Posted by vmsalama on June 26, 2012
My latest article on Egypt’s elusive new First Lady.
Egypt’s Ultraconservative First Lady Naglaa Ali
The Daily Beast
By Vivian Salama
June 26, 2012
Naglaa Ali wears little makeup and dons a khimar, an Islamic veil that completely covers the hair and falls loosely to the waist. Ali wasn’t well known in Egypt. That is, until she joined her husband Mohamed Morsi for a tour of Cairo’s presidential palace.
Less than a week before Egypt’s first Islamist president officially assumes office, the nation’s attention has turned to his wife. Until recently, Egypt’s soon-to-be first lady was a mystery to those her husband would soon rule. She rarely accompanied Morsi on his nationwide campaign, and she had done virtually no interviews.
As informal exit polls hinted at Morsi’s win over Ahmed Shafiq, a stalwart of the former regime, Egyptians got a first look at Ali after a few photos went viral on social media and Egyptian news websites. The image sparked heated discussions over whether her ultraconservative appearance is suitable to represent Egypt in a diplomatic arena—a stark contrast from her predecessors, including the now-notorious Suzanne Mubarak, a Westernized elitist who reportedly used her husband’s power to amass a personal fortune of as much as $3.3 million.
Born in Cairo in 1962, Ali was 17 when she married Morsi—her first cousin, a common practice in the Arab world. The couple relocated to the United States shortly after they wed, where Morsi completed his doctorate in engineering at the University of Southern California and later worked as a professor at California State University, Northridge. Ali, who trained as a translator, gave birth to two of their five children while living in the U.S. It was there that she was first enthralled with the grassroots work of the Muslim Brotherhood and became an active member of the organization, engaging in charity work, primarily with a focus on education.
In one of the only interviews she has given to date, she reportedly said she prefers to be called “Oum Ahmed” (the Mother of Ahmed) by the Egyptian people—a traditional designation referring to her eldest son. She also said that she is opposed to living in the presidential palace formerly inhabited by the Mubaraks, and would instead prefer to buy a house in Cairo, suitable for entertaining large groups. (click here for more…)
Posted in Arab, Arab Spring, California, Culture, Economy, Education, Egypt, Elections, Female Circumcision, Foreign Policy, Hosni Mubarak, Islam, Middle East, military, Mohamed Morsi, Mubarak, Muslim Brotherhood | Leave a Comment »
Posted by vmsalama on August 21, 2007
By Vivian Salama
It may have come at the expense of 12-year old Badour Shaker’s life on an Upper Egypt operating table, but the Egyptian government recently announced a complete ban on female circumcision, known as genital mutilation (FGM). The new ban is an amendment to a former provision that permits only qualified physicians to perform the surgery. The outdated practiced, performed on girls before puberty, is believed by some more conservative families to protect a girls’ chastity and lessen her sexual desires.
In a recent article by renowned Egyptian physician, writer and FGM victim Nawal Al-Saadawi said the move comes far too late. “Badour, did you have to die for some light to shine in the dark minds?” she wrote in Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Yom following announcement of the ban. “Did you have to pay with your dear life a price … for doctors and clerics to learn that the right religion doesn’t cut children’s organs.”
In an interview with FORWARD Magazine from Ohio University where she is teaching a course this summer called “Dissidence and Creativity,” Al-Saadawi related the act of genital mutilation to what she considers a “similar oppression.” “I connect female circumcision to the policies of George Bush,” she said. “There is a very clear relation between sexual oppression and political oppression.”
Nawal Al-Saadawi was born in the Egyptian village of Kafr Tahla. In 1951, she left to study psychiatry at Cairo University. She went on to eventually become Egypt’s Director of Public Health at a time when women’s leadership roles were few and far between. She began a magazine called “Health” which addressed subjects relating to preventative medicine. She also began to write about women’s issues, particularly the oppression they experienced in the Arab world. This would lead to her dismissal as the Director as well as the shutdown of her magazine. The experience unleashed a passion within her that Egyptians would learn cannot be silenced.
In 1981, she was imprisoned under the Sadat regime, for alleged “crimes against the state.” Even the bars of the prisons could not deter her from her activism. Al-Saadawi formed the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (AWSA) – the first legal, independent feminist organization in Egypt – and continued to write in prison, at times scribbling her words on toilet paper as it was the only thing available to her. Upon her release in 1983, those scraps of notes were published in Memoirs from the Women’s Prison.
Al-Saadawi’s battle against political and social oppression continued. AWSA had grown to have some 500 members locally and more than 2,000 internationally until it was banned in 1991 following Al-Saadawi’s criticism of US involvement in the Gulf War, saying the issue should have been solved among the Arabs. “I always say that Bin Laden and George Bush are twins,” says Al-Saadawi. “Colonialism is a big reason for our problems. Who created the jihad in Afghanistan? It is the United States.”
Al-Saadawi speaks from the heart when addressing politics. In 2004, the then 74-year old activist announced that she would enter Egypt’s historic multi-candidate election, joining other top contenders like Al-Gad party leader Ayman Nour – who is currently serving five years behind bars for alleged campaign fraud – and Al-Wafd leader Noaman Gomaa. At the time of her bid for presidency, Al-Saadawi told AFP, “I am going to stand in the presidential election, not to win but to get the Egyptian people moving in favor of a reform of the constitution and to oppose corruption and American colonialism.”
Several months later, Al-Saadawi announced she would boycott the race, along with another prominent candidate, Saad Eddin Ibrahim – both candidates citing the steep requirements for all contenders. The September 2005 election would reveal unsurprising results: Egypt’s president of then-24 years, Hosni Mubarak was announced the winner by a whopping 88.6 percent of the votes – a victory many attributed to intimidation by national security forces and campaign restrictions by his challengers (including a ban against anyone from the popular – but outlawed – Muslim Brotherhood from taking part in the election). “The whole election was a play, an illusion,” insists Al-Saadawi. “The left and right were against me – they were working with the government. Politics has become dirty.”
The biggest problem in Egypt and throughout the Middle East, according to Al-Saadawi, is political organization – or the lack thereof. As part of her course at Ohio University this summer, she focused on the inability of “leftist” and right-wing parties throughout the region to find a common ground in their journey to a greater Middle East. “In Egypt, for example, after the 1952 Revolution led by [Gamal Abdel] Nasser, there was promise and hope. Sadat came and ruined the country economically and created a power strife and Mubarak followed the same rule. Egypt lost its power to Africa and the Arab world. It has no power now.”
She continues: “The political situation in the Arab region is a disaster. Look what happened in Iraq; the Palestinian people are being killed; in Egypt, 40 percent are under the poverty line; in Syria, the government is allying itself with the neo-colonial powers. The elite people in the Arab countries are cowards and they give bad example to the others. We need new political organizations that represent the people – the working class, the students, even the children.”
In 1992, Al Saadawi’s name appeared on a Muslim fundamentalist death list, prompting her to flee Egypt for five years. Her books have largely detailed explosive narratives that often address women’s sexuality and other taboo issues in the Muslim world. She criticizes the Islamic establishments of Egypt, saying that genuine Islamic tradition is not their goal, and rather, they are motivated by the same “dirty” politics that drives ruling parties across the Arab world. “Even Hassan Al-Banna used Islam to create the Muslim Brotherhood for political reasons,” she says. “We need someone who really struggled.”
The provocative nature of her work continues to enrage Islamic conservatives to this day. Al-Saadawi’s struggle for justice continues to this day. Her latest play, “Resigns in the Summit Meeting,” caused an uproar among religious officials in Egypt who accuse her of denouncing Islam. In February of this year, she chose to take on opportunities outside of Egypt because circumstances had left her feeling unsafe at home. Her dilemma would not end there. “On my way from Rotterdam to Brussels, my novel was stolen with my money and my passports and everything – I was robbed!” she recalls, sounding far less distraught than most might be under such circumstances. She is now in the process of rewriting the novel from scratch.
Yet the more you speak with this seasoned writer, the more her lack of regret surprises you. After all, how can one who has been through so much carry on the way she does with a chip on her shoulder. It is in her book of personal reflection entitled Memoirs from the Women’s Prison where she wrote “Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies…there is no power in the world that can strip my writings from me.”
And so she continues to write, despite the threats to her life; despite the physical assaults she endured as a child; despite having grown older – a reality even this boisterous woman has learned to embrace. “Even despite all of this, I am an optimist,” she says. “In the end, the reality is that hope is power.”
Posted in Egypt, Female Circumcision, Human Rights, Nawal Al-Saadawi, Politics, Sexuality | 1 Comment »