Egypt's Islamists have outraged the civilized world by proposing several pieces of legislation that begin the process of rolling back the meager gains made by women in that country over the last decade.
The first proposed law would lower the legal age a girl can marry to 14. The second proposal, inspired by a fatwa from a Moroccan cleric, would grant husbands permission to have sex with their wives within 6 hours of their death.
Another Islamist-sponsored piece of legislation would repeal the right of women to seek a divorce from an abusive husband without obstruction from her spouse. Still another proposal would mandate the barbaric practice of female circumcision.
The series of proposals, as well as others under consideration that would severely restrict opportunities for women and girls in education and employment, aim to roll back the modest progress on women's rights that advocates won during the Mubarak era. The laws threaten to reduce women to the status of chattel where they will be literally owned by their husbands who will be able to control all aspects of their personal lives.
The proposals come as the Obama administration appears to have accepted the rule of Islamists in Egypt, Tunisia, and other "Arab Spring" countries while exposing their naive belief that the Muslim Brotherhood is "moderate" and "secular" in its nature.
And the proposals make a mockery of promises by the Muslim Brotherhood that they would seek to implement Sharia law slowly. In a few weeks, women in Egypt may see their status return to those of their ancestors in the Middle Ages.
The Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) is being pushed by the more radical Salfis (al-Nour) to quicken the implementation of Sharia law. The presidential election is partly responsible for this, as the al-Nour candidate, Hazem Abu Ismail, was declared ineligible to run by the country's election commission and the FJP's second candidate (their first candidate was also disqualified), party chief Mohammed Morsi, has had to tack to the right in order to gain the support of the Salifis. Thus, Morsi declared that a council of Muslim scholars will "advise" parliament on all proposed legislation and added "The Qur'an is our constitution, and sharia is our guide!" This push to satisfy the Salifis led to an important endorsement from the Jurisprudence Commission for Rights and Reform, a panel of clerics mostly from the ultraconservative Salafis and new Islamist parties. It is likely to gain him another endorsement soon from a hard-line organization of extremist clerics as well.
With gradual "reform" of women's rights out the window, the proposed legislation has angered the small group of advocates who fought for the secularization of Egyptian society in the last decade. Egypt's National Council for Women (NCW) President Dr Mervat al-Talawi, wrote a letter to the Speaker of the Assembly, warning that the proposed changes were "marginalizing and undermining the status of women" and "would negatively affect the country's human development."
It wasn't just women's groups who are outraged at the proposals. The idea that a man can have sex with his dead wife made one popular TV anchor nearly speechless. Jaber al-Qarmouty of ON TV told his audience:
This is very serious. Could the panel that will draft the Egyptian constitution possibly discuss such issues? Did Abdul Samea see by his own eyes the text of the message sent by Talawi to Katatni? This is unbelievable. It is a catastrophe to give the husband such a right! Has the Islamic trend reached that far? Is there really a draft law in this regard? Are there people thinking in this manner?
Dubbed the "Farewell Intercourse" law, the concept originated with a Moroccan cleric, Zamzami Abdelbari, who issued a fatwa last year that said necrophilia was "halal" or, religiously acceptable. He took as evidence a Koranic verse that says husbands will go to paradise with their wives. The fatwa also gave wives permission to have sex with their dead husbands, but as the Moroccan news service report said at the time, the imam "failed to explain how a woman can manage to perform sex with the corps (sic) of her dead husband." The cleric is no stranger to controversy, having also said two years ago that it was permissible for a pregnant woman to drink alcohol.
The Farewell Intercourse law is getting all the attention, but it is the other planks in the Islamist platform that will do the most damage to Egyptian women. In anticipation of changes coming down the road, many universities are already segregating men and women in the classroom and outside activities. Threats from Islamists have caused some pop concerts on campus to be canceled. And the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that at some middle and high schools, students start the day by "shouting religious chants." Clearly, a new wind is blowing through Egypt -- and Islamist wind -- and society is already making its peace with the new regime.
All of this makes the Obama administration's outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood incomprehensible. Recall that two weeks ago, members of the FJP -- some of whom will be voting on the sex after death and other anti-women legislation -- visited the White House. At the time, White House press secretary Jay Carney said:
Because of the fact that Egypt's political landscape has changed, the actors have become more diverse and our engagement reflects that. The point is that we will judge Egypt's political actors by how they act -- not by their religious affiliation.
As if to underscore the surreal nature of the administration's policy, National Journal's Michael Hirsch relates a startling conversation he had with a "high level official" of the State Department:
"The war on terror is over," one senior State Department official who works on Mideast issues told me. "Now that we have killed most of al Qaida, now that people have come to see legitimate means of expression, people who once might have gone into al Qaida see an opportunity for a legitimate Islamism."
"Legitimate Islamism" is a made-up concept with no connection to the real world. The question isn't can we live with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties. The question is how can we, as a western democracy dedicated to equal rights and equality of opportunity, legitimize a movement whose utter barbarity is out in the open for all to see. Lowering the legal age for marriage to 14 is Medieval. Mandating female circumcision is beyond belief in a 21st century society. Forcing a wife to stay with an abusive husband by denying her the right to a divorce is beyond cruel.
The dictator Mubarak was a cruel and oppressive tyrant. But under his rule, Egypt was gradually being brought into the modern world. Women had just begun to organize to fight for rights that many Arab countries deny exist. It was a long way from perfect, but the promise of a better life for women and girls was on the horizon.
Now, those hopes will be dashed and women will return to their status as property. Will American women's rights group criticize this president for his naive and shortsighted policies? Will they stand in solidarity with their sisters in Egypt whose lives are to be ruined by fanatics? Will they seek a boycott of Egypt, or agitate against aid to Cairo, or call on the UN to sanction the Islamists for their nauseating policies?
Don't hold your breath.
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