The emancipation of Egyptian women began in the nineteenth century under the rule of Mohamed Ali (1766- 1849), when the first school to train female medical assistants opened in 1832. Forty years later, in 1873, the first government primary school was opened to the public.
However, the real breakthrough for Egyptian women was instigated by Mohamed Ali’s descendents. The policy reforms which his descendents adopted included sending several intellectuals to France to be educated in key leadership positions in the government.
After graduating from law school, Qassim Amin (1863 – 1908), at the age of nineteen was among the privileged who were selected to study France. He stayed there for four years.
In France, Amin was exposed to new experiences. These experiences altered his vision about life and society and opened his eyes to the decaying status and living conditions in which Egyptian women were living. As a true believer in the reform policies that Egypt was adopting, he concluded that neither these reforms would be attainable, nor would the Islamic world ever witness development towards modernity unless the status of women in society was improved.
Amin believed that the liberation of women was the first step for the improvement of Egyptian society; after all how would a society advance if its rulers were brought up by ignorant and uneducated women. On these subjects Amin wrote two books. Using both rational Islamic arguments and emotional ones, he pleaded for a more dignified and improved social position for women, advocating education equality, the abolition of the veil and the reformation of marriage laws, divorce, and polygamy.
He wrote his first book, The Liberation of Women in 1899. In the book, Amin openly criticised the way men treated women in Muslim societies and demanded that it should come to an end. He discussed a woman’s role toward her nation, her responsibility toward her family and children and recommended reforms for the practices of arranged marriages and divorce proceedings. An important emphasis was put on education and the issue of polygamy and its effect on women was also addressed.
Now compare what Amin did a hundred years ago with the plot being hatched against women in the constitution drafting committee. The committee members, most of whom are either Muslim Brotherhood members or Salafi radicals, still consider women as a blemish or a defect in society that must be hidden. A fuss has arisen, since some members, mostly fundamentalists, refused to put a lower limit on the female age of marriage.
They believe that girls as young as nine should be able to marry. The farsightedness of Qasim Amin 100 years ago may be erased by narrow minded radicals who are fighting ferociously to bring women back to the stone age. Islam is the only divine religion which respected women’s rights in choosing their husbands, endowing them with legitimate rights in inheritance and the power to divorce if they dislike their partners.
Egyptian women, who are now 45 million or more, should not allow anyone, under the pretext of Islam, to usurp their social rights which they gained in the past century. They were the first in the Muslim world to cast off the hijab and also the first to take part in demonstrations.
They also outstripped some western countries in casting their votes in general elections. The Egyptian feminist movement was established between 1923 to1939, long before Italy, Spain, Austria and other countries like Japan and China.
Sheikh Yasser Borhami, the vice president of Al-Nour, a party which adopts a rigorous and harsh attitude against women and civilian state, made a statement to Alwatan newspaper in which he expressed his support for the marriage of underage girls. He claimed that this would protect the families from the dangers of untraditional marriage (orfi) which now links many young men and women.
Though this shameful marriage poses a threat to Egyptian traditions and values, it cannot be cured through another similarly inappropriate kind. Borhami and his party never thought of the health issues that women would suffer through a lowering the legal age of marriage, let alone the repercussions of overpopulation and the birth of handicapped children.
Pedophilia, a lust for children, is a severely punished crime in developed countries, but here it is rewarded by seats in the constitutional drafting committee; as was the case with Borhami and his party.
When you allow a girl to be used for pleasure by an old man, you deprive her of her right to be educated and to grow mentally, in addition risking grave psychological damage when she is snatched away from her family. Instead of forcing young girls to marry, they should find a solution for the problem of six million spinsters and exorbitant marriage expenses.
The pretext which fundamentalists gave for this proposed shameful article in the constitution was that prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) married Aisha when she was only nine years old. Who are they to compare their stand to that of the impeccable prophet who was guided with heavenly directions? Aisha, whom Muhammad advised his followers to take half of their religion from, is acquitted in the holy Quran after being accused of infidelity to Muhammad.
The revelation came from God, in a verse dedicated to dispelling any doubts about her reputation as the Mother of Believers. The prophet’s wife is not like the young girls of today, who could be sold by their poor families to wealthy Arabs who love younger lasses.
Such thinking of the Islamists led to the withdrawal of prominent figures from the constitutional drafting committee in protest against the so-called Islamisation of every article in the constitution. Amr Moussa, ElBaradei, Ayman Nouri and George Ishaq were among who left the committee.
More than a hundred years later and it seems that women in Egypt are starting all over again. If Amin was alive today, it would all be deja vu for him.
The writer is the former editor in chief of both Algoumhoria and the Egyptian Gazette