19 March 2012. A World to Win News Service. After the collapse of long-time dictators kept in power by the support of the imperialists, the struggle of women and the people as a whole in North Africa and the Middle East did not end. The thieves of the people's struggles who are women's oppressors too emerged and claimed the fruits of the people's struggle.
Since 8 March 2011 concerns about women's rights, their marginalisation in those countries on the one hand, and on the other their struggle to defy these attacks and struggle for their rights, have reverberated internationally. The various assaults on women and the protest of thousands of women in Cairo on 21 December 2011 are some of the highlights of these developments.
Tahrir square in Cairo, which inspired millions of people all over the world during the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, has also been the site of some of the ugliest attacks on women during the following months.
On 8 March 2011, women attempted to hold a demonstration to celebrate International Women's Day, in hopes of playing a more active part in their society. However, they found themselves surrounded and attacked by a group of hundreds of men, possibly a combination of Islamists and pro-Mubarak forces. While the role of the army is not clear, at a minimum it did not intervene.
A witness who described the scene said unidentified men attacked the women, "forcing some to the ground, dragging others out of the crowd, groping and sexually harassing them as police and military figures stood by and failed to act… As I struggled to stay upright, a hand grabbed my behind and others pulled at my clothes." (Guardian, 9 March 2011)
This was a clear warning to all people that Mubarak may be gone but others who might look different but are made of the same stuff are still very powerful, and they are particularly opposed to women playing an active role in society.
On 9 March 2011, a day after this incident, at least 18 women along with 200 men were arrested by the army during a protest in nearby Tahrir Square. They were subjected to torture, including electric shocks. The women were transferred to a military detention centre and forced to take their clothes off before being subjected to a forced "virginity test". One of the victims, Samira Ibrahim 25, describes the assaults: "The person that conducted the test was an officer, not a doctor. He had his hand stuck in me for about five minutes. He made me lose my virginity. Every time I think of this, I don't know what to tell you, I feel awful… I know that to violate a woman in that way is considered rape. I felt like I had been raped." (Guardian, 11 October 2011)
In another show of brutality against women, on 17 December 2011 the people of the world saw a video of soldiers beating a young woman and stripping her down to her bra, outside the Cabinet offices near Tahrir Square.
This gave rise to the demonstration of thousands of women in Cairo angrily protesting this brutality against women.
This demonstration, which according to some observers was the largest march of women the country had ever seen, included women from all walks of life, young and old, daughters and mothers, Muslims, Christians and secularists. The importance of this demonstration cannot be explained by its numbers alone. It highlighted the determination of women in Egypt to fight back for their rights. It was a clear statement by the women that they are not an easy target, as some people might think, and if the army and the Islamist forces intend to suppress women and send them back home to play the role of wife and mother, they had better be prepared for a fight with women.
All this has been only one of the fronts on which women in Egypt have been attacked. Other developments that have made women in the Middle East and North Africa concerned about their rights and their future role in society include the advance of Islamist forces in Egypt and Tunisia and other countries in the region where the people have been revolting.
In the Egyptian parliamentary elections last December, the Muslim Brotherhood won half of the seats, and the more fundamentalist Salafists won another fifth. In Tunisia, the Islamist party Ennahda won 40 percent of the seats in the Constitutional Assembly.
The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists in Egypt and the Ennahda party in Tunisia played little or no role in the people’s revolts and are far from being the real representatives of the people's basic interests. With the help of the imperialists and powerful financial backing from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates, they have been taking advantage of the people's religion. In no small part because of the weakness and/or absence of revolutionary forces, they have become the most organised forces in those countries and have unexpectedly come to play a central role in the emerging new governments.
As the Egyptian author Nawal al-Saadawi wrote in a statement on International Women's Day this year, "We were able, by the power of the united millions, to remove the head of the regime (Hosni Mubarak) on 11 Februray 2011, but the body of the regime is still in power, supported by the American colonial government and its Egyptian allies in the High Military Council, in the post-revolutionary government, in big business and the ultra-rich elites, in the big media, in the old liberal political parties and the new fanatical religious groups (which gained more and more power since the Sadat era during the seventies and his submission to the Israeli regime and the American military and economic aid).
"Since then poverty and women's oppression increased under... increasing religious fundamentalism and class exploitation. Women are half of society. They cannot be liberated in a country which is not liberated. We combine our liberation from patriarchy with the liberation of our country from both colonialist and religious oppression." (The full statement can be found on Nawal al-Saadawi's Facebook page, posted 5 March.)
The US and other imperialists who wanted to protect the dominant structure of these countries before the people’s revolts deepen cut a deal with forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda who, they thought, could better guard and represent the state and old economic and political relationships that serve their interests.
While the Salafists have openly declared their aim of establishing strict Sharia law (similar to Saudi Arabia, where in most situations women have to cover themselves with a niqab – full face covering – and are excluded from the life of the society, the two main Islamic parties in Egypt and Tunisia have said that they are "encouraging traditional roles but respecting women’s career choices." (The New York Times, 9 January 2012)
The experience of Islamic forces in power in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan (especially under the Zia regime) and other countries shows that their "Islamic values" are mainly centred around the role of women in society and the family, and that the women are not considered equal to men. They clearly state that a woman should be considered as half a man in many situations, that women should be covered by a veil and be mainly good mothers and wives, and in the final analysis, that women are owned by men. Women's role in society should be eliminated where possible or reduced. If those parties are not going to implement these Islamic laws, fully or partially, then why did they enter into the world of political Islam in the first place?
To explain this contradiction, some observers have come to the conclusion that the Islamic forces don't believe that the people, and especially women, are in a mood that would welcome the full expression of the Islamist views. Further, they don't have enough forces to move from a position of strength. So they have to deceive people and consolidate their position, and then they take further steps.
If we look at the experience in Iran, in order to win over the people and other political forces, Ayatollah Ruholah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamist forces, promised equal rights for women and freedom for all political forces, including the communists. However, after they took over the government, the first attack was against women. When they tried to make the hijab (head covering) compulsory, women fought back with an historic five-day outburst of protest. Khomeini had to retreat and wait for another time. He found that moment when the Islamist forces consolidated their political power.
Egypt is a conservative society. Women have been under pressure, and most, especially in the countryside, have been kept out of social and political activity. About 42 percent of women cannot read and write and only about 25 percent work outside the home. While these figures might be high in comparison with some other countries in the region, still they indicate the existence of obstacles to women who want to go beyond the household walls. Genital cutting is still widespread, especially in rural areas, despite the Mubarak government's claim to have combated it. The level of sexual harassment against women has risen to a terrifying degree. Whether veiled or not, unaccompanied women can expect verbal harassment and being groped in crowded spaces.
However during the uprising of the people in Egypt and especially the 18 days in Tahrir Square, this situation changed. Women took part in the protests and played a much more active role. This also reflected the women's abhorrence of the situation, especially young women.
Hadeer Ahmad is a 20-year-old woman from a Salalfist family. Her mother covers her face and entire body. After taking part in the protest that toppled Mubarak, the young woman was inspired to take off her scarf.
"I realized that I believe in complete equality with men… I used to think that I could get married and stay at home, and now I think that I belong to this society and that I want to contribute to it. A number of my female friends decided after the revolution that they wanted to leave their homes, to live independently from their families. The revolution gave us energy and power.” (NYT, 21 November 2011)
And this is how the women changed. Women from all walks of life participated in those unforgettable days of Egyptian history. According to some accounts, despite the constraints, nearly a quarter of those protesting in Tahrir Square were women.
Women's satisfaction with and enjoyment of the important role they were playing made many think that they had defeated familial, social, cultural, traditional and religious limitations and constraints. In fact they were able to push back these obstacles for that period of time, but that victory was not finalised. The guardians of the backward relations soon started to counter-attack.
The regime that replaced Mubarak was not what the people were fighting for. The imperialists had to give in to the downfall of their man, Mubarak, but they also had to try and limit the extent of the blow to the state structure and the social and economic relations serving world imperialism. So they helped piece together a combination of forces, mainly the army and Islamists.
The rise of the Islamists has added to women's concern about their future. There are also fears that even existing rights, though mostly they exist only on paper, are threatened. Human rights activists and women’s groups have confirmed the assault on women and the backlash against their political participation by those in power and their unofficial thugs. For example, in Egypt Salafist men have been accusing women in villages and small towns of "disrespectful" behaviour. However in some cases they have been confronted with the women who fought back and made them flee.
The unity of Egyptian reactionary forces against women
The coalition of the army and the Islamists is determined to protect the old system with all its values centred on anti-women policies. It seems that both factions are most united when it comes to anti-women policies. The army is using violence against women and wielding the state apparatus to humiliate them, while the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to use and strengthen backward traditions, so-called culture and religion, and Salafists are using unofficial thugs to harass and attack women in the streets. All three forces are working towards the same end, even if approaching it from different directions.
Why are all these reactionary forces so anti-woman? Apart from the general view they all share, that women should be defined as wives and mothers, in backward countries where pre-capitalist modes of production or some aspects of them still persist, men's ownership of women shapes policies regarding women in the family and society.
But there is another important reason. Women's increasing role in recent years and especially in Tahrir square inspired women to take more active part in society and fight for their rights. Many women do not want to put this important experience behind them and go back to their traditional role, but to learn more and go even further.
But the guardians of the old system and old relations, the generals and various Islamic and religious forces, want women to go back to their traditional role and can't tolerate their enthusiasm. The brutality is an indication that they have seen that the genie is out of the bottle.
Some wrong thinking regarding raising the oppression of women
While determination is essential for women to fight for their liberation, it is not enough. It is important to be clear and see where the subordinate role of women originated and how this has been reinforced by all class societies and the exploiting nature of the ruling classes throughout history.
If Mubarak and a few figures around him are removed but the main structure of the old system remains untouched and is even protected by the institutions that actually were and still are running the country, the old values and the same differences and discrimination, the same oppression and exploitation will remain in place. The old system will continue to function, even though there might be a brief interruption in some parts of it. And even if those institutions are abolished, there is no guarantee that exploitation and oppression, including the oppression of women, will be vanquished. A revolution replaces those old institutions with a new state, one that establishes a new mode of production and works for a society without classes, gender oppression or antagonistic social differences of any kind, a society that needs and makes possible the work, efforts and conscious participation of all people.
However, among those who demand respect for women' rights and the end of violence and discrimination against women, some people believe that it is possible within the existing system, and even that it can be achieved by respecting religion and the existing traditions. Yet not only are such goals not achievable in a system based on exploitation that requires the oppression of women for its functioning, but furthermore, religion and traditions work in the superstructure of society to reinforce and consolidate the system of oppression and exploitation. Consequently tailing religion and tradition can only preserve the oppression of women. This is why the Islamist parties are accepted at the top of the pyramid of such a system, and why they are willing to work at the top of such a system. This is why the top of the pyramid is united to oppress and marginalize women.
Women's oppression in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and other countries in the region has taken specific forms for many reasons, including the fact that tradition and Islam play a powerful role in their own right. But most fundamentally these traditions and religion reflect the oppression maintained by imperialism and its local backward allies, and outmoded modes of production – pre-capitalist production relations – whose persistence is related to the subordination of these countries to imperialist capital.
Let's put it this way: the oppression of women in Islamic countries does not mean that women in Western countries are not discriminated against or that their rights are not violated. Even more fundamentally, the equality in the eyes of the law that prevails in most Western countries has not and cannot lead to the emancipation of women, who remain subjugated, lesser beings in every country in today's world. But at the same time the form of oppression of women in Western countries should not be used to justify any kind of oppression, or allow Islamist forces to impose their own particular brand of oppression of women. Furthermore, the oppression of women in any form will strengthen, instead of challenge, the economic and social relations that facilitate imperialist domination.
So women in North Africa and the Middle East, as in all countries, have a responsibility to fight against imperialism and the relations of production that pave the way for the oppression of women, and that means they have a responsibility to fight against ideas and views that help to reinforce those modes of productions and the oppression of women. So the separation of religion from state is an initial and a basic demand for the liberation of women. Clinging to religion can never and will never result in women's liberation.
Another wrong notion about women that is very common everywhere, even among some left-minded people and groups, is the tendency to ignore the woman question or oppose emphasizing it under the pretext that it is not the main aspect of the revolution. This view tends to leave women's demands for a later time, which indirectly helps prolong the oppression of women. Such views seem to have influence in Egypt too. A young Egyptian journalist worried about women's rights reports:
"I have attended rallies for the Islamist parties dominating the elections and I have talked to many of their voters. And they all tell me that my fears as a working independent woman who likes her life exactly as it is are secondary to more important pressing issues for the future of this country. I'm secondary to the reconstruction of Egypt and my fears are trivial compared to crucial matters such as security, the economy and the power struggle between the ruling military council and the Tahrir Squares around the country." (Mayye El-Sheikh writing in the NYT, 15 December 2011)
This kind of thinking is also common among some leftists who think that it is futile and misleading to fight for women's rights in capitalist society, since the liberation of women can only be realized by socialist revolution. Therefore, they argue, women's demands are secondary, and this is not the time to raise them.
"Ola Shahba, 33, a socialist who, during the uprising, joined the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth, took a break from organizing a protest of teachers' unions to describe her frustrations with feminism.
"'I think I am too socialist to be a feminist,' Ms Shahba said. Though she believes in women's empowerment, she said, she feels that in present-day Egypt, an explicit focus on women's rights just serves to isolate women further. The Egyptian labour movement, she pointed out, has long had powerful female leaders." (NYT, 21 November 2011)
Though it is true that women's liberation can only be fully achieved in a communist society, that doesn’t mean the struggle for women's rights should be abandoned and left for after the revolution. In fact, the other side of this is that without the vast participation of women in struggles, a socialist revolution can never happen. It is true that there have been women leaders in the communist movement, but the women leaders and activists have never been nearly as many as is needed. So to encourage women in an organized way and organizing them around their demands is an integral part of the revolution.
The abolition of the oppression of women is not a single event that can happen the day after the revolution. It is a process that can and should be initiated from the first day that struggle starts.
Overall the uprising of the people in the Middle East and North Africa, while it brought the collapse of some dictators and is shaking others, has taken place in conjunction with other developments, including the rise of Islamists, in some cases with the cooperation of imperialist forces. We have seen from the day they enter government that they are pressing to give Islam a commanding force in social life, and push women back into their traditional subjugated role. This has provoked grave concern.
Of course women in this region have shown great courage and determination. Their worry is an indication of their awareness of their rights and a sign that they are not going to give in easily, at least not without a fight.