How March 8 passes through Egypt?
A letter to the renowned Egyptian Feminist Writer, Nawal El Saadawi
By: Effat Mahbaz
Mubarak has gone where the ‘Shah went’. They both followed the path that is the fate of all dictators but, has Egypt been liberated?!
Dear Nawal, the comrade in battle alongside the women of the world!
At the doorsteps of March 8, the international women’s day, I would like to voice the concerns and worries of Iranian Women movement, both mine and my generation, about the future of Egyptian women and the region. I would like to speak with you about this. You, who thought us the alphabet of Feminism,. On one hand, you were talking of tolerance towards the women whose fate had been depicted by religion and on the other hand your fight with fundamentalism and in defense of secularism was just simply amazing. Islamic Feminism that was introduced to the world with your signature and that of Fatima Mernissi created a dialogue full of debates.
The spark to fight dictatorship, for freedom, and to demolish poverty was ignited in Tunisia this time. The fire then spread throughout the Middle East. It engulfed in Egypt and brought a tactical victory to people. Although lots of women activists have followed the news of your struggle with the dictator passionately but all of them, like myself, are also concerned about the question of ‘what happens next?’. What would be the fate of our sisters in Egypt’s rapid developments? Would they be free and treated equal or would their freedom would be restricted even more than what they have now by law? And whether….would Egypt join the free world?
In your interview with Feministiskt Perspektiv, the whole world could see your passion and fervor for the revolution taking place on the streets of Egypt. You said: “I am happy! I am 80 years old and so happy to experience these days. I have dreamed of this revoltuion.” Hanging on to the wings of your dream, you were flying in the skies. This reminded me of the indescribable joy and happiness that Iranian women felt when in 1979 the dictator, the ‘Shah left’.
Iranian women, in solidarity with Egyptian people, are witnessing your happiness. However, my dear teacher, the restless passionate nineteen years old girl in 1979 who rode at the back of a pickup track and chanted alongside the other people on the streets and alleys of Tehran: “Shah’s down, now it’s USA’s turn”, this girl and her comrades in Iran and the rest of the world are worried. They are not of course worried about the disappearance of dictators: “Mubarak’s gone” where “Shah went”. They both followed the path that is the fate of all dictators but, has Egypt been liberated?!
Freedom felt real at the eve of February 11, 1979 when ‘Shah went’. Even after the passing of thirty two long years and despite all that happened to us since then, we could still feel the glory of those moments. But, in exile today, I’m writing to you to express my fear of history repeating itself; this time in Egypt and for the women of Egypt: to suffer what we suffered, to have the same fate as ours. This is the source of my tremendous anxiety and the concerns of all those women in the world who have been witnessed the pain and anguish which we, Iranian women, have been through. Our question is how could we direct the revolution in Egypt, Tunisia, and the Middle East so that it wouldn’t fall into the hands of the radical fanatics? We fear they dream the Iranian women’s fate for your fellow women.
In your interview you mentioned: “We are not afraid of Islamic fundamentalists. You must know that millions of men and women are on the streets. It is not about right or left, about Islamists or any other political movement. People are frustrated about poverty and Mubarak's regime. No political party has started this revolt... What is going on now is a movement that belongs to the young people and nobody else.” 
You might say that Egypt is different than Iran; that majority in Iran are Shia but most Egyptians are Sunni. However, what you described above as the characteristics of the Egypt’s movement mirrors those of Iran’s revolution when it just started. In the process, “Shah left” and Ayatollah Khomeini came with promises of democracy for all and freedom for women. The ayatollah said he was not going to rule and he appointed the man in suits and a tie, Mr. Bazargan, as Prime Minister.
Al-Ikhwān has been fighting dictators in Egypt for more than 80 years. Nowadays, they say that they believe in democracy; that they don’t want to rule. They even appointed Mr. ElBaradei as their deputy but a few days after saying so, they were the first to sit at the negotiation table with Mubarak. Please allow me to tell you something I witnessed in Montreal, Canada when I attended a demonstration.
You asked the world: “Support us! Go into the streets, outside the Egyptian Embassy and support people.” We did so.
I’m in Montreal for a personal affair. Friday, February 5th, I and some other Iranian friends joined a group of Canadian-Egyptians and in solidarity with Egyptian people we demonstrated in front of Egypt’s consulate. Together we chanted in Arabic, English, and French: “La Mubarak, La Mubarak, La Salim” and some other slogans in solidarity with the people of Egypt and Tunisia. There were close to five hundred people in the demonstration. I was holding a placard in my hand, resembling the flag of Iran but instead of Islamic Republic’s sign in the middle of the flag, there was the word “Iran”. On the other side of this placard, there was a slogan in support of people in Egypt and Tunisia. At one of the city’s square, suddenly an Egyptian man who was chanting the same slogans came to me and in a harsh dominating voice, he unleashed an insult at me: “Death to the enemies of Khamenei (the supreme leader of Iran)”! He asked firmly: “Why are you holding this flag? This is not the flag of Iran!”. I was in shock and I could not understand what he was talking about. After few seconds I managed to say that the flag was my flag and it belonged to me and only myself and that I was there to support Egyptian people!
Speaking with other Iranian friends there, I noticed this man had insulted almost all of them in the same way. Is it that he was Mr. Ahmadinejad (Iran’s president) or Khamenei’s deputy and that was the reason for him attacking us? Certainly not. He was one of the victims of dictatorship. Like myself, he was chanting ‘La Mubarak, La Mubark’ and for sure his presence there was more justified than mine but he was also supporting a government such as Islamic Republic of Iran. Is this not alarming?
Is it possible that ‘Sharia Laws’ become official in Egypt in the midst of the twenty first century? Could this time Islamic fundamentalism, using sex discrimination, sacrifice Egyptian women at the altar built by the dominant religious patriarchs? Could history repeat what went on during the past thirty two years in Iran? In Catholic dominant Canada, the women activists prevented the establishment of ‘sharia courts’. In England this is an open issue and the Church is trying to have Muslim men in Europe to benefit from ‘Sharia Laws’.
My teacher, Dear Nawal!
As an Iranian Feminist woman I would like to tell you briefly what we experienced during the first days after the revolution. From the bottom of my heart I wish the brave women of Egypt and Tunisia and Jordan and the rest of the world read and understand what happened to Iranian women so that they learn how to progress to the point of equal rights with men and not, like us, being considered half a man.
My dear Nawal!
Together with other Iranian women we were bathing in joy during the 1979 revolution. Those days Simon de Beauvoir, the mother of the feminists of the world, was alive and living in France. She sent a team of seventeen feminist women from all parts of the world to Iran, for solidarity with and mental support to Iranian women. February 11, 2011 – the day Mubarak left and thirty two years back – Iranian revolution triumphed. Fifteen days later, the ‘Sharia Laws’ were established when Ayatollah Khomeini issues four statements:
February 26, 1979. Cancellation of the law protecting the rights of divorcee women based on a letter written by the office of Ayatollah Khomeini. The protection law was in effect since 1968.
March 3, 1979. Cancellation of the women’s right to be employed as judges in the courts of law.
March 6, 1979. Cancellation of the women’s right to be employed by the armed forces even if serving as soldiers at the time.
March 7, 1979. Mandatory ‘hijab’ for women employed by government and private sectors based on Khomeini’s speech in the city of Qom.
And, just like that, with the issuance of those four statements half of the population saw themselves in chains. In fact, it was freedom which was imprisoned.
One day after Khomeini’s speech, women celebrated their international day by marching in the streets. The first group to protest the mandatory hijab was the female lawyers. The nurses union joined them later. These were the women who truly understood the meaning of the four statements. The lawyers had a sit in protest in the office of judicial affairs and then they took to the streets to chant: “We didn’t participate in the revolution to return to the dark ages”. They believed their demands for women rights must be heard by officials. They knew it would be too late for that by the time the new constitution was in effect. So, they yelled in vain: “Freedom without women does not exist”, “We don’t want mandatory hijab”, “Women fight for bread and freedom”, “Every moment of my life, even in the torture chamber, I sing proudly: Either freedom or Death”. And, they chanted Iran’s national anthem.
Women demonstrated in Tehran’s university a day later. They had a sit in protest in front of the office of judicial affairs. Three days later they walked the streets of Tehran from Tehran university to Azadi square. They said women and men, both, participated in the revolution and that there were up to four thousands of women political prisoners in Shah’s era. To voice their anger at Sadeq Qotbzadeh, the head of the national radio-television station for not covering the news of their protests, they marched towards his office. The basijis (members of Islamic militia formed during the days after the revolution), however, stood on their way and they shot their guns to disperse the crowd and they called these fearless women a bunch of whores and prostitutes….and women shouted: “Not scared, we are not scared”.
In each day of the week that followed fifteen to twenty thousand women marched on the streets, demanding loudly: “Our rights are human rights, join us in our struggle”. However, the fever that revolution had planted in the heart and soul of people prevented women’s plea to be heard. There was no news coverage for such an important issue by media either. People did not realize the blow to their freedom and a group of fanatics by the name of ‘Hezbollah’, swinging their fists and clubs in the air and chanting ‘Allah u Akbar’, finally silenced women. The government not only did not prevent Hezbollah attacks but also supported them. One part of the left was busy with their guns and their internal conflicts while the other part believed the Imperialism was the main enemy and the women fight for their rights not only was insignificant but also it was in the direction of bourgeois. They too failed to see what was happening to women. They too did not hear women’s slogan: “Freedom does not belong to East, nor it belongs to West. Freedom is Universal”. Women were left alone in their struggle for equal rights. So, they chanted in vain: “Our rights are human rights, join us in our struggle”. No one joined them and in the midst of all these, nobody knew that seventeen women were stoned to death in a soccer stadium in Tehran. Nor did anyone know that the official age for girls to marry changed from eighteen to nine. This followed by disallowing women from applying for divorce. So, the Sharia Law was in full force and it determined the fate of women. Those four statements changed the course of the history for Iranian women in particular and the society in general. Those who chanted “Every moment of my life, even in the torture chamber, I sing proudly: Either freedom or Death”, were imprisoned, tortured, and some executed. I belong to those lucky enough to emerge from the torture chambers alive. Some of those women were forced to flee to other countries. Even now women are still alone although their struggle during the past thirty two years has produced several strong proud women whose lives and fights have presented to the world a new view in women’s battle for freedom.
Alice Schwarzer was among the seventeen women who came to Iran right after the revolution to express their solidarity and lending a hand to Iranian women. At that time, she saw the dawn of fundamentalism with her own eyes. These women were asked to cover their hair if they wanted to visit Khomeini. Alice did not go to meet with Khomeini and when she returned to Germany, she described the fate of Iranian women in EMMA. She wrote: “A masculine revolution against women” has taken place in Iran.
We had no idea what direction we were going back then. Our nice dreams turned into nightmares and it took a long time to regain our consciousness and to ask ourselves where we were standing in the course of the history. Do not allow the dreams of Egyptian women end up in nightmares. Especially that they have a supporter like you.
With the best wishes for your victory and believing in freedom for people of Egypt and Egyptian women.
February 12, Montreal
Effat Mahbaz, is a writer, social and human rights activist. She is also a women rights activist. She studied English literature and Biological science in Iran but she could not finish university because she was imprisoned for her political views. Her brother, Ali Mahbaz, and husband, Alireza Eskandari, were executed in Evin prison. Effat spent seven years in prison. After being forced into exile, she continued her academic curriculum in university of Dortmond, Germany in the fields of Feminism and the History of Women Studies. Effat’s first book is a collection of interviews with Iranian female activists and her last book contains her memoir of seven years in prison. Both books have been published by ‘Baran’ publication in Sweden.
(1) - Nawal El Saadawi (born October 27, 1931) is an Egyptian feminist, writer, activist, physician and psychiatrist. She has written many books on the subject of ‘women in Islam’. Saadawi graduated as a medical doctor in 1955 from cairo University. Saadawi began writing early in her career. Her earliest writings include a selection of short stories entitled I Learned Love (1957) and the novel Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (1958). She has since written numerous novels and short stories. Saadawi has been published in a number of anthologies, and her work has been translated into over 20 languages. In 1972, she published her first work of non-fiction, Women and Sex, which evoked the antagonism of highly placed political and theological authorities and led to a dismissal at the Ministry of Health. Other works include The Hidden Face of Eve, God Dies by the Nile, The Circling Song, Searching, The Fall of the Imam and Woman at Point Zero.
(2) Fatema or Fatima Mernissi is a Moroccan feminist writer and sociologist.
Mernissi was born into a middle-class family in Fez in 1940. In 1957, she studied political science at the Sorbonne and at Brandeis University, where she earned her doctorate. She taught at the Faculté des Lettres between 1974 and 1981 on subjects such as methodology, family sociology and psychosociology. She has become noted internationally mainly as an Islamic feminist.
(3) – Interview with Feministiskt Perspektiv journal, January 30, 2011.
(4) - Simone-Ernestine-Lucie-Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir, often shortened to Simone de Beauvoir; January 9, 1908 – April 14, 1986), was a French existentialist philosopher, public intellectual, and social theorist. She wrote novels, essays, biographies, an autobiography in several volumes, and monographs on philosophy, politics, and social issues. She is now best known for her metaphysical novels, including She Came to Stay and The Mandarins, and for her 1949 treatise The Second Sex, a detailed analysis of women's oppression and a foundational tract of contemporary feminism. The Second Sex (French: Le Deuxième Sexe, June 1949) a work on the treatment of women throughout history and often regarded as a major work of feminist literature.
(5) - Alice Schwarzer (born December 3, 1942 in Wuppertal) is the most prominent contemporary German feminist. She is founder and publisher of the German feminist journal EMMA. Following her trip to Iran in 1979, she accused Islamic fundamentalists in Iran for their opposition to women rights. When her journal EMMA changed to bimonthly release in 1993, she continued to write an increasing number of books, among them one about Petra Kelly and Gert Bastian, and biographies of Romy Schneider and Marion Donhoff. In total she has released 16 books as a writer, and 15 as publisher.