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Female Freedom Fighters By: MEMRI
MEMRI.org | Thursday, May 18, 2006

In articles that appeared recently in Arab government papers, renowned Egyptian feminist Dr. Nawal Al-Sa'dawi and Saudi columnist Maha Fahd Al-Hujailan speak out against the inferior status of women in Arab society.

In a column in the Saudi government daily Al-Watan, titled "The Stereotype of Woman as Perceived by the Man,"Al-Hujailandeals with social and emotional perspectives. She states that women are treated in Arab society as individuals "devoid of personality," whose only status is derived from that of the men in their lives. Accordingly, a woman with an "independent personality" is perceived as an insubordinate woman who must be tamed using violent means, sometimes to the death, as with animals.

Writing in the Egyptian weekly October, Dr. Al-Sa'dawi deals with legal aspects of women's rights and status. She states that the Egyptian legal code discriminates against women. An adulterous woman, she writes, is subject to harsh punishment, while adulterous husbands, as well as men who kidnap, rape, or murder women, receive lenient treatment.

The following are excerpts from the two articles:


Al-Hujailan: Women's Difficult Situation "Reflects Part of Our Culture"

"I received a letter from a Saudi woman who complained about how her husband treated her during the first months of their marriage. She said that a husband treats his wife like a piece of furniture that he had bought with his own money, and is [thus] entitled to use as he pleases. He beats her and hurts her physically, with great brutality. He dismisses her opinions, mocks her if she expresses her opinion on any matter, and forces her [to comply with] his will without listening to her.

"As a matter of fact, it appears that this is a recurring problem in some homes - the names are different, but the suffering and the victims [are similar]. Many married women suffer from this sort of poor treatment in their married lives, and they are not even allowed to complain or grumble about this regrettable situation.

"If we examine this difficult situation [affecting] married women[...] we find that it reflects part of our culture. In considering the man's attitude towards the woman, we find that, from the moment he begins to consider her as a [potential] wife, he draws up in his mind [a list] of criteria that this woman [must meet]. These criteria are based on descriptions derived from his culture, which he has heard from relatives and from those around him[...] [They] have to do with her outward appearance, and that they include no consideration of her personality, her thinking, or her temperament[...]"


It is Considered Reprehensible for a Man to Ask About a Woman's Qualities - Because Woman is the Product of Male Education

"The most a husband is willing to tolerate on the part of his wife is specific demands concerning her home or personal needs - and this is the source of the 'pampered wife' stereotype entertained by some men. When [the husband] meets [these] special demands, he is certain that he has realized her dream and [made her] happy. We will not deny that some women are interested only in this, and nothing else, but they do not represent the [type of] woman with whom this article is concerned.

"Stereotyping the woman as obedient or even as pampered [means] placing her in a [category], with defined borders that are usually related only to her emotional caprices. But when the woman has an independent personality, [with] opinions and a mind [of her own], the man sees her as an insubordinate woman who must be educated until she 'returns to the straight and narrow' or 'learns how to behave'[...]

"It is said that women must be 'tamed' like horses and other animals - and this 'taming' is carried out by using violence against her, until her independent spirit - including her thoughts, her aspirations, and her dreams - is 'murdered.'

"It should be noted that our culture sees the woman in general, and the wife in particular, as devoid of personality, and therefore people often make statements like 'the woman's [status] is derived [from that of] her men.' Her men, in this case, are her father or brother before marriage, or her husband, when she is handed over to him [after marriage]. In some tribes and some regions of our land, it is considered reprehensible for a man to ask about a woman's qualities or [her personality] - because [...] a woman is ultimately perceived to be the product of education by men. Therefore, he should ask about the lineage and qualities of her men, [not about her present qualities].

"Whoever she may be, the woman's personality is shaped by the man - who is entitled to use violence against her and to 'tame' her as he wishes in this manner [...] A good woman is not good by virtue of her own nature or personality, but by virtue of the strong husband who 'tamed' her, repressed her with a strong arm, and used violence to force her to behave according to his will."


The Word 'Taming,' Used in Connection With Treatment of Women in Our Society, Originally Referred to Animals

"The word 'taming', [which has come to be used in connection with] treatment of women in our society, [was originally] applied to treatment of animals. Originally, taming was something that men did with animals that behaved wildly, in order to tame them and make them docile and domesticated.

"When an animal is [taken] from the place where it lived and [moved] to a new home, to a new owner or to a new environment, it will usually be fearful and disoriented[...]

"The new owner has no time to win the animal's affection, or to prepare an environment to which it can adapt and become accustomed. Consequently, he turns to violence, and beats the beast badly for days, until it settles down and surrenders. In some cases, he [even] beats it to death[...]

"Some have regarded this behavior as an [appropriate] way to treat a woman, [in order to] force her to comply with their will. There is no doubt that many women have been repressed in this manner - their spirit was 'murdered' rendering them weak, depressed, and debased[...]"


Women's Longing for the Respect and Esteem of Men Reflects Their Inferior Status

"Some may think that this belongs to the past, and that today women are treated differently owing to the change that has occurred in their lives and status - they are [now] educated, they have jobs and are independent. This may be true in some [cases], where a woman is respected and esteemed by the man. [However,] the fact that women still long, overtly or covertly, for the men's respect and esteem shows that their status in society is [still] inferior. When the man treats [a woman] well, she is overjoyed, as though [such behavior] is a generous favor for which she must be grateful.

"[Some] men still regard women with this sort of condescension. In their eyes, a woman is nothing but a receptacle for their lust, or a servant who works for them - no matter [how much] she has studied or how much she has advanced[...]" [1]


Al-Sa'dawi: The Egyptian Penal Code Does Not Punish a Man Who Kidnaps or Rapes a Young Woman, Providing He Marries Her

Referring to the legal status of women in Egypt, Al-Sa'dawi wrote: "The time has come to reexamine the laws that make it easier for men to attack women, and that create tension in their relations - for violence on the part of the man leads to violence on the part of the woman, both as a response and in self-defense.

"While we hear about many cases of rape and kidnapping of girls, we find that our country's penal code does not punish a man who kidnaps a young woman (aged 16 or more) providing he marries her. The law rewards the criminal with marriage to his victim. When a man wants to marry a young woman who is not interested in him, all he needs to do is to kidnap her. Then he can marry her, and he is released [from custody].

"What applies to kidnapping applies to rape as well. In a study I conducted on rape, I found that the Egyptian family, in order to avoid social disgrace, pushes a girl who was raped into the arms of the criminal, [forcing her] into a miserable and shameful relationship. I still remember the case of that woman who killed her husband after 20 years of marriage. He used to humiliate her daily, because her father had forced him to marry her after he had raped her[...]

"While we hear much talk about fighting prostitution and abominable acts, the law is very lenient towards adulterous husbands. A husband who commits adultery is not punished, but released, if he did not commit adultery in the [family] home but in some other place. If the adultery does take place in the home, and this is proven in a law suit filed by the wife, he is sentenced to a prison term that does not exceed six months.

"On the other hand, a married woman [who commits the same crime] is sentenced to two years' imprisonment, whether she committed the act in the home or elsewhere. There is no doubt that this forgiving attitude towards the man encourages him to [behave] immorally, to dishonor his marriage vows and to act irresponsibly towards his wife and family."


A Man is Permitted to Be Violent Towards His Wife, Even to Murder Her

"The man is permitted to be violent towards his wife and even to murder her. Article 237 of the penal code states that a man who kills his wife in order to defend his honor is sentenced to imprisonment only, and does not receive the punishment meted out for other kinds of murder, namely the death penalty or a life sentence with hard labor[…] [Moreover], the murderer husband may [even] be released if the judge sympathizes with him, as frequently happens.

"If a husband is entitled to defend his honor, why doesn't a woman have the right to defend hers? [Are we to understand that] a man has honor while a woman does not? What is the difference between an adulterous wife and an adulterous husband? Doesn't justice oblige us to evaluate the act by the same standards, regardless of [the perpetrator's] color, gender or status?"


Polygamy Aggravates the Problem of Overpopulation

"While we complain about disintegrating families and abandoned children, the matrimony law permits a husband to divorce his wife for no reason at all except his desire to do so, and to take a second wife merely in order to satisfy his lust. It is a well-known [fact] that polygamy causes the birth rate to rise, since one man has children by more than one women.

"At a time when we are calling to limit births and complain about overpopulation, shouldn't we consider abolishing polygamy? Especially since many religious scholars and jurists believe that Islam essentially forbids polygamy, because it sets an impossible condition, namely that the [the man] treat [all his wives] fairly. Many Islamic countries have preceded us in outlawing polygamy and in requiring the husband, as well as the wife, to apply to the court if they want a divorce.

"It is time that our laws become just. A just law protects [the individual] from violence and provides real protection for the family and children." [2]


[1] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), March 19, 2006.

[2] October (Egypt), April 2, 2006.

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