Harassers of Women in Cairo Now Face Wrath of Vigilantes

Tara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times

A self-appointed citizens patrol that tries to protect women on Cairo’s streets spray-painted a youth for identification last month.

Published: November 5, 2012
  • CAIRO — The young activists lingered on the streets around Tahrir Square, scrutinizing the crowds of holiday revelers. Suddenly, they charged, pushing people aside and chasing down a young man. As the captive thrashed to get away, the activists pounded his shoulders, flipped him around and spray-painted a message on his back: “I’m a harasser.”

Egypt’s streets have long been a perilous place for women, who are frequently heckled, grabbed, threatened and violated while the police look the other way. Now, during the country’s tumultuous transition from authoritarian rule, more and more groups are emerging to make protecting women — and shaming the do-nothing police — a cause.

“They’re now doing the undoable?” a police officer joked as he watched the vigilantes chase downthe young man. The officer quickly went back to sipping his tea.

The attacks on women did not subside after the uprising. If anything, they became more visible as even the military was implicated in the assaults, stripping female protesters, threatening others with violence and subjecting activists to so-called virginity tests. During holidays, when Cairenes take to the streets to stroll and socialize, the attacks multiply.

But during the recent Id al-Adha holiday, some of the men were surprised to find they could no longer harass with impunity, a change brought about not just out of concern for women’s rights, but out of a frustration that the post-revolutionary government still, like the one before, was doing too little to protect its citizens.

At least three citizens groups patrolled busy sections of central Cairo during the holiday. The groups’ members, both men and women, shared the conviction that the authorities would not act against harassment unless the problem was forced into the public debate. They differed in their tactics: some activists criticized others for being too quick to resort to violence against suspects and encouraging vigilantism.  One group leader compared the activists to the Guardian Angels in the United States.

“The harasser doesn’t see anyone who will hold him accountable,” said Omar Talaat, 16, who joined one of the patrols.

The years of President Hosni Mubarak’s rule were marked by official apathy, collusion in the assaults on women, or empty responses to the attacks, including police roundups of teenagers at Internet cafes for looking at pornography.

“The police did not take harassment seriously,” said Madiha el-Safty, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo. “People didn’t file complaints. It was always underreported.”

Mr. Mubarak’s wife, Suzanne, who portrayed herself as a champion of women’s rights, pretended the problem hardly existed. As reports of harassment grew in 2008, she said, “Egyptian men always respect Egyptian women.”

Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi, has presided over two holidays, and many activists say there is no sign that the government is paying closer attention to the problem. But the work by the citizens groups may be having an effect: Last week, after the Id al-Adha holiday, Mr. Morsi’s spokesman announced that the government had received more than 1,000 reports of harassment, and said that the president had directed the Interior Ministry to investigate them.

“Egypt’s revolution cannot tolerate these abuses,” the spokesman quoted Mr. Morsi as saying.

Azza Soliman, the director of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance, dismissed the president’s words as “weak.” During the holiday, she said, one of her sons was beaten on the subway after he tried to stop a man who was groping two foreign women. The police tried to stop him from filing a complaint. “The whole world is talking about harassment in our country,” Ms. Soliman said. “The Interior Ministry takes no action.”

For years, anti-harassment activists have worked to highlight the problems in Egypt, but the uprising seemed to give the effort more energy and urgency.

Over the holiday, the groups staked out different parts of Cairo’s downtown. One avoided any violence, forming human chains between women and their tormentors. The other group forcefully confronted men and boys it suspected of harassment, smacking around suspects before hauling them off to a police station.

One of that group’s founders, Sherine Badr el-Din, 30, started her work as an anti-harassment activist by asking men to get off the women-only cars on the Cairo subway, regarded as a safe zone. When they refused, she videotaped them and posted their pictures on the Internet, she said.

Last summer, one of the men attacked her. “I wanted to file a case, but the police officer refused, claiming they were only there to monitor the train schedules.” She said the group escalated its tactics out of frustration, after the police started releasing suspects the group had caught.

“Violence is not our method,” she said. “But the pressure was tremendous.”

Last week, as the group gathered near Tahrir Square, one member had what looked like a stun gun, and another shook a can of spray paint. Most participants were men, and some wore fluorescent green vests, with the words “combating harassment” written on the back.

They mused on the reasons for the frequency of the attacks on their sisters, mothers and friends, finding no sure answer in the blame often laid on poverty or religion, society’s indifference or the state’s contagious chauvinism.

They seemed more certain of the solution, as they plunged into the holiday crowds over several evenings. Some bystanders were supportive. But when violence broke out, there was less support. “I will tell the government on you,” one man screamed as the activists wrestled with a suspect.

Sometimes the patrol acted after seeing a woman being groped. At other times, it justified its attacks as preventive.

Two boys on a scooter hardly knew what hit them. One minute, they were driving along the Nile Corniche, saying something — maybe lewd, maybe not — to two girls strolling on the sidewalk. The next, they were being hauled off the scooter by the men in green vests. The melee that broke out afterward stopped traffic on one of downtown’s busiest roadways, before the police chased the patrol members off.

Afterward, Muhaab Selim, 23, a member of the group, could barely contain his anger. “Why do I have to wait until he touches them?” he yelled. “Why do people defend the harassers?”

By the end of the holidays, one of the group’s leaders, Muhammad Taimoor, 22, had been arrested after fighting with a suspect on the subway. Even so, he called the weekend a success. “We caught some harassers, sprayed them with paint and published their pictures everywhere,” Mr. Taimoor said. “The Interior Ministry wasn’t cooperating with us at all. They weren’t protecting women in the streets.”

While Mr. Taimoor and his colleagues were on patrol, another group, called Imprint, was in a nearby square. Nihal Saad Zaghloul, 27, an activist with the group, said its members stopped more than 30 men who were trying to harass women.

When the group believes someone is being harassed, some members form a wall between the attacker and the victim, while others take the woman to safety. “We don’t push back, and we don’t fight,” Ms. Zaghloul said. They ask police officers to be present, in case the woman wants to file a report.

Ms. Zaghloul, who became active after she and a friend were assaulted, was less critical of the patrol officers than some of the other activists. “They are understaffed, and at the same time, they are part of a society that always blames women, although they know it’s wrong.” She worried that the other group’s methods would alienate the public.

But she added, “No one understands their frustration better than me.”


Egypt draft constitution article raises fears for women’s rights

Ahram Online, Sunday 23 Sep 2012
Posted by Musawah on Facebook (25/09/2012)

Following publication of Article 36 of the ‘Rights and Duties’ section of Egypt’s draft constitution, a number of political parties, coalitions and public figures have issued a joint statement expressing their “deep concern” for the draft article’s wording, which, they say, could compromise women’s historical rights.

The wording as it currently stands reads: “The state is committed to taking all constitutional and executive measures to ensure equality of women with men in all walks of political, cultural, economic and social life, without contradicting the precepts of Islamic Law.”

The article adds: “The state will provide all necessary services for mothers and children for free, and will secure for women protection, along with social, economic and medical care and the right to inheritance, and will ensure a balance between the woman’s family responsibilities and work in society.”

Critics fear that the wording of the draft article is a convoluted detour around equal rights between men and women, due to the ambiguity over the phrase “without contradicting the precepts of Islamic Law.”

The statement was issued by the Egyptian Social Democratic Party and endorsed by the Popular Socialist Coalition, the Free Egyptians party, the Popular Current, the New Woman Organisation, the Woman and Memory Organisation, Al-Nadeem Centre and a number of others. The statement was also signed by several public figures, including Mohamed Abul-Ghar, George Ishaq, Khaled Youssef and Sakina Fouad. More signatures are currently being collected online and via petitions.

The statement also stresses that such unclear wording “endangers the democracy that everyone aspired for and sacrificed for,” stating that the struggle of Egyptian women throughout history should guarantee them the rights they had already gained historically on the basis of equal citizenship. Such rights should not be reduced, the statement added, noting that such a reduction would contradict Egypt’s commitments to international charters and agreements.

The reason behind this stipulation, the statement warned, is the Constituent Assembly’s largely Islamist representation, which, it claimed, was willing to bargain on the rights of women. The statement went on to say that the constitutional referendum should not be put up to a single yes-or-no vote, but rather be voted upon section-by-section. It added that the approval rate for amendments to pass should also be raised to 75 per cent, and that public debate on the constitution should be increased beyond the 15 days currently planned after the draft constitution is completed.

The statement goes on to urge that, if the article is passed as is, then all women and independent Constituent Assembly members should resign to protest “this unacceptable inequality.”

The constituent Assembly has already suffered a number of withdrawals, when the ‘Egyptian Bloc‘ parties – including the Free Egyptians, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party and the leftist Tagammu Party – initiated a walk-out,  followed by the Karama Party, the Socialist Popular Alliance Party and the Democratic Front Party, to allow greater representation for women, young people and Coptic-Christians, while also registering their objection to “Islamist monopolisation” of the assembly.

Meanwhile, the troubled assembly still faces the risk of dissolution by court order in September on grounds that it was drawn up by the People’s Assembly, the since-dissolved lower house of Egypt’s parliament.

Egypt’s sexual harassment of women ‘epidemic’

Campaigners in Egypt say the problem of sexual harassment is reaching epidemic proportions, with a rise in such incidents over the past three months. For many Egyptian women, sexual harassment – which sometimes turns into violent mob-style attacks – is a daily fact of life, reports the BBC’s Bethany Bell in Cairo.

Last winter, an Egyptian woman was assaulted by a crowd of men in the city of Alexandria.

In video footage of the incident, posted on the internet, she is hauled over men’s shoulders and dragged along the ground, her screams barely audible over the shouts of the mob.

It is hard to tell who is attacking her and who is trying to help.

The case was one of the most extreme – but surveys say many Egyptian women face some form of sexual harassment every day.

Marwa, not her real name, says she worries about being groped or verbally harassed whenever she goes downtown. She says it makes her afraid.

“This is something that scares me, as a girl. When I want to go out, walking the street and someone harasses or annoys me, it makes me afraid.

“This stops me from going out. I try to be excessively cautious in the way I dress so I avoid wearing things that attract people.”

‘Deeply rooted’

The day I met Marwa, she was wearing a long headscarf pinned like a wimple under her chin, and a loose flowing dress with long sleeves over baggy trousers.

But dressing conservatively is no longer a protection, according to Dina Farid of the campaign group Egypt’s Girls are a Red Line.

She says even women who wear the full-face veil – the niqab – are being targeted.

“It does not make a difference at all. Most of Egyptian ladies are veiled [with a headscarf] and most of them have experienced sexual harassment.

“Statistics say that most of the women or girls who have been sexually harassed have been veiled or completely covered up with the niqab.”

Egyptian women are harassed by a large crowd of men and boys in a park in Cairo. Photo: August 2012Harassers are getting younger, campaigners say

In 2008, a study by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights found that more than 80% of Egyptian women have experienced sexual harassment, and that the majority of the victims were those who wore Islamic headscarves.

Said Sadek, a sociologist from the American University in Cairo, says that the problem is deeply rooted in Egyptian society: a mixture of what he calls increasing Islamic conservatism, on the rise since the late 1960s, and old patriarchal attitudes.

“Religious fundamentalism arose, and they began to target women. They want women to go back to the home and not work.

“Male patriarchal culture does not accept that women are higher than men, because some women had education and got to work, and some men lagged behind and so one way to equalise status is to shock women and force a sexual situation on them anywhere.

“It is not the culture of the Pharaohs; it is the culture of the Bedouins,” Mr Sadek says.

Mr Sadek and women’s campaign groups also blame what they call the lack of security enforcement. They say the police should do more to enforce laws protecting women from harassment.

‘Provocative dress’

And the harassers are getting younger and younger.

Continue reading the main story

“Start Quote

If the girls were dressed respectably, no-one would touch them. It’s the way girls dress that makes guys come on to them”

Male Cairo teenager

On the Qasr al-Nil bridge in central Cairo, a hotspot for harassment, I met a group of teenage boys hanging out near street stalls blaring loud music.

When I asked them about a recent case of mass harassment in which women at a park were groped by a gang of boys, they told me the girls brought it on themselves.

“If the girls were dressed respectably, no-one would touch them,” one of them said. “It’s the way girls dress that makes guys come on to them. The girls came wanting it – even women in niqab.”

One of his friends told me the boys were not to blame, and that there was a difference between women who wore loose niqabs and tight ones.

A woman who wore a tight niqab was up for it, he added.

But attitudes like these horrify many Egyptian men – like Hamdy, a human rights activist.

“I really feel very upset myself because I think about my family, my sisters and my mother,” he said.

“Before Eid [the festival at the end of Ramadan], I was downtown and I had my sisters with me. It gets very crowded and I had my eyes everywhere, looking around and I shouted at a pedlar who got in their way. In our religion this is something that is not allowed.”

The new government says it is taking the problem seriously – although many campaigners argue it is not a priority yet.

For women – like Nancy, who lives in central Cairo – it is a question of freedom.

“I want to walk safely and like a human being. Nobody should touch or harass me – that’s it.”

Egypt’s Women Find Power Still Hinges on Men

CAIRO — At first Samira Ibrahim was afraid to tell her father that Egyptian soldiers had detained her in Tahrir Square in Cairo, stripped off her clothes, and watched as she was forcibly subjected to a “virginity test.”

But when her father, a religious conservative, saw electric prod marks on her body, they revived memories of his own detention and torture under President Hosni Mubarak’s government. “History is repeating itself,” he told her, and together they vowed to file a court case against the military rulers, to claim “my rights,” as Ms. Ibrahim later recalled.

That case has proved successful so far. For the first time last month, an administrative court challenged the authority of the military council and banned such “tests.” Ms. Ibrahim will ask a military court on Sunday to hold the officers accountable.

But nearly a year after Mr. Mubarak’s ouster, Ms. Ibrahim’s story in many ways illustrates the paradoxical position of women in the new Egypt. Emboldened by the revolution to claim a new voice in public life, many are finding that they are still dependent on the protection of men, and that their greatest power is not as direct actors but as symbols of the military government’s repression. It is not a place where Egyptian feminists had hoped women would be, back in the heady days of the revolution, when they played an active role, side by side with men, to bring down a dictator.

“Changing the patriarchal culture is not so easy,” said Mozn Hassan, 32, executive director of the seven-year-old group Nazra for Feminist Studies.

Female demonstrators have suffered sexual assaults at the hands of Egyptian soldiers protected by military courts. Human rights groups say they have documented the cases of at least 100 women who were sexually assaulted by soldiers or the security police during the time of military rule — including Ms. Ibrahim’s experience in March and the anonymous woman recorded on video last month as she was beaten and stripped, exposing a blue bra, by soldiers clearing Tahrir Square after fresh protests. The vast majority of cases have come during the three-month crackdown on demonstrations that has taken more than 80 lives since the beginning of October.

Even when women have pushed back, as they did late last month in a historic march by thousands through downtown Cairo — many carrying pictures of the “blue bra girl” — they have done so only with the protection of men. Men encircled the marchers and at times those male guardians seemed to direct the crowd or lead its chants; many chants led by women called for more “gallantry” from Egyptian men.

Famous mainly as silent victims, women like the “blue bra girl” risk becoming mascots of the male-dominated uprising, said Ms. Hassan, one of several Egyptian feminists who said they were thrilled by the size of the march — but winced at its dependence on men.

“If you are calling for men to protect you, that is bad, because then they define you and they stick to the traditional roles,” Ms. Hassan said. (Even among feminist groups, there were few all-women organizations in Egypt, and of the 13 founders of Ms. Hassan’s organization, 6 were men.)

At the same time, the revolution has opened the door for the ascendance of conservative Islamist parties, including religious extremists who want to roll back some of the rights women do have. The mainstreamMuslim Brotherhood is poised to win nearly half of the seats in Parliament, when voting is completed this week, while the more extreme Salafis are on track to win more than 20 percent.

While Brotherhood leaders talk of encouraging traditional roles but respecting women’s career choices, many Salafis oppose allowing women to play leadership roles and favor regulating issues like women’s dress to impose Islamic standards of modesty. “We have major concerns because what they are proposing is very oppressive,” said Ghada Shabandar, a veteran human rights activist.

Even now, however, women have almost no leadership roles in the various activists groups that formed out of the original protests that ousted Mr. Mubarak and so far women have fewer than 10 of the roughly 500 seats in Parliament. The electoral debates have featured scant mention of women’s issues — from the pervasiveness of genital cutting to legally sanctioned employment discrimination, despite official statistics showing that a third of Egyptian households depend on female earners.

“We have no feminist movement now,” said Hala Mustafa, editor of Democracy, a state-run journal.

Feminists say that for decades Egyptian security forces have kidnapped or sexually abused women as a way to pressure the men in their families. In a celebrated case from 2005, a journalist, Nawal Ali, sought to press charges against the government-aligned thugs who had beaten and stripped her in an attack. It is not all bleak, though. Some argue that the revolution is helping to revitalize the dormant women’s movement, if only by opening up politics so Ms. Ibrahim could have her day in court or thousands could march for the woman stripped to her bra.

“That is the difference the Egyptian revolution has made,” Ms. Shabandar said. “The wall of fear is gone, and now when we march for the ‘blue bra girl,’ we march for Nawal Ali.”

A few younger feminists, though, say that philosophy keeps women in the back seat. “That is the same thing women were told after the revolution,” said Masa Amir, 24, recalling when the military council picked an all-male panel of jurists to draft a temporary constitution. But the result was a document implying that the president could only be a man — perhaps because no one at the table raised the issue.

But the stigma attached to victims of sexual abuse continues to force many to remain silent.

Six other women were subjected to “virginity tests” by the soldiers that night in March when Ms. Ibrahim was assaulted. The humiliation was so great, Ms. Ibrahim said, that she initially hoped to die. “I kept telling myself, ‘People get heart attacks, why don’t I get a heart attack and just die like them?’ ”

Her mother’s advice was to keep silent, if she ever hoped to marry, or even lead a dignified life in their village in rural Upper Egypt, Ms. Ibrahim said in an interview.

When she did speak out, Egyptian new media shunned her, she said, and only the international news media would cover her story. She received telephone calls at all hours threatening rape or death. But with the support of her father — an Islamist activist who was detained and tortured two decades ago — she persevered, and next week will go back to military court in an attempt to hold the perpetrators accountable as well.

When she saw the video of the “blue bra girl” being beaten, it redoubled her resolve. “I felt I had to avenge her,” she said.


Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.

Arab Women As Likely As Men To Support Islamic Law In Middle East After Arab Spring, Says Survey

By  Posted: 06/25/2012 5:27 pm Updated: 06/25/2012 5:50 pm

As Islamist political parties have gained influence across the Middle East since the Arab uprisings, activists and pundits have questioned the role religion will play in new governments, including how religiously influenced law will affect women’s rights.

A Gallup report released Monday found that Arab women are as likely as Arab men to want Islam to play a role in their countries’ laws and that religious Arab men are more likely to support certain women’s rights than men who are less devout.

The report, “After the Arab Uprisings: Women on Rights, Religion, and Rebuilding,” draws upon polls of men and women in six countries that experienced political upheaval in recent years and asked questions about religiously influenced law, women’s rights, quality of life and the economy.

Those who were polled hailed from Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya. More than three-dozen sets of interviewed were done with groups of about 1,000 people from early 2009 to late 2011. Those interviewed were spread equally between the different countries. The surveys took place before violence erupted in Syria this year. In Libya, they were based in eastern areas and did not include Tripoli.

Both men and women generally said their lives were worse now than before the Arab uprisings, yet respondents said they were optimistic that life would be better in five years. Only in Egypt did men and women say their lives were better now than under former president Hosni Mubarak. Speculation over the role of Islam in Egyptian government have increased since a Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, was declared the winner of a presidential election on Sunday. The Gallup polls were conducted before his election.

When asked what role Sharia should play in legislation, men were overall more likely than women to say it should be the only source for laws. But women were overall more likely than men to say Sharia should be “a source, but not the only source” for legislation. Women in Yemen were more likely than men to support strictly Islamic law, while Libyan and Tunisian men were more likely than women to say religion should be “a source, but not the only source” for lawmakers.

“There is no link between men’s support for Sharia as the only source of legislation and antagonism toward equal rights for women,” Gallup researchers said in their analysis. “The more men support women’s participation in the workforce in a given country, the more women are likely to work in professional jobs. If the economy continues to suffer, women’s rights may as well. This suggests that economic trouble may be a greater threat to women’s rights than public support for religious legislation.”

A majority of women said there should be equal access to education and employment and equal legal rights. A smaller majority of men agreed. Regarding divorce, religious Arabs were more likely to support women’s right to ask for divorce than Arabs who said religion was not important to them.

“Men’s views of women’s rights matter — and Gallup’s analysis shows far more pragmatic factors than religion drive men’s support for women’s equality. The more men are thriving, employed, and educated, the more they support women’s rights,” wrote Gallup researchers. “Arguments for minimizing Arab women’s roles in public life and society, however, are often cloaked in religious rhetoric. Arab men and women must work together to keep economic problems from turning into religiously justified limits on women’s rights.”



More Under the Veil: Women and Muslim Fundamentalism in MENA

by Shaina Greiff

It is important to begin any discussion related to religious fundamentalism with an exploration of what is meant by the term “fundamentalism.” The word “fundamentalism” was originally coined in reference to a movement within the Protestant community of the United States in the early part of the 20th century. In the broadest sense, fundamentalism can be understood as “a selective retrieval and imposition of…[religious] law and sacred texts as the basis for a modern socio-political order” (Hardacre 1994:130).


Beneath Ancient Facades. Beyond the many cradles of civilisation and science lie stories that betray democracy, human rights and modernity. In November 2009, the United Nations Committee Against Torture questioned Yemen’s practice of early marriages of girls as young as eight years old. Women are not deemed as credible and valuable as men in court proceedings and compensation claims. They likewise have limited access to property. It is for such reasons that women’s groups are stepping up their campaigns. The year 2009 saw the succesful amendment of citizenship laws, enabling children of Yemini women with non-Yemeni partners eligible for Yemeni citizenship.

Source: Amnesty International (25 November 2009). “Yemeni women face violence and discrimination.”

In photo is the city of Sanaa from Wikimedia Commons

But religious fundamentalism is not a monolithic entity. Around the world, there is a wide range of fundamentalisms and fundamentalist movements that display a number of similarities – most notably their interpretation of the family, gender roles and interpersonal relations – but in no way share identical plans. Generally speaking, the ideologies of fundamentalisms have translated into movements that show little respect for the principles of human rights and have little tolerance for people of other faiths. They are often anti-women (Rouhana, 2005).

The issue of women – their status, rights, roles and responsibilities, both within the family and the community – is one of the main focuses of fundamentalist discourses.

For quite some time, women from Middle East and North Africa have been the subject of concern. Yet there is much more to be explored about their methods of resistance.

Women are seen as the bearers of cultural authenticity (Kandiyoti,1993) and their complicity within the religious framework is necessary to its survival. As Gita Sahgal and Nira Yuval-Davis in Refusing Holy Orders pointed out, “(t)o conform to the strict confines of womanhood within the fundamentalist religious code is a precondition for maintaining and reproducing the fundamentalist version of society.”

For quite some time, women from the Middle East and North Africa have been the subject of concern and the rallying point of feminist advocacies and campaigns whose language has been coopted by right-wing fundamentalist regimes in the West on many occasions. Yet there is much to be teased out the deprivation and violence these women experience and much more to be explored about their methods of resistance.

Muslim Fundamentalism in MENA

The rise of Muslim fundamentalisms since the 1970s should be viewed through the trends towards modernisation and perceived threats of neocolonialism. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, which is characterised by the rapid spread of globalisation, newly-formed nation-states attempted to hastily develop and compete in a globalised world.

In many regions, this often translated into the adoption of neoliberal economic policies and the further inclusion of women in the public sphere. Women had already begun to take a more active public role through anti-colonial and independence movements.

New nation states indeed emerged in the 1950s, many of them formally severing their links to various empires. There are obvious exceptions to this trend though such as Palestine as it is still in the throes of its struggle for independence and Iran which was never a formal colony.

This resurgence could be partly viewed as a backlash against the failure of secularised states to effectively develop and maintain “cultural” integrity – the issue of women’s sudden inclusion in public spaces being at the forefront. It was a period of great upheaval in reaction to social failures such as the non-provision of basic social services, rampant corruption and the growing gap between rich and poor, among others.

The dissatisfaction in the Muslim Middle East was further bolstered by the Arab states’ defeat by Israel in the 1967 war and the Western powers’ support for Israel, which was perceived as an outright attack on Islam and Arab “cultural authenticity” and an entrenchment of neocolonialism. All of these forces culminated in the coming of the 1979 Iranian Revolution which led to the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the first and only Islamic state in the region. But these factors have strengthened the resolve of Muslim fundamentalist movements across the entire region and have shaped the essential elements of Muslim fundamentalisms in the Middle East today.

Hijab_rallyBattle for the Hijab 
In 2008, people gathered on the streets of Ankara to protest the decade long ban on the hijab or the head covering in public places and univeristies. While the government saw it as an aid to women who would like to participate more in public life, the ban has discouraged many women to study. The hijab, which covers the head up to the nape and the niqab, which covers the whole body save for a slit for the eyes, have been donned by Muslim women in the name of modesty. Islamic scholars remain torn though in interpreting the use of the hijab in moden times. But Open Democracy’s Fred Halliday put it nicely, “There is only one consistent, universalist and secular position on the wearing of religious headwear – for Muslims, Catholic nuns, or Orthodox Jewish haredim alike: to be against it, but to defend the right to wear it.” Hijab-choice

Sources: Al Jazeera (6 June 2008). “Turkey’s AKP discusses hijab ruling.” ; Asser, Martin (5 October 2006). “Why Muslim women wear the veil.” and Halliday, Fred (16 December 2004). “Turkey and the hypocrisies of Europe” 

Photos from Story og a Muslimah and the Lebanese Development Network

Muslim Fundamentalisms and Women

While women’s attire in Muslim contexts, the hijab – chador, burka, abiya – always receives ample attention from Western news sources, it is far from being the most important issue that women face in their confrontation with Muslim fundamentalisms.

In reality, it is the Shari’a–derived personal status laws governing women and the family where the influence of fundamentalisms is felt most acutely. Personal status laws govern marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance (Ziai,1997). In essence, personal status laws outline what women’s rights are and what they are allowed to do within the confines of the dominant interpretation of Islam in each specific country. Whether it be “Islamisation from above” or “Islamisation from below,” these are the most contentious laws around which both Islamists and women mobilise (Legrain,1994).

Although women in these contexts are sometimes represented as passive victims of fundamentalists’ projects, this is far from being the case. As previously noted, women were active participants in the struggle against colonialist and neocolonialist impositions and even up to the present with the continuing fight for Palestinian statehood. Moreover, women, including those observing the hijab, have actively mobilised around the perceived injustices enshrined in personal status laws. The One Million Signatures Campaign in Morocco in 1992, the One Million Signatures Campaign in Iran since 2006 and the protest movement in Iraq against the abolition of Iraq’s progressive personal status laws in 2003 are only a few examples of women-led mobilisations. These courageous women often expose themselves to reactionary criticism and risk being targeted as “puppets” in the neocolonial project.

Unlike bygone colonial times, when the enemy was defined quite clearly as the foreign occupier, during the current times of neo-colonialism and ongoing imperialism, “the other” can be found in the midst of the national fabric. And, the “other within” generally turns out to be the westernised middle classes, the nouveau riche, the religious and ethnic minorities, and . . . the human rights activist trying to uncover his or her government’s atrocious human rights record. But the “real favourites” when it comes to identifying “traitors” and “infiltrators”; are those “appalling women” who dare to defy tradition and struggle for their legal rights and greater equality. (Al-Ali, 2001:5)

The concepts of women’s rights as human rights and feminism are presented by these reactionary forces as a Western import in contradiction to “authentic” Muslim culture. These forces oppose proliferation of women’s rights movements and foreignfunded non-governmental organisations (NGOs), coupled with the new rhetoric propagated by the international community of women’s rights for democracy – as if democracy is inherent only to Western culture. But as Aili Mari Tripp in Global Feminism: Transnational Women’s Activism, Organizing, and Human Rights pointed out, “Regardless of the common perception in the West that ideas regarding the emancipation of women have spread from the West outward into other parts of the world. In fact, the influences have always been multidirectional, and that the current consensus is a product of parallel feminist movements globally that have learned from one another but have often had quite independent trajectories and sources of movement.”


Another Day, Another Campaign. One of the long-running campaigns among women’s groups in the region is the One Million Signatures Campaign on women’s human rights and gender equality.

Photo from Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty.

Furthermore, various feminisms have developed in the South. But even though there is ample evidence that feminism is by no means a purely Western conception, oftentimes just the use of the word feminism evokes accusations of Western cooption in confrontation with Muslim fundamentalisms.

Feminism is not a monolithic entity. In fact, feminism in Muslim contexts, has taken many forms. I will break down these feminisms into two broad categories, but it should be noted that these categorisations are in no way static and are continuously subject to debate. There are feminists, both non-religious and religious women, who choose to work within a secular framework in the articulation of their rights. These women demand that the laws governing the family not be based on Shari’a. They are, of course, under the most pressure from fundamentalisms.

Recently the term Islamic feminism has also joined the debate on feminism in this region. Broadly speaking, Islamic feminism works to reconcile feminism with Islam in its cultural and political forms. This is why there is more than one conception of what Islamic feminism is. The first and most often articulated notion stresses a rereading of textual sources and a more egalitarian approach to Islam yet is also not hostile towards Western feminism. The women’s magazine Zanan, which began publication in Iran in 1992, can be seen as an example of this brand of feminism.

Zanan zanan
After 16 years, Iran’s leading women’s magazine was ordered to be closed in early 2008. Meaning “women” in Persian, Zanan was accused of “offering a dark picture of the Islamic Republic through the pages of Zanan” and of “compromising the psyche and the mental health” of its readers by providing them with “morally questionable information.” Zanan featured articles on health, parenting, law, literature and other women’s issues. 


Shahla Sherkat, Zanan’s founder. 
Photo from the International Women’s Media Foundation.”

In photo is the city of Sanaa from Wikimedia Commons

However the government’s actions were read as a deliberate attempt to curtail press freedom especially as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad desperately needed to prevail in the parliamentary elections and ultimately, the presidential elections. As a New York Times editorial said, “The only psychological threat Zanan posed was to the regime’s authoritarian and antifeminist pathology.” 

More than 120 academics and humanMore than 120 academics and human rights activists like Noam Chomsky, Jurgen Habermas, Betty William and Shirin Ebadi protested the ban. Zanan was founded by one of Iran’s leading feminists, Shahla Sherkat. 

Sources: Tehrani, Hamid (14 February 2008). “Iran: Protests over ban of women’s magazine.”; Learning Partnership (8 February 2008). “Zanan, Iran’s Leading Women’s Magazine, Shut Down by Government.” and New York Times (7 February 2008). “Shutting Down Zanan.” 


As Ziba Mir-Hosseini described, Zanan advocated a brand of feminism that “takes its legitimacy from Islam, yet makes no apologies for drawing on Western feminist sources and collaborating with Iranian secular feminists to argue for women’s rights.” It reveals the lack of correlation between patriarchy and Islamic idealism but it does not conceal the gender inequalities in Islamic law. Moreover, it addresses such inequalities within the very context of Islam.

The second strand of Islamic feminism is an incredibly contentious one. It generally refers only to a small group of Iranian women who “seek the amelioration of the Islamied gender relations, mainly through lobbying for legal reforms within the framework of the Islamic Republic” (Mojab, 2001:130). These women, unlike women in the more “liberal” view of Islamic feminism, are quite hostile towards the use of the term feminism and Western feminism in general. One should also consider that these women are working to enhance their rights within the existing political structure of Iran. Its hostility towards the West might be a purely strategic choice. Hence there is an ongoing debate, both within and outside academia as to whether or not these women can actually be categorised as feminists.1

Even with women in parliament, women’s issues are still not a priority or even on the agenda. Rather, they represent the party in power and are only there to toe the line.

Although women in Muslim fundamentalist-influenced societies have been incredibly active and have participated in the gradual growth of civil societies, this activism has not been incorporated into official political power structures to any significant extent. In recent times there have been more women representatives in political institutions, but this has not translated into the representation of women’s interests. For example, the new Iraqi Constitution requires that 25 per cent of the 444 parliamentary seats must be occupied by women. This was a hard fought battle by Iraqi women activists because as Sundus Abass stated, “the quota in Iraq was actually put in the Constitution by the influence of the Iraqi women, because even the Americans were against adopting the quota in the Constitution.”

Even with women in parliament, women’s issues are still not a priority or even on the agenda. Similarly Iran installed some women members in parliament but they are not interested in women’s issues. Rather, they represent the party in power and are only there to toe the line.


Grains behind the grandeur. Dubai is probably the most successful city that has emerged in the region in recent years. Despite its massive and ambitious infrastructure projects, it depends on mostly foreign labour. Although Dubai has yet to respond to many labour concerns especially now with its financial woes, it is worth noting that its own nationals, especially women have yet to further penetrate and lead the labour sector.

Sources: Brown, John (19 September 2005). “Semi-Slave Conditions for Foreign Workers in Dubai.”; Sharp, Heather (4 August 2005). “Dubai women storm world of work.” and Shreck, Adam and Jamal Halaby (7 January 2010). “Dubai downturn sends ripples throughout Arab world. ”

Photo by Josa Piroska from Wikimedia Commons.


I have painted a general picture here of the situation of Muslim fundamentalisms and women in the Middle East and North Africa. Even though similarities can be drawn between different movements all over the region, in truth, the details of each specific context have led to the emergence of a distinct type of Muslim fundamentalism. Thus it is difficult to compare the situation in Morocco with that in Iran. Although religious fundamentalisms have been on the rise for a long time in this region, women are in no way passive victims. Many women actively resist. They fight for their rights, engage in social justice projects, and espouse various forms of feminism. While there is no doubt that veiled, homebound and uneducated women exist, such image in no way encapsulates nor acknowledges the lives and struggles of women in Muslim contexts.

Shaina Greiff is a member of the Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML).


Abass, Sundus (2006). “Campaigning for Women’s Rights in Iraq Today”. In WLUML Occassional Paper 15: Iraq Women’s Rights Under Attack – Occupation, Constitution, and Fundamentalisms, edited by S. Masters and C. Simpson. London: Women Living Under Muslim Laws.

Al-Ali, Nadje (2001). “Reflections on Globalization”. Unpublished paper presented at annual Gulf Studies conference at the Institute of Arab & Islamic Studies. University of Exeter.

Al-Ali, Nadje and Nicola Pratt (2009). What Kind of Liberation?: Women and the Occupation of Iraq. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gerner, Deborah J. (2007). “Mobilizing Women for Nationalist Agendas: Palestinian Women, Civil Society, and the State-Building Process”. In From Patriarchy to Empowerment: Women’s Participation, Movements, and Rights in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. Edited by V. Moghadam. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Hardacre, Helen (1993). “The Impact of Fundamentalisms on Women, the Family, and Interpersonal Relations”. In Fundamentalisms and Society: Reclaiming the Sciences, the Family, and Education. Edited by M. Marty and R. Appleby. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kandiyoti, Deniz (1993). “Identity and Its Discontents”. In Colonial Discourses and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader. Edited by P. Williams and L. Chrisman. Essex: Pearson Education Ltd.

Keddie, Nikki (2007). Women in the Middle East: Past and Present. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Keddie, Nikki (1998). “The New Religious Politics: Where, When, and Why do ‘Fundamentalisms’ Appear?.” In Comparative Studies in Society and History 40 (4): 696-723.

Legrain, Jean-François (1994). “Palestinian Islamisms: Patriotism as a Condition of Their Expansion”. In Accounting for Fundamentalisms: The Dynamic Character of Movements. Edited by M. Marty and R. Appleby. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mira-Hosseini, Ziba (2005). “Muslim Women, Religious Extremism and the Project of the Islamic State in Iran”. In Muslim Women and the Challenge of Islamic Extremism, edited by N. Othman. Kuala Lumpur: Sisters in Islam.

Mojab, Shahrzad (2001). “Theorizing the Politics of ‘Islamic Feminism.” In Feminist Review, The Realm of the Possible: Middle Eastern Women in Political and Social Spaces, 69: 124-146.

Ottaway, Marina (2005). “The Limits of Women’s Rights”. In Uncharted Journey: Promoting Democracy in the Middle East. Edited by T. Carothers and M. Ottaway. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Rouhana, Hoda (2005). “Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) Network’s Understanding of Religious Fundamentalisms and Its Responses”. In Muslim Women and the Challenge of Islamic Extremism. Edited by N. Othman. Kuala Lumpur: Sisters in Islam.

Saghal, Gita and Nira Yuval-Davis (1992). “Introduction: Fundamentalism, Multiculturalism, and Women in Britain”. In Refusing Holy Orders: Women and Fundamentalism in Britain. Edited by N. Yuval-Davis and G. Saghal. London: Virago Press.

Shahak, Israel and Norton Mezvinsky (2004). Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel (New Edition). London: Pluto Press.

Tripp, Aili Mari (2006). “The Evolution of Transnational Feminisms: Consensus, Conflict, and New Dynamics”. In Global Feminism: Transnational Women’s Activism, Organizing, and Human Rights. Edited by M. Ferree and A. Tripp. New York: New York University Press.

Ziai, Fati (1997). “Personal Status Codes and Women’s Rights in the Maghreb”. In Muslim Women and the Politics of Participation: Implementing the Beijing Platform (1st ed.). Edited by M. Afkhami and E. Friedl. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.


1 This is an incredibly rich debate. It ranges from people like Hamed Shahidian who believe “Islamic feminism” to be an oxymoron, to those who believe Maryam Behrouzi – Iranian Majles deputy – to be a feminist. Maryam Behrouzi, who would not claim to be a feminist herself, pushes for more female political representation within the Iranian Majles (from her own conservative Islamist party). She and many other practising Muslims do not believe in equality between the genders, because the individual is not counted as the unit of society. The unit of Muslim society is the traditional family which is constructed by marriage between one man and at least one woman). Therefore, men’s and women’s roles, responsibilities, and hence rights are not equal but complimentary – for the sake of the family.



Year After Arab Spring, Digital and Social Media Shape Region’s Rebirth

Marked by Their Proven Influence in the Uprisings, Facebook, Twitter, Mobile Define ‘Normal’ Life — and Marketers Adjust Accordingly

By:  Published: June 11, 2012

When tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Egypt’s Tahrir Square in early 2011, the call for change was focused on bringing down President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in office. After that, uprisings across the whole region, known collectively as the “Arab Spring,” deposed dictators, changed cultures and, in Saudi Arabia, won women the right to vote.

A campaign from Coke invited Arab youth to upload inspiring films about themselves to Facebook.

A campaign from Coke invited Arab youth to upload inspiring films about themselves to Facebook.

More than a year on, there is now, according to Tarek Miknas, Group CEO of Middle East network SP7, part of McCann Worldgroup, “a huge desire to live a normal life, go to work, earn money and eat out. For a lot of people it’s not really about democracy, it’s about fair play and a decent standard of living.”

For marketers, “normal” is now much more closely associated with digital and social media, after Twitter and Facebook proved their influence by helping to propel the uprisings into a full-scale revolution.

Facebook users in Egypt rose from 450,000 to 3 million in the six months following the revolution, and now stand at 5 million, according to Ali Ali, founder and creative director of Elephant Cairo in Egypt. He said, “There’s a belief in the power of connection on social networks — and because people believe in it, so do brands.”

“Social media and technology have given people a platform to share whatever they have, at scale,” said Mr. Miknas. “Before the revolution we knew we really needed to get digital into our own business, but clients weren’t crazy about it. Today we are almost a digital agency — everyone appreciates its power.”

Matt Simpson, head of digital at Omnicom Media Group, EMEA, said, “Social media has gone ballistic — we have more social-media specialists in the Middle East and North Africa than we do in the U.K. We have staffed up hugely in the region: From a digital perspective, [the Middle East and North Africa region] is one of our shining stars. There’s a lot of local talent.”

The explosion of digital media does not make up for the fall in marketing budgets, however. According to Ipsos, pan-Arab media spending fell by 31% during the revolution, with snacks, food and fast-moving consumer goods holding up best. Spending on major media in 2010 was $4.88 billion (ZenithOptimedia), but fell to $4.15 billion in 2011. The figure is expected to reach $4.20 billion this year and to grow again to $4.31 billion in 2013.

“It feels like the spring has given way to winter,” said Kamal Dimachkie, exec regional managing director of Leo Burnett Dubai. “It’s taken much longer than anybody would have hoped for. Removing a dictator is not like removing the wrapping from a Christmas present — there’s no instant gift inside. But scratch the surface and people still feel good about their achievements.”

The Arab Spring put the spotlight on the Middle East and made the rest of the world take a fresh look at the region. M.I.A.’s recent “Bad Girl” video — which glamorizes “drifting,” a type of wild stunt driving popular with Arab youth — is the epitome of “Gulf cool.” The TV drama “Homeland” also adopts a contemporary take on the Arab identity, blending Middle Eastern heroes and villains seamlessly with their U.S. counterparts.

For brands, the challenge has been to harness this pride without looking like they are exploiting it for commercial gain. Mounir Harfouche, CEO of Lowe in Middle East and North Africa, said, “It’s a precarious task: To resonate with customers we need to reflect their values and vision for a new world, but without being didactic or laying claim to be a “sponsor of social change’ in some way.”

“For a year after the revolution, brands were quiet, and the first ones to speak chose a patriotic voice,” said Mr. Ali. “Henkel stuck an Egyptian flag on a lot of ads, and Nestlé came out with an ice cream in the colors of the Egyptian flag. It was a patriotic, nationalistic time.”

Telecommunications companies, quick to capitalize on the role that mobile phones played in the revolution, were among the first to run with stirring, high-visibility marketing.

Leo Burnett Dubai’s “I am Arab and proud” campaign for Qtel centers on dramatically shot, commonplace scenes from Arab life. The ad — described by Mr. Harfouche as “a one-minute race to distill thousands of years of culture, art, heritage and hope for better things to come” — won a media Grand Prix in March at the Dubai Lynx, the Middle East festival run by the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

Coca-Cola built on the sense of empowerment that the Arab Spring instilled, but chose to focus on individuals rather than group consciousness. The multilayered “Today I Will” campaign, created by FP7, invited Arab youth to upload inspiring films about themselves to Facebook, from which it created a TV campaign.

Stories included one from the first woman to win Olympic gold wearing a hijab, and a Saudi hip-hop artist explaining his ambitions and how they do not represent a betrayal of his Arab identity.

Coca-Cola’s focus on consumers rather than the drink is appropriate. “People are not as attentive to brands as they were before,” Mr. Ali said. “Their minds are preoccupied with more serious issues. If we shot an ad we liked, we used to post it on Facebook, but we don’t do that any more because Facebook feeds are so highly political and serious. Brands are focusing a lot on corporate social responsibility work instead. It’s one thing to go to a community and build a school, and quite another to stick a flag on your packaging. One is a lot more classy than the other.”

The flip side to this is that people also have a desire to get back to normal. “We’ve had enough of brands telling us how to live our lives and clean the streets. We want to see brands being brands, not politicians,” Mr. Ali said. “What’s fresh on TV ignores the revolution and goes back to selling product in an interesting way.”

At this year’s Dubai Lynx awards, the film Grand Prix went to a campaign for Kalbaz Crisps by Elephant Cairo. The two executions, “Ping Pong” and “Living Room,” feature a man playing with a gun that turns anything into a packet of Kalbaz. Ornaments, relatives, a baby, a chair, a table-tennis bat — nothing is safe. “We wanted to be silly,” Mr. Ali said. “We were always told in the past that consumers were stupid and would never get the idea, but the revolution has proved the consumer is not stupid.”