Wrote :Dina Wahba
In a cozy room with chairs painted pink and black filled by mostly young women and men, a religious scholar was speaking. I am not describing one of the fashionable religious classes (dorous) that have been very popular among youth in the last 10 years. Rather it’s actually a group of progressive youth interested in women’s rights. The scene is very interesting because it challenges classical stereotypes that have been engraved in our minds in recent years. They are not the classic stereotype of women’s rights groups of angry middle aged or even older elite women talking to each other. And they are not a group of young people listening uncritically to a religious authority.
This scene took place at Baheya Ya Masr’s headquarters in downtown Cairo.
Baheya Ya Masr describes itself as a popular open Egyptian movement that reflects all different social, cultural, economic, intellectual and political backgrounds in the Egyptian society. I find Baheya very interesting for many reasons such as being an independent women’s movement that is youth led and refuses NGOization. It also emphasizes on being an ‘open’ movement.
Last week they hosted an event, the speaker was ‘Saad El Din El Hilaly’, an Azhari scholar, to give a talk about women’s rights. The event was vibrant. Many people willing to know more about the stance of Islamic Sharia on women listened to every word and were very enthusiastic to ask all kinds of questions.
The audience brought up the debate of whether women’s rights activists should or should not engage with the religious discourse. Someone voiced their concern that we cannot be dragged into this kind of discussion that consumes a lot of our time and energy just to learn how to respond to extremists calling for almost literal adaptations of the religious text. However, Inas Mekkawy (the founder of Baheya) responded to explain the need for young men and women to be able to debate in favor of women’s rights within a religious framework. She emphasized that youth should not be intimidated by conservative Sheikhs who might adhere to restricting interpretations of the text. On the contrary, they should ally themselves with religious academics such as professor ‘Saad El Din El Hilaly’ who is more than able and willing to explore and explain how women should not be scared off by extremist religious claims.
This interesting debate brings about uneasy questions, now that political Islam is in power, should the women’s movement in Egypt engage in a religious discourse? Or would that be too tricky and may end up harming the movement? Is it better for women’s rights activists to keep fighting on secular grounds pushing for a discourse on citizenship, international conventions and civil laws? Or is it about time to start talking about Sharia and engage with religious leaders and reply with religious interpretations?
I asked Sally Zohney, a member in Baheya, these questions and she said, “We are an open movement that means we are open to different ideologies. The country is currently governed by Islamists and we can’t keep ignoring it”. She reflected on the event mentioned above saying “Saad El Din El Hilaly explained a lot, we have to attend such meetings, listen to be able to debate and understand the religious argument. We can’t keep talking to the same people”.
We could be witnessing an emerging alliance between new actors in the women’s movement that are more open to people from different backgrounds and progressive religious scholars and/or activists. Only time would tell how useful or sustainable this alliance could be for the discourse battle on women’s issues.