One aspect of the so called Arab Spring that has found little favour in the British press is the slight improvement it has brought to the lives of women in countries that have managed to oust their tyrants. Repressive regimes seem to be hardest on the most vulnerable.
Who can forget Iman al-Obeidi, 29 who rushed into the Rixos Hotel claiming she had been raped by Qaddafi’s troops in March of this year? Although this claim has never been verified it does point to the abuse of women which we are told is widespread in many Middle East countries; as it is throughout the world. Rape as a weapon of oppression is commonplace however much the men of the world would seek to distance themselves from this fact. Even the use of ‘virginity tests’ is in of itself a form of abuse that no western country would countenance.
But we are told that the Egyptian TV stations has relaxed a 37 year old ruling and is allowing all women presenters back onto the screen again for more mainstream programmes. This would include those barred for choosing to wear the Hijab or headscarf. While such a move might seem slight in this country where we are used to women presenters, it represents a huge shift in Egyptian attitudes and the place of women within their society. For years the veiled women have been relegated to the back rooms or to ‘soft stories’ and not seen or heard on the media discussing the important issues of the day.
What might seem strange to the Western mind is that such presenters that choose to wear the Hijab or headscarf were barred in the first place. Egypt is after all a majority Muslim country and such customs still apply to all women in public. Again in the West, there have been debates upon what, if any control a country could or should apply to the clothing or religious symbols people choose to wear. Should an Airline for instance say that a Christian Air Stewardess must not wear a cross…or a school ban the wearing of the steel bracelets of the Sikhs? There was a Muslim primary school teacher dismissed for wearing face covering when teaching small children as it was felt her expressions must be seen by the pupils. In France forms of head covering have been banned in public.
All of this seems a world away from the small gains from the Arab Spring but there is an important link. We saw that the presenters wearing the Hijab can now appear on the TV networks. While some might scoff at what they see as male imposed dress codes and talk darkly of oppressive attitudes let us pause for a second and think about the male imposed dress codes for working women in the West. In many jobs women are required as part of an unspoken but equally binding agreement to wear ‘heels’ and makeup. Whereas men might be required in some jobs to wear suits, women are not only to wear suits but also to be made up and wear fashionable and at times painful footwear.
I see no difference between being required to wear certain kinds of head covering and the ‘office’ requirements of women especially those in the public eye. The only difference seems to be that one is being imposed on religious grounds and the other on pure objectivity grounds. Women in the public eye are expected to conform to a certain laid down dress code where ‘appearance and presentation’ are often subjects brought up in staff appraisal. In order that women should rise above the glass ceiling they have to have extra qualities that men of their grade do not posses. Advancement within either the service or commercial sectors is not on a level playing field.
In all these situations men are prescribing what women shall or shall not wear as part of their personal belief systems. This focuses the attention on the rights of women in today’s world to express themselves freely. It also has a direct link to the Declaration of Human Rights which will shortly be sixty one years old and still not fully ratified by any country of the world.
In the UK we tend to think smugly that we have fully accepted the rights of women and possibly fondly imagine we are compliant with most of the Declaration of Human Rights. Perhaps we should address such questions to detainees awaiting deportation for many years while committees they have no representation on, decide their fate. Again perhaps we should ask the school girl banned from wearing her Kara or those that are abused in the street for wearing head coverings. And again we should remind ourselves that in the relatively recent past we not only denied women the vote but also the right to own personal property.
No one would argue that the cause of Women’s Rights have come a long way in the last century but again they still have a long way to go before they have full parity with the male of the species. As Egypt starts on the long path towards lifting the oppression of women we should applaud the start of this process and marvel that it has indeed begun.