Speculation around the future of Egypt under President Muhammad Morsi has kept the Western press active since his swearing in. One angle to the wider story of Egypt’s future has been coverage of his wife, Naglaa Ali Mahmoud. Morsi has been quoted repeatedly in recent weeks discussing his vision of an Egypt governed by Islamic law, though it is yet to be seen if and when such changes will take place. Many Egyptians of all stripes look to Egypt’s First Lady as a means of understanding how changes under an Islamist-led government might impact women. Some fear that her adherence to an interpretation of Islamic legal norms dictating what have been portrayed as “traditional” gender roles will only hold Egyptians back, even as others point out that her clothing doesn’t make her “oppressed.” Others underscore that dress is no indication of the public role of Islam, but rather that it is determined by party politics and constitutional structures. Western coverage has nonetheless focused primarily on her dress, her lack of formal education, her comments on her role as a “traditional” or “conservative” wife, and her preference to go by the moniker “Umm Ahmed” (Ahmed’s mother) instead of “First Lady.”
Mayy El-Sheikh and David Kirkpatrick at The New York Times call Mahmoud Egypt’s “traditionalist everywoman” in reference to the ways in which she “looks and lives like [most Egyptians’] sisters and mothers.” They note that there is currently “rancorous debate” in Egypt over her image online and in newspapers, and that she has come to represent for Egyptians “the dividing line in a culture war” between “democratic change that the revolution promised” and “backwardness and provincialism.”
A column in the newspaper El Fagr asked incredulously: How could she receive world leaders and still adhere to her traditional Islamic standards of modesty? “Don’t look at her. Don’t shake hands with her,” the paper suggested, calling it a “comic scenario.”
Karin Brulliard opens her profile of Ms. Mahmoud in The Washington Post with a similar focus on her dress, noting that
[s]ome fear that she portends a more dogmatic era in which the Muslim Brotherhood will roll back rights for women or force them to wear full-length abayas or face-covering niqabs.
Brulliard also points out that Mahmoud and Morsi’s marriage “hinted at some support for shedding traditional gender roles,” noting her support for women’s athletic clubs and suggesting that girls not marry as young as she did. A piece from United Press International implies the opposite, and that Mahmoud prefers “traditional Islamic roles for women.”
In commentary on an interview with Mahmoud, Elizabeth Errott at Voice of America highlights that “Umm Ahmed” couldn’t be more different from her predecessor, the often-vilified Suzanne Mubarak. Aya Batrawy of the Associated Press discusses fashion and the significant differences between regional First Ladies (see The Huffington Post for a slideshow), but underscores that Mahmoud’s style of dress is not simply “conservative … [but] is shared by the vast majority of women in Egypt's impoverished villages and towns.” Batrawy and others mention several times that certain aspects of Mahmoud’s bearing are consistent with “conservative Islamic tradition,” like not wearing nail polish. It is unclear where local or regional traditions end and Islamic legal traditions begin.
At Jezebel, Erin Gloria Ryan uses Mahmoud as evidence that it is “very bad” for women in Egypt, alongside sexual assault in Tahrir Square. Drawing on the New York Times profile, Ryan focuses on how Mahmoud
adheres to strict conservative rules for how women must act and dress and how she once ran Muslim Brotherhood workshops for women that instructed ladies that “[m]en are designed to lead and women are designed to follow.”
Anushay Hossain at Forbes seems to take the same approach, suggesting that Mahmoud’s appearance offers “clues [as] to where women fit into the new Egypt.”
Naglaa Ali Mahmoud … wears a traditional Islamic head covering and her wardrobe choice is forcing Egyptians, and the world, to confront the the country’s pending gender reality.
Hossain writes that
religious conservatives … commonly apply the burqa as a statement of power, a tool to demonstrate their presence. When the Islamic extremists want to let you know they are in town, there is no better way than covering up and restricting the visibility of women.
Kristin Deasy at Global Post comments on the phenomenon of women’s dress coming to represent something more, writing
As is so often the case with religious female attire across the Arab world, the conversation over Mahmoud's choice of dress serves as a proxy for deeper issues within society.
In a piece for On Belief in The Washington Post, Nadia Mohammad also asks what Morsi’s presidency means for Egyptian women, but points to his wife as a potentially positive barometer for change. Mohammad notes that Ms. Mahmoud has been portrayed as an oppressed Muslim woman where in fact she “seems quite liberated.”
She was a working woman, volunteered in her community, making her relatable to most of the women she will now represent. She still retains her maiden name, which is in conformance with Islamic tradition. Both she and Morsi have publicly spoken of their fondness for each other, with Morsi saying that marrying her was “the biggest personal achievement of my life,” and Mahmoud gushing, “I like everything about him.” She seems down to earth and even has a sense of humor about herself, telling a reporter who requested to take a photograph, “Only if your photos make me look younger and thinner.”
In a comment for islawmix, Nadia Mohammad adds:
If we are interested in supporting the people of Egypt in their quest for democracy, we have to be able to support their choices for self-empowerment. So when I say that this is a test for us as much as it is for them – Can we respect their autonomy? Can we accept that a woman who wears hijab by choice is just as liberated as one who doesn't? Can we recognize that for a great many Egyptian women, for the first time in decades, they actually have a first lady who is from them, who looks like them and talks in a way that speaks to them?
Finally, it’s critical to remember that many Egyptian women welcome a greater role for Islamic law. Reem Abdellatif at the Los Angeles Times, who also points to Mahmoud’s dress as “complicating” the questions of women’s roles, cites a recent Gallup Poll showing
that many Egyptian women were not worried about implementation of sharia, or Islamic law, or dramatic changes under the new president. The study found that 44% of women surveyed believe sharia should be the only source of law; 38% said it should be one of a number of sources.
Religious or secular? Oppressed and backwards or liberated and active? It’s not as simple as a series of binaries–the issue of gender in Egypt is multifaceted, as is that of the public role for Islamic law. We at islawmix applaud the work of journalists who dig past the superficial, situating changes both real and symbolic in the complex Egyptian context.