From the suffragist movement of the early 1900’s, the Miss America “bra burning” protest of 1968 and the decades long Pro-Choice movement, it’s safe to say feminism is alive and flourishing in the United States.
But what about Mideast nations such as Egypt and Israel, countries where women have an inferior role to men in everyday society? What does feminism look like in these countries? Is there a voice for women subdued by a typically male-dominated traditional society?
For both Egypt and Israel, feminism can actually be traced back to the early 1920’s and the 1930’s. At that time, women in Egypt and israel were striving to gain rights such as voting and equality throughout their country, very similar to the struggles of the suffragist movement in America. Since then women’s rights have improved in both countries, but issues continue to arise regarding equality and basic rights, and have recently taken a violent turn of events.
In Egypt, the National Council for Women (NCW) have been fighting for women’s rights and gender equality since 2000. The council was founded under presidential decree, and with the guidance of first lady Suzanne Mubarak (the former President’s wife), began a mission to revitalize the decades old notion of state feminism, a term coined around the Nasser-era in relation to his policies in favor of integrating women into the workforce.
The NCW’s form of state feminism was significantly different from the late Nasser’s idea of state feminism, lending toward the inspiration of the Egyptian Feminist Union (EGU), the first feminist group to start in Egypt in the 1920’s. The EGU had protested inequality by removing their veils as a sign of protest against the invisibility, and openly referred to themselves as feminists, which was revolutionary for women at the time.
The NCW were motivated by the bravery of the EGU, and through state backing, were working towards new levels of equality and right for women.
Then in February 2011 President Mubarak resigned, and a military coup removed the newly elected president Morsi in June of 2013. Now with a judge sworn in as the interim president, the NCW continue to promote women’s rights and work toward equality.
Sadly, with the resignation and flight of President Mubarak from Egypt the validity of the Mubarak supported NCW is questioned. With the chaos of an unstable government and society, feminists continue to struggle to find equality. The past two years have been filled with violence and sexual harassment, most notably in 2011 when an unnamed young woman participant in a sit-in was stripped to her blue bra and dragged through the streets by army soldiers. Multiple similar stories have been released of protesting feminists and women in general being mistreated, mostly faceless victims hidden behind their hijab. Feminists are protesting against sexual harassment and mistreatment, using the woman with the blue bra as a symbol for the fight against inequality. With the new year of 2014, Egypt is hoping to start clean and put an end to gender inequality.
While somewhat less chaotic than Egypt over the past few years, a very similar story has unfolded in Israel. With an active feminist group also dating back to the 1920’s, feminists in Israel are continually stuck in ultra-orthodox traditional ways. Women are undergoing harassment for wearing clothing deemed “immodest” by ultra-orthodox men.
While some areas in Tel-Aviv will have posters of women in bikinis by the beach, some towns post signs ordering women to cover themselves in modest garbs; in skirts knee length or longer and shirts that cover the arms. Women are spit-on, cursed, and beaten by orthodox religious men who demand all women be completely covered. Feminists in Israel are crying out against the mistreatment and abuse of women for not wearing what is considered “modest” enough clothing.
One such Israeli feminist leading the charge is Canadian born Nili Philipp. Nili Philipp and her husband moved to Beit Shemesh, a small community in the Judean foothills, in 2000 and over the past five years have experienced a rise in harassment from ultra-orthodox Jewish men (Haredim) firsthand. Nili, an avid runner and biker, on multiple occasions has been spit on and cursed, for the Haredim believe that merely the sight of women running is offensive. Even when biking while dressed in extremely modest clothes, the longest shorts she could find past her knees and a short sleeved jersey, a man pelted her with a stone. Terrified that insults had escalated to violence, Nili has now become a voice in the clash between the ultra-orthodox and the growing women’s coalition for rights in Israeli society.
Egyptian and Israeli feminists are not simply struggling for a freedom of clothing; they strive for the implementation of gender equality in the state, civil institutions, and everyday life. The feminist movement in these countries is a movement built upon theology and traditions, drawing from a Biblical and Quranic system of equality of all human beings. They are not trying to stage a drastic revolution, they are expecting their due equal rights based on their beliefs. Once the general populations of Egypt and Israel can understand this, there will be a profound shift in the advancement of the women’s rights.
Until then, the Egyptian and Israeli feminists continue to fight for equality.