“I often get the idea that God is a loving woman, as she is the only one able to create all this beauty out of nothing.”
This verse stems from a poem in Amina Abdullah’s 2019 divan (collected works) Girls for Pain. She was imprisoned this year after presenting it at the 2020 Tanta Poetry Festival.
The feminine aspect of the divine is not a new idea on a literary or cultural level in Egypt. Egyptian mythology contains many female deities who create and give life. But Abdullah was subjected to waves of insults, threats and attacks by purists and traditionalists.
Then lawyer Ibrahim Saad filed charges accusing Abdullah of blasphemy and contempt of religion. On October 16, 2022 she was summoned for interrogation before the South Cairo Prosecution office and only released three days later.
“Why do I wear handcuffs that make my hands bleed? Why am I amidst criminals? Why am I not allowed to use the bathroom or use it only with my hands cuffed? Why did this all happen to me?” Abdullah asks in an interview posted on YouTube.
The Egyptian authorities summoned her again on October 26, and the investigation is not over. Saad, the lawyer who filed charges, didn’t stop with Abdullah, but threatened to sue anyone who dared support the poet and anyone who dared use the hashtag #support_Amina_Abdullah as well, except her family. He wrote on his Facebook page that when he saw something he disliked, he called upon state law. He added that he wasn’t a part of any movement, including political Islam.
“When women writers and poets are subjected to terror, it is not just a peaceful difference of opinion,” said Abdullah in her YouTube interview.
“It did not just happen that one of us practiced violence for us to be subjected to violence and oppression in this hideous way. Why should I have a criminal record, as if I were accused of a crime, such as murder, theft, or threatening the public peace?”
“We are the women who have been oppressed by including masculine names in our identity cards,” Abdullah writes in Girls for Pain. “We must be bound by some man: a father who does not have to be merciful, a husband who is usually not loving. To make a visit to [the house of] God who created me female, a man must accompany me, even if it is a son or a daughter’s husband. It is as if God is afraid to meet single women.”
Faith Trials is a study by the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), which states that cases of defamation of religions, or blasphemy are a distinctive feature of Egypt’s modern history, including the years after the 2011 revolution.
Religion targeting culture and literature goes as far back as the 1926 publication of Taha Hussein’s book On Pre-Islamic Poetry, which led to a controversy in which Hussein was removed from his position as dean of the arts and literature department at the University of Cairo in 1932. (He was reappointed four years later.)
In 1981, the Egyptian Penal Code expanded to include Article 98, known as the Blasphemy Law. It states: “Confinement for a period of not less than six months and not exceeding five years, or a fine of not less than five hundred pounds and not exceeding one thousand pounds, shall be the penalty inflicted on whoever makes use of religion in propagating, either by words, in writing, or in any other means, extreme ideas for the purpose of inciting strife, ridiculing or insulting a heavenly religion or a sect following it, or damaging national unity.”
The problem with the article is that its interpretation depends entirely on the whim of the investigator. However, the authorities consider the article important, as it helps secure society from temptation and disturbance. In 2016, the Egyptian government firmly opposed a draft law to abolish Article 98 for violating the constitutional right to freedom of expression.
According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), Article 98 violates the constitution, as the phrase “extremist ideas” is extremely loosely defined. How can ideas be measured in terms of extremism or moderation?
How Extreme is Extreme?
According to the Al-Waseet Arabic dictionary “tatarrof” (extremism) stems from “tatarraf” (to go to the extreme) in the sense of “to reach the edge.” For example, the sun “tatarrafat:” it means it has reached the edge and is close to setting.
According to the Dictionary of the Contemporary Arabic Language, an extremist is “a person with a political or religious tendency that calls for violence.” The Al-Raid lexicon, on the other hand, says an extremist is “the one who exceeds the limit of moderation in thought or action.”
EIPR argues that Article 98’s constitutional flaws mean it is applied according to the whims of those implementing the law. The text’s vague demands recall the inquisition of the Middle Ages in how it allows for the persecution of creative men and women.
The article furthermore violates the international treaties Egypt has signed, which stipulate the right of every person to express one’s opinion and choose one’s faith.
“We cannot blame those who use legal articles that allow for a lawsuit for contempt of religions, as long as these articles exist and people are tried and imprisoned on the basis of it,” Egyptian poet Mohamed Kheir told Daraj. “Laws exist to be implemented. The problem is the very existence of these medieval articles in a country that is supposed to be in the modern era.”
Kheir proclaimed his solidarity with Amina Abdullah and everyone who suffers from similar trials. Many Egyptian academics and authors have faced similar accusations of “disbelief” and “contempt for religions.”
A History of Persecutions
Taha Hussein was investigated in 1926 because of his book On Pre-Islamic Poetry, but acquitted on the charge of defaming Islam. In 1995, the academic Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd was less lucky.
Abu Zayd was denied a promotion at the department of Arabic Language and Literature at Cairo University due to his controversial work on the Quran. Then an Egyptian court judged him an apostate and said he should separate from his wife, Dr. Ibtihal Younes, as under Sharia law a Muslim woman cannot be married to a non-Muslim man. As a result, the couple was forced to live in exile in Holland for years.
This trial was one of many hisbah cases in recent years. Under Sharia law any Muslim has the right to file a lawsuit when he believes that a right of God has been violated, even if he is not directly harmed.
In 2013, Egyptian author and human rights activist Karam Saber was sentenced to five years in prison for his short story collection Where Is God? His case is believed to be the first blasphemy case following the 2011 revolution.
That same year the well-known novelist Youssef Zidan was investigated for contempt of the Christian faith after 11 Coptic groups filed a complaint over his book Arab Theology and the Origins of Religious Violence.
In 2016, Fatima Naoot was sentenced to three years due to her Facebook post criticizing the sacrificing of sheep. Earlier this year, Ibrahim Issa was investigated for claiming that Mohamed’s night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, in which he ascended to the heavens, was “a completely delusional story.”
More recently, Islamic scholar Islam al-Bhairi was imprisoned for a year on charges of blasphemy. In 2021, Ahmed Abdo Maher was sentenced to five years on charges of “contempt of religion” and “stirring up sectarian strife” over his 2017 book The Nation’s Misguidance with the Jurisprudence of the Imams. Samir Sabri, the lawyer who filed the complaint, is notorious for high profile cases against politicians and celebrities.
“The Use of Life”
Egypt’s AFTE says the defamation of religions charge is nothing but a power pretext to suppress academic [and artistic] freedom, a way to inspire fear in artists and university professors who find themselves referred for interrogation after teaching a text, writing a book or criticizing influential religious figures.
In 2017, Mona el-Prince, who teaches English literature at Suez University, was suspended and investigated after discussing John Milton’s classic work Paradise Lost, which starts with the story of Adam’s exodus from heaven.
The list of those accused of contempt of religion in Egypt is endless. It includes 11-year-olds, famous people such as comedian Adel Imam, director Lenin Al-Ramly and screenwriter Waheed Hamed, and ordinary citizens who stand accused of atheism or Shiism due to their Facebook posts.
Blasphemy is not the only charge threatening freedom of expression and religion in Egypt. Other charges based on conservative patriarchal thought aim to control what people read and enforce public modesty.
Those charges put writer Ahmed Naji to prison, after an Egyptian citizen filed a complaint saying he felt very tired and disturbed after reading a chapter of Naji’s 2014 novel The Use of Life, which was published in the Akhbar Al-Adab newspaper.
Egypt faces a true crisis in dealing with freedom of thought and expression, of which Amina Abdullah is only the latest victim.