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Monica Dispatch

The Liberation of Women

Vocabulary Box

Discern - detect, recognize
Earnest - serious and passionate

One hundred years ago, a short, thin man named Kassem Amin kept having trouble finding girlfriends. He would lose out to a tall, muscular man named Abess Al-Aqed, who kept attracting all of Kassem Amin's potential mates! Short, thin Kassem Amin felt frustrated with women who only wanted to be married to tall, muscular men, so he wrote a book called the "Liberation of Women." He wanted to liberate women's minds and ideas about the qualities of a suitable person to marry.

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The crowd assembles for the 'One Hundred Years Later' conference
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A hundred years later, at the Supreme Council of Culture on the Cairo Opera House grounds, a group of passionate women revisited Amin's book and explored what "The Liberation of Women" means in 1999. After a hundred years, how far have women's issues come? Has the status of women and girls improved or degenerated? Have women's rights increased or decreased? What about sensitive topics like female circumcision, spousal abuse (physical and mental), legal rights like divorce, marriage and inheritance, and the wearing of the hijab? Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a Professor of Political Sociology at the American University in Cairo,
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Gender-sensitive writings help reshape people's perceptions
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writes that at the United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing (1995), "All the participants (the Arabs included) noted that there was a social, cultural and civilizational gap with regard to women. This is a gap that all Arab women issues activists have to fill. It has been a hundred years since Kassem Amin's book was first published. It seems that in 1999 we need a new book of the sort and a revival of movement or liberation of Egyptian women."


Wanna run for President? If you're a girl, read on...

In Beijing at the UN conference, women and men alike agreed on a plan to increase women's participation in all elected offices (like Congress or Parliament) from current levels to 33% in 2005. There ain't nothin' stoppin' you presidential hopefuls!

  • The percentage of women's representation in Scandinavian countries has reached 38%. This is the highest rate in the world.
  • In the Americas, women's participation has reached 16%. In California, my home state, both representatives to the Senate are women.
  • The third regional group is Asia, where women's representation is 14%.
  • The European countries (excluding Scandinavia) have women's representation of 12%.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa comes sixth with a rate of 8.3% for women's representation.
  • The Arab world rates last with an estimated 3.3% of elected offices filled by women.

-statistics prepared by Azza Karam, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Queens University (Dublin, Ireland)

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The conference in full swing
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At the "One Hundred Years Later" conference, speakers addressed a diverse range of topics. Ghada, a young woman I met, told me, "This is a very important time. It's good, there's lots of people talking." While the entire conference is held in Arabic, I was able to discern a few words, like during the panel discussion when "Cindy Crawford.... California..." comes up. Later I learn it's a discussion of the differences between the "Western" idea of feminism and the Egyptian idea, as well as ideas about the women's movement throughout the Arab world, both Muslim and non-Muslim. As an American woman, I must be very careful not to use my preconceived notions and my own perceptions to view this conference; rather, I must be culturally sensitive and listen -- really listen to women's' voices.

Hamsa A-hemid, head of the women's section of the Afro-Asian Peoples' Solidarity Organization, thinks the buzzword at this conference, attended by over a hundred women activists in all fields, is "the law."

One law, now in the People's Assembly, a legislative body of Egyptian government, states that spouses will pay money into a special bank account that no one touches if the married couple remains married. HOWEVER, if the couple gets divorced, the money pays out to cover child care and family expenses.

A second proposed law, which many of the women heatedly argue about, is this: if either spouse of a divorced couple does NOT pay child support, they cannot leave Egypt (for instance, to work or go to school in the Gulf States or Europe). A-hemid, who has traveled and worked throughout the UAE and knows the value of outside influences, states, "A lot of the women here disagree on that! It's something we're discussing for a long time."

A third law, passed by the People's Assembly in May 1999 and scheduled to go into effect after the new year, means non-governmental organizations (NGOs), like ones assisting women with health, education, and literacy, will have to cut through more "red tape". For example, existing NGOs will have to break down and set up again with permission from the Ministry of Social Affairs. NGOs won't be able to accept foreign donations without prior approval from the Ministry. Further, if the Ministry doesn't like a nominee for office (like president, vice-president, secretary or treasurer of the organization), they can just block the nomination. Dr. Iman Bibars, a researcher and activist, thinks this law is "just as difficult as the previous one, so it doesn't matter," but the extra bureaucracy means more headache for most NGO organizers.

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Dr. Salma Galal urges women to study the sciences
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Dr. Salma Galal, who represents the Health and Environmental Education Association, a local NGO, doesn't think that legal matters are the most important issue. "It's a political thing," she said, shaking her head. She was a panel member on a roundtable discussion on women in the sciences and commented, "There is no interest! There are only a few women in the room!" She attributed the low interest in her talk to the idea that first, women have to attain their basic rights, like access to good health care and education. After that, they can focus on attaining equality in the sciences and other fields. "Now is a good moment for moving ahead. There is a time of moving forward," she said.

Dean Cynthia Nelson, chair of the Humanities Department of the American University of Cairo, chuckled gleefully about the conference. Because of her work in the field of women's rights, including an entire week devoted to seminars, talks, and discussions about women, held at the university, Dean Nelson delivered the keynote address the first day of the conference. She and other concerned professors at AUC are starting a "Gender Studies" Minor. At one of their meetings she pointed out that this particular conference is "open to all women and the general public. Anyone can show up." Her colleague Dr. Soraya Al-Torki, an anthropologist in the sociology of department, also explains that everyone at the conference on Sunday night receives free copies of books made available here for their first publication in Arabic.

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This Egyptian camera woman is proving that women are taking steps into new fields
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Outside of the conference grounds, a mini-bookstore held more women's stories, novels and articles, including newsletters from the Women and Memory Forum, with whom Abeja met: they re-write fairy tales like "A Thousand and One Nights" from a gender-sensitive perspective, rather than presenting all women as helpless, silly, seductive, or only interested in the prince or caliph. I sipped a coffee and climbed upstairs to watch the first-floor conference area from above: women of all ages and from all backgrounds mingled. Journalists and students circulated through the crowd, asking questions and spreading the news about this conference. Television cameras focused on the faces of earnest women asking questions and sharing information. Women are here behind the camera, on the panel, and volunteering as moderators, booksellers, and information sources. The "One Hundred Years Later: Women's Liberation" conference: a true example of women reaching out to each other to face their issues -- together.

At another conference, held recently, people gathered to speak on "Women's Perspectives from East to West," from the Egyptian woman's standpoint. Kassem Amin had expressed the need to improve women's status through education, because "he believed that had it not been for education, the fate of any society would be backwardness and deterioration in all walks of life."

- from a report by Miss Hamsa Abdel Hamid Guindi, AAPSO

Monica

p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...worldtrekker@internettreks.org

 

Abeja - A Day in the Life of a Coptic Monk
Jasmine - Coptic Cairo
Kavitha - Egyptian Dynasty Part II
Monica - Meeting of the Minds: The Afro-Asian Peoples' Solidarity Organization (AAPSO)
Monica - Alexandria, Egypt: City of Legend

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