You saw them. I saw them. We all saw the women of Tahrir Square, marching, yelling, dancing, singing, smoking, waving signs and taking hits alongside their fellow citizens. Then we blinked, and they were sidelined, pushed out of the political process faster than you can say, “Women are human beings too.”
The way things have shaken out for women in post-revolution Egypt, it’s easy to forget that it was a courageous young woman who summoned protesters to the streets in the first place. On January 18th, a charismatic activist with the April 6 youth movement named Asmaa Mahfouz invited fellow Egyptian citizens to join her for a Day of Rage on January 25th. Facing down the camera, she told her audience “Do not be afraid.”
“Asma knew how to get to the guys, by saying ‘If I can get out there, surely you can,'” said Mona Eltahawy, a New York-based Egyptian commentator and political analyst. Her call to arms brought millions of women and men out on the streets, marching and loitering en masse until the dictator fell. Western news outlets noted women’s participation, and the absence of sexual harassment, with surprise and admiration.
But despite their valor and sacrifice, women protestors were quickly cast aside as the army consolidated its hold on power.
“Now reality has come back to the foreground,” said Eltahaway. “Those 18 days in Tahrir Square were utopian, but now there’s a lot of work to do in a very ugly reality.”
Buzzkill that he is, when Mubarak retired in ignominy to his villa in Sharm el-Sheikh, he appeared to take the spirit of gender equality along with him. The same women whose voices had inspired and sustained the revolution found themselves iced out of the equation. A so-called “Council of Wise Men” went to negotiate with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) on transitional measures. On February 15th, the Army convened an all-male Constitutional Committee, which came up with some troubling amendments to the constitution. Article 75, which protesters had not requested to be reviewed, was nonetheless rewritten to read that a presidential candidate “cannot be married to a non-Egyptian woman.”
Nehad Lotfy Abu el Komsaan, director of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, saw the backlash coming a mile away. During the protests, she tried to engage other women in discussion about the future of their rights in a post-Mubarak Egypt. “They said there’s no added value of women for these issues, that the constitution is just the constitution. But then we saw article 75, and they started to discover the trap they’d put themselves in. They started to see the value of having women’s perspectives at every level.”
The speed with which that ugly reality reasserted itself shocked protesters like Nahla Hanno. “I never saw this ‘reversal’ coming so soon,” she said. The testosterone-heavy scent of post-revolution politicking, she said, did not worry her much at the time. “I was too jubilant about the revolution and the positive atmosphere. I only started worrying when the Military council chose Tarik al-Bishry as the head of constitutional reform panel,” whom she said led the opposition to the appointment of Egypt’s first female judge in 2003.
The current crop of 31 ministers contains just one woman, down from three under Mubarak. And as the political space narrows, the physical space for women to assert themselves is also shrinking. A gathering of a thousand or so demonstrators on March 8th to celebrate International Women’s Day turned ugly by the afternoon, with arguments about gender roles degenerating into violence and gunshots.
Wael Abbas, a leading blogger and rights activist, overheard some of the attacks made on the women protesters.
“They claimed the women are not religious, that they are seeking to destroy Egypt and undermine family values and the sanctity of the family by telling women to desert their husbands,” he said. The following day, Tahrir Square became the scene of even more unpleasantness: as police sought to clear the square of remaining protesters and tents, they arrested 19 women, beat and verbally abused them, accused them of prostitution, and subjected several to forced “virginity tests.”
“This is a slap in the face of the revolution, to treat the women of revolution as prostitutes,” said Abbas.
This backlash against upended gender norms, said Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation who recently returned from a trip to Cairo, is not unsurprising.
“Part of the anxieties on the part of everyday Egyptians is a sense that Egyptian society is fracturing, and all the standards of Egyptian society are in flux,” he said. “There’s a sense of societal breakdown that’s causing a lot of stress.”
And what better way to cope with potential societal breakdown than shoving some good old law and order at it, in the form of a Saudi Arabia-style morality police force? That proposal came from the Islamist group Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, which, like the extreme Islamist group the Salafists (who incidentally burned the furniture of a woman they accused of prostitution), is feeling a rush of freedom after living under the heel of Mubarak’s boot for the past three decades.
Even though Mubarak and his security forces harassed, intimidated, and jailed Islamists, their sway over society grew steadily throughout his rule. It’s these groups, newly empowered by Mubarak’s departure, a possible pact between the Muslim Brotherhood and the SCAF, and, rumor has it, fresh infusions of cash from the Gulf, that activists like Abu Komsaan fear the most.
“The religious, fundamentalist groups have big voices and big support from inside and outside of Egypt,” she said.
In the Beginning, There Was Feminism
Since the late 1800s, when women participated in early nationalist movements, Egypt’s feminist movement has been a beacon for the region. In 1923, the Egyptian feminist Huda Shaarawi stood in a Cairo train station and removed her veil, an act that Eltahawy likened to Asmaa Mahfouz’s bold address to the nation. In 1957, Egypt became the first Arab country to vote a woman into Parliament. But the failure of nationalism and Nasserism left an ideological vaccum that conservative interpretations of Islam flooded in to fill, said Zachary Lockman, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at New York University.
“Those kinds of modernizing self-proclaimed nationalisms, which did at least provide rhetorical support for women’s equality and political rights, gave way to the ascendance of a Saudi-exported, much more conservative version of Islam,” he said, which has taken root in countries all across the region, particularly those whose citizens migrated to Saudi Arabia for work.
Today, Egyptian civil society boasts dozens of grassroots women’s rights groups. They’ve always worked apart from — or often at odds with — former First Lady Suzanne Mubarak’s National Council for Women. Mrs. Mubarak banned rival organizations, like feminist writer Nawal El Sadaawi’s Egyptian Feminist’s Union. Gameela Ismail, an opposition activist and the wife of former political prisoner Ayman Nour, said that when she ran for Parliament in 2001 and 2010, she received no support from the NCW. “It was never intended to truly defend women’s rights,” she said. “They defended the rights of the women of the ruling party, the women close to the First Lady’s rights, and the women in the circles of corruption and power’s rights.”
But despite the efforts of an active coalition of feminist groups, Egyptian women were already on the back foot politically when Mubarak fell. Nadya Khalife, Women’s Rights researcher at Human Rights Watch for the Middle East and North Africa, described women’s political participation up to the present as “abysmal.” At the time of Mubarak’s fall, she noted, women made up 7% the Upper House of Egypt’s parliament, according to numbers from the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit Freedom House. An amendment passed in 2009 (and proposed by Gamal Mubarak, ostensibly because it would have shored up the numbers for his ruling National Democratic Party) created a 64-seat quota for women in the 444-seat Lower House. According to Khalife, 63 of those seats went to NDP women.
In what may have been an unconscious reference to Condoleezza Rice’s “birth pangs” metaphor, Ismail likened Egypt’s potential democracy-in-the-making to a newborn child whose delivery is welcomed, regardless of sex.
“It’s a baby we longed for that’s finally being born, and we didn’t even consider if the baby was a boy or a girl,” she said. “Many women are complaining that there is a problem with rights, that we weren’t represented in the constitutional committee. However, we don’t need to prove we had a role. They know this very well — women had frontline roles. I’m not really bothered to be proved or represented.”
Fatma Emam, a 25-year-old researcher and activist with the feminist group Nazra for Feminist Studies, thinks that to appeal to women like Ismail, women’s rights need to be reframed as a national issue.
“We have to emphasize that the feminist movement is a political movement,” she said. “It’s not only caring about women’s rights, but caring about equality and justice for all Egyptian citizens; it’s a national cause. This notion is the crucial message that the feminist movement has to convey.”
Soha Abdelaty, an activist with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), said this message needed to be spread not just among decision-makers, but the wider public as well.
“What happened on March 8th, that was a real wakeup call to us that it is time for us not to focus primarily on policy and advocacy levels, but to be taking to the street and engaging with different communities,” she said.
With a laundry list of problems to tackle — a decimated economy, striking workers, dozens of political prisoners — political parties have kicked women’s rights issues down to the bottom of the pile. But while Abbas says he hasn’t heard much talk about women’s rights from any of the established or newly-formed parties, Heba Morayef, the Egypt researcher for Human Rights Watch, noted that the Muslim Brotherhood was forced to disavow a long-held principle that neither a Coptic Christian nor a woman could run for president of Egypt. Not long after this announcement, television presenter Bouthaina Kamel announced her intention to run on an anti-corruption platform. Although Emam predicts she won’t get many votes, “her visibility and participation are enough for me.”
“A lot of people are being pushed to come up with a consistent position on women’s rights, so we may see a shift in the coming months,” Morayef said.
Brotherhood leader Saad al-Husseini told the Egyptian newspaper Al Masry Al Youm that while the Brotherhood would not put a female candidate forward, women still had the right to run, a position that irks feisty 18-year-old Sara Mohamed, a member of Muslim Brotherhood.
“I really don’t accept this way of thinking at all,” she said. “If they are applying Islamic rules, in Islam, there is nothing that says a girl can’t be a president, so what are you talking about?”
While the current political scene is still light on the estrogen, then, Eltahawy is confident that things are set to change: “Women are bolder now, and more outspoken … they recognize that the personal and political exist side by side.”