Fighting a gender revolution
Women played a significant role in Egypt's 25 January Revolution, but will they now become equal citizens in the New Egypt, asks Ingrid Wassmann
They were also there en masse in Cairo's Tahrir Square during the 25 January Revolution, many of them on the frontline, facing the security forces' lethal brutality, overcoming fear, uncertainty and violence, in order to demand justice. Some tasted the power of freedom of speech, while others paid with their lives.
During the 18-day uprising that deposed the long-standing former president Hosni Mubarak, millions of Egyptian women participated in the protests -- girls, grandmothers, professionals, housewives, students, the affluent, destitute, veiled and unveiled.
Their voices were loud, their protest banners evident, and their message clear: "Democracy for Egypt!"
But has the revolution had any effect on addressing or enhancing the rights of women in the New Egypt, and is there a readiness to accept gender empowerment and equality for its female citizens? Will anything now really change in many women's everyday lives?
Six months after the initial bloody "Day of Anger", protesters returned to Tahrir Square demanding swifter reforms, and human rights groups criticised the under- representation of women in the country's new government, despite two ministerial reshuffles.
"The absence of women is unacceptable for a revolutionary government," was a recent joint statement made by six Egyptian human rights groups. Currently Fayza Abul-Naga is Egypt's only female minister in the new cabinet.
To guarantee more equitable representation, an Egyptian Women's Charter was released in June by nearly 500 non- governmental organisations during a Cairo-held event on "Egyptian Women: Partners in the Revolution and in Building a Democratic Egypt." The Charter lists the social and political demands of Egyptian women, including a demand that they occupy 40 per cent of ministerial positions.
"Democracy and development are not achieved without systematically involving women and having gender equality in political and social decision-making," asserted James Rawley, United Nations resident coordinator in Egypt, during a roundtable discussion on women's rights in June.
But how can gender equality translate into concrete rights for ordinary Egyptian women?
"The problem is that very few Egyptian women know what women's rights mean," points out 62-year-old political activist and artist Huda Lutfi. For her, women's rights mean fundamental rights, such as equality and social justice, access to education, equal employment opportunities, and freedom of choice.
"Women should have the choice to do what they like in life and not be prescribed roles that give priority to their 'natural tasks' of being mothers, wives, and the caretakers of the household," Lutfi added.
Gender parity features high on the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals. To tackle the inequalities between women and men in the family, community and state, UN Women, an organisation created in 2010 that is dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women, campaigns for women's greater access to leadership and participation, education, economic empowerment, and for a stop to violence against women.
In its flagship 2011 report, Progress of the World's Women: In Pursuit of Justice, the UN organisation concludes that inadequate legislation still encourages discrimination against women's political rights and economic opportunities. It means that accountability for domestic abuse and sexual harassment is still not guaranteed, and that decision-making has yet to be given to women.
"Unfortunately for women in the Middle East, and not only in Egypt, there is a lot of injustice," remarked the popular Egyptian Islamic preacher Amr Khaled in a recent interview with Al-Ahram Weekly. Khaled's TV and outreach programmes appeal to many Egyptian women.
LEADERSHIP & PARTICIPATION: "These injustices come from bad traditions and from some countries in the Arab world, and unfortunately they are sometimes carried out in the name of Islam," Khaled, whose Facebook fans are majority female, said.
"And because of these injustices you will find that not many women take their chance to be leaders in society." Trying to give a list of women leaders in the Middle East, he added, "Bahia Al-Hariri, Queen Rania of Jordan... I have trouble giving you 10 names."
Yet, some Egyptian women, like 24-year-old Amina, an interpreter from Tanta, Egypt's fifth-largest city, are hopeful that things will change after the 25 January Revolution.
"Parliament should raise its quota, so that we see more women ministers," said the Al-Azhar University graduate. "I would like to wake up some day and know that the president is a woman, an Egyptian woman," Amina noted, before adding: "But in Islam it is forbidden to have a woman as president."
Islamic preacher Khaled seemed to disagree with this interpretation. "Women in Egypt should even run for president," he has said. In his special Ramadan TV programme this year, Khaled advised women to get actively involved in their community: "Don't stay at home and do nothing. Do, go, and don't say that Islam says no, I can't work with men, etc."
One such go-getting woman is Bothaina Kamel, Egypt's first and only female presidential candidate, who is running in the forthcoming elections. However, Kamel is not playing the gender card in her campaign. "I'm not running for the presidency of women in the Republic of Egypt, I'm running for the president of the Republic of Egypt!" Kamel, a television presenter, explained in a past interview with the Weekly.
Yet, Kamel seems all too aware of the disparity in the current political participation of women. "It is very difficult to talk about gender equality because [under the former regime] we were in a corrupt political system," she said. "The Constitution wouldn't allow for anything, and it was tailored around Mubarak and his son."
The challenge also lies in how Egyptian society, especially its male members, perceives female political leadership.
Ahmed Salah is a 42-year-old bawab, or building supervisor, from Fayoum, a town 130km from the capital. He looks after a residential building in Cairo's Heliopolis suburb, where he lives with his wife and children. When asked how he would react to a woman being the next Egyptian president, Salah's answer was adamant and forceful: "I would never accept it!" As if to justify the obvious, he quickly added: "What does she have that a man does not have?"
Other men, like engineering student Ahmed Mansour, sound less reluctant. "Why not [have a woman president]," answered the 21-year-old from Heliopolis, who attends the German University in Cairo (GUC).
EDUCATION AND EMPOWERMENT: Eliminating gender disparity begins with education, as knowledge helps to eradicate poverty. Today, nearly 40 per cent of Egyptian women are illiterate, and only 16 per cent of Egyptian full-time workers are female, according to UN Women.
Amina belongs to this active workforce, working as a full- time translator, attending night classes, and then going home to study. She admits to being tired. "However, I feel I am achieving something in my life," she says. Should an eventual husband request that she renounce her career aspirations, her mind is made up about what she would tell him: "I would rather give up marriage."
Amina is more optimistic about women's situation in Egypt after the revolution. "Before there was favouritism, but now I claim my rights," she adds.
However, a recent survey by Bayt.com, a Middle East job site, shows that 31 per cent of women in the Middle East and North Africa feel they receive less pay than their male colleagues despite working the same number of hours. The same percentage of working women think that they have less chance of being promoted than their male counterparts.
Despite these setbacks, many women in Egypt feel that work is a source of fulfilment. "The most important right for a woman in Egypt is economic empowerment because this may impact on the lives of married women who can't get a divorce because they are not financially independent," explains Zeinab Dabaa, a graduate in online journalism.
The convictions and professional ambitions of these Egyptian women make quite a contrast with how some men react to such female emancipation in their country.
GUC undergraduate Mansour approves of a woman pursuing a university education but only on one condition -- that it does not interfere with her duties as a mother and wife. His answer does not differ much either when it comes to a married woman's job prospects. "Her career comes second. If her husband tells her to quit her job because she can't take care of the family, she should listen to him."
MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE: Salah also expects his wife, whom he married when she was 14 years old, to do as he says, unless she can convince him otherwise. "In Egyptian villages, women have to listen to their husbands," he explains, adding that there is nevertheless room for discussion. His wife occasionally manages to convince him in her favour, he says. "After all, we are not living in the Stone Age anymore."
According to a UN 2000 marriage patterns survey, nearly 60 per cent of Egyptian women marry between the age of 20 and 24. Egypt's Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics released annual marriage statistics for Egypt in July, revealing that there were over 864,000 marriages last year, but also more than 149,000 divorces, representing a 5.6 per cent increase on 2009.
Some experts are saying that the khul law, a divorce law passed in 2000, is making it easier for Egyptian women to obtain a divorce. According to Azza Suleiman, head of the Egyptian Centre for Women's Legal Assistance, it now takes five years in court for a woman to separate from her spouse. However, in a previous interview with the Weekly she pointed out that "a man has the right to divorce a woman, while the courts only allow women to divorce men for a limited set of reasons."
Divorced women also can be stigmatised more than men in the country's conservative society. "In Egypt, we don't respect women who are divorced," said Amina, noting that whatever the reason for the divorce the woman is ostracised.
"If a woman wants a divorce, people will say that she can't live with a man and that there is therefore something wrong with her. If the husband is the one wanting a divorce, they will say that it is because she has flaws in her personality."
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE: According to a UN statistical commission report published in 2009, beating by a domestic partner remains highly prevalent in Egypt. "Many women are still beaten by men," affirmed Amina.
In fact, more than seven in 10 women surveyed in the UN report identified their current or previous husband as having been the perpetrator in at least one episode of physical violence.
"Maybe the man is angry, and he beats his wife accidentally or something," said GUC student Mansour, adding that if the husband keeps beating his wife, she should leave him.
Improving women's access to education and raising levels of education in society as a whole are promising strategies to help reduce wife beating, concludes the UN report.
COMMUNITY AWARENESS: Some Egyptian women also say that attitudes toward women in the larger society need to change.
"What I would like to see is more respect from men towards women, and this respect should come from conditioning by the media, education, and at work," Lutfi, a former American University in Cairo professor, said. "Men and women need to interact more, and mutual respect and trust needs to develop between them."
Khaled believes that women are drawn to his preaching for the simple reason that "I respect them."
For Amina, respect begins at home and is part of a mother's responsibility to raise her children without discrimination. "Yet, a son is always privileged over a daughter," she says. "Mothers need to bring up their sons and daughters in the same way. Daughters should not be treated as if they had broken wings."
Women also need to be made more aware of their rights. "Many women still think that they shouldn't have the same rights as men," explains Lutfi.
On the occasion of International Women's Day in March, hundreds of women took to the streets in Tahrir Square to draw attention to their rights in post- revolution Egypt. But many were either harassed or beaten. "Some women came to watch what was going on and shouted to women on the march 'why are you making so much fuss' and 'we don't need more rights,'" said Dabaa.
Women themselves seem divided about perceptions of their gender. "I have never been discriminated against, and women in Egypt have a lot of rights," Dabaa said. "We are a culture that to some extent likes to protect women, and women need to be protected more than men."
In contrast, Lutfi says that women in Egypt continue to be shrouded in taboos. "The female body is still regarded as something threatening that needs to be controlled and protected. It is burdened with connotations of honour and shame," she said.
Despite such differences, many voices are expressing optimism about the future for Egyptian women after the 25 January Revolution.
"I am not afraid anymore because change will continue," said Amina, though Dabaa is more hesitant. "We won't really see the results of the revolution right now, especially if we are talking about women's rights," she remarked. "In post-revolution Egypt, we have bigger priorities, such as re-establishing stability, the constitution, and the upcoming elections."
Perhaps Lutfi best expressed what many women in the New Egypt are thinking: "Things will change, but it will take time"