While the phrase “Arab feminist” might seem like an oxymoron, World Fellow Hoda Elsadda is doing her best to dispel that notion.
“When I tell an Arab speaker that I am a women’s rights activist, I usually get one of two responses: they either ask, ‘What more do you want? You are a professor at Cairo University,’ or they accuse me of mimicking Western activists,” Elsadda said. “When I tell the same thing to a non-Arab speaker, they assume that the issues I am dealing with are the result of the ‘oppressive’ Islamic culture against females.”
Elsadda, a professor of English literature at Egypt’s Cairo University, spoke to a group of about 25 students and professors Tuesday night at the Yale Law School as part of a series of talks sponsored by the Yale Middle East Law Forum, or YMELF. Elsadda offered a glimpse into the everyday life of Arabic women and outlined some of the struggles women face in the Arabic world today.
Elsadda explained that while the public face of feminism in Egypt is positive — women hold prominent positions in such fields as government, academia and medicine — discrimination against women takes a more covert, culturally cloaked attack. Elsadda gave the example of a female Egyptian minister of finance who, up until two years ago, was not able to travel — even on business — without her husband’s permission.
She also noted that while many inequities Egyptian women face in the health, work and education sectors are shared across the Arabic world or even worldwide, certain discriminations are nation-specific. Women are prohibited to drive exclusively in Saudi Arabia, she said. While women were able to attain high positions in many Arab countries, Egypt saw its first female judge only this year.
“Women got the vote in 1956, and while the state encouraged women to work, it did not change personal status laws,” Elsadda said, explaining that women are still subject to their husbands’ control and that this sexism is “embedded in the legal system.”
A well-published scholar and activist, Elsadda was a leading voice on the “Equality before the Law” project in Egypt, a move to reclaim women’s rights within the marriage contract. While women are not legally permitted to divorce their husbands, the Egyptian tradition does allow some breathing room for stipulations to be written into the marriage contract if the two parties are willing. This tradition was lost over time, but Elsadda and others successfully fought to have these rights revived.
Elsadda said the campaign was successful because it was “positioned within culture” and didn’t bring in “crazy ideas” from the West that would threaten Egyptian anti-colonialists.
Bryan Leach LAW ’05, a member of YMELF, noted that while discussions about Middle Eastern issues generally “focus on Palestinian-Israeli policy or diplomacy,” Elsadda offered a “personal experience” that highlighted and gave depth to the importance of women’s issues in the Arabic world.
“I’ve never seen her back down from a challenge,” said Leach, referring to Elsadda’s responses to complex questions asked by audience members. “I like the way she stands her ground, is articulate, and makes proposals for reform.”
Leach applauded the World Fellows program itself, noting that the program brings diverse points of view to the University.
In its third year, YMELF is a group of Yale law students who promote awareness of Middle Eastern issues through guest speakers. Upcoming speakers include New York University law professor Noah Feldman, linguist Noam Chomsky, and Israeli ambassador to the United States Daniel Ayalon.