Egypt’s Revolution Is Leaving Women Behind

Sheema Khan, The Globe and Mail

During a brief visit to Cairo last week, I was struck by the willingness of Egyptians to offer spontaneous criticism of the previous regime. From our felucca guide on the Nile to the Egyptologist providing commentary of the pyramids, conversations would begin with a cathartic rant against former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, followed by the explanation: “We could have never said this before.”

Egyptians are savouring the taste of freedom after decades of dictatorship, following 18 wondrous days of dignified protest at Tahrir Square. Men, women, Muslims, Copts, rich, poor, educated, illiterate – all were united in their heartfelt desire for a life free of oppression. The spirit of Tahrir Square spilled over into the March 19 referendum on constitutional changes designed to ensure free and fair elections. At 41 per cent, voter turnout was much higher than in past elections, which were seen as rigged in favour of the incumbent. Parliamentary elections are set for September.

Yet, it seems the revolution may be leaving women behind.

During the protests at Tahrir Square, women worked alongside men, organizing, demonstrating, calling for Mr. Mubarak’s ouster. Endemic sexual harassment, like dictatorship, seemed a thing of the past. Many revelled in the new-found societal respect and appreciation of women as partners.

Then came the March 8 rally to commemorate International Women’s Day. About 200 women, along with a smattering of men, gathered in Tahrir Square to urge Egypt to give women a voice in building its future. Many had been alarmed by an ominous turn of political events deemed unfavourable to women: Only one woman had been selected to the interim cabinet; the eight-member committee tasked with formulating constitutional amendments was all male; one of the proposed amendments suggested that future presidents could only be male; and the quota of 64 parliamentary seats for women had been abolished.

The reaction in Tahrir Square that day was swift and brutal, as groups of men accosted the women, hurling insults, and much worse. They were told to go home and wash clothes, that their actions were “un-Islamic.” Some of the women were sexually harassed or groped.

Things didn’t get any better the next day, when the army cleared Tahrir Square of encamped protesters. Amnesty International reported that at least 18 female protesters were arrested, tortured and subjected to “virginity tests.” One 20-year-old, Salwa Hosseini, described her humiliation when she was forced to take off her clothes in a room while male soldiers looked in and took photographs of her. Later, a man carried out a “virginity” exam, and she was threatened with prostitution charges.

The army has denied culpability. Nonetheless, there are trepidations about the army’s lack of accountability in postrevolutionary Egypt. While constitutional amendments pave the way toward a robust system of political checks and balances, some worry about the lack of scrutiny of the military, which enjoys widespread popularity.

The threat of organized retaliation against women continued. On March 28, panicked women contacted the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights, complaining that fundamentalist Salafist groups had ordered all Egyptian women (including Copts) to cover themselves from head to toe, or face harassment. A few days earlier, some women reported that Salafists were blocking their cars when they tried to drive to work; they were told to stay in their houses.

Although a tiny minority, Salafists are growing in numbers and influence. By comparison, the Muslim Brotherhood seems downright moderate, although its conservative platform alarms many women’s groups.

Undaunted by the challenges, Egyptian women continue to speak out, repeating the demands of the revolution: justice, freedom and dignity. Hoda Badran, chair of the Alliance for Arab Women, told me that, with better organization, women’s groups can make a difference. There’s also a new level of confidence and self-awareness among women as a result of their integral role in the revolution.

Having tasted the fruits of their efforts, they’re determined to ensure their rightful place in the future of their nation.

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