Be modest. Those are the words of potential Egyptian presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail to his supporters, and especially to the country’s female population. His firebrand rhetoric, which endorses “Islamic dress” has begun to spark fears among Egyptian women that he wants a Saudi Arabian styled future for Egypt, where women are forced to cover and are barred from beaches.
At least two-piece swimsuits, Abu Ismail said at a recent interview on a TV program called “90 minutes.” He also said that if elected, he would bar alcohol from public places, even for tourists, would end the peace treaty with Israel, and more frightening to the over 40 million women living in the country, he would “embark on a conservative dress campaign,” which would “force the Islamic dress on all women.”
He added that if women were seen wearing two-piece bikinis on the beach or in public, “they would be arrested.”
For many in the country, it is a scary proposition that would see many of the real, and perceived, freedoms that have come slowly as a result of the January uprising that ousted the former government here, dissipate in favor of conservatism.
Nawal el-Saadawi, the foremost Arab feminist, told Bikyamasr.com in a recent interview that the revolution was largely “because women took to the streets. But we cannot have a better Egypt without women, they are the foundation of any society.”
With the rise of the conservative Salafists in late July – they held a million man march on Cairo’s Tahrir Square – and their increasing popularity, women are now being pushed aside, says Nadia Fahmy, an Egyptian-American researcher based in Cairo and works in rural villages, attempting to gather an understanding of rural culture in the country.
“Look around and all the positives and optimism that were part of the post-revolution Egypt are all but gone,” she begins. “We have returned to how things were before Mubarak, but now it is the Salafists who are gaining the peoples’ strength, especially in rural areas where religion is so important.”
Around 12 percent of Egypt’s population are Coptic Christian and do not veil. A small percentage of Muslim women in the country also do not adorn the veil, and Abu Ismail’s comments have left many frustrated over the rising power of the Islamists in the country.
“I talk to my friends, who are not veiled and drink and go to the beach, and these kind of statements really worry us, partly because we know that people like Abu Ismail are popular among the lower classes,” added Fahmy.
Abu Ismail, who started his public life as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, split from the group in order to run in the presidential election, vaguely set for by the ruling military council for some time in 2013.
Ismail is one of the stronger and popular potential candidates, although he will be running against a former MB member, Abdel Moneim Aboul Foutoh, who also had to quit the group to be able to run.
The crux of the matter seems to be the growing divide between the secularists, who for the most part have left women’s issues on the side, arguing they are divisive and “not part of the overall social justice demands” of the revolution. This has angered many women’s activists in the country, including Saadawi.
“This is ridiculous,” she began, “because you can’t have anything without women, so the women are very important.”
While the Muslim Brotherhood on Wednesday came out and called on the Salafists, including Abu Ismail, to “tone down” their language, the reality on the ground is that women’s issues are falling away as quickly as the conservatives and the military increase their grip on power and public opinion.
“We have to be weary of the future of this country right now, because there are elections soon and if these people are gaining popularity, it could mean a lot of downsides for women and freedom,” added Fahmy.
For now, with presidential elections two years off, activists are beginning to entrench themselves for a long battle for social justice and freedom. Saadawi and Fahmy hope that candidates such as Abu Ismail will begin to lose popular support in favor of freedom and justice.