International Women's Day in Egypt Highlights Need for Women's Rights

Last year on March 8 – International Women’s Day – a group of women and men took to Tahrir Square to draw attention to the importance of protecting and promoting women’s rights. At the time, few had come down from the thrill of the “18 days” that led to Mubarak’s ouster, and spirits were high. So when the demonstrators faced first vicious verbal attacks and, later, physical confrontations, it was a depressing moment. The square that had been lauded as remarkably harassment-free during the initial uprising had reverted to a space where women and their concerns about justice and equality were not welcome. 

Among the haranguers that day were some men who believed that women did not belong demonstrating in Tahrir at all. Their words and violence were a shock and a disappointment. But apart from such extremists, many argued that it was the focus on women’s rights specifically that was the problem. Even if they agreed about the importance of women’s human rights, they believed a demonstration promoting them was strategically ill-timed. They argued that there were more fundamental matters that would need to be dealt with first: consolidating the transition to civilian rule, holding elections, bringing justice to those murdered by the regime during the uprising, and so on.

The problem with this perspective is that it is historically myopic and fails to acknowledge that as the transition goes, so will the regime that follows. Time and again throughout history – including during prior periods of social upheaval in the Middle East – women were told to take a backseat while the real revolution happened, only to see unequal power dynamics and patriarchal politics reemerge.  

The past year has shown that that’s exactly what will happen in Egypt unless women’s rights are taken more seriously. On March 9, 2011, seven women were subjected to forced “virginity tests” after being arrested by the military for protesting. One, the courageous Samira Ibrahim, took the military to court, where the practice was ruled illegal. In November, the photograph of soldiers stripping, beating, and kicking an apparently unconscious women – “blue bra girl” – shocked many Egyptians and sparked a women’s protest. While the outcry over the incident showed abhorrence at the woman’s treatment, it also demonstrated the frustrating reality that women’s voices and defense of their right to be in the public sphere were far from accepted. A number of participants expressed frustration that the strong women demonstrating against brutality were surrounded by men proclaiming to protect them from harassment, in the process reproducing stereotypical gender dynamics.

Beyond the level of the street, women’s voices have been even more absent. Not a single woman was present on the committee that met last spring to amend the constitution before elections could be held. Just eleven women sit in the new parliament – out of 508 representatives total – after quotas for women’s representation were scrapped and most women who did run were placed near the bottom of their party lists. Attempts by women’s rights advocates to meet with male and female candidates to discuss women’s issues were largely ignored. The Salafi party, Hizb al-Nour, responded to the requirement that at least some women be nominated by putting pictures of flowers on campaign materials rather than pictures of actual candidates. And many of the laws that women’s rights advocates campaigned for for years that were passed under the Mubarak regime, with which they cooperated because they had no other choice, have been derided as “Suzanne’s Laws” after the former president’s wife and are now under attack by conservative politicians.

These and other setbacks have not been met with silence. To the contrary, throughout the past year activists and NGOs have fought to keep women’s rights visible and to counter exclusionary rhetoric and practices. This International Women’s Day, activists have called for a march on parliament where they will protest women's absence from the groups set to draw up Egypt's future, including its constitution. The Egyptian Center for Women's Rights has announced that it will set up a parallel constituent assembly to propose its own version of a new Egyptian constitution. 

That’s the good part of this story: Women are not backing down. If anything, the more depressing moments of the past year have reaffirmed to them the importance of their efforts. Rather than writing off their efforts by resorting to condescending stereotypes about Arab or Muslim misogyny, we should recognize the difficulty of overcoming gender-based oppression and violence in every culture and take our cue from the brave activists on the ground fighting for their rights, who see the possibility of a better, more equal future.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Carolyn Barnett

Carolyn Barnett is studying for an MA in Islamic Studies and MSc in Middle East Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She graduated from Georgetown University in 2009 and studied at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad in Cairo, Egypt in 2009-2010. Her interests are in Middle East politics, Islam, gender, and the causes and consequences of the Arab uprisings.

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