By Shahira Amin
Cairo – The women of Egypt were at the vanguard in the eighteen day January 2011 mass uprising that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak. But since then, they have been sidelined and pushed back into the shadows.
As they struggle for greater equality, women are becoming increasingly concerned that the gains they’ve made in recent years may be reversed. This, as a rising tide of Islamism and a ruthless military regime threaten to silence their voices and undermine their rights.
Islamists took a commanding lead in recent parliamentary elections winning more than 70% of the seats—a worrying prospect for women seeking gender equality. For despite their promises to support the revolutionary goals of freedom, democracy and justice and to press for a secular agenda, the Islamists are calling for the implementation of Sharia Law.
The Personal Status Law
Egypt’s current Personal Status Law which dictates the rules of marriage divorce, employment and inheritance has been derived from Sharia and discriminates against women. Liberals argue that the Islamists dominating parliament would likely resist any amendments to the Personal Status law.
Only a handful of women have taken up seats in the new parliament after a Mubarak-era quota system reserving 68 seats for women was abolished ahead of the parliamentary vote last year. The election results have fuelled fears that obstacles remain to women playing a full role in political life. Foremost among these is a deep-rooted patriarchal culture.
Female Genital Mutilation
There are also concerns that the centuries-old tradition of female genital cutting (FGC) or mutilation –widespread especially in the rural communities—may continue unchecked.
This, after recent calls by Islamists to scrap a 2008 Health Ministry Decree criminalising the practice Advocates of FGC argue that the ‘Mubarak-era decree’ was an attempt “to impose Western values on our culture.
But despite the setbacks, there are some hopeful signs – like Bothaina Kamel’s bid for the presidency.
Shattering the Glass Ceiling
Egypt’s first female Presidential candidate is fully aware that her chances of winning the top job are slim. Still, she says she wants to “shatter the glass ceiling” and make it possible for other women to compete in future presidential elections.
Bothaina is a staunch advocate for minority rights including the rights of Copts, Nubians and Bedouins. Her efforts have earned her a large following among both sexes, including young supporters who tweet that she has given them “a chance to dream.
But not all Egyptians share Bothaina’s enthusiasm. A year after the mass protests that forced out Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians are growing increasingly weary. The country is now divided into two camps: that of the revolutionary forces and what Egyptians call the “couch party”.
The latter refers to those who do not wish to actively engage in politics and who opt instead for stability.
Ordinary Egyptians on the streets now say “the emotional upheavals of the past year have drained us,” or that “we simply want to get on with our lives. We have children to feed.” Some go even further accusing the Tahrir crowd of being “foreign agents who want to destroy the country.”
State-controlled media, still the mouthpiece of the regime, has succeeded in turning a sizeable portion of the population against the revolution.
Media messages that “the economy is on a free fall,’ that ‘ thugs and criminals are on the loose” and “foreign invisible hands are fomenting the unrest” have succeeded in scaring a public that’s yearning for security.
Workers Demanding Better Work Conditions
Military tanks are back patrolling the streets after reports of widespread looting and thuggery.
In recent months, there’s also been wave after wave of strikes by workers demanding better work conditions and higher wages.
Pro-reform activists have also repeatedly staged sit -ins outside key government buildings like Parliament, the Defence Headquarters or State TV. They have been calling for “Qassas” or justice for the victims killed or injured in the recent wave of bloody protests.
“Transfer Power to Civilian Rulers”
They are also calling for an immediate transfer power to a civilian government–demands that have as yet fallen on deaf ears.
The military council running the country has dealt harshly with dissidents , subjecting seven female protesters to forced “virginity tests” on 10 March 2011 in an effort to humiliate them.
Deliberate Systematic Targeting of Female Protesters
More recently, female activists were severely beaten during demonstrations in front of Parliament Headquarters.
According to rights activists, there’s been a deliberate systematic targeting of female protesters and journalists to keep them away from the protests.
The activists cite the attacks on CBS reporter Lara Logan in Tahrir Square in February 2011 and more recently, on two other foreign journalists covering the protests as examples of intimidation of female journalists by security forces.
A youtube video showing a young Egyptian female protester being stripped to her bra and dragged by soldiers went viral on the internet late last year, triggering an international outcry.
In response to the shocking incident, three thousand female protesters marched in a rally from Tahrir Square to the Journalists Syndicate in downtown Cairo, denouncing the brutal use of force by the military and security forces against peaceful protesters.
They demanded the prosecution of Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi (the head of SCAF) for crimes against humanity.
“The Girl in the Blue Bra”
“The girl in the blue bra” has come to symbolise the struggle of Egyptian women for freedom and equality . She also epitomises the failure of the Egypt Spring as the aspirations of the pro-democracy activists have yet to be fulfilled.
While the women’s march was effective in piling pressure on the military rulers to speed up the reform process, it also revealed a widening gap between the country’s secularists and conservatives.
Feminists were shocked and disappointed to hear a prominent Muslim Brotherhood MB female member denounce the rally.
Manal Aboul Hassan, Head of the women’s committee in the Freedom and Justice Party accused the protesters of carrying out foreign agendas. She was quoted by an independent newspaper as saying the women should have stayed home and it should have been their husbands, brothers or sons rallying on their behalf.
The “Sisters” of Muslim Brotherhood
While the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) –outlawed for decades under successive Egyptian regimes– have tried to adopt a reformist agenda since taking centre-stage in Egyptian politics, the group clearly favours a “traditional” or stereotypical role for women.
The “Sisters” as female members of the MB are referred to, have for decades devoted their time to charity work and social activities. Although they ran in the last parliamentary election, yet they do not hold seats on the party’s leadership council.
These have all been reserved for the men.
Many Women in Egypt Feel Betrayed
Many women in Egypt feel betrayed and often complain that ‘the revolution has been stolen” from them by the military regime and the Islamists.
While they wait for the Personal Status Law to be amended so that their status may be improved and for new legislation to curb widespread sexual harassment, the women of Egypt wonder how long it will be before they reap the fruits of the revolution.
But a year on, their resolve has not weakened and they vow to continue to fight for their rights. And as Kamel proclaims, “A momentum has started and it is irreversible. We shall continue to build on that momentum.”
*Shahira Amin is a well know Egyptian journalist and analyst. Currently she is Senior Anchor/Correspondent, Nile TV, and CNN contributor. Amin resigned from NileTV in an open protest against the biased, pro-regime coverage of the Egyptian revolution, which she actively joined in Tahrir Square. Shahira Amin is known for her unwavering defence of freedom, democracy, social justice and gender equality.
**Photo credit: Mariam Soliman | Wikimedia Commons