WMC News & Features

For women, a steep price for exercising free speech

Reem Abdel-Razek

When a soft-spoken but determined 17-year-old Egyptian girl, Reem Abdel-Razek, decided to stop wearing the hijab in the summer of 2010, she did not remotely anticipate how it would change her life. What would appear to some to be a small step toward secularism resulted in an onslaught of parental pressure, family harassment, social bullying, and physical assault.

“My whole life I’d heard that Muslim women have a choice,” Abdel-Razek, now a 23-year-old student living in the United States, explained when we spoke. “It was in one of these conversations with my father, in which he was saying that Muslim women were being portrayed as oppressed by Western media and that this was propaganda—that women had a choice—that I said, if it’s my choice, then it’s my choice to remove it.”

In the months after she made her decision, her father would not be seen in public with her, unless she covered herself. She would wear the hijab when she went out with him, but would not when she went out with her mother. He did everything he could to convince her to cover herself, including physical abuse.

In addition, her extended family and friends responded publicly with vitriol when she posted a photograph of herself, head bare, in social media. “Half the people I knew removed me from social media, and I got many messages asking me to remove my photograph from Facebook. My family was reactionary. They did not want to be associated with me,” she explained. “What was really interesting is that so many of the same people who were publicly negatively critical of what I did on my Facebook wall would send me private messages saying how brave and important what I did was and that they had to say those things publicly because of their family’s and societal pressure.”

The hijab, of course, is symbolic along many dimensions. It has become central to cross-cultural debates about what constitutes women’s choices and freedom, a form of resistance to colonialism or an anti-democratic veil. For Reem, removing the hijab was a meaningful part of gradually revealing her atheism.

“When I decided to come out as an atheist in Egypt, it was such a taboo. It was always going to be seen as a vile thing, and nobody was going to have the freedom to do it,” she said. “I was really tired of it. I wanted to declare my own autonomy.”

After several months of daily friction with friends and family and unrelenting pressure from her father, she agreed to enter a mental institution to seek therapy for depression. After a week in which she received no therapy, she says, she left. Her father and family continued to demand that she put the hijab back on. Now, every time she fought with her father over her choice, he threatened her with involuntary commitment. One day in May of 2011, he forcibly recommitted her, without her consent or her mother’s knowledge.

“Three men from the asylum came out and forced me inside the asylum. My father [whom the men worked for] told me that I would come out as a believer,” she explained. She was physically restrained, imprisoned, and subjected to electroshock treatment. “My father said electroshock would cure me of being an atheist, which he thought was a mental illness.”

After several days her mother found her, but could not have her remanded to her custody. “I was released eight days later, only after I said I’d seen an angel and become a Muslim again. ‘You feel fine,’ was what the doctor told me after I said I’d seen an angel. Then I was out in five minutes.”

At the same time as these events were taking place, the Arab Spring raged. The world celebrated the revolutionary spirit of tens of thousands of people demanding their freedom from government oppression. Girls and women like Abdel-Razek were demanding parallel freedom from family and religious oppression. It became clear, over the course of the Egyptian revolution, that demands for freedom being made publicly were, in practice, demands for what were primarily the rights of men. As with a long history of revolutions, rights being demanded often don’t extend to women in the privacy of homes.

“There is this idea that the Arab Spring was a woman’s revolution, but really, nothing changed,” says Abdel-Razek. “Only one thing changed, and that was that women were publicly participating in the streets.” They were participating in protests that were marked by public rapes and sexual assaults. Writing in the summer of 2014, Egyptian activist and writer Mona Eltahawy quoted a 34-year-old woman, Amira: “The revolution hasn’t reached our homes yet because some of the men who participated in the revolution, who act like liberals outside the house—inside the house they are no liberals.” Abdul-Razek’s experience illustrated the many ways that revolution stopped at a front door through which social, cultural, and religious norms that limit women are given free entrée.

Abdel-Razek now writes about her experiences and advocates for gender equality and the rights of nonbelievers. She is studying science, philosophy, and literature in the United States, awaiting the government’s response to her request for asylum on the basis of religious persecution. “Most women feel a sense of oppression, that they can’t do the things that they want to do,” she says. “Sometimes they justify it to themselves and say, ‘This is reality and we can’t do anything about it,’ or ‘Maybe this is good for me.’ It might be a choice for a select few, especially women living in the West. But, in Egypt, for example, it is very, very rare that girls in these situations have this choice. I have relatives who are forty and still asking permission. I think that fearing for your life for removing your veil is not choice. People can say it’s a choice, but it’s usually not.”

More articles by Category: International, Media, Religion, Violence against women
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Soraya Chemaly
Director, WMC Speech Project, Activist, Writer
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