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Karen Torjesen

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The Egyptian Revolution: Women, Islam And Social Change

Posted: 09/29/2011 6:09 pm

Traffic inches through the narrow streets. Sidewalks are peppered with chairs, men in gallabiyas (tunic-like garment reaching the ankles) chatting, drinking tea or smoking the hookah. Women in hijabs threading the traffic, children in tow. Shops bustle; vendors call. Normal life -- but there is something in the air. What is it I wondered. What is going on in Egypt?

It is profound and it is complex, but a conversation at the Cheops pyramid with a young student worked as a single snapshot. His first question after, "Where are you from?" was, "What do Americans think of us now, after the revolution?" How can I describe his effect -- it was something new. A tone? A manner? He asked with eagerness; he asked with pride, there was a confidence in his voice. He explained, straining for the English vocabulary that the regime had controlled how Egyptians thought about themselves. "When we woke up in the morning, we thought only of taking care of food and family. Now we think about ourselves differently." Johnny West named this difference in his Journey through the Arab Spring. It became the title of his book, "Karama," dignity.

What is the role of Islam in this new identity and what does Islam mean for Arab women? The new youth are not looking toward the West for answers. They imagine a distinctly Egyptian democracy rooted in Islamic values. More women are wearing the hijab, as more men are wearing the gallabiya (the comfortable robe of traditional Egyptian outerwear). In fact, the young women are wearing the hijab quite fashionably, wearing it in multiple colors, along with stylish jeans, skirts and close fitting t-shirts, expressing a confidence in their sexual identity. What are the current meanings of the hijab? What are the roots of this new self-confidence? Unnoticed by the Western press Muslim women are leading their own revival of Islam, a mix of social activism and Islamic values, nurtured by their own study of the Qur'an, the Sharia and the fiqh.

Muslim feminists are proud of their Islamic heritage. Early Islam prohibited infanticide, provided women rights to inheritance and ownership of property; divorce and remarriage; to testify in court and polygamy limited to four wives. During Islam's formative period women participated in religion and warfare; the wives of the Mohammed contributed narratives of the prophet's life and teachings, hadith, that became part of the authoritative tradition of Islam.

Islamic feminist scholars like Riffat Hassan argue the practice of Islam is more patriarchal than the revealed text of the Qur'an, hence offering Muslim women greater opportunities to extend their fields of activity and take their place alongside men in reforming society. Men and women are created equal, share equally in moral responsibility before God and have the same responsibility for keeping the precepts of Islam. In the Qura'nic suras (2, 7, 20) that deal with creation, Adam and his wife (unnamed) participate together in the rebellion that led to banishment. The rebellion itself is called an error (zalla), not a fundamental change in human nature.

In terms of the Qur'an Muslim feminists have an advantage over their Christian counterparts. In the traditional Christian interpretation of the Genesis story: Adam is created first; Eve is created from Adam; Eve is created to be Adam's helpmeet. Women's subordinated status is sanctioned by the creation story of Genesis 2. As the story proceeds in Genesis 3, Eve is given primary responsibility for the fall that introduces original sin into human nature. Consequently women are considered morally weak and the cause of the sin and the reason for the corruption of human nature.

Nonetheless as with Christianity, Islamic cultures are also patriarchal, incorporating seamlessly into Islam their patriarchal practices. Later Islamic oral tradition reflects this process of assimilation. 200 years after the Prophet's life, Tabari's commentary on the Qur'an reinterprets the Qur'anic story explaining that because Adam's wife became the tool of Satan she was placed under a curse making her morally and mentally deficient.

Sherine Hafez and Margot Badran are among feminist scholars who are documenting this women's Islamic revival. Egyptian women are doing their own study of the Qur'an, taking on new disciplines of piety and redefining their religious obligations. For them, social activism is an outgrowth of their new learning. Their outreach to impoverished women is rooted in an Islamic ethics that condemns poverty. The work of activism -- teaching rural women the values of education, women's rights and citizenship as they teach them hygiene, a work ethic and marketable skills -- is recognized as an act of worship. Building on their Islamic heritage, contemporary Egyptian women are evolving a feminist activism that weaves the values of education, women's rights, and citizenship into an Islamic framework.

 
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