Women’s Rights through the Printed Word: Extending Liberal Values to Ordinary Women
If liberal values are going to spread in Egyptian society, politics is not the answer. Women are. “The normal woman has a job, goes to market, and raises her family, but she is not part of a political party,” said Youssef Habib, editor-in-chief of the newly launched women’s magazine Lu’lu’a, or Pearl.
“Most Egyptian women think they are simply a servant in the home,” he continued. “We say no, you are a partner, and you are very important.”
The failure of liberal political parties to get their hands dirty and penetrate ordinary Egyptian neighborhoods is well reported. Frustration with the Muslim Brotherhood – even as they condemn international charters protecting women’s rights – does not necessarily translate into support for the opposition.
Habib is not working on behalf of the opposition, but he is concerned about politics. 78 percent of women aged 16-40 have a high school diploma, he said, and this is their target audience. He hopes this normal Egyptian woman recognizes herself in the magazine, and enhances her ability to think.
His partner and executive director, Raafat Latif, is more explicit. “We are not a political magazine, but all topics have an effective role in politics, in an indirect way,” he explained. “Talking about domestic violence, for example, will lead people to demand a change in laws.”
The name Lu’lu’a is drawn in comparison with the Egyptian woman. Like the sand in the shell which endures great pressure, she emerges beautiful. This point was made by Fatima Naout, the social and political commentator and self-described godmother of the magazine who is a hero of the liberal cause.
Naout headlined a gala affair hosted by Lu’lu’a to celebrate the launch of the magazine’s first bimonthly edition. Honored guests included luminaries such as Tahani al-Gibali, Lamis Gaber, and Farida al-Shobashi, in addition to Samira Qilada, mother of a January 25 martyred daughter.
Angham al-Gammal, a female co-founder of the magazine with Habib and Latif, also insists the magazine is non-political and does not belong to any particular trend. However true in intention, as Naout spoke of Maryam, Qilada’s daughter, she betrayed the sympathies of almost all in attendance.
“The martyrs have already taken their reward. They have gone to the place of beauty, justice, truth, and light,” she said, “a place where there are no Muslim Brothers.”
Most laughed in approval, if somewhat self-consciously. Afterwards, however, Naout admitted the difficulties of speaking this message to the average woman.
“Most women don’t read, this is true,” she said. “But we are betting the enlightened woman will work as a candle. If one person reads our magazine she can radiate to another ten.”
Nora Faris is an example. “Women have the power of life inside them, and she willingly gives it to all around, but no one empowers her,” she said, admitting to this struggle. She took over management of the family printing company when her husband died. Now, she counsels young women graduates to show them how to succeed in business.
“The Egyptian woman wants society to tell her you are a human being,” she said. “You deserve all the rights of education and the ability to achieve high positions.”
Latif hopes to take the subjects of the magazine directly to marginalized communities in at least one meeting per month. As such, he described Lu’lu’a as more of an initiative than a simple business venture. Their team recently held an awareness meeting with over 150 teachers and 500 students from four private girls-only high schools. They discussed the importance of self-esteem and education, and the dangers of sexual harassment and early marriage.
Early marriage, in fact, is the cover story for issue one, and received the condemnation of Gaber, whose journalistic commentary includes calling the hijab a devaluation of women.
“If you want to silence a people,” she addressed the gathering, “silence the women, marry them early, and a whole generation will emerge ignorant.”
But if any see an incongruity with two men, Habib and Latif, leading a women’s initiative, those present did not. Faris insisted women needed to hear their value esteemed by men, and not just experienced in the support of men.
Further endorsement came from Gibali, who described her success as a lawyer and jurist as the product of a healthy upbringing.
“My family and social setting encouraged me, especially the men in my life,” she said. “For the Egyptian woman to rise she needs male support.”
But it was the accomplished opposition journalist Farida al-Shobashi who said it strongest, placing the struggle firmly in the political camp. “The Egyptian woman will be free when the Egyptian man becomes free.”
If such benevolent patriarchy is a part of Lu’lu’a, consistent with Egyptian society, the magazine also seeks to accord with Egyptian religiosity, unwilling to cede the discourse on women to Islamists.
“Our core vision,” said Latif, “is that God created the woman and her value comes from him.”
Youssef, Latif, al-Gammal and their team were able to recruit many liberal political voices to the gala, but they themselves are unaffiliated with any party. They describe their effort as stemming from the spirit of the January 25 revolution, when ordinary people moved to change society.
Indeed, the revolution changed Egypt, but more is needed to transform the people. If liberal politics falter here, liberal Egyptians must extend the message themselves – socially.
“Now in Egypt, the political is everywhere and in everything,” said Habib. “Social issues are interconnected with politics and religion,” added Latif, “it is all one package.”
Jayson Casper is a writer with Arab West Report, Christianity Today, and Lapido Media. He blogs on Egyptian politics, religion, and culture at A Sense of Belonging, and can be found on Twitter at @jnjcasper
Photos: Darren Kennedy