Vernacular Freedom: Locating Feminism in Post-Mubarak Egypt – by Melinda Holmes

Egyptian women protestingCriticizing the absolutist approach of many women’s rights advocate, Melinda Holmes writes that centering the conversation on ethics, and learning how to “speak” ethics across the religious-secular divide, is the only way to proceed toward a universal understanding that can be the basis for a truly just global order. Muslim feminists are, in all their various stripes, undertaking this challenge already and Islamic feminism could be the vanguard of such efforts going forward.

Melinda Holmes is a graduate student of international affairs at The Fletcher School. Originally from Maine, she is focusing her studies on the role of faith in public policy and human rights advocacy with specific interests in Islam, feminism, citizen diplomacy, and community mobilization. She lived Cairo for one year before, during, and after the 2011 uprising and returns frequently to Egypt.


The situation on the ground in Egypt has changed dramatically since the writing of this paper. Massive popular protests against the Morsi regime, followed by a military coup led by General Al-Sisi in July, led to a subsequent crackdown on dissent and particularly on the supporters of both former President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Within this context, the practice and beliefs of state agents, revolutionaries, and the public have evolved in consonance with the thesis of this paper: the issues of the rights and role of women are embedded within the Egyptian struggle for power and freedom. Both sides of the current political crisis, as well as the elusive third current, have demonstrated this through the vocal dissent and assent of women to current events. Recent state repression has been applied and supported by many regardless of gender; simultaneously, women have appeared at the forefront of so-called pro-Morsi or pro-Muslim Brotherhood activism. The current context makes this paper, with its deconstruction of Islamist and feminist categories, all the more timely for it has never been clearer no one group can claim to champion women’s rights. The struggle for women’s liberation in Egypt is intrinsically linked to the revolutionary struggle for freedom and social justice, in that it can only flourish with the true liberation of society at large.



When ethics are framed as rational universal principles, yet their reasoning is based in particular cultural traditions, they fail to translate across differing worldviews.  Lila Abu-Lughod, in her piece revealing the dissonance within the American discourse on Muslim women, poses a central question: “We may want justice for women, but can we accept that there might be different ideas about justice and that different women might want, or choose, different futures from what we envision as best?”[i] Any attempt at a universal ethical framework must account for differential experience and the resultant diversity of rhetoric. The field of international human rights has maintained its claims of ethical universality and attempted to promote women’s rights in the Middle East under this banner.

The debate about the universality or specificity of the human and women’s rights paradigms has been central to the Egyptian context in recent years. Despite a rich and lengthy tradition of female activism in Egypt, there remains a divide between those utilizing the language of Islamic ethics and those employing the principles of international human rights. While Islamic feminists see no contradiction between these two discourses, secular feminists remain largely unconvinced of the potential for religion to bring about women’s liberation. [ii]

Demanding common semantics as a prerequisite for common ethics is not only futile but folly. In response to a dismaying attack on a demonstration for women’s rights in Tahrir Square, I posted an appeal using culturally resonant language of honor and community responsibility, calling for Egyptian men to protect and defend their sisters. In response, I received a strict reproach from a European friend of mine, also intimately familiar with Egypt, for succumbing to such terms and not maintaining the discourse of universal human rights. The assertion seemed to be that Egyptians needed to learn to operate within this framework, expressing their indignation in absolutist terms of individual rights as humans, ignoring relational obligations and social repercussions, as the only path to achieving the aims of social justice and dignity. I say that the international community – leaders and politicians, feminists and human rights activists – needs to learn to speak the language of the people they are seeking to defend or liberate, or the message will fall on deaf ears and the goals will have to wait for the slow and uncertain organic evolution of social change.

While all those concerned with women’s rights, from religious groups to international advocacy organizations, claim to deal with ethics and the principled cause of justice, the soundness of these claims can be disputed. Islamism is an ideology that proposes a social and political organization of society based on the principles of Islam. Islamists are often cited as a monolithic group, though adherents to this ideology are as heterogeneous as those with other political outlooks. While Islamists claim to work for social justice based on the principles of Islamic ethics, they can be seen as preoccupied with issues of female modesty. Broadly speaking, most Muslims could be defined as Islamists, in that the Islamic message proscribes a complex system of personal and social practices, as well as ethical imperatives that speak to political expression.

Secular feminists proclaim the principles of human rights, as defined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent international legal frameworks, as the foundation for women’s liberation, and yet they often fail to question their worldview on the grounds that this international system perpetuates global structural inequalities.[iii] Nawal Sadawi, a leader in the Egyptian women’s movement, has linked patriarchy to not only the oppression of women but also to oppression based on class and to institutional patriarchy in the form of imperialism. However, Egyptian feminists do not universally accept this.[iv] I believe that centering the conversation on ethics, and learning how to “speak” ethics across the religious-secular divide, is the only way to proceed toward a universal understanding that can be the basis for a truly just global order. Muslim feminists are, in all their various stripes, undertaking this challenge already and Islamic feminism could be the vanguard of such efforts going forward.


Since Huda Sha’rawi ushered in the Egyptian feminist movement with the public removal of her veil, the subject of women covering themselves has remained entrenched as a primary topic for all those concerned with the liberation of Muslim women. This presents us with the question of why it seems that the physical and material constructs of Islamic practice are often given priority status, both by Muslims and by non-Muslims, over matters of spirituality and ethics. In this lies a false dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual. Saba Mahmood treats the subject carefully in her work, bringing in the discordance of Aristotelian and Kantian ethics with regard to the manifest form of ethical practices. In Kantian ethics it is conceived that conscious intent (as opposed to conformity to social norms) must precede the moral act. In contrast, Aristotelian ethics places moral value in behavior or practices themselves, and in their motivation. This is instructive because, as Mahmood argues, “one consequence of this Kantian conception of ethics is the relative lack of attention paid to the manifest form ethical practices take, and a general demotion of conduct, social demeanor, and etiquettes in our analyses of moral systems.”[v] Perhaps this can explain why Western scholarship addressing Muslim practices has found much difficulty in accepting subjects’ stated ethical motivations for wearing the hijab, relegating morality, piety, and virtue to the category of “imaginings of the hegemonized.”[vi]

In elucidating the specific role that Islamic feminism has and could play in efforts to achieve equality and justice for women and men, one is confronted with cognitive dissonance when reflecting on the primacy of the veil in current debates both within Islam and in Western circles of thought and media. The attention of both critics and adherents of Islam seems too often to be distracted from the ethical message by the temporal proscriptions of the faith. As Mahmood has summarized, this association of temporality with superficiality, to the exclusion of spiritual depth, is an all too common assumption with its source in the experience of secularism in Christian Europe and the privatization and compartmentalization of faith.[vii] In the Islamic tradition there are strong grounds for the dismissal of the division of self into body and spirit. By understanding this, we imbue supposedly temporal distractions like the veil with new spiritual depth enabling us to relate on an ethical plane instead of dismissing the values of others.


There are many definitions of Islamic feminism, and adoption of the label remains controversial for Muslim activists. Islamic feminism has been defined by Margot Badran, a foremost scholar of Islamic feminism, as “a discourse of gender equality and social justice that derives its understanding and mandate from the Qur’an and seeks the practice of rights and justice for all human beings in the totality of their existence across the public-private continuum.”[viii] At every step in her treatment of the subject, Badran disassociates both the concept and her discourse from a monolithic or authoritative reading. She emphasizes that there are specificities, not only within feminism or Islam, but also within Islamic feminism itself, and individual women in their acceptance or rejection of the label “Islamic feminist” while doing Qur’an based women’s rights work. Badran employs the concept of multiple feminisms to facilitate understanding of a particularistic approach to the meaning of gender equality.[ix] Yet despite this accommodating definition of the label, most Islamist women activists remain “antagonistic to feminism”.[x]

Feminists, women’s organizations and women’s rights activists have historically been portrayed by regimes as promoters of colonialism and imperialism in a bid to limit their constituency and reduce the power of their potential demands. Maya Mikadashi writes that “‘women’s rights’ in Egypt and Tunisia have been twinned with the type of state feminism advocated by their respective former first ladies, a cynical use of gender rights by authoritarian regimes that were thus branded ‘reformers’ by their western allies”.[xi] The Egyptian state has only used the issue of women’s rights to achieve its own goals of modernization and international acceptance. Debate over the personal status law “very clearly showed the ‘instrumentality’ of women’s issues and their submergence into broader political questions”.[xii] This legacy has resulted in a challenging scenario for women’s rights activists in post-Mubarak Egypt, where association with the former state, even nominally, is now a liability. Flailing regimes and nascent powers across the region continue to employ similar tactics against civil society, protestors, and political opponents.[xiii]



Amidst this landscape of contested ownership of the “women’s rights” issue, women in the Muslim Brotherhood are working to define their own role in the emerging Egyptian political order. With the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood as a prominent force in post-Mubarak Egypt, much has been discussed in both Egyptian and international media about how the organization’s emergence in the political sphere will affect Egyptian women.[xiv] In the Muslim Brotherhood, and its Freedom and Justice Party, women are taking more influential roles and demanding their voices be heard. Women are, for example, seeking representation in the Guidance Bureau, the highest level of the Muslim Brotherhood under the supreme guide, says Jihan al-Halafawi, a prominent female member.[xv] These women have historically shouldered much responsibility, beginning in the Nasser era when most of the organization’s men were arrested or in hiding, but these women have received little representation or organizational influence in return. However, they reject and remain wary of the of the international woman’s rights regime. Hoda Abdel Moneim, chairwoman of the Woman’s Affairs committee of the FJP, affirms that the women of the Muslim Brotherhood genuinely want to be in leading positions and to improve the condition of women. Yet, even those who are doing the most rigorous work renegotiating entrenched patriarchy within the organization, and the Islamic tradition, refuse to accept the label of feminist, even Islamic feminist.[xvi]

Is this a failure of Islamism to see the correspondence of feminist discourse with Islamic ethics, or a failure of feminism to acknowledge the real baggage it brings with it? Secular feminists, even Muslim ones, often see shari’ah as inherently contradictory to the rights of women. For instance, Mona Eltahawy, an American-Egyptian feminist pundit, was recently quoted referring to the global nature of the feminist movement: “I have much more in common with a feminist who’s fighting patriarchy anywhere than I do with the ultra-orthodox misogynistic zealots of my own religion.”[xvii] This statement betrays a lack of understanding of the diverse ways that patriarchy manifests itself. Eltahawy’s very own initiatives to represent the voice of Arab and Muslim women position herself as the knowing and benevolent (father) figure to the passive and naive masses of women as she speaks for them in pieces such as her infamous article, “Why do they hate us?”.[xviii] Secular feminists who do not grasp this concept are condescending toward female Islamist activists: “… I think they have undergone some kind of brainwashing,” says Hoda Badran, chairwoman of the liberal Alliance for Arab Women.[xix] Yet, many women, both self-proclaimed Islamists and not, disagree with Eltahawy and see feminist principles as an inherent within Islamic principles.

The youth of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, including young women, are often more open than their older counterparts to the diversity of views within Islam, and to different understandings of Islamic law. These Muslim Sisters are becoming attuned to women’s rights concerns, and are actively in the process of the renegotiation of the understanding of the shari’ah and gender in Islam. Yomna Ahmed, a seventeen-year-old FJP supporter who sees herself as an Islamist and a feminist, reflects that, “shari’ah is about freedom – everything about shari’ah is freedom – you are free by your own volition, by your own free will, to believe.”[xx] The Muslim Brotherhood’s female leaders, such as Abdel Moneim, emphasize the need for cooperation with secular women’s movements to achieve reform.

In the aftermath of the January 25th revolution, a debate has ensued about whether the “Egyptian woman” is better off than before. This debate denies Egyptian women the benefits that have accrued to all Egyptians through the breaking of the fear barrier and the empowerment of reclaiming dignity. Omaima Abou Bakr, a professor at Cairo University, sees this as “a false dichotomy and one that has little relationship with the daily lives of women in Egypt.” [xxi] In terms of women’s freedom to choose their battles, and their undeniable place in street movements affecting those changes, the improvements are undeniable. Yet it would not be surprising if progress for women is delayed and subsumed. In an article written on the eve of Mubarak’s departure, Nadine Naber added uncanny foresight to her chronicle of the active role of women in the protests: “I do not intend to be overly celebratory. We have learned from history that following the revolution, women are often pushed back to the sidelines, away from center stage.”[xxii] While solidarity is key, there is no monolith cause for Egyptian woman. We see that of the causes of many women are held in common with the men they protest alongside: bread, freedom and social justice remain key and unmet demands of the revolution for all.


In Politics of Piety, Saba Mahmood outlines how the Islamic revival in Egypt over the last half-century has been a response to the intentional marginalization of Islam at the hands of “secularizing,” “modernizing,” and “Westernizing” movements and regimes.[xxiii] Social justice and ethical leadership did not mark Egyptians’ experience of Western style “democratic” governance and the modern state, whether in Nasser’s socialist dream or Sadat’s capitalist one.[xxiv] There are many people around the world who have experienced secular rule as a deepening of inequalities and deprivation of dignity, paired with superficial gestures towards women’s and minority rights.[xxv] The grave legacy left by many a secular autocrat illustrates that a purely secular framework, that refuses any appeal to belief, will not succeed in achieving global justice and quality.

Perhaps the failure of secular-minded Muslim majority states is due to the cognitive dissonance created by presenting this divided reality within an Islamic context. In the words of Muhammad Ali, founder of modern Egypt, “Islam…is a complete outlook on life, a moral code and a social polity. It recognizes no lacerating and devitalising distinctions between things spiritual and things temporal, between Church and State.”[xxvi] Secularization is a Western tradition stemming from disaffection with the hierarchical establishment of the Church, and resulting in a process of “disenchantment with nature” and “deconsecrating of values.”[xxvii] Muhammad Iqbal, a giant of modern Islamic thought, highlights the unity of creation and the complexity of life, asserting that the secular is sacred.[xxviii] Ironically, the rational humanist ethics currently touted as universal, and held to show the limitations of religious ideology, are actually pulled from universal prophetic ethics. When nothing is sacred, the burden of justice falls on the soundness of rational arguments. Their need for relevance in specific contexts results in more narrow ethical structures that forfeit universality.[xxix]

To identify and delegitimize the entrenched primacy of secular thought requires a more careful analysis of the tendency to problematize the coexistence of reason and faith. Asma Barlas discusses why “theology matters” by citing Abou El Fadl, who states that “for millions of believers, God is a ‘part of their moral and material universe… It would seem to me both unwise and immoral to imply that the perspectives of people whose theology is inseparable from their very existence do not matter.’”[xxx] This truth is borne out in the difficulties some Muslims have defining religion, when translated as din in Arabic, and in why the concept of secularism, often taken in Arabic to mean atheist or anti-religion, is one that many are not eager to grasp.[xxxi]

I argue that the common intellectual trap of juxtaposing secular and religious values only prevails due to a lack of imagination and an entrenched value system that leaves no room for alternative paradigms including faith, alongside reason, as their foundation. Many scholars have questioned the position of modern liberalist thought claiming solely the purely rational and empirical to be the natural basis for a moral and just world order. Matthew MacDonald aptly deconstructs this notion to reveal that there is no purely empirical moral imperative, no philosophical argument of the mutual obligations of humans to each other that does not incorporate an element of belief or face incoherence. In his thesis in search of a coherent rational basis for a moral imperative, MacDonald instead turns to Islam as the most promising alternative. He asserts that Islam is the only tradition that considers all forms of human diversity to be divinely mandated and has the most comprehensive and coherent idea of morality and justice. This is not to claim universality for Islamic ethics, but only to reinforce the argument against universal acceptance of humanist liberalism, and the interpretation of Islam and reason as mutually exclusive.[xxxii] A more effective approach would provide the possibility of engaging rationally with concepts like gender equality without delegitimizing the religious.

The presentation of Islam as opposing democracy only serves to generate resistance by positing democratic reforms as a choice between a political system and faith, which for most Muslims exists as an all-encompassing, coherent, and complete worldview. This conflict plays out similarly in the positioning of the Qur’an and shari’ah as inherently opposed to “universal standards” and norms of human rights. Attempts to promote universal moral standards with what Barlas describes as “unmediated secularism” have succeeded mainly in alienating the faithful with their blind rejection of worldviews that frame their morality with religious belief. Demonstrating that they may understand freedom better than those promoting it, targeted audiences grasp that they are experiencing “epistemic violence of secularism in its garb of ‘universal reason.’”[xxxiii] To accept the premise of Islamic feminism, we must engage with the possibility of a Qur’anic hermeneutics of sexual equality that might do a better job at achieving this than universalist secular norms have done.[xxxiv]

The idea of a liberatory theology, and the reality that Islamism is a “powerful source of critical debate…against the economic and ecological violence of neo-liberalism,” should be celebrated as a tool in post-colonial discourse, but it is not.[xxxv] As MacDonald discusses, Saba Mahmood questions why the resources of Islam are not used to critique the Western liberal tradition, resolving that the hegemony of liberalism among Muslim intellectuals is the answer.[xxxvi] Alternatively, Barlas presents the possibility that those refusing to engage with internal critiques of Islam, preferring to distance themselves with liberal devices, are actually afraid of recognizing its power and legitimizing it as a discourse.[xxxvii]


This embedded nature of ethics and practice is intrinsic to Islam, and so to reconcile an Islamic worldview with philosophical ethics we must look beyond Kant and normative liberal thought.[xxxviii] Building on the Aristotelian tradition, Michel Foucault’s analytical framework for ethics allows that bodily practice and acts form the ethical subject by making manifest moral motivations and intentions.[xxxix] Thus the superficial and the spiritual are indiscernible because an act can be performed with pious and moral intent but it also can be performed in order to inculcate such intent in the subject. The poetry of Iqbal expresses his own understanding of this dynamic, which Ayesha Jalal has described as his “personalized sense of sovereignty based on devotion to a universal God.”[xl] Jalal quotes him:


The culture of modernity has granted me that freedom

Which apparently is freedom, but unintelligibly arrest![xli]


In this couplet Iqbal demonstrates the tension between different, yet contested conceptions of freedom.

Grounding her analysis in Foucault’s ethical formation, Mahmood has postulated a “non-liberal model of agency” to explain the ethical practice of the women she studied in the women’s mosque movement in Cairo. Western feminist scholars have historically located agency in the autonomy of the subject, which has served to deprive Islamist women (among others) of their agency by characterizing them as irrational and thus subjugated.[xlii] Mahmood’s model, in contrast, deconstructs normative liberal assumptions about human nature to assert that freedom and resistance are not necessary prerequisites of agency. Human nature, in the liberal tradition, is understood to include an innate desire for freedom, the assertion of autonomy, and even rebellion against social norms. Yet, these assumptions have grown out of a specific context, and a historical experience that is not universal. Mahmood instead locates the agency of her subjects in their willful submission to religious practice and pursuit of spiritual elevation.[xliii] Sherine Hafez has gone on to outline a hybrid model of agency that breaks down the wall between the religious and the secular when considering the formation of the subject. Framing “desire” as the lens will allow us to clarify women’s complicated and heterogeneous subject positions that irrefutably go beyond “religious” and “secular” categories, or “liberal” and “non-liberal” constructs of agency.[xliv] This framework brings our analysis back around to the role of will or desire in the formation of agency, but without conflating this will with its content by imposing normative liberal assumptions.



Liberation must be defined in a way that allows for multiple definitions of freedom, allowing for the possibility that practices that seem oppressive to some women may not in fact be experienced as such by others. We know that Islamist women activists are not “feminists looking for the type of freedom that liberals and secular women cherish.” [xlv] In my own experience, desired forms of freedom range widely from woman to woman and place to place, with Egypt being a demonstrable case. Lila Abu-Lughod notes the same phenomenon:

I have done fieldwork in Egypt over more than 20 years and I cannot think of a single woman I know, from the poorest rural to the most educated cosmopolitan, who has ever expressed envy of U.S. women, women they tend to perceive as bereft of community, vulnerable to sexual violence and social anomie, driven by individual success rather than morality, or strangely disrespectful of God.[xlvi]

She has also demonstrated that while the dominant discourse about the hijab among feminists remains one of freedom from veiling, for many Muslim women the hijab provides freedom of veiling.[xlvii]

Returning to Islamic feminism as an ethical project, I ask whether if the practice of Muslim women is primarily grounded in ethics or in the pursuit of conformity to religious dictates. The women that occupy Hafez’s study provide ample testimony to their personal practice and understanding of Islam. But, it is interesting to note that the presence of rational and purposeful inquiry into the meaning of personal belief remains constant in Muslim women’s narratives from vastly different contexts, such as the voiced experience of converts collected in Anna Mannson McGinty’s illustrative work, Becoming Muslim.[xlviii] There is no doubt that there are those who follow blindly and act at the behest of social norms, but would we deny to Muslim women the variable degrees of individual interest in spirituality and internal analysis that is present in all human communities? Hafez quotes Mona Younis, an Islamic activist and writer:

These days were the best of my life. I realized that Islam is not just to perform prayer, to fast, to pay alms, and to go on pilgrimage, it is much more comprehensive and more general. I understood as well that the hijab is just one step on the right path, and this step has to be followed by other steps. I realized that a lot of women are satisfied by this first step, as if it were a goal in itself.[xlix]

Hafez and Mahmood, through Foucault and Aristotle, present the possibility that even this one step could be considered as ethical agency, premised on the notion of the corporeal inculcation of virtue and desire of piety.[l] However, I argue that western feminist activists and scholars largely fail to recognize the ethical intention and spiritual understanding that could yield a common ground between these divergent discourses.

Hafez presents Mahmood’s analysis of veiling as a technique of instilling humility and cultivating modesty in oneself. She readily acknowledges that the motivations for engaging in this kind of self-formation are not free from the markings of colonial and national experience. Yet, this allowance simply reinforces the Foucaultian assertion that subjects are constituted through discourse, further deconstructing the false dichotomy of liberal/non-liberal subjects. [li] This is consistent throughout the narratives, as those who wear the hijab cite its diverse ethical and spiritual benefits, including the sense of security and safety engendered by reserving sexuality for one’s partner and the idea of keeping spiritual energy inside oneself. As a grounding device that serves as a constant reminder of the ethical and spiritual practice of Islam, wearing hijab is far from a superficial act.[lii] And so, if what is understood to be a marker of oppression is actually an active pursuit of spirituality, mustn’t we consider the uncoupling of self-realization from the assertion of autonomous will?[liii] The formation of the self can be achieved in many ways, some of them tied to submission to divine power and not the pursuit of individuality.



The hindering capacity of the historical association of feminism with state repression should not be underestimated. Much of the current backlash in Egypt is in the spirit of rebellion against all former repressors. The West, secularizing modernizing regimes, and the international community to this day, have used the language and rhetoric of human rights and women’s rights to denigrate, threaten, attack, oppress, and interfere with Arab and Muslim societies. While denying the misogyny present is not the way forward, neither is denying these truths, which the people see so clearly and feel so strongly. The hypocrisy and selective awareness of state feminism and modernizing governments has removed any moral authority and replaced it with resentment, hostility, cementing the negative association of “women’s rights” with foreign domination, and political and economic oppression.[liv]

For the half-century history of television media in Egypt, and for the longer legacy of secularizing, modernizing authoritarian Egyptian rulers, the Egyptian woman’s body has been a canvas for state messaging and control. For the half-century existence of Egyptian television media, women newscasters have been prevented from wearing the hijab on air, airline hostesses have been required to be bareheaded, and there was a widespread discrimination against women in hijab for roles in government and public institutions.[lv] The “hijab glass ceiling” has not only affected possibilities for women, but also for men and their families, as officials and officers were chosen based on the visibility of their wife’s hair.[lvi] This is no new story; we know that power structures thrive on manipulating and deconstructing women’s bodies, from Ankara to Paris to DC.[lvii] We see that women in public roles, and simply women in public, are subjected to an analysis of their attire imbued with judgments about their beauty, modesty, and personal beliefs. In Abu-Lughod’s excellent analysis of this issue she reminds us of the phrase the “tyranny of fashion”, pointing out that every society has its problematic preoccupation with women’s appearance.[lviii] The greater story of Egyptian post-revolution media is the plethora of channel upstarts across the ideological spectrum. Women have been broadcasting the news in Egypt for decades and only recently did the United States begin to have a balance of male and female newscasters on nightly newscasts.[lix]


Normative liberal freedom, which has been central to western feminism, emphasizes individual autonomy to the exclusion of moral imperatives derived from faith, culture, or society. This definition proves problematic when engaging women who choose a life of some or another degree of submission, whether it is to God or man. Mahmood elaborates a way forward in treating freedom of choice over freedom from subordination or submission.[lx] Freedom of choice is at the core of Islamic ethics and well understood by the women who promote Islam as a solution to injustice against women. Hafez quotes Laila, an Islamic activist in Cairo, as stating, “I do not rob her of her will”, in answering questions about her perspective of the relationship between politics and Islam. Laila demonstrates the perceptivity of these women, who comprise part of the world of Islamic feminism whether or not they accept the label, by verbalizing her understanding that legal codes do not form a culture. Using examples, she illustrates that an Islamic state does not equal an Islamized life and vice versa. Having stated, “I don’t govern anything but my own life”, Laila clearly proves the reason and agency intrinsic to her belief.[lxi]

Muslim women express precise rationale and intent in their choices about the practice of their faith, and thus, their lives. In choosing to take hijab or to prioritize the home over their work, and to whatever degree they are informed by belief, tradition, or social norms, they are making conscious, ethical, and free choices. Muslim women have been disenfranchised from representing their own realities and desires with accusations of possessing false-consciousness. It can be argued that Western liberal norms are oppressive to women in the form of beauty standards.[lxii]  Furthermore, these choices could be considered submission to culture, to sexism, or to the production and consumption imperatives of capitalist society. Feminism has reacted to its normative assumptions by forming particularist feminisms. Much as the idea of “multiple modernities” has taken hold in scholarly discourse, I am advocating for a refinement within the human and women’s rights discourse to contend with the idea of multiple freedoms. Feminist researcher and activist Wendy Harcourt has employed this concept in the sense that freedom from sources of oppression takes many forms and overlap in the individual. I would argue that the concept could be used to facilitate the understanding that the choices of others may not be what we would desire from them, yet remain their own form of freedom.[lxiii]


As multiple feminisms can inform our imagining of multiple freedoms, so can scholarship on the vernacular tradition in Islam inform our understanding of the plurality of perspectives that exist. Leila Ahmed is a leading scholar of women and Islam who wrote the work that remains authoritative on the subject to this day.[lxiv] In her memoir, Ahmed postulates the existence of two divergent categories of Islam, one official and based in texts, which has historically belonged to men, and one vernacular and based in lived experience that has been created and disseminated by women, through the harem.[lxv] This framework for understanding the diverse traditions of Islam very much parallels the story of history itself, where it is said that the winner writes history, and those winners have usually been men. This contrast is being mimicked in the current political upheaval across the globe, which is making obvious the gulf between the understanding of authority and the lived experience of the people.

The human rights discourse, with its claim of universality, the democracy discourse, self-defined as secular and liberal, and the international legal system, which declares itself neutral and just, have evolved through the writing of documents, the setting of standards, and have been established by the winners, the leaders, and the dominant. This preference for official, “men’s” history, much like official “men’s” Islam, ignores conflicting opinion, quashes debate, and invalidates all other forms of knowledge production and lived experience. Equally, there is a vernacular, “women’s” Islam, and thus a vernacular history that defines, values and remembers life as it is lived by women, by the oppressed, by the losers of history. I believe that what we are seeing in the contemporary upsurge of people power is a move towards the reconciliation of these two dimensions. The current trend toward gender mainstreaming is exemplary of the move towards reforming this bifurcation. Gender mainstreaming allows for multiple voices to emerge and compete, multiple realities to exist simultaneously. It will bridge the impasse of vocabulary, semantics, and overcome the sullied history of feminism by removing exceptionalism, and replacing it with inclusion. As Nawal Sadawi noted decades ago, “It’s people’s awareness and their political power that really protects them… the Egyptian woman is having her equality by her power not by the law”.[lxvi]


The response that has emerged on the street to the sexual harassment epidemic in Egypt very much reflects this vernacularization of ideology, politics, and power. While the absurd levels of sexual harassment existed before the revolution, their resurgence was shocking to many, perhaps because of the experience of the 18 days, during which Tahrir was a safe and harassment free space where men and women demonstrated and debated together as equals.[lxvii] While this utopia has gone, the dynamic has changed with the transparency of regime violence against women. The tendency of society to blame the victim, while still echoed from some quarters, has been limited by the increased demographic diversity of Egyptian women occupying the public space. The popular mobilization that has emerged to defend women’s physical integrity has not framed the problem in the language of feminism, or liberal women’s rights, but within the context of dignity and freedom and justice that corresponds so well with the cause and demands of the revolution.

The publicity of cases has been both a positive and negative factor in the carriage of justice. Most women don’t want the attention because it opens them to accusations of immorality commonly levied against all protestors. There are a few cases of women like Samira Ibrahim, who pursued her case against the military doctor that performed a “virginity test” on her and a number of other women who were detained during protests last spring. While the doctor was acquitted in a gross miscarriage of justice, she managed to instigate a ruling that prohibits future use of this intimidation technique by the authorities.[lxviii] Part of the problem is that often the offenders have been tied to the state and its security apparatus. Acting either with explicit or implicit approval of the regime, police officers, state security forces, soldiers, plainclothes officers, and paid thugs have carried out many of the most violent and egregious attacks, and have gotten away with them. The Egyptian justice system all but declares immunity for these individuals; while technically subject to the laws, they are rarely tried, never convicted, and, especially in the post-Mubarak period, are frequently given a free pass. [lxix]

Egyptians are not waiting around for the government to mete out justice, or to reform the police force, this has not been forthcoming, despite being a core demand of the revolution and vital to advancing the safety and public participation of women in Egyptian society. While justice is important, Egyptians are focusing more on prevention through changing the social acceptability of this behavior by targeting offenders, raising awareness and educating to encourage action among bystanders, and through pragmatic preemptive and self-defense strategies for women. During Eid al-Fitr in 2012, we saw the advent of groups of men and women patrolling the hot spots of harassment and using a multifaceted approach to address the issue.[lxx]

Due to the increased public mobilization, the government, for all its non-responsiveness, had to make at least superficial gestures towards the protection of women and the pursuit of sexual harassers. The government promised to place cameras to catch offenders and claimed it made a number of arrests, though it is not clear what happened to the perpetrators. In “normal” cases, where the attacker is a civilian and the incident was outside of a demonstration, the victim must know the assailants name and be able to precisely identify him in order to even file a report and begin an investigation. In practice this means that the woman must hold on to her assailant and physically take him to the police in order to begin prosecution. While there are exemplary and courageous cases of women doing just this, it poses grave dangers to the woman and is obviously impossible in more egregious cases of mob attacks and armed assault.[lxxi]

Protecting female protestors and women on the street is to protect the revolution. The opposition knows that they are weak with out women, in numbers, strength, and legitimacy, this making it safe for them to participate has become an imperative. Recent protests have resulted in an increased need for and awareness of the need for such protection and security for the square. The fact is that immediately following Mubarak’s ouster, the celebrations and subsequent ongoing demonstrations and political rallies became free-for-alls. Security has never returned to the level it was during the eighteen days and the sides are not so clearly drawn.[lxxii] It is apparent that some factions are still using old regime tactics of female intimidation and sexual assault to divide and control the protestors.[lxxiii] This has been significant in recent days as the lines become more difficult to determine and are repeatedly redrawn. There is no single leader of the opposition, and no hierarchy; this has aided its legitimacy and resilience, however it presents an extreme challenge to confronting security issues in and around the square. Ultimately the Egyptian people, both women and men, are dealing with this issue as a criminal and social problem.


The struggle of Egyptian women clearly exemplifies the ongoing nature of the revolution. Yes, the eighteen days were a bastion of unrealized freedom from sexual harassment and camaraderie on the square, and then life somewhat went back to normal. There have been substantial changes in the collective consciousness of the Egyptian people, and while the benefits have yet to strike on the most poignant issues that are unique to women, these changes are in everything, everyone, and everywhere. However, social, cultural, and political change is a long process. The fight of women in Egypt is one of many examples of how the revolution continues. The argument that women’s rights should not be relegated to the realm of minority or subgroup complaints, given that they represent half of the population, is valid but ignores the historical context and current realities of the situation. Choosing rhetoric over outcomes is the current weakness of both the human rights and women’s rights movements, especially those working in non-Western contexts. In reality, an enormous proportion of Egyptians are suffering grave offenses to their life and liberty on daily basis. There is a significant proportion of low-income working people and people in poverty who are oppressed by the neo-liberal capitalist policies of the state and class-based societal prejudice. Yet the discourse of inclusion and equality of women now permeates the revolutionary cause and has irrevocably changed the attitude on the street.

Those who answer that women are not better off in Egypt after the revolution are operating with narrow definitions and a historical vacuum. I myself have experienced the sexual harassment and intimidation facing Egyptian women each day, yet for two reasons this does not indicate that all is lost. First, it is natural to rebound after a revolution to return to previously engrained norms. Second, women and men are not standing still. The presence and role of women has become not only an easy target, but it is now acknowledged that the fight for women’s participation and presence on the street is part of the core of the revolutionary fight against oppression and is viewed as imperative to its success.


The preceding pages have demonstrated the potential I find in my examination of the ethical project of Islamic feminism. If any project is to succeed it requires structural coherence. I argue that Islamic feminism brightly carries forth the ethical light of Islam. While many both internal and external to Islam are satisfied to languish in blind obedience to their ideologies, debating the superficialities of life; the women who labor on the mission of Islamic feminism, whether self-professed Islamic feminists or not, are diligently and deliberately crafting a more just and equitable future for our world. As Saba Mahmood notes, the degree of debate and critical thinking engaged in within the women’s mosque movement in Cairo is unheard of in the male dominated spheres of official Islamic learning; and, I argue, in most secular liberal circles of thought.[lxxiv]

I would like to think of this wave of vernacular support for women’s rights as gender mainstreaming, gone rogue. While many still shirk the label of feminism and disdain the language of women’s rights, this struggle could be the beginning of a truly popular integration of women into the civic and political life of Egypt. Reform of misogynistic cultural practices must be organic and evolve from the bottom up. It is my great hope that Egyptians, women and men, feminists and Islamists, can capture this moment to mainstream gender and social justice into the fabric of Egyptian society. While the formation of a common discourse remains a great challenge to the unity of the Egyptian women’s movements, I do believe that the ethical project of Islamic feminism can provide a model forward.

[i] Lila Abu-Lughod, “Do Muslim Women really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and its Others,” American Anthropologist, 104, 3 (2002), 783-790.

[ii] Nadje S. Al-Ali, Women’s Movements in the Middle East : Case Studies of Egypt and Turkey, UNRISD.

[iii] United Nations. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948; Enloe, Cynthia. Updating the Gendered Empire. The Curious Feminist, Searching for Women in the New Age of Empire (pp. 269–305), 2004.

[iv] Sarah Graham-Brown, Feminism in Egypt: A Conversation with Nawal Sadawi, Middle East Research and Information Project (1981).

[v] Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2005b), 26.

[vi] Ibid, 16.

[vii]  Ibid.

[viii] Margot Badran, “Islamic Feminism: What’s in a Name?” Al-Ahram Weekly Online, 17-23 February, 2002.

[ix]  Ibid.

[x] Al-Ali, Women’s Movements in the Middle East : Case Studies of Egypt and Turkey.

[xi] Maya Mikadashi, The Uprisings will be Gendered, Jadaliyya, 28 February, 2012.

[xii] Al-Ali, Women’s Movements in the Middle East: Case Studies of Egypt and Turkey.

[xiii]  Parvaz, D., Egypt’s feminists prepare for a long battle. Al Jazeera. 7 February, 2012; Maya Mikadashi, The Uprisings will be Gendered, Jadaliyya, 28 February, 2012; Mhadhbi, Amira. State feminism in Tunisia : reading between the lines., 7 November 2012.

[xiv] Nadine Naber, Imperial Feminism, Islamophobia, and the Egyptian Revolution. Jadaliyya. 11 February, 2011.

[xv] Raula Khalaf, The Muslim Sisterhood, 2012.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Anna Therese, “Unfinished Revolution,” Ms. (2012): 21.

[xviii] Mona Eltahawy, “WHY DO THEY HATE US ?”, Foreign Policy, May/June (2012), 64-70.

[xix] Khalaf, The Muslim Sisterhood.

[xx] D. Parvaz, Egypt’s Feminists Prepare for a Long Battle, 2012.

[xxi] Parvaz, Egypt’s Feminists Prepare for a Long Battle.

[xxii] Naber Nadine, Imperial Feminism, Islamophobia, and the Egyptian Revolution.

[xxiii] Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject.

[xxiv] Bier, Laura, Revolutionary Womanhood: Feminisms, Modernity, and the State in Nasser’s Egypt, 2011; Soliman, Samer, The Autumn of Dictatorship: Fiscal Crisis and Political Change in Egypt Under Mubarak, 2011.

[xxv] Enloe. Updating the Gendered Empire, 2004;

[xxvi] Mohamed Ali, Speech delivered at audience with British Prime Minister Lloyd George, 19 March 1920.

[xxvii] Jalal, Ayesha, Course lecture: Between Nation and Statehood in Post-Colonial South Asia, Islam and the West, 2012.

[xxviii] Iqbal, Muhammad, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. Reprinted 1999.

[xxix] Matthew A. MacDonald, “Truth, Politics, and Diversity: A Muslim Response to Modern Liberalism” (Ph.D., Carleton University (Canada)).

[xxx] Asma Barlas, “Globalizing Equality,” in On Shifting Ground: Muslim Women in the Global Era, ed. Fereshteh Nouraie-Simone (New York: Feminist Press, City University of New York, 2005), 101-102.

[xxxi] Sherine Hafez, An Islam of Her Own: Reconsidering Religion and Secularism in Women’s Islamic Movements.

[xxxii] MacDonald, Truth, Politics, and Diversity: A Muslim Response to Modern Liberalism.

[xxxiii] Barlas, Globalizing Equality; MacDonald, Truth, Politics, and Diversity: A Muslim Response to Modern Liberalism: 103.

[xxxiv] Ibid.

[xxxv] Ibid, 106.

[xxxvi] Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, 2005.

[xxxvii] Barlas, Globalizing Equality; MacDonald, Truth, Politics, and Diversity: A Muslim Response to Modern Liberalism.

[xxxviii] Matthew A. MacDonald, “Truth, Politics, and Diversity: A Muslim Response to Modern Liberalism”

[xxxix] Ibid

[xl] Ayesha Jalal, Self and Sovereignty: Individual and Community in South Asian Islam since 1850, 330.

[xli] Ibid

[xlii] Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, 2005

[xliii] Mahmood, Politics of Piety : The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject.

[xliv] Hafez, An Islam of Her Own: Reconsidering Religion and Secularism in Women’s Islamic Movements.

[xlv] Khalaf, The Muslim Sisterhood, 2.

[xlvi] Abu-Lughod, Do Muslim Women really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and its Others. 788.

[xlvii] Ibid.

[xlviii] Anna Mansson McGinty, Becoming Muslim : Western Women’s Conversions to Islam.

[xlix] Hafez, An Islam of Her Own: Reconsidering Religion and Secularism in Women’s Islamic Movements, 91.

[l] Ibid.; Saba Mahmood, “Feminist Theory, Agency, and the Liberatory Subject,” in On Shifting Ground : Muslim Women in the Global Era.

[li] Hafez, An Islam of Her Own: Reconsidering Religion and Secularism in Women’s Islamic Movements; Meyda Yegenoglu, Colonial Fantasies: Towards a Feminist Reading of Orientalism.

[lii] Mansson McGinty, Becoming Muslim : Western Women’s Conversions to Islam.

[liii] Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject.

[liv] Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate; Al-Ali, Women’s Movements in the Middle East : Case Studies of Egypt and Turkey.

[lv] Mohamed El Dahshan, Covering Up on Egyptian TV | Transitions.

[lvi] Ibid

[lvii] Le Tellier, Alexandra, Hillary Clinton’s wardrobe, Paul Ryan’s suits: Do clothes matter? Los Angeles Times. 2012; Wente, Margaret, The GOP is obsessed with women’s bodies. The Globe and Mail, 2012.

[lviii] Abu-Lughod, Do Muslim Women really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and its Others.

[lix] Mohamed, Covering Up on Egyptian TV | Transitions.

[lx] Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject.

[lxi] Hafez, An Islam of Her Own: Reconsidering Religion and Secularism in Women’s Islamic Movements.

[lxii] Wyrozumska, K., Wilson, E., Salem, N., & Furnham, A. Oppressive Beliefs At Play : Associations Among Beauty Ideals And Practices And Individual Differences In Sexism , Objectification Of Others, 2010.

[lxiii] Wendy Harcourt, “Editorial: Women’s Global Organizing: Celebrations and Cautions”.

[lxiv] Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate.

[lxv] Leila Ahmed, A Border Passage.

[lxvi] Graham-Brown, Feminism in Egypt : A Conversation with Nawal Sadawi, 26.

[lxvii] Naber. Nadine. Imperial Feminism, Islamophobia, and the Egyptian Revolution., 2011.

[lxviii] Mohsen, Habiba, What made her go there? Samira Ibrahim and Egypt’ s virginity test trial, Al Jazeera, 2012.

[lxix] Randa El-Tahawy, Egyptian Women Continue the Struggle, 2012.

[lxx] Rebecca Fitzsimons, Vigilantes are Tagging Egypt’s Sexual Harassers with Spray Paint.

[lxxi] El Shabraway, Nevine, The Sexual Harassment File: The role of police, 2012.

[lxxii] Al Arabiya, Crime rates in post-revolutionary Egypt soar amid security woes, 2013.

[lxxiii] Associated Press. Egyptian women fear rising tide of sexual assault as Tahrir crowds grow. The Guardian. 2013.

[lxxiv] Mahmood, Feminist Theory, Agency, and the Liberatory Subject.


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