Egypt: Fighting for Women’s Rights in the Aftermath of the Revolution
This report is part of a WLUML three-part series on women’s rights in the context of the ‘Arab uprisings’. Next week: Syria: Debates on women’s bodily autonomy and sexual violence.
In the wake of the 25 January Revolution in Egypt, and throughout ongoing political developments, women’s and human rights organization in Egypt have been fully aware of what they have to gain – or lose. Seeking to build on women’s participation in the revolution and capitalize on a moment of immense hope and possibility, different groups have joined forces to demand greater representation for women in parliament and on national councils and committees. Their main concerns are the need both to expand women’s roles in a new, democratic Egypt and to safeguard hard-earned gains in women’s rights achieved over the past few decades.
The International Solidarity network Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) has spoken to various actors within the women’s rights movement, and they have expressed their conviction that democratic and civil rights for all Egyptians are the necessary first step to fighting gender inequality. Their activities in recent months demonstrate their emphasis on institutionalizing women’s rights, improving their messaging to more effectively influence public opinion, and ensuring that structural reforms are safeguarded and met with social change from below.
Opposing Reactionary Forces
First, there is a strong desire to preserve legal gains made during the past few decades – even if those victories are somewhat tarnished by the Mubarak regime’s championing of them. Under threat at the moment is the quota for seats for women in parliament, which the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has indicated it will abolish. Family laws are also facing unreviewed, undemocratic revision under the oversight of the SCAF.
The absence of women from key decision-making positions during the political transition – no women on the constitutional committee, only one woman in the interim cabinet – has been widely criticized. A joint statement from feminist organizations deplored the absence of any women on the committee that drafted the proposed constitutional amendments which were approved in the referendum of 19 March. Fatema Khafagy, former member of the National Council for Women and political activist, said, “Women have been ignored although they were in the revolution doing everything – being killed, getting arrested. We thought gender equality was stripped from [the SCAF’s] minds just temporarily, but no. Look at their actions: on the Constitutional Committee there were no women. The number of women ministers is down to one.” On the other hand, the SCAF has also expressed support for granting the children of Egyptian mothers and Palestinian fathers citizenship – part of women's rights activists' long-running effort to expand citizenship rights in Egypt. The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights has emphasized that gains made for women’s rights have been national victories, the result of the efforts of grassroots activists, not the sole achievements of the women of the former regimes. “A lot of intellectual people in the Egyptian society, whether men or women, fought for decades for these social gains,” the ECWR statement says.
The activities of the Muslim Brotherhood and of different Salafist groups are also a concern. At a recent conference attended by WLUML networkers, Karama Co-Founder and Chairperson Hibaaq Osman said that Salafi groups took out a full-page newspaper ad describing how men’s and women’s dress should be regulated. They have also called for the repeal of laws on custody and divorce rights and introducing a ban on women traveling without permission. Osman emphasized the importance of ensuring that the Constitution protects women’s basic rights.
Keeping Women’s Rights at the Fore
In February, a coalition of feminist organizations expressed concern that women’s rights as an issue would be left aside whilst supposedly more urgent matters were attended to. The statement took particular aim at the now-disbanded National Council for Women, formerly headed by Suzanne Mubarak. The coalition of NGOs denounced the NCW as illegitimate due to its links to former president Hosni Mubarak and his National Democratic Party. They called for it to be replaced by a transitional council of women’s rights experts “to represent Egyptian women at the local, Arab and international levels and ensure women’s participation in shaping the political life during the current period.” The coalition reiterated these demands in a later open letter to Prime Minister Essam Sharif, adding calls for the dissolution of State Security, cleansing of police forces, and a 30% quota for women in parliament.
Sectarian strife fomented by some Salafi groups threatens to undermine Egyptian unity as the nation works to establish a new, more democratic regime. Khafagy pointed out a side effect of this instability: distraction from women’s issues by a phenomenon which incites a chauvinistic public discourse. “[Sectarian strife]has always been linked with women in the public discourse – as if women are the ones who have stirred this up”, she said. “Everyone talks of the clashes as if they were because of women [for example who convert to another religion or marry outside their religion]. It is true that women sometimes change their religion in order to get a divorce [forbidden in the Coptic Church], but so do men! Under Egyptian law, there is no penalty for someone changing their religion. This negative attention on the women is the result of a mindset which believes that women have no personal rights: they have become public property, whether it is of the church, the mosque, or the prime minister. The former regime stirred up sectarian feelings on purpose. Now there is so much animosity, and there is no official discourse combating it. The issue is taking up so much attention and creating so much talk against women at this critical moment.”
Building True Participation
Political organization and creating a genuine civil society to combat all these challenges are the key goal for the women’s rights movement in Egypt. Sally Hassan of the Arab Program for Human Rights Activists said that the biggest challenge for her organization was “raising the awareness of average people of the importance of electoral and political participation.”
September’s parliamentary elections present a key test for activists committed to expanding women’s representation. The opening of the political system with new rules requiring 5000 signatures from 10 of Egypt’s governorates in order to establish a party has led to a proliferation of new groups.
“Many women are joining the new political parties,” Khafagy said. “There is hope that the new parties will be more organized soon, more organized than the former opposition parties. They will be more powerful in asserting women’s rights. Right now we are pushing for proportional party lists for the election to make sure women are represented. Activists are busying identifying women candidates for areas of Cairo and outside of Cairo. While we believe the Muslim Brotherhood will dominate the elections, we hope that through good representation in all the other parties, which are organizing as a front, that women’s representation will be high. This coalition includes about 20 parties which range from liberal to leftist to Islamic. It includes parties like Ittihad al-‘Umal al-Ishtiraki (The Socialist Workers’ Union, leftist), Al-Hizb al-Dimuqrati al-Igtima‘i (The Social Democratic Party, liberal), Hizb al-‘Adala (The Justice Party, liberal), Hizb al-Masriyyin al-Ahrar (The Free Egyptians’ Party, liberal), and others. All these parties are calling for a proportional list.”
Beyond institutional or legal reforms, many activists are concerned with building a political environment in which talented and sincere individuals are interested in participating as leaders. Rebecca Chiao, co-founder of HarassMap, said, “Something is wrong with a system that only encourages people who seek the benefits of corruption or self promotion to engage as leaders. And this is a major issue that affects more talented women I personally know than the talented men I personally know. The women I know just don't see a benefit in taking a leadership role, even if they are strong women's rights activists, have strong political opinions and are skilled, experienced and capable.”
Fostering a culture of activism and engagement, particularly among the younger generation, is a crucial challenge. Qualified women committed to the goals of the revolution will have to step up to be participants. They will need to be supported, perhaps through skills training, networking with one another and with female politicians around the world, and broader awareness among the public of how women’s political participation benefits society.
Despite the challenges, many are hopeful that the first steps are being taken in a long post-revolutionary struggle for true equality. If nothing else, a political space has opened up that allows for more discussion of women’s rights and equality than existed before. Doaa Abdelaal , a member of the Nazra for Feminist Studies team, said of the International Women’s Day protest that was attacked by reactionary crowds on 8 March, ”A similar march would not ever have taken place before the 25 January revolution. Now, women are focusing on the new democratic horizons that have opened for them and they are more determined than ever to bring about a just and equal society.”
Tension exists among women’s rights activists where different parties have varied perspectives on what the most urgent issues are, or to what extent a total break with the old order is necessary. There is a desire, as one activist put it, to move beyond a ‘civil society of first ladies’ to a genuine civil society – how radical this break can be remains to be seen.
The Role of the International Community
Activists in Egypt expressed their hope that sympathizers and co-activists outside Egypt keep international attention focused on Egyptian political developments. Collaboration and networking are integral to Egyptian activists’ efforts. “I think it is important that people always ask, ‘What is happening to Egyptian women? Why aren’t we seeing them? Where are the women ministers and governors?’” Khafagy said. “The Salafis have called for withdrawing from CEDAW, lowering the marriage age, and the age of custody when children go back to the father. This is a violation of women’s and children’s rights. We need the international community to remind those in charge of Egypt’s treaty obligations. “It is important to reach the military and the ministers, and they only respond when there is international pressure,” she added.
In the past, activists have lamented the dependence of Egyptian NGOs, including those focused on women’s rights, to monetary support from international donors. In addition to rendering NGOs vulnerable to accusations of being agents of a foreign agenda, such dependence led NGOs themselves to complain that donor agencies and countries made too-stringent demands for accountability that strained activists’ limited time and resources. It also led NGOs to sometimes align their priorities with international, rather than domestic, goals. Chiao wrote, “Activists in other countries can help provide technical support to local efforts – especially non-NGOs like ourselves…I think there is a real move these days to break free from foreign aid dependence. Foreign activists should try not to act too much on their own agendas, especially without knowing the situation here extremely well. That being said, I think providing very practical training and advice on the specific needs different groups have would be beneficial in many cases. I know we've benefitted a lot from the advice of others in helping to build a strong infrastructure.”
Abdelaal expressed hope that Egyptian women’s rights activists could move beyond an NGO-donor model of international cooperation and solidarity. They hope for the revolution to help establish a genuine and widespread women’s movement in Egypt that will fight for women’s equal representation and participation in the political process as well as social changes necessary to uphold that equality. While international assistance is welcome, particularly in the form of keeping media attention on Egypt and providing technical assistance to activists on the ground, they hope to keep the Egyptian revolution Egyptian.
By Carolyn Barnett for WLUML