Women in the Cairo Street Scenes: a Troubling Photo Essay
For days now, the mainstream and leftstream media have been telling us that the Muslim Brotherhood is not dangerous, not radically Islamist—but that even if they are Islamist that they are popular amongst the people. Western leftists view the Brothers as engaged in a Hamas-like form of soup kitchen social work/theocratic totalitarianism, but who nevertheless have earned the right to be democratically voted into power by the people. They have been invited to join the negotiations with Mubarak's regime.
Short-sightedly, they claim that if we are serious about standing for democracy and the vote, that we have no choice but to support what may turn out to be an even worse tyranny than that of Mubarak’s.
Such journalists also claim that the Egyptian people in the streets are not “political,” that they are impoverished, broken, barefoot warriors who have heroically risen up for jobs, food, and an end to corruption and tyranny. Indeed, the people may not be “political”—but their heroism may end up benefiting those who, unlike themselves, are already organized militarily, economically, and ideologically—like the Muslim Brotherhood.
On the other hand, unorganized though they may be, the people may still have views and beliefs. According to a June, 2010 Pew opinion survey of Egyptians:
Fifty nine percent said they back Islamists. Only 27% said they back modernizers. Half of Egyptians support Hamas. Thirty percent support Hizbullah and 20% support al Qaida. Moreover, 95% of them would welcome Islamic influence over their politics….Eighty two percent of Egyptians support executing adulterers by stoning, 77% support whipping and cutting the hands off thieves. 84% support executing any Muslim who changes his religion…When this preference is translated into actual government policy, it is clear that the Islam they support is the al Qaida Salafist version.
When given the opportunity, the crowds on the street are not shy about showing what motivates them. They attack Mubarak and his new Vice President Omar Suleiman as American puppets and Zionist agents. The US, protesters told CNN’s Nick Robertson, is controlled by Israel. They hate and want to destroy Israel. That is why they hate Mubarak and Suleiman.
Is this Pew Center survey really true? What other indicators might we rely upon?
In the last week, we have seen massive coverage of the street uprising in Cairo on every major television channel and in print and Internet media of all political persuasions. No one has commented upon what the photos are showing us. Some say that a picture speaks a thousand words—and so it does. Follow along with me.
First, view these photos of Cairo University graduates in 1959, 1978, 1995, and 2004. Clearly, there is a progression—a regression really, in terms of women’s rights. Former women's gains have, increasingly, been washed away.
As you can see, despite the size of the picture, the female graduates in 1959 and 1978 had bare arms, wore short sleeved blouses, dresses, or pants, and were both bare-faced and bare-headed. By 1995, we see a smattering of headscarves—and by 2004 we see a plurality of female university graduates in serious hijab: Tight, and draping the shoulders.
Class of 1959
Class of 1978
Class of 1995
Class of 2004
Now, let’s look at the recent Cairo uprising photos through my eyes. No one has, as yet, commented upon the photos that they have chosen to run.
First, most photos show us mobs of mainly men marching, men at prayer, men shooting, running, falling, wounded in hospitals, standing atop tanks. These could be scenes from Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan. I am not suggesting that women rush out to join a promised American Nation of Islam style “Million Man March”—as women, they are horribly endangered among groups of men, which is why Muslim men argue that “their” family women must be veiled, sequestered, kept in purdah, strictly supervised, accompanied wherever they go by a male protector.
Muslim men know how licentious they truly are, what their view of all women (who are not their mothers) truly is, and how sexual repression, forced marriage, polygamy (a shortage of available wives for poor men), affects men who have been fired up by a mosque sermon or by a holy war to seize state power.
Women are also shorter, weigh less, and have rarely been trained in boxing, martial arts or weapons training compared to most men; most women cannot hold their own against one angry and determined man, certainly not against thousands of such men.
Yes, there are some female faces in the Cairo mob scenes, but understandably, they are in the minority.
While there are some—very few—female faces that are bare-faced and bareheaded, most women are wearing serious hijab: Pulled low and tight on their foreheads, tied under their chins, covering their necks, draping down to their shoulders.
And, yes, we also see women in niqab, face masks, dark, heavy-looking, with only a slit for their eyes. Were it not for that mere slit, she would be wearing an Afghan burqa or chadri, or a full Saudi covering.
My reading of these photos suggests that Egyptian women have already been Islamified. Whether they have done so to please their loving (or abusive) families or a favorite mullah, whether it was peer pressure from girlhood on that did it; or whether it was the teachings of the Muslim Brotherhood being preached in every mosque, on every media channel, and in school that did it, the fact is:
It is done. Women are veiled. Such women—and their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons, will vote for the Muslim Brotherhood to run their country.
I wonder why no media have looked—really looked—at what the photos they themselves are running really tell us about who the “people” in the streets really are.
Prof. Chesler is an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies at City University of New York. She is the author of 15 books and appears often in international media interviews. She lives in New York City.