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Dearest Nawal

By Zillah Eisenstein - posted Friday, 25 March 2011

The people of Egypt have just voted in a referendum, of sorts, on whether to say yes to limited reforms of the constitution, or to say no, and push towards more consequential democratic changes. There was overwhelming approval to accept the limited constitutional changes. An election will follow soon. What emerges from all this is yet to unfold?

Also at this moment, the world awaits news of whether a total nuclear disaster will be averted in Japan, and whether the slaughter of rebels in Libya will abate or worsen as the U.N. endorsed bombing of Gaddafi. Homelessness in Haiti and Pakistan continues relentlessly after their own earthquake, and floods. The world is uneasy and precarious.

Amidst all this I wonder how to think newly about democracy and its many meanings and undemocratic misuses, as well as the many meanings of feminisms, and their (sometimes) misuses of women's rights discourse. I will muse a bit about this wondering and hoping that I might end up somewhere other than where I have begun.


I have just returned from meeting my long time friend Nawal el Saadawi in New York City. She spoke at the Brecht Forum along with others, and I made comments. She had arrived a few days before from Cairo. She was still filled with the fullness and radiance-despite her fatigue-of the toppling/dethroning of Mubarak from Tahrir Square. She had loved the camaraderie of making a revolution that coalesced on January 25, 2011. She loved the breaking down of all divides-the walls dividing people in their homes from each other and the public square; the divides of Christian and Muslim, and woman and man, and rich and poor, young and old. She described how all people with their broad band of humanity, across class and every other divide stood together, against their police state and for democracy.

When Nawal was asked by the audience at the Forum what she thought would be helpful for the people of the U.S. to do to assist Egypt, she replied: "make your own revolution. A revolution in your country, to build a real democracy, would help everyone across the globe, not just Egypt". When she was asked about the women in Tahrir square she said they/we were fighting for democracy for everyone. We were not there with a singular focus but we were all there together as part of humanity. "We are/were here as women, but we are speaking out for everyone." This was not viewed as a feminist moment, so to speak, but rather "women demanding what every Egyptian want".

She said several times that women were equal to men in this political struggle. No sexual harassment. No groping to be felt or seen. But, just days later on March 9, Women's International Day, the assembling of a Million Woman March was a disappointment. Several Egyptian women say that this was not the time to advance any one group's rights over those of another. Maybe. Maybe not. At the very least there is a problem of what women's rights will mean in the new Egypt.

On that day, harassment and ridicule were back with a vengeance and needed to be addressed. As well, no woman was chosen to be on the 10 member committee that was chosen to revise the constitution; and one of the amendments requires that the next president cannot be married to a non-Egyptian woman--that assumes that the next president will be a man, and needs a wife, unless they are allowing gay marriage. Many Egyptians said that they cannot endorse such an amendment. Yet the referendum agreed to all the amendments. Some women's rights activists have become suspicious that the new "national umbrella they rallied under, whose slogan was democracy, equality and freedom for all Egyptians, may be leaving them out". Yet it would be very wrong to think that nothing or little had/s changed.

I heard Nawal interviewed on Al Jazeera before coming to the U.S. saying that Egypt must make itself ready for a woman president. She also believes that women's rights cannot be met in a vacuum and that they must always be tied to the related concerns of class and anti-imperial politics. In this sense Nawal el Saadawi although a woman's activist and fierce fighter for the rights and dignity of women does not abide a feminism that pretends to speak on behalf of all women (and men) while mobilizing to protect the interests of a few (women) within a patriarchal global capitalist economy. I am already getting ahead of myself because all of these issues-women's rights, and feminisms of all sorts, and the interconnections of women's oppression across the globe-have been contested and conflict ridden for many decades.

Egyptian feminisms existed long before feminisms in the U.S. And yet when Hillary Clinton now claims the mantel for fighting for women's rights in the soon to be new Egypt she effaces the on the ground women's activists there whether that is her intent or not. Forget that the U.S. had no problem with the punishing sexual subjugation of women during Mubarak's ruthless reign, and supposedly cares now. Forget that the bombs dropped on Afghanistan and Iraq was initially wrapped in the language of protecting women from the Taliban, and for their women's rights. Forget that so many women in Egypt and Tunisia and Jordan first say for the U.S. to recognize and fix Palestine before speaking on behalf, or for them. Forget that Tahrir Square was populated with many revolutionary women without the assist of the U.S. or the state department's brand of its feminism.


I am thinking that the language of democracy and women's rights is both universal and also fractious. The people of Tunisia and Egypt demand/ed democracy but I do not think this necessarily means, or should, or can mean capitalist/western patriarchal (and racialized) democracy. Democracy parades with enormous authority and validity and yet its history in its capitalist patriarchal and racialized forms is less than libratory for a majority of its people.

I keep struggling to find political narratives that allow for the new nuances in the ways women's struggles for recognition take shape and form. I wish to try and write new and vigorous thoughts about the female voices that demand a really inclusive universal/polyversality in north Africa--and how this might relocate/redirect Hillary's "war for women's rights" to a non-imperial politics. These moments in north Africa, must be fully grasped in terms of the new historical elements of protest and demand that are made with a cacophony of female voices.

I wonder, again, how feminism(s) are being rewritten in defiance of its imperial misuses. There is a deep contradiction in our administration demanding the recognition of women's rights in the new Egypt while being less than vigorous in demanding full equality for all women here at home. The latest U.S. labor statistics show that women continue to earn just 75 cents to a man's dollar-despite the fact that women are a majority of the labor force today. If Obama stands for democracy and women's rights let him speak out more forcefully against the right wing assault against women's reproductive rights, access to abortion and health care right here in the U.S. After all, just about everyone will say that they support women's rights without ever clarifying which women's rights they have in mind, and which women they extend these rights to.

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About the Author

Zillah Eisenstein is a political activist and professor of politics at Ithaca College, New York. Author of The Female Body and the Law (Univ. of California Press, 1988), Against Empire: Feminisms, racism and the West (Spinifex Press, 2004) and Sexual Decoys; gender, race and war (Spinifex Press, 2007) as well as many other books related to changing political formations of sex, race, class and gender.

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