James M. Dorsey
Hürriyet Daily News
A feminist group calls on football fans to stand up for women’s rights, saying ‘those who carry the flame of liberty against the oppressive powers should respect it first’
The mother of an Al Ahly football fan who was killed in Port Said takes part in a protest rally in Cairo. An Egyptian feminist group calls on football fans to raise their voices for women’s rights. Reuters photo
An Egyptian feminist group has challenged militant football fans that played a key role in toppling President Hosni Mubarak to recognize women’s rights to protest without restrictions.
The challenge exposes conservatism that is deeply rooted in Egyptian society and cuts across ideological, cultural and religious fault lines. It lays bare differing interpretations of concepts such as diversity, freedom and faith and highlights a battle by women who were prominent in the campaign to overthrow Mubarak to have their rights recognized in post-revolt Egypt.
The women confront a conservatism that pervades the Middle East and North Africa as illustrated by the recent creation of a football league in the United Arab Emirates that allows women to play behind closed doors in the absence of men, as well as Saudi Arabia’s struggle with the International Olympic Committee’s demand that it include women among its athletes at this year’s London Olympics.
UAE and Kuwaiti royals joined prominent foreign representatives this week at a two-day conference to encourage women’s participation in sports and the launch of the Fatima Bint Mubarak Women’s Sports Awards, named after the third wife of the founder of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, who heads the Family Development Foundation.
Women fight for rights
Egyptian women are battling to have their rights acknowledged on two fronts: recognition by their often socially conservative revolutionary male counterparts, as well as Egypt’s post-Mubarak military rulers, who have systematically humiliated detained women protesters by subjecting them to virginity tests. A court this week acquitted a military doctor who conducted the tests.
More secular Egyptian women fear that the rise of Islamists further threatens the achievement of their rights. Islamists have dissolved the Women’s Council, charging that it was a creation of Suzanne Mubarak, the ousted president’s widely despised wife. Islamist members of Parliament have also proposed the establishment of a Family Ministry that would operate in accordance with Islamic law and roll back legal advances introduced by the Mubarak regime.
The feminists issued their challenge in response to a decision by the ultras – militant, highly politicized, football fans – to allow women to participate in their 16-day-old sit-in in front of Parliament only during daytime and to ban them at night starting at 10 p.m.
The ultras are demanding justice for 74 of their comrades who died Feb. 1 in a football brawl in the Suez Canal city of Port Said that they believe was instigated by the government in retaliation for their role in the ousting of Mubarak and their militant opposition to his military successors.
In a statement posted on the Egyptian news website Bikya Masr, the Independent Egyptian Women’s Union said those “who carry the flame of liberty against the oppressive powers should respect it first.” They said that their understanding of diversity and faith ruled out restricting women’s right to protest.
The battle for women’s rights is one that is being waged by different women’s groups – secular and religious – whose definition of women’s rights varies both among Middle Eastern and North African groups, as well as Western ones.
Western groups objected last month to a decision by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) to allow observant Muslim women to wear a headdress that meets their religious and cultural requirements, as well as safety and security standards.
The decision by the IFAB, which governs the rules of professional football, was intended to provide opportunities to a large number of observant Muslim women who had been excluded from a professional career because of what they saw as a conflict between the rules of their faith and the rules of the game.
Debate on female athletes in Saudi Arabia continues
Conservatism is most deep-seated in Saudi Arabia, home to Wahhabism, one of the world’s most puritanical and restrictive interpretations of Islam that allows women to travel abroad only with the permission of a male guardian and bans them from driving. The kingdom, under threat of exclusion from the London Olympics if it fails to field women athletes and pressured by human rights groups, has responded publicly with a series of test balloons on how to respond.
Saudi officials first leaked a story earlier this year about a plan to build the kingdom’s first stadium especially designed to accommodate women who are currently barred from attending football matches because of the kingdom’s strict public gender segregation. The planned stadium was supposed to open in 2014. Saudi media subsequently reported that the plan had been shelved.
Deputy Education Minister for Female Student Affairs Noura al-Fayez said in two letters addressed to Human Rights Watch (HRW) that the government was working to set up a “comprehensive physical education program,” including sports facilities and a health and nutrition awareness scheme “as part of its national strategy for physical education for boys and girls,” according to daily al-Watan newspaper. Al-Fayez said physical education for girls was under consideration “as one of the priorities of the ministry’s leadership.”
The Al-Hayat newspaper, owned by a Saudi royal, reported last month that Saudi Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud had approved plans to send female athletes to the London Olympics. That report was quickly squashed with the media quoting Prince Nayef as reversing his statement.A step further
Prince Nawaf subsequently went a step further by telling a news conference: “Female sports activity has not existed [in the kingdom] and there is no move thereto in this regard. At present, we are not embracing any female Saudi participation in the Olympics or other international championships.”
Despite Saudi women in the kingdom pushing the envelope by forming private clubs of their own, Prince Nawaf asserted that the demand for women’s participation came from Saudi women living abroad. He said the kingdom would work to ensure that expatriate Saudi women seeking to compete in the Olympics on their own account rather than as official delegates would do so “in the appropriate framework and comported with Islamic law.” He said he was working with the Saudi mufti and religious scholars to guarantee that nothing “infringed upon the Muslim woman.”