Just a warning, some of the content in this post is a little PG-13 due to the nature of female circumcision, which is a real violation of human rights that is practiced around the world. Awareness is important, so this post discusses topics of a sensitive nature.
There are four distinct periods that define women’s roles and rights in Egypt. The first is the Ancient Period, which lasted from 3100 B.C. until 30 B.C., when Egypt became a part of the Roman Empire. During this time, women had mostly the same legal rights as men and were able to own property, live alone, and participate in religious ceremonies. Men and women led very different lives, though. Men were educated and expected to be the provider and worker, while women were unable to read and were expected to bear children and support their husbands. Men, especially kings, were encouraged to have more than one wife, while women were expected to remain faithful. During the Ancient Period, the king was occasionally a woman. Women had very little involvement in religious practices and ceremonies, even though they were allowed to.
The second period lasted from 700-1500 and began when the Arabs conquered Egypt. Women were always veiled and an emphasis was placed on conservatism; interestingly enough, however, divorce became a common occurence. Working women were considered a disgrace to the family, so those who did work were mostly widows who worked with textiles.
The third period lasted from 1500-1800 and was marked by the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Women were still under Sharia law, but were able to own property. Women had some control in the marriage, as they wrote a contract that stipulated the terms of their union. Public baths became common and women were able to travel through their cities without the accompaniment of a man.
The final period has lasted from 1800 until the present. In the 1800’s, most women were peasants who worked with their husbands to produce crops. Then the British occupied Egypt and everything changed. Female literacy rates increased and advances were made in feminism. Egyptian women rejected the ideals of Western feminism, though, and embraced a more inclusive version. Women are now able to receive education and have made tremendous advances in the area of equal rights. Most recently, the hijab has been made a symbol of sorts for feminism as women are reclaiming what was once used to oppress them.
The above history was an entry for my Introduction to Women’s and Gender Study class. It’s fascinating to see the different ebbs and flows in the cycle of women’s rights in Egypt throughout the years. Most recently I’ve become aware of a practice called Female Genital Mutilation (FGM for short) which is essentially unnecessary female circumcision. At least 92% of married women in Egypt have undergone the procedure, which is essentially a removal of all external genitalia and a sewing shut of the vagina, except for a small opening for blood and urine to pass through. It’s completely unnecessary, both religiously and medically, and can cause lifelong pain, both physically and emotionally. The procedure is performed when a girl is around 10-12 years of age, often by a local (nonmedical) midwife supported by local women. This mutilation is seen as a way of purifying girls and preparing them for marriage, but often leads to painful scar tissue buildup and infections that can sometimes be fatal. It is estimated that over 125 million women have undergone female circumcision, the purpose of which is to ultimately prevent women from enjoying sex. It is a gross violation of human rights that damages young girls’ bodies and minds, yet is rarely spoken of because of its sensitive nature. It’s time to break the silence and speak out for the millions of young girls who cannot speak for themselves.