Addressing women’s rights in the Middle East Tuesday, University of Cairo professor Hoda Elsadda stressed the need to balance Islamic traditions with Western modernity in advancing the status of women.

Elsadda, a member of this year’s World Fellows program, spoke about the different approaches to improving women’s rights in the Middle East, specifically Egypt, at a Davenport College Master’s Tea. She said the real impetus behind change in women’s positions came from the establishment of the modern state in Egypt. The change in women’s status came about because many saw the backward status of women as a barrier in modernizing Egypt, she said. The tea was co-sponsored by the Women’s Faculty Forum.

As a result of rising modernity in Egypt, the fight for women’s rights became consumed with contrasting extremes, Elsadda said. Women’s rights activists in Egypt wanted to follow the Western model for rights, but also felt compelled to fight Western imperialism. Initially, many women’s groups tried a secular Western approach, but were ultimately unsuccessful, Elsadda said.

“Ideological ambivalence was at the heart of women’s rights agenda,” she said. “They argued from the secular point of view and were perceived as areligious or anti-religious.”

The problem with abandoning religion, she pointed out, was that a movement not integrated with the traditional culture was doomed to fail. Elsadda said the conflict of interest between tradition and modernity made women’s groups realize that arguments based on foreign ideas would not work in Egypt.

“If the starting point is from outside the culture, you have no ground here,” she said. “You have to feel like you to belong in order to honor something.”

She said the efforts of radical women’s groups in Egypt were largely fruitless. These organizations, who were either secular or based on ideas fundamentally unfamiliar to the Middle East, created tension within the overall movement.

Elsadda said the best path to attaining women’s rights is working within the Islamic paradigm, so it is “between the frying pan and the fire” of extremes.

“We need an approach that attempts to rethink modern assumptions about religion and secularism, modernity and tradition, and superstitious ideas and rational ideas,” Elsadda said. “To advocate this approach, it is necessary to take all three concepts and try to get out of the polarization that has existed between them. What does this progress mean? It means leaving behind religion and traditions and drawing upon integrated tradition and religion in the process.”

Responding to a question about President George W. Bush’s foreign policy, Elsadda said she thought American interference in the Middle East was slowing down women’s progress. The restrictions the Bush administration has placed on terrorist groups has also affected other groups, including those that aim to advance women’s rights, she said.

Students who attended the talk said they enjoyed hearing Elsadda’s ideas on the path to gender equality in the Middle East.

“I was extremely interested in the dilemma she’s facing,” said Analu Verbin LAW ’04, who is from Israel. “It struck me how similar it is to the dilemma in Israel, especially with the religious institutions. Her approach is very challenging, but it is stimulating to think how it can be applied in other contexts.”

Mario Conde ’06 said he had little interest in Egyptian women’s rights before coming to the tea, claiming it was not his “cup of tea.” But after a friend encouraged him to come, he said he recognized the subject’s importance.

“It was very interesting. I was thinking about leaving just before the questions, but the question about President [Bush’s foreign policy] completely tied into the subject and kept me there,” Conde said.