Saturday, December 3, 2011

What Now for the Women of Egypt?

We are barely through the first stage of Egypt’s parliamentary elections and the triumphant Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists, having clinched well over 50 percent of the vote, are already rhapsodizing about the beauty of democracy which was to the Salafists—until, when was it, yesterday?--a Western concoction alien to the spirit and letter of Islam.

Many are already in a panic. And with good reason. Widen the lens to the larger Middle East and you will very quickly discover that, left to its own devices, Islamism is never in the mood to engage. Witness Iran since 1979, Sudan since 1989, Gaza since 2006… With a majority in parliament, Egyptian Islamists could easily decide there is nothing really to discuss. But what makes these examples uniquely revelatory is the one feature they all share: domination of the state and its tools of coercion by the ruling party. 

Egyptians fretting about their liberties should keep this foremost in their calculus. That, so far, the Muslim Brotherhood is having to argue its case all the way to the altar does suggest that Bayat’s post-Islamist realities have already started creeping into Egypt, but what it also reflects is the MB’s keen awareness of the imperatives of accommodation in a country in which it has considerable reach and influence but one which it does not control--yet. If only for this, Egypt’s future promises to be different from Iran’s or any of these other Islamist polities.

Juxtapose revolutionary Egypt and Iran if you like. You don’t have to peer too closely before the disparities begin to impose themselves. Note how the left quickly sublimated its beliefs to Khomeini’s, and watch the reticence of Egypt’s leftists and liberals, however disorganized they currently are. Register how Iran’s army was swiftly kicked out of the political arena in ‘79, and how Egypt’s very likely will retain much of its heft in Egyptian politics. Mark the fact that Iran’s youth gave all, in awe to the presence and charisma of the septuagenarian Khomeini, and how Egypt’s are just not buying in a marketplace conspicuously empty of such overpowering men.

But, most of all, remember that Egypt’s victorious Islamists will soon populate a government that has already incorporated quite a bit of what they preach, whereas Khomeini had to start practically from scratch. That’s the road Mubarak paved so nicely for his Brothers, and if things turn out badly, that may well turn out to be his most enduring legacy.

But if religious conservatism brings Iran and Egypt together in many social mores and legal codes, so do the years that have tested the solutions of political Islam itself. On that fundamental matter of piety alone, the sure rewards in Iran have been as mocked by burgeoning prostitution and rampant drug abuse as they have been by widespread sexual harassment in Egypt, where close to 80% of adult females are veiled.

The electoral results appear to argue against such talk; after all, how much skepticism can there be in a landslide? And yet, it would be pure folly to assume that the numbers confirm an outright, wholesale embrace of fundamentalist convictions. There is much to disentangle in this unfolding Egyptian story, and we are still on the very first page. What’s more, we all know that only a few of its authors are Egyptian and only some of the events likely to impact it will be homegrown.

As Pankaj Mishra points out in a recent piece, the electoral rise of political Islam may owe much to the Arab people’s deep comfort with Islamic principles as ultimate guidelines in politics as in life. But it doubtless owes just as much to a relentless, decades long hammering of civil society by oppressive regimes that cynically shored up Islamism at the expense of all other trends. 

In any case, we soon will find out, as Mishra puts it, “…whether and how the new Islam-minded rulers of the Arab world will enshrine [diversity and pluralism] in legal and political institutions as opposed to declaring that the Shariah contains all that you need.”  

Needless to say, the quintessential test will be how these rulers proceed on the question of us women. 


The moment, as unnerving as it is, calls for extreme vigilance and grit, not panic and fear.

The Egyptian revolution has forced the political playing field wide open. It is crucial that it remain so. Just as this new climate has already challenged the SCAF, it shall the MB and Salafists. How these three antagonists-cum-allies interact in this crucial stage is, of course, of serious consequence for the future of a democratic Egypt, but without control over the state’s tools of coercion and violence, the Islamists can neither unilaterally impose their will nor circumvent the judgment of future ballots.

Alas, for Egypt’s women, the path forward will be full of pitfalls and setbacks and insults and assaults and groping... The violence that women have been subjected to in Tahrir Square before anywhere else stands as a sad marker of the misogyny that unites many an oppressor and revolutionary. But Egyptian women need only recall Iran’s in reassuring themselves that tenacity and ingenuity can beat even the worst of odds.