Anne Penketh: Role of women under scrutiny in new Islamist-ruled Egypt

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Relatives mourn during the funeral of policemen killed on Saturday in Port Said, in Cairo, Egypt. Photo / AP
Relatives mourn during the funeral of policemen killed on Saturday in Port Said, in Cairo, Egypt. Photo / AP

Don't hail a taxi. That was the first piece of advice I was given by friends when I arrived in Cairo last week. They explained that because of a spate of well publicised sexual abuse cases and harassment of both Western and Egyptian women after some shocking incidents in Tahrir Square, the birthplace of the revolution, it was wise to err on the side of caution.

Egypt used to be a place where you never gave a second thought to personal safety. Egyptians are hospitable, charming and honest - on the whole - but the polarisation of society, the rise of the Islamists, and the arming of citizens amid civil strife mean that things are changing.

On a lunchtime stroll through the campus of Cairo university, I noticed that almost every young woman was wearing the Muslim headscarf known as the hijab. The only person who wasn't wearing one turned out to be an Italian. Yet being Egypt, the students combine the colourful scarves with skin-tight jeans, a living metaphor for the cohabitation of traditional and modern customs.

Egyptians friends told me that their daughters have come under increasing peer pressure to wear the headscarves at school and university since the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and the even more radical Salafists won the elections last year. One friend, who has two daughters, says that given the Islamists' attitude towards women and girls' education his family might not stick around for much longer.

The Muslim Brotherhood is rumoured to have infiltrated the Education Ministry even before the revolution. The Salafists are so extreme that they believe even going to the hairdressers is wrong. The latest example of the Islamists' intolerance is Egyptair considering whether its inflight entertainment is in line with "Egyptian values and customs" after a Brotherhood member took offence at a film screened by the airline.

But more serious is the language contained in the constitution, drafted by the Islamists after a walkout by the secular liberal parties, which is less than inspiring in its commitment to women's rights. Egyptian activists worry that the new constitution wants to confine women to motherhood, without a professional role, and there is no longer to be a minimum age for marriage of women.

And what of the Muslim Brotherhood's commitment to the education of girls? One friend noted that it's not in the interest of the movement's political wing to improve their education, as they would lose voters if they did. Far better to leave women in the impoverished rural areas under the guidance of the local imam, goes the argument.

Two years ago, women were everywhere in Tahrir Square as they joined the struggle to end the autocratic and corrupt 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak. Over the weekend, as Egyptians took to the streets again in their tens of thousands to mark the second anniversary, there were far fewer women around.


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