Egyptians abuzz over prime minister's breast talk

February 7, 2013 - 5:31 PM
Mideast Egypt Breast Controversy

FILE - In this Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012 file photo, Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil talks during a press conference at his office in Cairo, Egypt. Egypt’s prime minister caused an uproar after blaming health problems for babies in poor villages on women who nurse them without cleaning their breasts. Critics say the remarks show Hesham Kandil is out of his depth as prime minister. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil, File)

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's prime minister faced uproar, derision and even lawsuits Thursday after he blamed health problems of babies in impoverished villages on nursing mothers who "out of ignorance" don't clean their breasts and talked of village women getting raped in the fields.

Hesham Kandil made the remarks as he tried to make a point about poverty at a press conference aired live on TV this week. The backlash put the previously little known technocrat appointed by Islamist President Mohammed Morsi under a spotlight.

Rights advocates and activists said Thursday it showed a prime minister who is out of his depth — and who holds elitist and patriarchal attitudes that blame poor women for everything from not bringing their children up right to bringing dishonor on society.

A number of lawyers in Beni Sweif, a province Kandil mentioned specifically, filed lawsuits against him, accusing him of libel, an official at the top prosecutor's office said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk to the press.

Kandil was responding to a question about whether economic policies are increasing poverty in Egypt and how poverty contributed to the wave of unrest since late January.

With a muddled and stumbling response, Kandil seemed to be trying to show he was aware of the depth of poverty in Egypt. "I've been around," he insisted.

"In the 21st century, there are still villages in Egypt where babies are infected with diarrhea ... because their mothers nursing them, out of their ignorance, don't do the personal hygiene of cleaning their breasts," Kandil he said.

He spoke of visiting villages in Beni Sweif, just south of Cairo, in 2004, saying, "There is no running water or sewage."

"Men go to the mosque... Women go to the field and get raped," he said, apparently meaning men wash at the mosque while women go to the river to wash. "This is happening in Egypt."

"Egypt is full of miseries," he said. "The solution is not in violence."

Many were baffled over what point he was trying to make exactly. But critics said his comments reflected the conservative mindset of his Islamist backers — the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, or their ultraconservative allies.

"His talk reflects extreme shallow vision and ignorance of everything related to the Egyptian community and all the problems that the Egyptian women are suffering," said Nehad Aboul-Qomsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women rights, a vocal critic of the Islamists.

She saw his rape comment as implying the women were to blame for going out, while men go to mosques. "His words are ... no more than what he hears from the cleric whose hand he kisses after the sermon," she said.

The Brotherhood's political party, Freedom and Justice, distanced itself from Kandeel's remarks, calling them "inappropriate."

"If the prime minister had noticed, he would have apologized," party spokesman Murad Ali said. "We know he is a decent man."

But Egyptian feminist and writer Karima Kamal said Kandil's remarks match the Brotherhood's attitudes toward women.

"Women's role in the Muslim Brotherhood is limited to helping men capture seats of power. They use them in elections very well. Then they keep them on the margins. There is nothing called equality between men and women," she said.

Islamist rule has raised fears of limits of women's rights, especially after Islamists pushed through a constitution that provides few protections. There were only four women among the 85 members of the Constituent Assembly that passed the final draft later approved in a referendum in December.

Prejudices against women were also reflected in latest political debate on a women's quota in parliament.

Islamist lawmakers, particularly ultraconservative Salafis who push for segregation of the sexes and the covering of women, managed to change an article in the new parliamentary election law that would have brought more women into parliament by obliging parties to put female candidates at the top of their electoral lists.

As for Kandil, "I see a man with no qualifications whatsoever to become a prime minister," Kamal said.

The 50-year-old Kandil, a religious conservative, was a little known expert on water resources when he was named prime minister by Morsi in July. Since then, he's come under attack several times. Once, he was forced to flee from a mosque without his shoes to get away from angry mourners during the funeral of 16 soldiers killed by militants near the Gaza border. Last week, anti-Morsi protesters drove him out of Cairo's Tahrir Square, throwing chunks of concrete at him.

He was widely mocked during the summer when he called on Egyptians to wear cotton clothes and sit in one room to cut down on air conditioner use during power shortages.

Kandil's remarks sparked a flood of jokes, cartoons and comments on social networking sites and TV talk shows.

"I feel sorry for him," a well-known political blogger Zeinobia wrote of Kandil, "because he is appointed in (a) position that is bigger than his own political as well as social capabilities."

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AP reporter Mariam Rizk contributed to this report