No retreat and no surrender
"Will the rights we have gained in recent years now witness a setback" has been an incessant question among women activists since the ousting of former president Hosni Mubarak in the Egyptian revolution. The former first lady was known to be a defender of women's rights, and many amendments to the personal status laws were made under her husband's rule.
While these amendments were in accordance with Islamic law, they did not appeal to many men, who have claimed that the legislation is unfair and that it has stripped them of their rights.
Among the laws is an increase in the age mothers have custody of their children from nine to 15 years, a law on visiting rights for divorced parents, and the khul' law on divorce, which some have argued has led to higher rates of divorce and more broken homes. The khul' law gives women the right to get divorced by court order on condition that the woman forgoes many of her financial entitlements.
Some men have been cracking jokes, urging women to stay at home, now that "Suzanne Mubarak is no longer there to protect them." Others have demonstrated against the amendments to the personal status laws, demanding that they be annulled. Women, meanwhile, have organised their own counter-demonstrations.
The question remains, however, of whether Egyptian women should now begin to worry about their status.
My mother, to whom I owe everything, once told me that "no one can take advantage of you unless you allow them to. People see you the way you see yourself: if you believe in something, fight for it. Education is the key to independence."
As the days have gone by, I have realised that these works contain a lot of wisdom.
Many women today come from homes that believe in equality and fair chances for all. "Women's struggles and hard work over past decades make it impossible for them to be stripped of their rights. We no longer live in a society that looks down on women or views them as sex objects or inferior," were the words of women interviewed by Al-Ahram Weekly.
Women today are more empowered than they were in the past. They have more access to information and education, and they are more politically involved. And while the laws passed under Mubarak's rule granted women the rights they already had under Islamic law, these real gains were the outcome of hard work, perseverance and faith. No one should be able to take them away.
For example, 25-year-old Asmaa Mahfouz inspired the 25 January Revolution by urging people to protest against tyranny and dictatorship. Mahfouz posted a video on YouTube to urge Egyptians to protest, and in it she said, "I, a girl, am going down to Tahrir Square, and I will stand alone. And I'll hold up a banner. Perhaps people will show some respect. Don't think you will be safe anymore. None of us is. Come with us and demand your rights, my rights, your family's rights. I am going down on 25 January, and I will say no to corruption and no to this regime."
Women stood side by side with men throughout the 18-day revolution. They resisted aggression on the Friday of Anger, and they held their ground. After the revolution, women from different walks of life took to the streets on referendum day, aware that their votes counted for something and that they could make a difference in their country's future.
Today, when Tahrir Square is once again packed with demonstrators, women are once again standing side by side with men to "Achieve the Revolution's Demands", as the slogan brandished on 8 July puts it.
If women in the past thought they had no role to play in their society's well-being, now they know better. If anything, the revolution only enhanced the sense of common belonging among both women and men. And if in the past Egyptians felt ineffective, now they know they can make a difference.
By the same token, suppose some men decide to call for adjustments to the personal status laws or call for a curb on women's rights. Why not let them? Women now know they have an equal right to take to the streets and speak their minds. In a country that respects the rule of law, everyone is entitled to express themselves, and it is the law that will decide in the end.
Women now know that they can. That is the point. In the past, women did not believe they could be effective, but now they are aware of their political, social and economic role. They know that if they can make a difference in their country, they can in their own lives as well.
Nevertheless, it is a long way to go before education and culture play the role that they should in Egypt. As the country's most-prominent 20th-century poet Ahmed Shawqi wrote, "a mother is a place of learning. Equip her well, and you will have people of good race."