Egypt’s Female Trouble Might Get Worse

Why the new ruling parties want women to disappear

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Filippo Monteforte / AFP / Getty Images

Egyptian women protest in Cairo's Tahrir Square in December 2011.

CAIRO — Salafis are conservative Muslims who have been known to call for such things as public gender segregation, women excluded from politics and the outlawing of alcohol. They also have a newly legal political party in Egypt that won 25% of the seats in the recent Parliamentary elections — the country’s first elections since the revolution.

It seemed like a good idea to pay these guys a visit. Their win, added to the 50% the Muslim Brotherhood party took, means that the lives of Egyptian women, who played a significant role in the protests that led to the ouster of the Mubarak, will be restricted in ways that remain to be seen.

(MORE: Egypt’s New Political Equation)

Al-Nour Party spokesman who is, coincidentally, named Mohammed Nour (Nour means “light”) works out of an office in a middle class apartment building on the Nile with a nice view. The walls of the waiting area are decorated with a frieze of the Kaaba in Mecca and two giant flow charts about communication and messaging, in English.

Mr. Nour is a 41-year-old IT businessman with a beard and prayer callous on his forehead who admires Steve Jobs and loves his apps and is warm and friendly and speaks pretty good English. He lived in Croatia some time ago and met his wife there.

We settled down for a chat over tea and Turkish coffee. His assistant, a silent young woman whose face was swaddled in a double scarf, like a nun with a wimple, took notes.

He predicted Sharia law would do great things for women’s rights because the religious laws don’t differentiate between men and women.

He smiled when he said that a flower picture is a very good replacement for a woman’s face on a ballot — which is what his party did with its legally required female candidates (none were elected).

He said that women are so beautiful that their beauty needs to be protected and covered.

I said it was possible that there were men in the world so beautiful they ought to be veiled to keep women from losing their minds.

At that, he sent his secretary out of the room, started cracking his knuckles and asked me whether choosing to wear a veil wasn’t just as personal as wearing a bra, and didn’t I have a bra on? I have been in the Middle East enough times to know that mentioning my bra was a severe insult. Merely uttering the word bra is to cross into forbidden paradises of untested virgins.

Hijab, he said, was something a woman decides to put on in consultation with God, not man. God has apparently been on the phone with a lot of Egyptian women lately because 90% of Egyptian women are covered up already, and the Islamic parties haven’t had a chance to legislate it. According to Nour and others I met, they won’t have to do that because women will just figure it out themselves.

Sadly, the coverings are not enough to ward off relentless sexual harassment on the streets, but that may be just another form of Godly persuasion.

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Meanwhile, Americans worried about “the stalled peace process” in the Middle East should be heartened to know that Mr. Salafi and the new religious parties in Egypt will find common ground with their bitter enemies to the East. The Israeli Orthodox share a fundamental lifestyle goal with the Islamists: they too need women to disappear, so they can focus on God or keep their minds pure for other matters.

Common ground between bitter enemies, a bit of good news in grim times.

There might not be enough fabric in the world right now to swaddle and mummify the women the Islamists and their counterparts in Israel would like to erase, but the Chinese textile industry should be up to the task.

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