Monday, May 10, 2010

Letters from Egypt: Behind Every Great Man…

Egyptian women gathered in front of a polling station after they were denied entry. 
Photo taken by the New York Times

“Behind every great man, there is a great woman.”

And whether you believe that statement or not is your personal opinion, but as I continue living my life in Egypt, I am constantly faced with a belief that because I was born with certain genitalia that am the weaker sex.

As Egypt progressively grows more conservative – in addition to the rest of the MidEast – I want to highlight Hoda Sha’rawi who began fighting for female rights in Egypt before 1919.

To put things into perspective, the US gave females the right to vote via the 19th amendment to the Constitution in 1920. However, the famous “bra-burning” movement in the US didn’t occur until the 1960s. And the feminist war continued to wage in the US with a new wave of feminism in the 1990s. Truth be told, it will persist. As recently as 3.5 years ago I was started off at a job making significantly less than my male colleague – whom started only a month prior to my arrival – doing the same job (and no, it didn’t require physical strength).

The argument could be waged that he was simply better than I was at the job; however, that argument is null as the US law would be that by performing the same tasks with identical titles, we should begin at the same salary. Depending on your performance, a pay raise may be implemented and up to the employer’s discretion.

So while this debate will always be prevalent, one woman kick-started things in Egypt. Although present-day Egypt would allow you to think that all of Sha’rawi’s (with the help of others) efforts have been forgotten.

Sha’rawi led the first demonstrations for women in Egypt in 1919 and also founded the Egyptian Women’s Union. Other notable actions include advocating female education and equal opportunities for women in education and employment which led to the opening of As-Saniyva Secondary School for girls in 1924. These efforts also resulted in a law that increased the marriage age to 16 for females and 18 for males. And in 1945, she represented Egypt with Siza Nabarawi and Esmat Assem calling for the prevention of nuclear weapons after the Hiroshima bombing.

In May 4, 1923, Hoda Sha’rawi, Nabawiya Moussa and Ceza Nabarawi left for Rome to represent Egypt in the International Feminist Conference. The first Egyptian woman to obtain a baccalaureate degree, Moussa wrote to Al-Ahram newspaper that the flag that the Egyptian delegation carried to Rome had been questioned. Sha’rawi responded that the flag – featuring a crescent with a cross in the center – was a symbol of the 1919 feminist revolution. The conference chairwoman was impressed by Egypt’s tolerance. Moussa commented in the paper, “Apparently, they had believed that Egyptians were given to religious intolerance. We found proof of this in the fact that when one of the conference participants approached to speak with us, her first question was, 'What is the difference between Copts and Muslims in Egypt?' We told her that the Copts believe in Christianity and the Muslims believe in Islam, that both Copts and Muslims are free in the practice of their beliefs, but that all are bound by a common loyalty to their country."

Upon return to Egypt, an Al-Ahram reader wrote praising Sha’rawi and her colleagues for their courage saying, “May God spare Egypt the evils of obstinacy and mental stagnation, the ills that plague all efforts at reform.”

It’s a shame that those efforts have become forgotten in today’s society.

 Photo from BBC

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