Lord Cromer, the British consul general of Egypt, who was the de facto ruler of that country between 1883 to 1907, wrote in his book, Modern Egypt:
“The position of women in Egypt, and Mohammedan countries generally, is … a fatal obstacle to the attainment of that elevation of thought and character which should accompany the Western civilisation … The obvious remedy would appear to be to educate women.”
Reading his words, one could easily mistake Lord Cromer for a “feminist” or a genuine defender of women’s rights. At that time, there was no Internet. So Lord Cromer couldn’t boast about his objective of saving Muslim women to his Facebook and Twitter followers. Nevertheless his ideas made their way into British politics, which made him a celebrated personality for some.
Any biographical book about the life of Lord Cromer would mention the infamous role he played in the anti-suffragette movement in Britain.
Indeed, in 1908, after retiring from his duties in Egypt, Lord Cromer presided over the anti-suffragette Men’s Committee for Opposing Female Suffrage. The purpose of this committee was to fundraise against the suffragist movement, and to publicly campaign against women’s demands, including those in the British political system. Even though this committee successfully raised money for the cause, it was not able to gain public support as the suffragist campaign became more and more popular among British women.
This makes us wonder if Lord Cromer led a double life: a feminist in Egypt and an anti-women’s rights crusader in England.
In other words, it is easier to speak about other people’s rights and forget or even fight against the rights of your own people. Or maybe it was more rewarding politically to justify the colonization of Egypt by evoking the “backwardness” of Islam and the “poor status” of Muslim women while disregarding all the voices calling for women’s rights at home.
It must be noted that it is easier to convince an ignorant public with simplistic justifications for complex problems, leaving them with a nice feeling of superiority after helping the “oppressed.”
Ironically, the tactics of Lord Cromer are not obsolete in today’s politics. They are still being used by politicians of the likes of George W. Bush, who, in one of his justifications for the war in Afghanistan, evoked the sad fate of burqa-wearing Afghan women.
At that time, a majority of Americans cheered for his newly discovered feminist spirit. They applauded his efforts and believed that Afghan women would instantaneously remove their burqas the minute U.S. soldiers set foot in Afghanistan, and the little girls prevented by the Taliban from going to school would automatically be allowed to go to school after the military invasion.
Today, many NGOs are reporting that things didn’t change much in Afghanistan. The burqa is still present and many schools are still closed for girls. Literacy rates for women over the age of 15 is 12.6 per cent and only 6 per cent of girls go to secondary school.
And what happened to the concerns of Tony Blair, George and Laura Bush? They are gone with the last soldiers who left the Afghan soil! Meanwhile, in the U.S., George W. Bush fiercely opposed policies that promoted women’s rights. Among many anti-woman policies he introduced, he unsuccessfully tried to shut the Labor Department women’s bureau offices which informed women about their workplace rights. Furthermore, he slashed library funding (and by the way, Laura Bush was a librarian).
But today, it seems that the bodies of Afghan women are no longer in demand. Instead, it is the bodies of some Iraqi women who represent the source of concerns for some politicians.
One of the politicians extremely worried about Iraqi women is Jason Kenney. And because it happens that he is the Minister of War (sorry for slip of the tongue — I mean Minister of Defence) it made his job a bit easier: he can save Muslim women by going to war (I mean defensive war).
And this is why he was so quick to tweet about the issue — to the point that in his rush he made an “innocent” mistake. The pictures he posted were not correct. They were not showing pictures of Muslim women but instead the dramatization of a religious ceremony conducted by Shia Muslims. But of course for Jason Kenney, this doesn’t really matter. Shia, Sunni, Muslim women — the point here is to save the bodies of these women from oppression.
Here in Canada, it was the Conservative government of Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney that, in 2006, cut funds to the Status of Women Canada, and it is the same Jason Kenney who came up with a hand-tailored law to tell a woman what to wear and what not to wear at a citizenship ceremony. It was also the government of Stephen Harper in 2010 that didn’t want to provide international aid to family-planning programs that included abortions despite the criticism of this policy by political parties and feminist groups.
And while the “anti-women culture” of the niqab seems to be number ONE on Stephen Harper’s radar, a public inquiry into the more than 1,200 missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada is not really high on this same radar.
So now the question is: can you identify the common trait between Lord Cromer and Stephen Harper and his Minister Kenney?
Monia Mazigh was born and raised in Tunisia and immigrated to Canada in 1991. Mazigh was catapulted onto the public stage in 2002 when her husband, Maher Arar, was deported to Syria where he was tortured and held without charge for over a year. She campaigned tirelessly for his release. Mazigh holds a PhD in finance from McGill University. In 2008, she published a memoir, Hope and Despair, about her pursuit of justice, and recently, a novel about Muslim women, Mirrors and Mirages. You can follow her on Twitter @MoniaMazigh or on her blog www.moniamazigh.com
Photo: Kamyar Adl/flickr