By Iqbal Al-Ahmad
June 26, 2013
When ideological extremism of any kind turns into an attack on freedoms and rights, and terrorism takes away all rights—intellectual or otherwise—and seeks to eliminate all previous gains and advances, it becomes a nightmare.
In the Arab world, the impact of the recent period of rapid upheaval, or “Arab Spring,” soon became the “Women’s Autumn.” Many of the gains that were attained over many years as the result of a treacherous and difficult journey have been lost.
There is a consensus that Arab women were the first victims of the ascension of Islamists to power in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia. Extremism in the religious sphere often permeates into other areas, such as the intellectual, political, cultural and social. Because of this, the rights that had been gained in the 1960s and 1970s began to be threatened.
Following Muhammad Mursi’s victory in the presidential elections, the Egyptian Islamic leader Hazim Abu Ismail declared that Islamic ideology was now dominant. He summarized the reasons for women to fear political Islam when he said: “We want to implement Shari’a law and end cabarets, alcohol, adultery and topless women in films, at public squares and on beaches.”
According to Abu Ismail, if we look for the common factor in cases where the rules of Islam are broken, women are to be found. Cabarets, adultery and stripteases are all matters that concern women, and implementing Shari’a would, in this case, prevent women from spreading corruption and immorality.
Today, the achievements made by Egyptian women in all areas are threatened by parties controlled by radical religious ideology, which considers women primarily as a form of entertainment, after which their place is at home.
The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) published a report after the arrival of the first elected civilian president following the January 25 revolution. It stated that “Egyptian women, in the new political system, are experiencing a lot of systematic violence … and have little freedoms and human dignity.”
I talk about the Egyptian experience because it is today’s reality. We see with our own eyes how the radical religious leadership represents the ideological changes taking place. Egyptian women have lost a lot since the Brotherhood’s rise to power, which reduced the number of women ministers from four to only one.
The phenomenon of sexual harassment against Egyptian women that took place in Egyptian squares during the recent changes, and their subsequent elimination of freedom of expression, was merely heaping insult upon insult. Harassment took place for purely political reasons—this was published clearly in many reports—in order to prevent women expressing themselves. It caused women to be fearful, and those who did not want to experience any harassment simply stayed at home; the opposition in the streets to Muslim Brotherhood rule went on without women’s voices.
Those who have been observing a variety of the Islamic leaderships in the Arab world have noted the absence of women from religious interpretations. Based on these, there has been a refusal to adopt numerous women’s rights. This indicates that the marginalisation of women’s rights is a part of political Islam’s projects—the features of which began in the Arab world.
In democratic states, responsibility is collective. Despite this, the state also takes charge of various institutions and authorities.
In Kuwait, I have lived with this reality for many years. Women’s political rights have been refused by the National Assembly on account of external religious reasons, which postponed the presence of women in parliament—despite Kuwaiti women being among the most qualified Arab women for such responsibilities.
Unfortunately, the same principles can still be found among some of those occupying senior leadership positions. If it were not for an open government that is appreciative of women’s achievements, women would occupy no such positions. The late Emir, Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad, set out to grant political rights, but was brought down in the National Assembly when it was discussed within a purely religious framework. The issue later returned to the Assembly and, with difficulty, after lengthy discussions, it was approved.
Iqbal Al-Ahmad is a Kuwaiti writer and social activist with a focus on human rights and women's rights in the Middle East.