What does the political future for women in Egypt hold?

If nothing else, 2011 was the year of revolution and uprising. Set off by the unprecedented Arab Spring, akin to the counter-soviet revolutions preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall, a series of countries in North Africa and the Middle East are searching for the roots of fundamental liberties underneath the paved streets of their capital cities. A symbol of the times, Cairo’s Tahrir Square is also now the center of attention for women’s rights. Women are targeted by the police and are manhandled, sexually assaulted and raped. Foreign journalists are no exceptions. Are women more severely punished for their involvement in the revolution? In the Western world, concern is spreading like wildfire since the new free elections result in an Islamist leadership. What is the point of an uprising, if the country, and more specifically its women, are thrown back into the darkness of an unequal society? Are women aware they are gambling with their own future more than their male counterparts? With those very important and complex questions in mind, Suz Richards-Benson met those Egyptian women currently facing their future, their fate, and ultimately, the consequences of the revolution.
As the world looks back on an unforgettable 2011, many in the Arab world are looking forward wondering what 2012 will bring. Egypt has been in the spotlight for many months now, either as a result of peaceful protests ravaged by violence, or the increasing support for Islamists emerging through the parliamentary election polls. Analysts and key note speakers focus on the questions of Egypt’s political future, but what about the question that isn’t being raised? What about the women in Egypt that helped to bring about the end of the Mubarak regime?
“Despite the monumental part that they played, women were subjected to gross violations and abuse at the hands of the police, the army, and even the protesters themselves”

During the January and February protests, an often unspoken but notable fact was the role that women played in toppling Mubarak. Yet despite the monumental part that they played, women were subjected to gross violations and abuse at the hands of the police, the army, and even the protesters themselves. Stories were abound of women who were physically assaulted and groped in the streets, of veiled girls who had their hijabs torn from their heads, to the extreme conditions of women who had “virginity tests” imposed on them while in remand of the military. The official line in response to these tests were that they were a necessary evil to ensure that the women would not be able to turn around and cry foul, accusing army soldiers of rape and molestation. Never mind the degradation that such tests invoked. Just within the past few days, a court in Cairo on Tuesday ruled that any future “virginity tests” are not permitted, saying “These acts involve deliberate humiliation and intentional insult to women participating in protests.”  No injunctions were brought against soldiers who had already committed these tests on women. So while it marked a small victory for women in Egypt, it provided little solace for the women who had already suffered as a result of such brutality.

With the increasing voices of the Islamists in Egypt, more and more women felt that the freedom and the revolution they had shed blood for was being lost among the rhetoric. To ensure that their revolution stayed on track, they took to the streets en-masse on the 20th of December. As the march made its way to the now infamous Tahrir Square, its numbers swelled, but stayed shy of the gatherings activists had hoped for. This begs the question, what does the political future hold for women in Egypt? With thisquestion in mind, I took to the streets.

“Neither situation pre or post revolution is good for women. Women in Egypt have a long fight ahead of them”

One remarkable facet of Egyptian society is how highly striated it is. Those in positions of power will claim to be connected to their people, when in reality they are grossly disjointed. How can someone who has never had to struggle just to provide 5 dollars a week to feed a family of seven possibly relate to the poor citizens in Egypt’s streets. One can argue that one of the biggest mistakes that many liberal candidates made during their campaigns for the elections was to equate the “Tahrir protester” to the average Egyptian. It is important to note that those sitting in Tahrir represent a minimal fraction of the country’s population. This is what set the Islamist parties aside, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the more extreme Salafi trend. While these two trends invoke fear in the hearts of many Westerners, a surprising number of Egyptians turned out on voting day, and sent the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi candidates into the lead in many constituencies, often garnering more than 50 % of the vote.  Is it possible that the Islamists will become the new rulers of Egypt? And how will this impact the women in the country?

In the course of researching this article, I spoke with women from many different walks of Egyptian society. One common thread emerged; they all felt that their political future in Egypt was in jeopardy, but for some they believed the revolution had provided women with a voice they felt was previously ignored, while others felt little to no change. As 28 year old Zainab puts it: “Neither situation pre or post revolution is good for women. Women in Egypt have a long fight ahead of them. We are fundamentally not respected as much as we should be. We are to be seen and not heard. We are treated as objects and possessions. During this process, Egyptian society has only begun to feel our presence by us being active and visible in protests, in elections, in the media.”

One female interviewed, a 22 year old college student Nihal, discussed her perspective on the emerging political atmosphere in Egypt. Eligible to vote, she used her voice to support the Muslim Brotherhood, saying: “I gave them my voice because they are simply the world’s oldest and largest Islamist movement. They started out by ONLY six members and now they are millions, meaning they know exactly what they’re doing. The Muslim Brotherhood is a very well-organized movement and they have a historical background in the political field, in my own opinion I think it’s time to give them a chance and they know more than well that everyone who gave them their voice is watching very closely.”

Conversely, another woman interviewed who requested anonymity, did not vote in the elections, but feels that women have now been granted more liberties than they previously had in the Mubarak regime. She had this to say about the emerging Islamists domination in the political realm: “…I fear, because they will over control us, they will destroy the tourism [thereby destroying] the economical case too … they will control people’s normal lives! There will be no outings, no freedom, no democracy at all! They will force girls to wear … The whole main reason that if the Islamists ruled, there will be no more real Egypt.” She did not comment on her decision to not vote.

“The road ahead remains a long one for women in Egypt. Their new found “freedom” brought about at the hands of the January 25th Revolution may not be around much longer.”

In recent weeks, one woman’s struggle for democratic freedom of expression in Egypt caught the media lime light. Aliaa el-Mahdy is a college student, who in an attempt to undermine the process of censorship and control of freedom of expression, posed nude on her blog. Within 48 hours, millions of hits were registered to her website, and Aliaa was catapulted to the front of a gender battle that has been silently raging for years in Egypt. I had to wonder; how accurate was Aliaa’s struggle? Did her posing nude really represent the freedom that women in Egypt were fighting for? Throughout the course of interviews, the dominant answer was “No, she did not.” In fact, not one of the women interviewed expressed their support for Aliaa’s bold statement. Instead, some proclaimed her “right to undress in her home, take pictures and upload them on the net,” but highlighting that Aliaa’s struggle for freedom did not “speak” for them. Magy, a 26 year old Cairean commented that: “[there are many things that] represent our [women] struggle for freedom “posing nude” is not one of them.” Another woman, who also requested anonymity, had this to say about Aliaa’s move: “My first thought was: What a perfect timing! Just before elections, this is exactly what the Salafists needed to win more votes telling the people that this is what liberal parties would encourage in Egypt. I think she made the battle more difficult.”

The road ahead remains a long one for women in Egypt. Their new found “freedom” brought about at the hands of the January 25th Revolution may not be around much longer. Over half of the women I interviewed admitted that they did not vote. This in part due to their lack of knowledge about the political parties in Egypt, but also in part to a looming unfamiliarity with having the right to speak their opinions. This same half of women who did not vote, also did not participate in the Tahrir protests directly, fearing their own safety. It left me with one lingering question in mind. Should the Islamists ascend to power in Egypt, will women in the country take to the streets to defend their civil liberties and freedoms? The answers shed light on how far women still have to go; with most believing that only a small fraction of women would fight for their own rights.

In this day and age, with so many countries struggling for a so-called democratic state, the practice of imposed beliefs and rituals remains a dominant trend. Those who support one faction are ostracized, while others are earmarked non-believers for pushing for a more liberal state. I will leave you with the words of Nihal, who said: “I think people should start accepting other’s opinions and point of views, after all if we started a revolution for freedom then we must respect different beliefs.”


Susan Richards-Benson is a journalist who has been living in Egypt for the past 5 years.  Susan keeps an updated blog with relevant information on Egyptian current events and news, which can be found at: egyptunbound.blogspot.com


About K
bastard banshee. devious lawyer. Lucille Bluth. probably jetlagged.

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