Money for Sex; Nothing for Free
The Islamic Cairene Household 2002
In the year 2002, there is almost no field in which Egyptian women have not ventured; yet their status in society remains unequal to that of men. Although a common theme throughout the Qu’ran is the relationship of equality between man and woman and their interdependency, the Qu’ran acknowledges that man is superior. The following two verses of the Qu’ran confirms this statement:
“And it is for the women to act as they (the husbands) act by them, in all fairness; but the men are a step above them”(Q2: 228).
“ Men have authority over women because Allah has made one superior to the other ”(Q4: 34).
This contradiction has led to a patriarchal system that devalues the importance of the Muslim woman. Some have argued that it is not the ideology of Islam that oppresses woman, but man’s interpretation of it that has given him power over her.
In the past twenty years under the direction of President Mubarak, women have made enormous strides: In 1999, women accounted for 30% of the total labor force, illiteracy rates for women between the ages of 28-44 have dropped to 28%; the number of women attending universities reached 593,000 in 1999; women represent 161 out of 900 foreign diplomats; and in February of 2000, the National Council of women was established (Egypt Magazine 2002). Although Egyptian women have made significant advancements, Nawal El Saadawi views this as result of the western influences on Arab countries. “Whatever improvements there have been in the personal status of women, as wives or mothers, is not so much due to law, still supported by powerful and conservative forces, but rather to the socioeconomic changes that have taken place”(123). As Egypt moves from a government –controlled economy to a free market system, opportunities exist for women to assume a more equitable role. The modernization of the Egyptian economy has led to a cost of living increase that in many families necessitates the need for women to make contributions towards the household. Money or the ability to make it has been the deciding factor as to who has control in the relationship. If women are going to forfeit their previous status of being provided for, shouldn’t there be a reinterpretation of their role in society?
The family is often identified as the primary location of women’s oppression. The Personal Status Laws which are governed under Islamic law organize the boundaries of marriage through all its stages. They have a tremendous impact on the gender and power hierarchies within the family; I contend that women should use their newfound economic power to redefine the Personal Status Laws in hopes of obtaining gender equality.
The Personal Status Laws
The personal status laws which consist of laws governing marriage, divorce, and inheritance are based upon sharia, Islamic laws. Debates over these laws first emerged in the nineteenth century when customs of female seclusion and the lack of education were questioned.
The first revision of these laws occurred in 1915 when women were given the right to sue for divorce on a limited basis. Egypt passed laws in 1920 and 1929 that set conditions for a woman to obtain a divorce. These conditions prevailed, if a woman was deserted, mistreated, denied financial maintenance or if her husband was imprisoned or had a serious contagious disease. In the 1940s, women were allowed to write clauses into their wedding contracts restricting their husband’s right to take another wife.
The most progressive personal status laws were introduced in 1979 under President Anwar al Sadat. The 1979 personal status reforms had incorporated new grounds for divorce by a woman if her husband took another wife without her consent. She was to be informed if her husband divorced her and allowed to obtain a notarized certificate of divorce. The divorced wife retained custody of her children until the age of 10 for a boy and 12 for a girl. She was also to be awarded the family apartment until she remarried. These reforms also gave the women the right to work, so long as it did not interfere with their "family duties," and ended the practice of bayt al- ta’a, the practice of locking a wife up until the husband obtained obedience. Unfortunately in 1985 the personal status laws were ruled unconstitutional and most, but not all of the advances made were rolled back.
A new personal status law was passed in January of 2000. Under this law a wife can file for divorce on any grounds as long as she is willing to forfeit alimony payment and return the dowry payment given to her. The personal laws of 2000 also include the creation of a family court that will be able to facilitate divorce cases and a family insurance plan. Perhaps what stands out the most about the personal laws of 2000 are the exclusions of key issues. The following issues were excluded: restrictions on polygamy; efforts to encourage women’s inclusion of protective clauses in their marriage contracts; the woman’s right to travel without her husband’s or male guardian’s consent; and the ability to confer citizenship to children borne to an Egyptian woman and a non- Egyptian man.
The fact that the personal status laws have undergone several revisions leads me to believe that Islam is a religion that is capable of adapting to the needs of society. It is not necessarily Islam that is oppressive, but conservative Islamists who choose to purport man’s superiority over woman. There have been and will continue to be revisions that will benefit women.
The Role of Men and Women in Islam
In order to fully evaluate this claim it is necessary
to review the role of men and women in Islam. Islamic religion considers
women’s role as mother and wife to be sacred and essential. Marriage
and motherhood are a woman’s primary responsibilities. In Islam a
woman can not remain single-- it is not a sin, but it is not encouraged.
offers respectability thus it is necessary for women to focus on her motherhood
and household responsibilities. Sherif (1999) notes that the ideal woman
a wife and mother, she is a woman who raises a new generation of Muslims,
wears the veil, guards her modesty, obeys her husband and expresses her
only through her husband. It is believed that women should forfeit their
physical and psychological safety as well as that of their daughters to
and other male family members.
Men are viewed as the protectors of women. A woman is her husband’s wife, her father’s daughter, and her brother’s sister. It is his responsibility to provide for all of her needs. The man is the economic provider and authority in the household. Traditional roles in which the home is the woman’s domain while the outside world is the man’s domain have created a separatist environment that reinforces the roles of the sexes.
Marriage Egyptian Style
Under Egyptian law women are eligible for marriage once they reach the age of sixteen while the age set for men is eighteen. It is preferable that the woman is a virgin since it is a requirement of many men. In March 2002, Egypt’s Mufti, Sheikh Ahmed El- Tayyeb denounced the persistence of forced marriages. The Qu’ran promotes the right for people to choose their mate. “ Do not prevent them from marrying their husbands when they agree between themselves in a lawful manner”(Qu’ran 2:232). However social class is still the determining factor when it comes to who can marry whom.
Women may never gain equal status as long as a
policy exists in which payment is exchanged for marriage. Traditionally
order for a man to wed a woman he must present her with a dowry. This dowry
payment is a form of ownership that can be equated as the woman being
man’s property. The average cost of marriage for men is six years of
wages. This sum includes payment for the dowry, formal engagement and
parties, and the purchase of an apartment with major appliances and furniture.
Marriage is an investment in which the return is obedience and control from
Every Islamic marriage becomes valid through the signing of a marriage contract. Under this contract, it is the duty of the of the husband to provide for his wife under three conditions: that she signs the contract; that she puts herself under her husband’s authority to allow him free access to her and that she obeys him for the duration of the marriage (Sherif 1999). Under this marriage contract women are giving away their power to men, who will dictate their freedom and happiness, for financial security. Marriage to the traditional women means a host of reciprocal commitment; money for food, furniture and clothes to be provided by the husband in return for care, protection of honor, obedience, and above all sexual favors from the wife (Bibars 1996).
Due to the costs associated with traditional marriages, many Egyptian men and women are settling for urfi marriages. It is a marriage without an official contract. The couple repeats the words “we got married” and pledges commitment before God. Usually a paper signed by two witnesses stating that the two were married serves as proof that the marriage exists. The man is not financially obligated to the woman and it is not necessary to share the same residence. The invention of this type of marriage is an indication that the financial ties associated to marriage needs to be relaxed in order for marriage to be an option for more people.
Education’s affect on the status of women
Women’s education is the single most important path to gender equality. Education is essential for improving women’s living standards and enabling them to exercise a greater voice in the decision making in the family, community, work, and the political arena.
It was a commonly held belief that women did not need a formal education and that they should learn domestic skills to be better wives. It is still common today to find examples in which girls are removed from schooling in order to help take care of family or to work for the family’s survival. The Egyptian government encourages education for both girls and boys by providing a free education through the doctoral level. If she is graduated from an institution of higher education, she is usually guaranteed a position. Culturally, the education of women gained acceptance because it enhances the women’s role as wives and mothers.
Education provides the framework that allows a
woman to develop skills that will allow her to seek employment and gain independence.
Her ability to obtain employment will lead to economic independence from men.
Employment and the Egyptian Women
Islam does not prevent women from seeking employment outside of the home although it regards her role in society as mother and wife as the most important role she can have. Traditionally, men have been responsible for the economic support of their families, and only a minority of very poor or very wealthy was economically active in the public sphere. The discouragement of women’s economic role is legitimized by the prevailing value system and associated norms. These values and norms denigrate women’s labor and contrast it to women’s domesticity, which is commended. Badawi’s statement “that there is no decree which forbids woman from seeking employment whenever there is a necessity for it, especially in positions which fit her nature and in which society needs her most” demonstrates that people feel that only the poor should work and that there are gender specific careers which woman should enter. Meanwhile, Islam has no restriction on women’s occupation, saying they can engage in all areas whether technical, medical, political, financial or in academic. Mohammad's first wife was a successful merchant; one of his daughters led an army. As of 1999, women accounted for 30% of the labor force.
However, social pressures against women pursuing a career are strong. Dana Smille in her article entitled “ Su-per-wom-an” cites that there is a societal personality to confine women to the roles of mother and homemaker; her career ambitions do not figure in the definition of a good Egyptian wife (2001). A woman who works can bring shame on a man since it insinuates that the man is not a good provider. It is viewed as an example that the man does not have control over his wife. Many believe that allowing their wives to work is a privilege not to be taken for granted (Smillie 2001). On the other hand, women have to contend with society questioning whether or not she is a good mother or wife. She has to defend her right to paid work in the face of familial and community opposition. Although she works, she is expected to maintain the household as if she was unemployed without the support of her husband.
As of 2001, it is estimated that 67% of women in Egypt are employed. As of the spring 2002, Egyptian households that are headed by women represented 20% of the population. These statistics and the invention of urfi marriages can be construed as indicators that men are no longer able to fulfill their obligation as the solo care givers for the family. Many families don’t have enough disposable income which will allow the wife to stay home and care for the family and home. Bahir Sherif conducted a study which consisted of forty middle class households in which twenty couples were in their forties and fifties, and the other twenty couples were between twenty and thirty years of age. He discovered that in contemporary Cairo, married upper class women are forced to work in order to assist in meeting the financial needs of the family. This study demonstrated that in Cairo, relatively well-to-do men have suddenly found themselves in the position of being dependent on their wives' incomes just to make ends meet and to keep up their position in society. Many are unaccustomed to this new role because they were raised in families in which women did not work.
In 1996, Iman Bibars completed a study on female head of the households which excluded widows, divorcees, and deserted wives. Her study dealt with the new breed of “useless” husbands. Bibars interviewed sixty -seven women of lower income in the Cairo area. “These women did not perceive their reproductive role to include sexual favors but saw it as an additional role, given to men who earn it by being breadwinners. These women felt that their husbands failed by no longer providing for them and consequently so did their role as women.” (Bibars 1996)
I don’t believe that Cairene women will ever attain true equality as long as there is a monetary value assessed to her. This practice does not promote respect. It demeans her worth. According to reports one in three married women have experienced spousal abuse. (Marble 1996). A majority of married women in Egypt believe that is the man’s right to beat his wife. In her article Marble discovered that women justified these beatings for the following reasons: talking back to the spouse, refusing to have sex, burning food, neglecting children, talking to other men, and wasting money. Women are conditioned to believe that it is a man’s right because her obedience was bought through the acceptance of the dowry payment. This society subscribes to the Cinderella theory. That man will come along and make a woman complete. He is the savior of woman.
If the optimal goal is gender equality then the sharia will need to be reevaluated to discuss marital assets. Presently women enjoy a position of what is mine is mine, and what is yours is ours. If the wife works, she may choose, but is not legally obligated to invest her earning in the matrimonial home. (Sherif 1996) How can you have one person assigned the task of maintaining the family and allow the other to dispose of her wealth as she pleases? When you have two parties working towards a common goal, it results in team effort instead of individual struggle of power.
Secondly, Egyptian youth must be taught that there are no specific gender roles. A survey consisting of 660 unmarried girls and boys between the ages of 16-19 conducted by the Adolescent and Social Change demonstrates that both girls and boys support a traditional division between men and women. (Population of Beliefs 2001) The roles of men and women are taught in school and at home. If the next generation of youth are not taught differently, the cycle will be perpetuated. Little girls should be encouraged to enter the public sphere and to take advantage of the educational opportunities afforded to them. Boys must be taught that they can do household work and that child rearing is the responsibility of both parties.
It must be mentioned that in no way does the paper intend to devalue the role of motherhood and the family. It is my opinion that women’s willingness to sacrifice themselves for the good of their children is something that society relies upon. It is a useful leverage in pressuring women of all classes into giving in to unequal ideas. Just because a woman chooses or is unable to stay home with her child does not mean that she loves her child any less than the mother who stays at home. Based on the studies by Bibar and Sherif, both classes of women agree that by working they are able to do a better job of providing for their children. One of the deficiencies of this paper is that it I did not have an opportunity to speak to an Egyptian female to determine how she feels about her status and whether she believes a change is necessary.
Women will not become more empowered merely because we want them to want to be, but through the legislative changes, increased information, and redirection of sources. As the number of educated women that enter the workforce increases, voices will be heard crying for change. If they choose to incorporate my three recommendations, Egyptian women will no longer be treated as second class citizens. During my interview with Amirah Muhammad, she stated that is possible to be a good Muslim wife, mother, and professional woman. It is a matter of keeping everything in perspective and knowing what your priorities are.
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