Revisiting the Revolution: How Far Have Egyptian Women Come?

Revisiting the Revolution: How Far Have Egyptian Women Come? February 2, 2012

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011: the day thousands of Egyptians—Christians and Muslims, men and women, young and old—lined the streets of Tahrir Square in non-violent, civil-resistance in attempt to overthrow the regime of then President, Hosni Mubarak.

Women protest in Tahrir Square on January 25, 2011. Photo via Al Jazeera.

A year later, Wikipedia hosts a page titled “2011 Egyptian Revolution;” Egyptians mourn the loss of their sons, brothers, and husbands; and Americans have moved on to follow the never-ceasing Republican debates with hardly an indication of Egypt on their radar.

On the other hand, as the newly, democratically elected Egyptian Parliament convenes, citizens once again swell around Tahrir square. This has been deemed a moment of renewed uprising against the military council, a remembrance of the 1,000 protestors killed over the past year, and a celebration of the move forward. Meanwhile, news sources have gone to task speculating about the state of women in Egypt post-revolution.

Preoccupation with the future of Egyptian women and how women’s status might be impacted as a result of the recent elections has prompted extensive coverage on the issue in the past week. The analysis is varied, perhaps as much as the opinions of Egyptian women regarding their current status or impending fate under the new Parliament.

There are largely two camps of opinions amongst media speculators regarding the progress, or lack thereof, made in the past year and what the newly elected, “conservative” government envisages for the future of women’s rights in Egypt.

Some are cynical, or perhaps just prudent, drawing on the stagnancy—in some cases regression—regarding women rights in the past year, as an ominous sign of things to come. Others are optimistic, saying instead that the mere placement of women in the public sphere of Egypt’s civic life is indicative of a new way forward for women.

Al-Arabiya News author Najat Al-Saeid examines these sentiments. Noting the incident that unfolded last December, where a female protestor was chased, dragged, beaten, and stripped by Egyptian troops, Al-Saeid is one of those who believe that the revolution has not and will not result in any improvement in women’s status. She says, Arab women must establish a union or organization, which spans beyond just one country, to protect and strengthen their rights—and it must start with Egypt.

In spite of the newly, democratically elected parliament, columnist Raghida Dergham, in an article for the Huffington Post, questions the legitimacy of this democratic process saying,

“…democracy has been abortive as a result of excluding women and the youth from decision-making, and there are dangerous indications that the personal freedoms of Arab women and religious minorities are being undermined…” 

The Al-Nour Party and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party won about 70 percent of the seats in the new parliament. Though democratically elected, they seem to be endorsing ideas such as segregation of sexes and veiling, and putting the more pressing issues of divorce laws and violence against women on the backburner.

As reported by NPR, Dalia Abdel Hamid, the gender officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Human Rights said, “After the revolution everyone wanted to be represented and to have their voices heard but … women are just being marginalized by all the parties.”

Others seem to be singing a different tune, noting that the mere presence of women in public spaces in such large numbers is, in of itself, telling. A student protestor present in the demonstrations last week was asked if things are any better. She said that, at least for now, women can publicly campaign for their rights—albeit at a risk to their safety.

Victoria Hightower, assistant professor of history at North Georgia College & State University, says that “Women have been active in all of these protest movements in direct contradiction to the stereotype of the oppressed Muslim woman.” She thinks that the mere involvement of women in the revolution is cause for “cautious optimism.”

While women have historically been involved in revolutions, they are often brushed aside afterwards. Hightower says that the difference in the case of Egypt is that Egyptian women are highly aware of this possibility and therefore, aren’t willing to be pushed aside without a struggle. She cites an incident where a group of Egyptian women physically beat a group of young men who told them to dress more modestly, as evidence of this resilience.

Further evidence can perhaps be seen in the occurrence of a “Million Woman” march in late December to expose the military’s sexual violence against female demonstrators. These women chanted slogans, demanding the violence against women stop, as civilian men formed a protective circle around the female marchers so that they would not be assaulted by military police.

While I generally disagree with an overwhelming sentiment expressed in numerous articles, which is that one cannot be an Islamist while also being an empowered woman, the skepticism regarding the newly elected parliament’s ability to champion women’s rights issues is perhaps warranted.

In light of the fact that these “empowered” women seem to be operating in heavily male-dominated spaces, there is the concern that perhaps their voices will be hushed by men and their seats will become worthless quota signifiers. 

Mohamed Abla, a well-known painter and vocal critic of the military council, puts it perfectly saying, “We didn’t win…The revolution has moved into another stage now, and it seems we still have to fight and fight and fight.”

The take away: the revolution is by no means over—at least not for women. The hope is that after the democratically-induced euphoria fades, the voices of Egyptian women who remember that democracy isn’t always synonymous with justice and equality, will still reach the rungs of government.

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