CAIRO: Is Egyptian society inherently sexist? Are feminist accusations that Arab/Muslim cultures are patriarchal and repressive to women accurate? Have women here been able to reach their full potential and to guarantee their rights as equal citizens? In short, are women here seen as somehow lesser humans than men and treated as such?
A yes or no answer to any of those questions would clearly be a gross over-generalization. Depending on where you are on the broad social spectrum – divided according to socio-economic status, class and education – you would have completely convergent views on the subject.
But there’s nothing new in that. We’ve heard it all before . a million times.
The less educated and more economically disadvantaged and socially challenged a woman is, the lower she will end up on the ladder rungs of human dignity. Or at least this is what it may have been like in Egypt 80 years ago when Soheir El Qalamawy broke social norms to be the first Egyptian woman to join Cairo University (The Egyptian University at the time).
She was also the first to lecture at the Faculty of Arts’ Arabic Language Department and the first woman to receive a PhD from the same university for her critical analysis of the classic “One Thousand and One Nights .
It’s no coincidence that she also translated Shakespeare’s (misogynist’s handbook) “Taming of the Shrew . This was at a time when the Egyptian women’s movement, spurred by pioneers such as Hoda Shaarawi, Doria Shafik and Zeinab El Ghazali, each from her own socio-religious perspective, was picking up pace, empowering women and tearing down obstacles to their full social integration.
Today the appearance of the place Egyptian women in society is very different, but has the reality changed much?
Youssri Nasrallah tries to answer that question in his latest film “Ehki Ya Shahrazad . In a brilliant weaving of the lives and experiences of four women, the host and three guests on a popular talk show, he paints a dreary picture of women’s situation in Egypt.
First there’s the hostess of the show, a headstrong media celebrity married to a sniveling, opportunistic editor at a state-owned newspaper whose aspirations to be promoted to editor-in-chief come before everything of value to her. The first guest is a 50-something-year-old “spinster who has chosen to live the rest of her days at a psychiatric clinic because she “hasn’t found love and refused to be reduced to a convenient sex object. The second guest is an ex-convict who was jailed for 15 years for murdering a man when she discovered that he was sleeping with her two sisters after promising to marry the three of them; and the last is the upper-class dentist who marries a gold-digger who tries to extort LE 3 million from her family when he gets her pregnant before the wedding. She later finds out that he was appointed minister in Cabinet. Apparently the last two cases are based on true stories.
Details aside, the film was basically saying that in Egypt 2009 it makes no difference whether you live in Duweiqa or Zamalek, educated or not, because society as a whole has sealed your fate. Like the ex-convict, the rich dentist too was duped into giving her body to a man who fit into the social image she was raised to believe is the least she’s entitled to. At the end, both women are equally abused, but while one takes matters into her own hands, the other is left with little option but to hold up a sign on a public street, asking how the government chooses its ministers. And she s almost arrested for it.
The film is a damning commentary on the ultimately restrictive, suffocating reality faced by women who refuse to succumb to social injustice: one ends up in prison, another in an asylum, a third childless and ostracized and the fourth, beaten to a pulp.
The picture is certainly grim and certainly real, and I must agree that it is reflective of the overwhelming majority of the female experience in Egypt.
It will take more than setting a quota for women’s seats in parliament to change mentalities and to achieve the equality not only granted to women by law, but by the laws of God and nature that would reject any form of oppression or violence.
Rania Al Malkyis the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.