To illustrate the poor state of affairs for North Africa’s women I shall spare you the oft regurgitated list of clichéd symbols the ‘Western world’ has compiled to sustain its ongoing liberation mission. I shall also refrain from pasting into this article the equally tiresome and propagated counterargument; images of smiling, “scantily clad”, miniskirted, hair-parading women of Egypt, Iran and Iraq in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. To use the length of a woman’s skirt or the percentage of skin on show as an indicator of her liberation is simplistic and ill-informed.
By no stretch of the imagination am I insinuating the Arab world is free from oppressive patriarchal values, but I refuse to accept the argument that women in the MENA are oppressed as a result of an inherent genetic phenomenon unique to the region. Oppressive rule over women is born from the same depravity in all those who wish to enforce it, despite it manifesting culture-specific characteristics. Due to the difference in culture and plethora of challenges women face globally, rebalancing the sexes can only be achieved by those with patience, compassion and understanding. Rather unsurprisingly, bombing Afghanistan failed to “liberate” its women. Those who wish to free women of the Arab world ought to attempt to understand their feminists such as Fatema Mirnessi, Nawal El Saadawi and Joumanna Haddad. Flying the headscarf at the helm of the ‘international women’s liberation movement’ as an emblem of oppression highlights the superficial and contradictory nature of the dialogue surrounding Arab women’s emancipation. Burning all the bras and burqas may help you ‘go viral’ but changes very little in the real world. Whilst the headscarf has its origins in Mesopotamia, it did not bear the same connotations as it does today – ideas which were imported with Greek influence.
The Global Gender Gap Index 2015 flaunts Iceland, Norway and Finland as the most equal of nations – all of which have relative economic prosperity, and social and political stability in their favour. Egypt is placed a meagre 136 on the index and no Arab nation makes it above the 100 mark. Despite almost total educational equality in an increasingly impoverished nation with a highly privatised education system, Egypt’s women are underperforming on ‘Economic Participation and Opportunity’ and are falling flat on political representation. Ancient Egypt still remains one of the most enviable states to live as a woman despite thousands of years for potential progression. Hatshepsut, Ashotep and Tausret were not simply decorative figureheads to the ancient empire. Nefertiti’s influence on Akhenaten was not negligible. Pharaohs were worshipped as gods and advised by Maat (Mayet), the goddess representing the ethical and moral principles Egyptians were expected to abide by in their daily lives.
In the eyes of the law, Egyptian women were equal to men in all matters. Individuals were judged in society on their class, not on their gender. Generally, women of the nobility did not work and the majority became concerned with the running of the household, land, and the staff within when they gave birth. Women took an equally active part in daily life becoming entertainers, businesswomen, religious advisors, jurors and anything in between. Ancient Egyptian women were able to deal with property in their own name, enter into contracts, initiate civil court cases and could be sued. They could also serve as witnesses in court cases and over legal documents.
Marriage was a desirable institution for social and economic benefits, and records imply an equal hand in caring for children. There exist a number of divorce records supporting the idea of an economic partnership in marriage. A wife was expected to provide a dowry which remained her own property. If she chose to divorce her husband, she kept her dowry and was entitled to a third of the communal property unless she chose divorce on the grounds that she could no longer look after her ill husband. An 8ft long prenuptial contract has been recovered from the Old Kingdom confirming the veneration of the institution at the time. In this particular document, compensation for divorce included ‘1.2 pieces of silver and 36 bags of grain every year for the rest of her life.’
The political will to battle the patriarchal element in Egypt, which has been left to fester and multiply in a nation plagued with inequality, starvation and oppression, has shown itself to be subtle at best. Five years on from Egypt’s most recent revolution, democratic rights continue to be curbed, but an educational deficiency amongst the general public is not significant enough to be labelled a key cause. It is fascinating to observe the oldest society in the world remain one of the most egalitarian, millennia onwards.