By Mathieu von Rohr
A beaming, attractive woman appeared before Western journalists to speak on behalf of the winners on the evening after the Islamists’ election victory in Tunis. No one will be forced to wear a headscarf in the new Tunisia, she said. She was wearing light makeup and had a colorful headscarf wrapped tightly around her face. She seemed self-confident and intelligent, and when asked what the Islamist win meant for women, she said that she saw no contradiction between Islam and women’s rights.
The woman was Soumaya Ghannouchi, the daughter of Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist Ennahda party and the country’s new strong man. She grew up in London, where her father lived in exile for 20 years, and where she worked as a journalist, writing for the Guardian, among other publications. She is a politically engaged, independent Muslim woman who supports her father’s movement, as does her sister Intissar, who works as an attorney in London.
Ghannouchi’s four daughters do not fit Western notions of the downtrodden Arab woman. Is this what female Islamists are supposed to be like?
The Ghannouchi daughters, who have become role models for some young women in Tunisia, are not the only evidence that it is possible to be a Muslim woman, wear a headscarf and still be strong. For years, the Arab satellite broadcasters in the Gulf region have also popularized the ideal of pure female beauty throughout the entire Arab world.
Self-determined women don’t necessarily have to look the part envisioned by the West. Years ago, researchers with the Washington-based think tank the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace identified a movement that could be characterized as Muslim emancipation within such organizations as the Egyptian Muslim Sisterhood. Even this group of conservative Muslim women encompasses a new generation of self-confident activists who are educated, claim their rights and insist on being heard within their organizations.
Many of them were at the front of the protest marches last winter, and now they are there again, side-by-side with secular female protesters. Together they are facing off against the most noxious adversary of Egyptian women: the military. During the revolution on Tahrir Square, many young Egyptian women experienced gender equality for the first time. They protested together with the men and were just as instrumental in bringing down Mubarak, and there were no sexual assaults during that period.
Since then, it has been primarily the security forces and Egypt’s military council that have sought to put women in their place through violence — not the Islamists.
At the same time, the radical Salafis have become increasingly influential in Egypt. Salafists are fundamentalist Muslims who want women to remain in the home and cover their bodies from head to foot. The Salafist Nour Party’s campaign posters depict seven bearded candidates. There is no photo of the party’s eighth candidate, a woman, only the image of a rose.
But the Salafis are not in the majority in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood, which is also Islamist and will likely win the elections, are more pragmatic in their position toward women. They are conservative, and yet an interpretation of Islamic law based on the misogynistic Saudi Arabian model is not to be expected.
In Tunisia, the Islamists under Rachid Ghannouchi purport to be more favorable to women than anywhere else. In the election campaign, they insisted that they would not seek to scale back equal rights, and they are not interested in polygamy or making it compulsory for women to wear the headscarf. They cite the moderate Islamist governing party in Turkey, the AKP, as a model.
But many conservatives feel emboldened by their election victory, and there has also been worrisome news coming from Tunis. Women report that they have been criticized in public for their style of dress. At the university, male students prevented female lecturers who were allegedly dressed immodestly from entering lecture halls.
Nevertheless, it is not to be expected that the strong position of women in Tunisia will change soon. It is too firmly established, especially in cities. In Egypt, on the other hand, women are not just forced to defend their rights against Islamists, but also against an alliance of macho men of widely differing ideological stripes.
After last week’s assaults, the young activist Lara El Gibaly wrote on Twitter: “At the risk of sounding like a feminist, 2day in particular, I am really sickened by the patriarchal, testosterone-driven society I live in. Egypt is a terrible place to be a woman.”
Part 2: A New Model of Female Islamists
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Puplished in SPIEGEL ONLINE on 29 November 2011