In the aftermath of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood’s rejection of the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), an avalanche of articles depicting the Brotherhood’s statement within the framework of “Islamists vs. Liberals” ensued. When it comes to critiquing Muslim Brotherhood policies on women, many liberals make the mistake of limiting their scope to the discussion of personal and sexual freedoms, without considering the manner in which the economic configuration of the Egyptian system affects the social rights of women.
In this article, I attempt to explain how rejection of CEDAW and the neglect of Egyptian women’s rights can more generally be traced to neoliberal governance.
At the onset, it is important to consider the analysis that traces rejection of CEDAW to the Islamist leniency of Morsi’s regime. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood’s statement itself perpetuates and anticipates rhetoric within this framework. Consider this excerpt from the Freedom and Justice Party’s official website:
“We call on women’s organizations to commit to their religion and morals of their communities and the foundations of good social life and not be deceived with misleading calls to decadent modernization and paths of subversive immorality.”
The FJP’s list of “subversive immoralities” included giving wives legal rights to report their husbands for sexual abuse and granting women the right to use contraceptives. Meanwhile, Osama Yehia Abu Salama, a Brotherhood family expert, was quoted in an article in the New York Times saying,
“A woman needs to be confined within a framework that is controlled by the man of the house.”
The rhetoric used in the aforementioned quotes has shed light on the Brotherhood regime’s neglect of some of the most urgent issues facing Egyptian women, including domestic violence and sexual abuse, using religious rhetoric. That much is evident. However, that the government is engaging in such behavior is not due to its Islamist leniency, but is rather a result of a set of neoliberal policies that have been in place ever since the Mubarak regime.
The connection between neoliberal policy and neglect of women’s rights is discernible if we are to consider the core principles of neoliberalism as it pertains to the state’s role in society. Janine Brodie writes in a Citizenship Studies article that at the heart of neoliberal philosophy is the demand on the state to “stop regulating business, sell off their assets to the private sector and dismantle the welfare state—all in order to be more competitive in the international market.” Thus the state, according to neoliberal rationale, is to become a market player as opposed to the provider of public goods. Devin Molina writes that public goods such as education, health care and welfare are instead expected to be provided by the private sector.
Such has been the configuration applied by the Egyptian state. The rocketing increase of poverty and discrimination against various groups in Egyptian society who are unable to compete in the market system has meant that the economically marginalized were left to the management of civil society.
Neglect of underprivileged groups such as refugees, the poor and, most importantly, women is thus a necessary practice of the neoliberal state regardless of the ideological stance of those in power. Indeed, Mubarak’s allegedly secular regime had rejected CEDAW, and launched a special attack on article 2, focusing on the state’s responsibility to eliminate discrimination against women through legislation and policy. Any commitment to ensure equality between men and women in social and economic domains would shake the ground under which the neoliberal state exists, because the state offers no support to those unable to compete in the market.
The same is true of Morsi’s regime. While many of its spokesmen use religious rhetoric to reject CEDAW, we should not forget that as far as economic policies are concerned, Morsi’s regime is no different to Mubarak’s. Existing economic institutions remain in place, as well as agreement on a prospective IMF loan. As such, women remain within the same realm of neglect in which they existed during Mubarak’s days. The only difference is that it is simply convenient for Brotherhood members and their Islamist allies to use religious reference to defend their policies.
Meanwhile, the emergence of the public efforts dedicated to the battle for Egyptian women’s rights is of even more convenience to the state. Emerging movements like Tahrir Bodyguard and Op Anti-Sexual Harassment, coupled with older organizations like Nazra, all make up the very entity on which the neoliberal state relies to deliver the welfare it does not provide. The increase of such movements is commendable if synonymous with an increased public consciousness about the discrimination of women in Egypt. However, it is convenient for the government to allow and encourage these efforts as a way of passing on its own responsibilities and appearing tolerable toward oppositional movements.
Egypt must move beyond the stage in which the sole point of analysis is one where religious conservatism is pitted against liberalism/secularism. Indeed, religious references were used during Mubarak’s regime, because what better way exists to oppress than to use allegedly uncontestable, divine theories? Moreover, liberal critiques of Morsi’s Islamist regime show little concern for women’s rights beyond sexual freedoms. Given that many liberals are supporters of neoliberal policies, any critique of the government’s policies on women, be it the rejection of CEDAW or anything else, falls short of invoking change.
Yasmine Nagaty holds a degree in political science from the American University in Cairo, and is currently employed at Misr El-Kheir, an Egyptian NGO.