The plight of Egypt’s forgotten Shia minority

Even after the historic election, this marginalised minority risk daily persecution and victimisation because of their beliefs.

Sitting cross-legged on the threadbare sofa in his living room, Abu Hasan gestures to the bare walls behind him, apologising for the sparseness of his home. He breathlessly explains that himself, his wife, and their three children had to flee their previous apartment here in Alexandria only a few days ago after a neighbour posted a note under their door threatening to kills them.

“This is third time we have had to move in four years,” he says, offering me a plate of steaming bamiye (okra).

Abu Hasan and his family are Shia – a small and marginalised minority in predominantly Sunni Egypt. He says that they face daily persecution and victimisation because of their beliefs.

Since Mohammed Morsi was declared President of Egypt, there has been growing speculation about what the future of Egypt's Coptic minority will be under an Islamist government, but little has been said about the even smaller (and arguably equally threatened) Shia community. In the run up to the elections, I spent time in both Cairo and Alexandria speaking to the Egyptian Shia community and gauging their response to the likelihood of a takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The schism between Sunni and Shia Islam dates back to the death of the Prophet Muhammed in AD 632, but the historical nature of the split does little to lessen the reality of Shias living and worshiping in Egypt. Although there are no official statistics about the number of Shia in Egypt, it has been estimated that they constitute roughly one per cent of the population: around one million people. Because of their relative obscurity, and the fact they tend to shy away from public or political activism, they are often overlooked in discussions about Egypt’s religious minorities.

“There are no Shia in Egypt, we are a Sunni country,” said one woman I spoke to outside Cairo’s Al Hussein mosque.

Shias say that they are ostracised and persecuted by Sunnis, and that they are afraid to publicly admit their confessional status since they believe it will only invite more prejudice. The Mubarak regime was especially intolerant towards Shias, and they were regularly arrested and interrogated during his 30-year reign. In 2009, more than 300 Shias were imprisoned by state security without official justification.

“Before the revolution, the situation of Shia was critical in Egypt, but since the revolution we have had a light margin of freedom,” Sayed Gamal Hashemi, a friend of Abu Hasan, tells me over a cup of heavily-sweetened tea.

But when asked whether Shias or Christians have more rights in post-revolutionary Egypt, Hashemi is quick to answer: “Christians,” he says, “of course.”

Misinterpretation and confusion abound among both Sunni and Shia communities, making reconciliation or acceptance between them an increasingly challenging task. One young Sunni student, who asked not to be named, claimed that Shia were “kufar” (infidels) because they didn’t follow the prophet Muhammed; while a Shia man (who also asked to remain anonymous) believed that it is “halal” (religiously ordained) for Sunni to kill Shia. Neither claims are true, but they reflect the extent of mistrust between the two communities.

Despite this, the number of Shia in Egypt seems to be growing, and there have been several cases of Sunnis converting to Shiism. Mahmoud Jabr, one such convert and the Secretary General of Egypt’s Hizb-ut-Tahreer (Liberation Party) – one of many grassroots political parties that have sprung up since the revolution – says he had his passport confiscated by the Mubarak regime because of his activism.

“The Egyptian constitution will never accept a Shia party,” he says, “the media misrepresent us.”

The “politicisation” of the Sunni-Shia divide through the proxies of Iran and Saudi Arabia is widespread in Egyptian society, Jabr claims, when in reality the vast majority of Egyptian Shia have no personal or political ties to the Islamic Republic. And indeed, when I approached the president of Cairo’s Al Hussein mosque – where more than 200 Shia were forcibly prevented from celebrating Ashura in December 2011 – his viewpoint is surprisingly succinct:

“If they want to practice their rituals, then they should go back to their own country,” he states, ignoring the fact that most Egyptian Shias are exactly that: Egyptian.

And yet Egypt remains a country with strong Shia ties. The Fatimid dynasty, who ruled Egypt from AD 969 - 1171 and founded the city of Cairo, were exclusively Shia. It wasn’t until after the fall of the Fatimids that Egyptians began to convert to the Sunna, and the cultural legacy of Ahl al-Beit (descendants of the Prophet Muhammed, literally ‘people of the house’) remains strong even today. No further testament needs to be made to the strength of Egyptians reverence for the Ahl al-Beit than the abundance of shrines and mosques dedicated to Hussein, Hasan, Zainab, Ali, and other Shia imams.

But there are concerns among the Shias I spoke to that the rise of Islamist movements in Egypt since the fall of Mubarak, especially the omnipresence of the Muslim Brotherhood, will result in even fewer rights for their community.

Shias might not face the same extent of persecution as the more visible Coptic minority, but it was evident from the people I spoke to that they are equally not tolerated by the more extreme factions in Egyptian society.

“We cannot have Shias in our mosque because of their extremist views,” said the head of Alexandria’s Al-Fattah mosque, a stronghold for fundamentalist Salafis.

When asked if he would support the construction of a Shia mosque to allow Shias to pray in their own space, he looks at me wide-eyed, as if surprised by the question.


It is a little word, but it says so much about the current state of Egypt, and about the country’s forgotten minority.

Additional reporting by Farah Souames.

Egyptian presidential guards stand outside Cairo's Al-Azhar mosque. Photograph: Getty Images

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review, an online journal covering arts and culture in the Arab world. She also works as a freelance journalist specialising in the politics of the Middle East.

Show Hide image

No, single men do not have a “right” to reproduce

The World Health Organisation’s new definition of infertility enshrines a man’s right to do to women what patriarchy has always done to them – own their bodies.

Last year, Katha Pollitt wrote an article for The Nation in which she asked why the left was simultaneously making progress with equal marriage while falling behind on abortion rights. “The media ,” she wrote, “present marriage equality and reproductive rights as ‘culture war’ issues, as if they somehow went together. But perhaps they’re not as similar as we think.”

She highlighted the ways in which the right can afford to cede ground on marriage equality while continuing to deny females bodily autonomy. She is right to do so. While both reproductive choice and gay rights may be classed as gender issues, each has its own very specific relationship to patriarchy.

A woman’s desire to control her reproductive destiny will always be in direct opposition to patriarchy’s desire to exploit female bodies as a reproductive resource. The social institutions that develop to support the latter – such as marriage – may change, but the exploitation can remain in place.

This has, I think, caused great confusion for those of us who like to see ourselves as progressive. We know that the idealisation of the heterosexual nuclear family, coupled with the demonisation of all relationships seen as “other”, has caused harm to countless individuals. We refuse to define marriage as solely for the purpose of procreation, or to insist that a family unit includes one parent of each sex.

We know we are right in thinking that one cannot challenge patriarchy without fundamentally revising our understanding of family structures. Where we have gone wrong is in assuming that a revision of family structures will, in and of itself, challenge patriarchy. On the contrary, it can accommodate it.

This is why all feminists – and indeed anyone serious about tackling patriarchy at the root – should be deeply concerned about the World Health Organisation’s new definition of infertility. Whereas up until now infertility has been defined solely in medical terms (as the failure to achieve pregnancy after 12 months of unprotected sex), a revised definition will give each individual “a right to reproduce”.

According to Dr David Adamson, one of the authors of the new standards, this new definition “includes the rights of all individuals to have a family, and that includes single men, single women, gay men, gay women”:

“It puts a stake in the ground and says an individual’s got a right to reproduce whether or not they have a partner. It’s a big change.”

It sure is. From now on, even single men who want children – but cannot have them solely because they do not have a female partner to impregnate – will be classed as “infertile”. I hope I’m not the only person to see a problem with this.

I am all in favour of different family structures. I’m especially in favour of those that undermine an age-old institution set up to allow men to claim ownership of women’s reproductive labour and offspring.

I am less enthusiastic about preserving a man’s “right” to reproductive labour regardless of whether or not he has a female partner. The safeguarding of such a right marks not so much an end to patriarchy as the introduction of a new, improved, pick ‘n’ mix, no-strings-attached version.

There is nothing in Adamson’s words to suggest he sees a difference between the position of a reproductively healthy single woman and a reproductively healthy single man. Yet the difference seems obvious to me. A woman can impregnate herself using donor sperm; a man must impregnate another human being using his sperm.

In order to exercise his “right” to reproduce, a man requires the cooperation – or failing that, forced labour – of a female person for the duration of nine months. He requires her to take serious health risks, endure permanent physical side-effects and then to supress any bond she may have developed with the growing foetus. A woman requires none of these things from a sperm donor.

This new definition of infertility effectively enshrines a man’s right to do to women what patriarchy has always done to them: appropriate their labour, exploit their bodies and then claim ownership of any resultant human life.

Already it is being suggested that this new definition may lead to a change in UK surrogacy law. And while some may find it reassuring to see Josephine Quintavalle of the conservative pressure group Comment on Reproductive Ethics complaining about the sidelining of “the biological process and significance of natural intercourse between a man and a woman”, that really isn’t the problem here.

“How long,” asks Quintavalle, “before babies are created and grown on request completely in the lab?” The answer to this is “probably a very long time indeed”. After all, men are hardly on the verge of running out of poor and/or vulnerable women to exploit. As long as there are female people who feel their only remaining resource is a functioning womb, why bother developing complex technology to replace them?

Men do not have a fundamental right to use female bodies, neither for reproduction nor for sex. A man who wants children but has no available partner is no more “infertile” than a man who wants sex but has no available partner is “sexually deprived”.

The WHO’s new definition is symptomatic of men’s ongoing refusal to recognise female boundaries. Our bodies are our own, not a resource to be put at men’s disposal. Until all those who claim to be opposed to patriarchal exploitation recognise this, progress towards gender-based equality will be very one-sided indeed.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.