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.