Looking at Egypt’s first female mayor

Eva Habil, a 53 year-old Christian lawyer, became Egypt’s first female mayor on December 14, representing Komboha, a rural town in the south with a Coptic majority community.

Habil (pictured left), whose father was mayor of Komboha, beat out five male candidates, including her younger brother. Why mention she’s Christian? Well, because in this same story, a niqabi who came out to congratulate Habil was asked if she’d ever pursue politics. She didn’t even have time to answer before her husband said he wouldn’t let her.

While it is true that Egyptian women, regardless of their religion, struggle to break into politics, Muslim women have an added burden: that of jahiliyah. If Komboha were a small, traditional Muslim town in Egypt, the fellaheen would never allow a woman to accept a leadership role in politics. It would be socially unjustifiable and she’d be pressured to step down. This is a difference in religious culture. Habil not only could accept the position, but she could talk to the locals wearing jeans and a snug sweater. Imagine the outrage that would follow if a woman in a traditional Muslim town, such as Siwa, 50 km from Libya’s border, left the house without covering up from head to toe. However, does this mean that Muslim women in Egyptian villages view Habil’s election differently than Christian women in Egyptian villages? I doubt it, and the niqabi woman mentioned in the article is proof that Habil’s victory is a victory for women, both Christian and Muslim.

Habil’s leadership position is a boost of empowerment for women in Komboha and in a country where only nine female lawmakers serve in the 454-seat parliament, but it does very little to question deeply entrenched attitudes about women throughout the country. Still, it does remind us that regardless of their difference in religion, Egyptian women share the same struggle when it comes to paving political careers.

True to her Egyptian nationalism, Habil says religion should not serve to divide communities. “We must, first and foremost, proclaim ourselves Egyptians.”

Habil is my mom’s age. She went to Ain Shams University in Cairo, at the same time my mom attended teaching college in Tripoli, Libya, They both grew up wearing mini skirts and travelling alone. By the 1980s, they both saw their societies become more and more conservative. Blame it on the1979 Iranian Revolution or the empowered Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the policies of Muammar al Qaddafi, but in the 1980s, Islamic conservatism swept the Middle East and the mini skirt was replaced by the headscarf and galabiyah. To compete, Egypt’s Christians openly displayed their faith as well. Habil says the women in her town wore huge crosses to set themselves apart. Habil and the other 10 percent of Copts in her generation lived through the same political, social and cultural changes. They are united in that change, even if it does not manifest itself in exactly the same way.

  • http://forsoothsayer.blogspot.com forsoothsayer

    a Coptic person is a Copt, not a Coptic. Coptic is an adjective.

    just to critique your piece here, how can you say that “regardless of their difference in religion, Egyptian women share the same struggle when it comes to paving political careers” when you also say “If Komboha were a small, traditional Muslim town in Egypt, the fellaheen would never allow a woman to accept a leadership role in politics. It would be socially unjustifiable and she’d be pressured to step down.” These conclusions contradict each other. Clearly, according to you, Muslim women face a greater struggle.
    I believe the article included a description of the munaqaba party member’s – and Habil’s clothing – as both a reflection and cause of bias.

  • Sobia

    “does this mean that Muslim women in Egyptian villages view Habil’s election differently than Christian women in Egyptian villages? I doubt it,”

    I doubt it too. But I have a strong feeling that Muslim men view it differently than Christian men.

    Religious conservatism as policy has never been good for women. Hell, mixing religion and politics has been outright dangerous for women and religious minorities. The mother of a Coptic friend of mine has expressed great regret at the increase of Islamic conservatism in Egypt because it has forced them into positions they would rather not be in. Either they must dress more conservatively, or if they don’t then they feel as if they stand out and thus more vulnerable to discrimination.

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    @ forsoothsayer: Thanks for the correction. I hope I updated everything.

  • Ethar

    But you can’t really use what the niqabi woman’s husband said to generalize about Egyptian men, can you? We’ve just had Amal Afifi, the first female Muslim marriage registrar, marry her first couple (veiled too, I might add). And she’s from Zaqaziq, not cosmopolitan Cairo.

    I can’t say I like your use of the term jahiliya. I understand the context you’ve placed it in, but still, it’s a pretty strong term to use. And the miniskirt wasn’t exactly swapped for the galabeya– that’s a little extreme and saying that further prorogates the stereotypes about Egyptian Muslim women (we’re all walking around in potato sacks lol).

  • http://www.7obsessions.blogspot.com Yusra

    forsoothsayer, Muslim women face a greater struggle from within their religious community, but the political apparatus itself doesn’t make it easier for Christian women. So while the 1956 constitution gave all women the right to vote and hold office, both Christians and Muslims have had an extremely difficult time breaking into politics and therefore share that struggle. I should have clarified what I meant.

    Ethar, what else would you call blatant ignorance besides jahil? Miniskirts are still found in Egypt, but in Iran and Libya it was pretty much swapped.

  • http://www.kabobfest.com Programmer Buydatti

    “Muslim women face a greater struggle from within their religious community, but the political apparatus itself doesn’t make it easier for Christian women.”

    Add to that the discrimination that Copts face in Egypt, and the situation gets more complex.

    While Muslim women face religious and cultural barriers to political involvement, Christian women face cultural obstacles (defined by the majority religion’s culture) and religious discrimination.

    That’s not to say that one community’s oppression is worse than the other, but Copts (men and women alike) must navigate through the added complexity of being minorities, and all the negative perceptions that entails.

    Food for thought.

  • anon

    so wearing mini skirt is a good thing..?

  • Sobia

    @anon:

    A woman being able to decide herself what she wants to wear without fear of public condemnation, either institutional or cultural, is a good thing. If a Muslim woman chooses to wear a mini-skirt then yes, that *choice* is a good thing.

  • http://www.marwarakha.com Marwa Rakha
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  • Katya

    We deserve and have a right to any position we want that a man has. Patriarchy tries to make men and women such different creatures, because the more we are the same, the more the main difference between men and women stands out; that women bring life into the world. Women should not have to stay home to help build their husbands ego because he feels inferior.

    [This comment has been edited to fit within moderation guidelines.]


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