Celebrating women

Published on Al-Ahram weekly online, by Amany Abdel-Moneim, 15 – 21 March 2012.

Each year around the world, International Women’s Day is celebrated on 8 March. Thousands of events occur not just on this day but throughout the month of March in order to mark the economic, political and social achievements of women. This year the celebration in Egypt has taken on a special meaning, due to the active participation of Egypt’s women in the Egyptian revolution … //  

… “Women should trust their potential and be confident that they have the same capabilities as men, since both are made in the image of God,” said Sameh Morees, pastor of the evangelical church in Qasr Al-Dobara. Morees explained that the church gave women leadership roles, among them Eva Boutros, who founded the Qasr Al-Dobara field hospital and was responsible for almost 180 doctors.

The Opera House celebration saw six public figures honoured for their work as role models for women in terms of their achievements in the field of gender equality and empowerment.

Among the honourees was former ambassador Mervat Tallawi, president of the Egyptian National Council for Women. In order to enhance women’s participation in public and political life, Tallawi calls for the socio-economic and political empowerment of women. Though women played a crucial role in the revolution, they have more recently been overlooked by the political parties and the media, and this would have to change.

Tallawi pointed to the small number of women in parliament compared with previous periods as evidence of increasing female marginalisation, with women only winning nine seats in the post-revolution elections. Illiteracy and poverty are among the serious obstacles that threaten women, according to Tallawi, with education playing a pivotal role in empowering women to fight such injustice.

Developing women’s potential as full and equal members of society, both in the private and public spheres, is also necessary, she said. “It is important that the public sector, the government, civil society organisations and non-governmental organisations provide support for women’s issues in a way that complements each other’s efforts,” Tallawi added.

According to many activists, this is especially true because civil society groups have launched many initiatives designed to empower women, but these have sometimes encountered challenges and problems. Tallawi said there was a need to review traditions and customs that could entrench women’s secondary status, as well as to review laws that could discriminate against women.

Any society, like a human being, cannot live with just one lung, anyone supporting women’s rights would help society to breathe more easily. Honoree professor Fouad Riad said that he believed that women had very high potential and creativity and that they could even surpass men in some areas. Riad warned against any attempts at turning back the clock as far as women’s rights were concerned. “We are now in a difficult position, because the revolution has been accompanied by a desire to eliminate the progress made under the former regime under the pretext of religion,” he said.

Amna Nosseir, professor of Islamic doctrine and philosophy at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, was also honoured during the celebration. Nosseir said that Islam honoured women, and that the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, in his last sermon which he delivered at hajj, ordered Muslims to treat women well and be kind to them for they are men’s partners and committed helpers.

Nosseir said that she hoped that Egyptian women would be able to regain their strength and trust in their capabilities. “Egyptian women have come forward as a solid force and an integral part of a national movement bent on change, participation, social justice and freedom,” she said.

Believing that the media must play a role in highlighting the challenges facing women, whether economic, social or political, Nosseir appealed to Islamic preachers to refresh women’s memories and remind them of their valuable role in building the Islamic state. She said that she would like to see the media produce programmes by scholars, psychologists, clerics, and human development researchers in order to help empower Egyptian women.

“Salafi satellite stations and Egyptian television channels do not provide women with the strong awareness they need,” Nosseir said. “The negative effects of Salafi discourse could even destroy our traditions by promoting those that are alien to them. Muslim women have played an integral role in society since the beginning of the first Hijri century, but due to illiteracy especially in religion her role has been diminishing,” she said.

Providing better education for women would help them to claim their rights, including their right to property and work, she added. Women’s financial independence, born out of better education, could also help bring prosperity to local communities.

Nahed El-Hennawi, director of the crisis management and information unit at a Cairo police station, said that the title of the commemoration should be beha (with her) instead of laha (for her), giving the sense of a cooperative endeavour. Women should constitute at least 30 per cent of the new constituent assembly, she said, adding that “women are an integral part of Egyptian society and the Egyptian revolution. Therefore, they should be fairly represented in the new constitution and the constituent assembly.”
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