Promised much and given very little
International Women's Day in Cairo, March 2013 - Courtesy: Laura Gribbon

A few days after a conference by the National Council for Women (NCW) and the Endowments Ministry is held to discuss “women and terrorism” at the luxurious Cairo International Conference Centre, preacher Manal al-Masallawy claims there is a lack of real support for womens’ empowerment on the ground, as she makes her way to teach a group of women in Talbeya.

“Those who talk about the value of women and their role in Islam are the ones who mostly offend women. They talk about the value of women in air-conditioned conference rooms, but in reality, all they care about is the minbar and Friday Prayers. They care about what’s being taught to men in this half an hour of prayer, while millions of women are left without proper religious education,” she says.

Masallawy teaches twice a week at Al-Nasr mosque in Talbeya, one of Giza’s poorest districts, after she received basic religious instruction at an institute under the auspices of the Endowments Ministry. She says she knew about the conference, but didn’t attend and gets very little support or training to conduct her classes, despite being a certified preacher.

During the conference, members of the NCW, military and police representatives, NGO workers, and public figures all spoke on the need to empower disadvantaged women to prevent their recruitment by terrorist groups. Head of the NCW Mervat al-Tallawy thanked Endowments Minister Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa for his delivery of a nationwide Friday sermon on the role of women in Islam, praising a joint volunteer-based initiative to encourage female preachers to educate women, particularly those working in development and medicine.

Yet Masallawy says things are very different in reality. “I’m concerned with the mindsets of these women, who will shape them? Who will shape me?” she asks, adding that the internet is her only source of ongoing teaching on religion and preaching.

“I work hard to educate myself by myself, but who will guarantee that this education is the right education? Where is Al-Azhar? Where is the religious institution?”

When asked about how female preachers are selected, Deputy Endowments Minister Ali Mahdy says new recruits are chosen to replace those with “corrupt discourses.” He says the ministry ended the tenure of many female preachers associated with the Brotherhood.

The use of women for political ends by religious and state institutions is not a new phenomenon. Much has been written on the cooption of womens’ rights under Mubarak and the establishing of the NCW in 2000, with first lady Suzanne Mubarak as its patron.

In the run up to his election, Sisi played on the female vote, making women an important part of his campaign publicly, while addressing them as “housewives, mothers and sisters,” rarely alluding to them as an integral part of society.

Member of the 2011 parliament for Assiut, representing the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, Sanaa al-Saeed recounts the battles she fought to include women on party lists for the upcoming elections.

The only non-Islamist female candidate among nine female Muslim Brotherhood representatives in 2011, she maintains that the political marginalization of women is not limited to conservative or Islamist party politics. “No matter how secular or well-educated politicians may seem, men prefer men. We are being told that women are necessary to make male politicians successful, and to make the political process successful.”

Mariam Salah, 30 years old, rejects the idea of the instrumentalization of women by political groups, despite her experiences in prison. Salah, who is not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was arrested along with some of her friends during a demonstration organized to protest the bloody dispersal of the Rabea sit-in in Nasr City.

“I heard the most obscene words, I was threatened with losing my virginity to give them my friends’ names, but I resisted. I only stayed in detention for four days before I was released. I know if I had stayed longer, they would have acted on their threats.”

“Women go to the front lines during protests because they want to be there,” she maintains. “It is unfair to strip them of their agency just because they belong to a certain political group.”

Saeed highlights the large number of women who took part in the June 30 protests that led to the ousting of Mohamed Morsi and voted to pass the current constitution and to elect President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, but claims, “women are only used as an instrument to make men succeed in politics; when it comes to real political participation, their role is often neglected.”

She adds, “Women were cosmetically placed on party lists, without a real will to represent women in parliament. This pushed me to withdraw from nominating myself for elections altogether.”

Dalia Abdel Hameed, a researcher in gender issues at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, suggests successive governments have used women’s issues as a way to portray themselves as progressive.

“This puts women rights advocates between a rock and a hard place all the time,” Hameed said in a previous interview with Mada Masr. “The state offers improvements that are mostly not implemented, but rather aimed at silencing other more radical initiatives on the ground. We call this state feminism.”

Amal al-Mohandes from the Nazra Center for Feminist Studies believes more women are confronting such instrumentalization. After the revolution, the opening of the public sphere encouraged women to mobilize to campaign for their rights, she says, referring to various projects launched to tackle sexual violence, as well as wider initiatives to empower women.

Mai Shams El-Din 

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