivity of the law by investigating how women are trapped within the ‘private sphere’ where the state refuses to recognize the validity of marital rape claims.
WOMEN ‘in LABOR’
Gender, of course, also plays a central role in the economy of the state and the sexual division of labor is made clear through the ‘feminization’ of certain jobs.
Housekeepers, maids and waitresses are just a few examples of ‘women’s work’ or labor that is usually under-valued, under-appreciated and over-exploitative.
Joya El Aggar spatializes this within the context of urban migration, tracing how women leave rural areas ‘in search’ of work.
This usually occurs unwillingly and at the behest of their husbands or fathers, and without their fair share of dues.
Laila Sherif Said in Women in Men’s Clothes looks at how a number of women have challenged this sexual division of labor either by performing jobs ‘made for men’ or passing as men entirely, also disturbing traditional gender binaries.
But this struggle against patriarchy also transcends class boundaries. As two AUC alumni, Aya and Mounaz Abdelraouf and co-founders of Okhtein demonstrate, it is often difficult to ‘make it in a man’s world.’
But breaking that wall is possible.
And so all women from all creeds and all classes suffer similar oppression, but it is important to see that these are not ‘unchangeable’ but a product of time and history – and therefore, susceptible to change.