Over a decade ago I made legal history in Egypt, but to fight for women's rights we need to change the culture, not just the laws

Arab Muslim societies continue to treat women as second class citizens, as protectors of the family’s ‘honour’, as potential sources of disgrace rather than individuals who have rights

Hind Elhinnawy
Sunday 17 June 2018 15:39
Comments
Even though laws are gradually changing in favour of equality, women’s social, economic and political status has barely improved in most Arab countries
Even though laws are gradually changing in favour of equality, women’s social, economic and political status has barely improved in most Arab countries

It was almost 15 years ago that I became pregnant, and instead of quietly getting it “taken care of”, I decided to keep the baby and challenge the social norms of my country of origin. Having a child from an unofficial urfi marriage, in a country like Egypt, meant a scandal for my family and I, as they have no official contract and are often kept secret.

Under Egyptian law, without an official marriage contract, only a man can register a child’s birth. As a result, tens of thousands of children are legally non-existent; they cannot be issued birth certificates, passports, receive vaccinations, register for school or even get married.

In Egypt, the standard three-step solution for any unmarried, upper class girl in my situation is an abortion, a hymen repair operation, then marriage to the first unwitting suitor the family can snare. Poorer women without access to these options can face death – killed by a male member of the family to end the “shame” and cleanse the family’s “honour”. For me, play-acting my way through the virgin-marriage pageant was not an option. Instead, I did the unthinkable and chose to keep my baby.

The father of my child refused to acknowledge his paternity, and I chose to take my case public, scandalising the nation. And while a small group of feminists and educated elites strongly supported my case, the vast majority of the country was against it.

Leila Amer: Egyptian singer arrested after conservative lawyer claims music video is a "great risk" to Egpyt

After losing, and appealing, the judge ruled in my favour, forcing the father to recognise both his relationship with me and his paternity of Leena, who was 19 months old. My case and my subsequent efforts to change the laws did, in fact, inspire thousands of Egyptian mothers to fight for the rights of their own children, and drove the Egyptian court to include DNA tests to paternity investigations.

I had hoped that this would lead to a real shift in what has always been a misogynistic and patriarchal society. In reality, little has changed. Egyptian tabloids, talk shows, newspapers and the general public remain vocally prejudiced against single mothers like me, looking down on us as “sinful”, and our children as “illegitimate”. Ultimately, laws proved to be easier to change than societies.

For a decade now, throughout my post-graduate studies, research and continuous activism, I’ve talked to hundreds of women, listened to their daily struggles, and realised that even though laws are gradually changing in favour of equality, women’s social, economic and political status has barely improved in most Arab countries.

Despite legal reform, Arab Muslim societies continue to treat women as second class citizens, as protectors of the “family’s honour”, as potential sources of disgrace rather than individuals who have rights.

In Saudi Arabia, women were only allowed to vote for the first time in 2015, yet only around 130,000 women registered to vote, compared to 1.35 million men. This year they were permitted to drive for the first time, but I would be surprised to see that become commonplace any time soon. Changing the law is all well and good, but when the oppression of women is so ingrained in the culture, it makes little real difference.

In Saudi Arabia and most Arab Muslim countries a single woman in her thirties is considered a spinster, sexual harassment of a woman is still considered her fault, premarital sex is ok for young men, but a family’s dignity is lost upon a girl’s engagement in any sexual activity. A girl should cook, clean and do the laundry for her brothers, while they watch a football match; a man has the right to divorce a woman with one phrase, “you are divorced”, while women have no such right. The list goes on.

Islam and feminism have been in a constant clash since the turn of the century, and we can no longer ignore this fact. Somewhere between the liberal secular positions like mine, and the attempts by fundamentalists to silence us, it is often the voices of Muslim women themselves that are left unheard.

Much of this sexist mentality exists across different religions due to culture and tradition, but the growing confrontation with fundamental Islam over the application of sharia law is making it more difficult for Muslim women to demand reform.

With such a negative perception of women’s rights, no progress can be made. Calls for greater women’s rights will not achieve anything on their own. What is necessary is a change of attitude; a radical change of public thinking.

Women need to speak out. Only when we understand the need to speak out, fight for our rights, and stop accepting the status quo, will we see real change.

In the meantime, as long as we accept and allow traditionalism and fundamentalism to dictate our destinies, the situation will continue to worsen for women like me, no matter what the laws say.

Hind Elhinnawy is crowdsourcing the final year of her PhD. Find out more at GoFundMe

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in