It is 2am on a typical night during Ramadan. The shopping centre in eastern Alexandria is awake, alive and chaotic. Shops offer bikinis and hijabs, a cinema advertises the latest Arabic comedies and coloured lamps marking the holy month shine over milling crowds of middle-class Egyptian families. In a café, a couple laze with arms around each other’s shoulders; a group of veiled middle-aged women puff on shisha pipes and a pair of young mothers compare notes on their fractious toddlers as they play around the tables.
Opposite me, in a chiffon hijab and skinny jeans, is 22-year-old Israa. She is a poster girl for the new generation currently remodelling Egypt. She is jobless, and lives in a small apartment with her parents, sharing a bed with her older sister. But she speaks three languages, has a degree in archaeology and left a well-paid job in protest at the treatment of other staff. She is also a devout Muslim and a feminist. In this, she is anything but abnormal.
“In Europe they say that in Islam there are no women's rights. But there are,” she insists. “In the Book it gives many rights for us. The problem is men only take half the religion. They read ‘oh, I can marry four women, and I need to have a beard'. And they forget the rest! In the Quran, women are mentioned 24 times, and men – 24 times. They are equal.”
Through academic debate, Islamic feminism has been quietly reinventing itself. Muslim scholars such as Amina Wadud and Rifaat Hassan have begun to approach feminism from a new direction, seeking not to pitch women’s emancipation against Islam but to realise it through Islam. They are re-interpreting the Quran and Hadith, examining the lives of the Prophet Mohammed’s wives and extracting a new feminist message from their religion.
Challenges are being posed to the traditional Hadith and Quranic interpretations used to justify the oppression of women; the old “no nation will prosper with a woman as its leader” dogma has been subject to new scutiny. History is being re-examined, and role of women in Islam is being re-imagined. Female scholars are reclaiming their right to interpret their religion.
Although these thinkers are hugely controversial and their works are not widely known outside academic circles, the sentiments they express are shared by a multitude of young Egyptian women.
Fatima, an English teacher in a language school in central Alexandria, is pious, well-dressed, polite and confident that religion is an escape from repression. “The problem isn’t religion. The religion has a culture, and the society has a culture. It’s the society which holds women back, not the true religion.
“Yes, my religion says I must dress modestly and lower my gaze. But so must men. Why do they only restrict us, and not themselves? We need to educate ourselves on what our religion really says.”
We are joined by Salma, a 14-year-old student, who complains that male teachers at her high school insist that she starts to wear hijab: “But I refuse," she says. "They try to tell me how to be a Muslim woman. But I know what it is to be a Muslim as well as they do!”
The next generation of Egyptian women is emerging into a society in a strange limbo, heavily-divided by class. The surface gains of feminism have yet to penetrate the deeper roots of Egyptian culture because too many people see it as an alien or foreign imposition.
On International Women’s Day, a month after the fall of Mubarak, a march for women’s rights filled Tahrir Square. The marchers were met by crowds of men shouting abuse and sexually harassing them. At one stage they held up a woman in full niqab face-veil and chanted “this is a real Egyptian woman”. Many male activists who had fought beside these women during the revolution insisted that it was “too soon”, that Egyptian culture wasn’t ready for a gender revolution. Feminism, they said, was "too Western".
Egypt is a country with a long-standing women’s movement, a deep-seated misogynystic tendency and a deeper-seated religious one. In the crucible of ideas created by the revolution, it may be fertile country for the development of the new Islamic feminism from an obscure academic debate into a coherent political movement. And, indeed, it may already have happened.
The challenge faced by teenage Salma can be found at the core of this new feminism: contesting misogynistic spiritual interpretation and allowing women to take on religious misogyny. It’s a battle which is beginning to be fought on the upper levels of academic debate and religious authority; but many Egyptian women have already been fighting it all their lives.
Fighting for women’s rights on Islamic grounds can, of course, be dangerous. It risks side-lining secular and Christian feminists and it challenges thousands of years of consensus. But if there is one place where the debate could move forward it is Egypt, the country where the movement for women’s rights first emerged in North Africa, and a nation still in flux following the turmoil of the revolution.
And it’s a revolution which many insist is not over. Israa’s sister Dina is among many who want to see a second phase: “we’ve won the war between the people and the government. Now we need the war between the men and the women.”
A new front has opened up in this war and, if it is taken seriously by the new generation, it could fundamentally transform the women’s movement across the Middle East.
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