Now for the gender revolution
Women were among the keenest demonstrators in Tahrir Square, and they have as important a role to play as men in rebuilding Egypt, says Fatma Khafagy*
I want to see the opposite of what has always happened after revolutions take place now in Egypt. History tells us that women stand side by side with men, fight with men, get killed defending themselves and others along with men, and then nurse the wounded, lament the dead, chant and dance when the struggle is victorious and help to manage the aftermath when it is not. However, history also indicates that after the success of a political struggle, women are too often forced to go back to their traditional gender roles and do not benefit from the harvest of revolution.
I am sure the Egyptian revolution will not allow this to happen. In the same way that the Egyptian revolution was an inspiring pioneer movement in every sense of the word, it will also break new ground when it shows the world that women and men will be equal in all walks of life after the revolution as much as they were during it.
Young Egyptian women proved to be brave, effective, fervent, devoted and valuable partners in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in all the governorates during the revolution. All the divides that were institutionalised by the former corrupt regime in Egypt, intended to make us fight each other instead of fighting the real enemy, have now fallen.
During the 18 glorious days of the revolution, there was no divide between men and women, between Muslims and non-Muslims, between rich and poor and between the educated and the illiterate: all were undertaking the same responsibilities and acting freely by disregarding the conventional gender relations that have been entrenched in our minds by a vicious media, unethical education and an inconsistent political discourse. The former regime sometimes used religion and sometimes used culture to justify the strict gender division that put women aside and that prevailed for decades.
Despite the millions in Tahrir Square, women of all ages were treated with respect, and there was not a single case of sexual harassment reported. Some young women slept side by side at night in Tahrir Square, and women prayed side by side with men during Friday prayers. Men and women kissed one another when victory was achieved.
Before the revolution, no one could have thought that these things could happen. We spent much of our time as feminists counting cases of sexual harassment and trying to explain them. Other people kept themselves busy answering questions such as should women pray beside or behind men. Now, the revolution has put such petty discussions aside, and Egypt's young people have acted freely to throw away in 18 days what we have speculated about and analysed for decades. How can we now make ourselves useful to our revolutionary youth?
Let us examine the gender discrimination that prevailed in the pre-revolution era and was institutionalised by corrupt governmental institutions. The Egyptian family law has been in place since 1920 without change, and the parliament has refused to change it for almost a century. This law has discriminated against women in the private sphere and has enslaved them.
In addition, when a gender quota system was finally enacted for political institutions, the result was to increase the number of parliamentarians who belonged to the former ruling National Democratic Party, and it was in no sense an act of positive discrimination in favour of women. The government also insisted on keeping those who work in the informal sector of the economy, the majority of whom are women, unprotected by laws guaranteeing a decent level of pay or social and health insurance.
There is a high rate of illiteracy among women in Egypt, amounting to at least 30 per cent, and the rate of illiteracy among women is almost double that among men. These are only examples of institutionalised gender discrimination. Let us make use of the revolution to dismantle what the regime strived to do for decades, in other words to divide and rule. Let us use the revolution to free women in order to be able to stand side by side with men to rebuild a just and equal Egypt.
The Egyptian revolution, as I witnessed every day and night in Tahrir Square, was not only about getting rid of a political system. It was also about creating another more beautiful and just Egypt that would guarantee human rights to all its citizens. I saw young women discussing with young men what kind of life they wanted to achieve for Egypt. I feel sure that the gender equality that was witnessed in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt will now prevail because we need it to create a better Egypt.
I would like to seize this opportunity to ask all old and newly formed groups that support the 25 January Revolution to pay attention to the need to include women in their memberships and not only as a token. Let us aim to include at least 40 per cent women in all groups and organisations that support the young people in their revolution.
I would like to call on all the country's media, especially radio and television, to talk to women as much as you talk to men, put women in your pictures, interviews, programmes and talk shows. In whatever you do, act to confirm that the new Egypt will now be built by both women and men.
* The author is a women's rights activist and a board member of the Alliance for Arab Women.