By Shahira Amin*
Cairo – Since its very beginning in January, the Egyptian revolution has been an all inclusive people’s movement: the Islamists, the Christians or Copts, men, women, the young, the elderly… entire families were there.
Like in the last few days, Tahrir square was boiling. And it wasn’t just the men who had camped out there vowing to stay put until Mubarak steps down. It was also the women.
They conducted security checks at the entrances and exits to the square. They treated and nursed the injured, they distributed food and they protested alongside the men. Often it was the women who were at the podium chanting anti regime slogans with the men chanting after them.
There has been no discrimination based on gender, age, religion or political ideology. The gaps were bridged and no one cared who was taking the lead.
Who were these women in Tahrir and what had they achieved until then?.
“They Want the Same Things”
These were the mothers, the daughters, the wives and the sisters. Women make up half the society and they wanted the same things that their husbands, their sons, their fathers and brothers wanted.
They too were protesting against police brutality, the lack of freedom to express themselves, the high unemployment, the social inequality .
Although many people watching the events in Tahrir were surprised to see the women of Egypt rubbing shoulders with the men, it was really no surprise that these women were there.
Egyptian Women Revolution in 1919
Lets’ not forget that it was as early as 1919 when Egyptian women took to the streets in their burqas or face veils and led a protest march demanding their rights. So how did these women fare before the revolution and how far have they come in since the mass uprising in January.
You will be surprised to hear that In the last decade and a half women in Egypt had made some advancements under the former regime: Egyptian women are the only women in the Muslim world who are able to divorce their husbands under what is called the “khul’” system.
They simply have to return the bride price or dowry to their husbands and then they can break free from an unhappy marriage. This right was granted to them in recent years and was a major breakthrough.
The Right to Divorce
Before ‘Khul’” many women had suffered for long years waiting for a court ruling to put an end to their unhappy marriages: more often than not they were forced to stay trapped in the marriage and were not be granted their request for divorce.It was up to the man alone to decide to divorce his wife.
Sometimes the husband would take a second wife or leave the country altogether, and leave the first wife “hanging”unable to take any action. just think how unfair it is when a man can simply divorce his wife by uttering three simple words: I divorce you!
Another positive was the fact that women married to men of non egyptian nationality were granted the right to pass on their nationality to their children. Previously, it was the father who alone was able to do that.
Criminalizing Female Genital Mutilation
Then there was the Health ministry decree that came into effect in 2008 criminalizing female genital mutilation. This came in response to the deaths in the summer of 08 of two girls who had had the surgery.
The girls’ death from Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) related causes triggered a public outcry against the practice and women activists took to the streets demanding an end to this harmful surgery that scars a girl physically and emotionally for life… affecting not just her well being but the entire family.
The change did not happen overnight ..the decree was the result of years of campaigning against the practice in remote villages and hamlets. The campaign involving religious leaders, community leaders, families, volunteers, UN agencies and NGOs.
It was a slow and tedious process and we have yet to see the practice wiped out. Old habits as you know die hard and this is a centuries old tradition.
There are still men in conservative rural communities today who will tell you they will not marry a girl who has not been circumcised. The belief is that genital cutting preserves a girl’s chastity and protects the family honour.
Less FGM, More Education
But the good news is that the percentage of women who have undergone the surgery in Egypt today is lower than it was in the late nineties… it used to be 97 per cent before the start of the campaign, now it has dropped to an estimated 76 per cent.
Another success story is girls education and particularly the one class or community schools as they are called. These are what are known as girl friendly schools that have been built in the remote areas to give girls a learning opportunity.
They were built on land donated by some wealthy person in the community not far from the homes of the residents of the community.
In places that are a distance away from the nearest school parents and families usually prefer not to send their daughters as they don’t want them to walk long distances or to use public transport so the priority is for their sons to get an education.
These schools have made it possible for girls aged ten to fifteen to acquire life skills and get a basic education including on hygiene, reproductive health etc. whilst at the same time they can work on the farm and earn a daily wage, take care of siblings and help with household chores.
The schools provide interactive learning, art, creativity and the results have been wonderful. Girls who attend usually want to continue their studies and are marrying at a later age … they no longer want to be child brides because they become more aware of the dangers of early pregnancies and the schools have helped bridge the gender gap in education at the primary level.
The Not So Good News
So is the picture rosy… of course not. It was just about giving you the good news first. The not so good news is that women were lagging behind in political participation..there was hardly any representation of women in parliament.
In the last legislative election in Nov. 2010 the Mubarak government reintroduced the quota system for women reserving 64 seats for women in the two houses of parliament.
What now after the revolution? The picture is somewhat worrying but not bleak. After the initial euphoria and after the activists went home, women activists tried to stage a rally on women s day on the 8th of march to call for greater rights.
The energy from the revolution was still there and they felt now was the time to express their demands along with everybody else. The women activists were attacked by men dressed as Islamists who told them to return home where they belong and to cover up.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces
Now in my personal view, these were not islamists but old regime thugs sent to terrorize the women and keep them away from Tahrir square. No one knows for sure.
Then when it was time to decide on constitutional amendments, the SCAF or the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces which is in control in the transitional period decided to create a committee of wise men.
Not a single woman was invited to participate in the discussions. We now have only one female minister and she is from the old government. And the calls are growing louder to scrap both the health ministry decree on genital cutting and to scrap the women’s quota.
The New Egypt
All of that is worrying but… when you take a closer look at the new Egypt, what do we find. We find it was young girls who led these mass protests and ignited the first spark of the revolution.
They are still incredibly active online debating all the issues, calling for protests for faster reforms, challenging the authorities and getting their voices heard.
And it is not all talk either. Girls took to the streets with their male counterparts painting the pavements, cleaning the streets of garbage and directing traffic in the early weeks after the uprising. They too felt they now had a stake in their country.
Unprecedented Political Activism
The good news is that the level of political activism among women is unprecedented. They too want to be on board. They have had their first taste of freedom, have found their voices and no longer are satisfied to take a back seat. I saw more women turning up to vote in the constitutional referendum than men.
Now many women are joining political parties even though they lack the expertise and when i attended a workshop on public campaigning and mobilisation at Cairo University, I saw more women there than men trying to learn more about how they can run in the elections. And for the first time ever, we have a female presidential candidate.
Bothayna Kamel knows she may not win as society may not be ready yet for a woman president but she simply wanted to shatter the glass ceiling for other women.
So I don’t think I am wrong when i say the future of Egypt will be in the hands of its women. I find them serious, active and enthusiastic.
They are no longer satisfied to walk one step behind their men or even shoulder to shoulder… they seem eager to lead and have shown they are capable. What they need now is to be given the chance.
*Shahira Amin is a well know Egyptian journalist and analyst. Currently she is Senior Anchor/Correspondent, Nile TV, and CNN contributor. Amin had resigned from NileTV on February, 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. Read why Shahira Amin resigned from the “propaganda machine” here.This article may be re-published, sourcing to Human Wrongs Watch.
**Photo credit: Mariam Soliman | Wikimedia Commons
Other stories by Shahira Amin on Human Wrongs Watch:
Copyright © 2011 Human Wrongs Watch