Egypt: the battle over hope and morale

The deliberate attempt to discredit women's rights by associating them with the ex- first lady Suzanne Mubarak is a key challenge for women's rights activists in Egypt, so too is the battle not to surrender to the prophets of doom and gloom, Hoda Elsadda tells Deniz Kandiyoti

DK: As a women’s rights activist who was in Cairo during the momentous events of January 25th and has followed developments closely since, what do you see as the major gains of what you characterise as a “revolution”?

HES: Yes, I do insist on the term revolution (although I am aware this is a contested term) because on January 25th the people declared war against a corrupt and brutal regime. The first battle was won on February 11th with Mubarak stepping down, and many battles have been won and lost since then. For women who participated as militants in this initial moment of change it created feelings of euphoria and empowerment despite the many setbacks experienced since then. At the level of regaining initiative and the feeling that you have found a voice and that there is space for transformative activity, the feeling of empowerment still persists. Already, significant gains have been achieved.

DK: In the context you have just described, the events surrounding the International Women’s Day demonstration on the 8th of March, where women were heckled and harassed must have come as a bitter blow.

HES: Yes, it was a blow especially after the sense of euphoria and empowerment where women worked side by side with men in Tahrir Square on equal footing and without fear of harassment. This led to a great deal of soul searching. Was this bad timing, good old misogyny, cultural bias against women? It is probably all of the above combined, but more importantly, I believe that one of the key obstacles that women’s rights activists will face in the months and years to come is a prevalent public perception that associates women’s rights activists and activities with the ex-First Lady, Suzanne Mubarak and her entourage, that is with corrupt regime politics. This public perception is already being politically manipulated to rescind laws and legislative procedures that were passed in the last ten years to improve the legal position of women, particularly within Personal Status Laws (PSL). These laws are deliberately being discredited as “Suzanne’s laws”. The conflation between the policies of a discredited regime and women’s rights issues will constitute a major challenge to women’s rights activists in the post-revolution phase. This is partly due to the historical entanglement of women’s rights issues in political and ideological struggles, and goes back to the early stages of nation-building in the nineteenth century, when women became icons of the imagined national community, and subsequently the proof of the modernity of Egypt. Women’s bodies became the arena for the struggle over the character and image of the modern nation leading to the well-known ideological battles over the veiling and unveiling of women. Under Mubarak’s rule, and as he sought to present himself as the sole guardian of the commitment of Egypt to modern values in the battle against the rising power of Islamists in the Arab region, the role of the ex-First Lady as the foremost champion of women’s rights was fore-grounded and celebrated. What actually happened was that the work and struggles of women’s rights activists was appropriated and manipulated by state representatives.

DK: What do you have in mind when you refer to appropriation and manipulation?

Take for example the case of Law 1 of the year 2000 which mainly granted women the right to khul‘(a no-fault divorce) provided they forfeit their financial rights; facilitated access to court in the case of ‘urfi marriages; and introduced the new marriage contract, with a list of conditions in an appendix. Law 1 (2000) sought to rectify a backlog of unresolved family disputes before the courts by reforming procedures. This Law was drafted and campaigned for by women’s rights activists for more than a decade. In 1988, a group of advocates for women’s rights published a short booklet entitled al-Huquq al-qanuniyyali al-mar’a al-misriyyabayna al-nadhariyyawa al-tatbiq (Legal rights of Egyptian women in theory and practice). This booklet outlined the legal rights of women guaranteed under the PSL, as well as a number of recommendations for improvement, including a proposal for a new marriage contract that would allow a woman to stipulate conditions in her contract regulating her relationship with her husband, and facilitating litigation should a dispute arise. The conditions were not compulsory, and were to be negotiated by the couple entering into marriage. Conditions varied and included, for example, the right of a woman to a judicial no-fault divorce (khul‘), and the right to travel without obtaining permission from the husband. The proposal was conceptualised as a consciousness-raising tool, inviting men and women to consider their rights within marriage, and foregrounding women’s rights issues as a matter for public debate. In 1993, and in preparation for the ngo forum scheduled to take place in concert with the 1994 UN Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, the government appointed Aziza Hussein as head of the National Preparatory Committee for ngos. Ms. Hussein, a prominent and very well-respected women’s rights activist, seized this opportunity to mobilise women’s rights groups and activists to work collectively and lobby for women’s rights. The marriage contract proposal was revived and adopted by the Gender and Equality Committee. Legal, social, historical and economic studies were commissioned, and a media campaign was launched. The committee positioned itself within a liberal Islamic frame of reference, and presented evidence from Islamic history to support the idea that women can include conditions in their marriage contracts to guarantee their rights.

The advent of the ICPD and the international focus on Egypt also led to the revival of the National Commission for Women in 1993, and the beginnings of Suzanne Mubarak’s interest in women’s issues. The Commission adopted the project for procedural changes in PSL, including the new marriage contract and the introduction of the khul‘. In 2000, Law No. 1 was passed. Further legal modifications followed in 2004 and 2005, introducing a new family court system, establishing a fund to ensure fair and prompt access to alimony and child maintenance, and giving women custody of their children until the age of 15. In brief, Law No. 1 of 2000 as well as later modifications, was conceptualised and drafted thanks to the work and efforts of activists and women’s groups. At the same time, and this is a sobering note, it passed through parliament despite strong opposition largely because it was endorsed by the First Lady, hence earning the title of “Suzanne’s law”. This of course must be understood within the larger dynamics and power struggles within the political scene in Egypt during the Mubarak era.

DK: Despite the feelings of empowerment you described earlier, what do you see as the setbacks and causes for concern?

HES: First, women have been consistently marginalized. The Committee established in March 2011 to amend the Constitution did not include a single woman despite the fact that we have numerous female legal experts and professors of constitutional law. The Cabinet has only one woman member (from the old regime). Other appointments (at the level of governorates) reflect the same logic.

Another worrying trend is that some government officials are coming forward with proposals to rescind items of legislation in the Personal Status Law that safeguard women’s rights in matters of divorce and guardianship of children. The idea is to take the Code back to its so called “Islamic form”, cleansing it from “first lady” distortions. These attacks on women’s rights are not only backed by conservative Islamist voices, but also by conservative voices within liberal parties, such as the Wafd, aiming to gain points on cultural authenticity. Basically an opening has been created for political actors to claw back on women’s rights for short term, opportunistic gains in total disregard of the public good. As I explained earlier, these actors can manipulate the public perception which associates women’s rights with corrupt regime politics backed with US funding.

DK: Given these concerns, what are women’s rights activists doing about it?

HES: There are many ongoing activities and initiatives. One of them was the creation of the Coalition of Egyptian Feminist Organizations comprising 16 groups and established in February 2011. We are active in terms of monitoring events, engaging in advocacy and intervening in debates. Our activities are co-ordinated by our member organizations on a rotational, two-monthly basis. For instance, after we published a statement critical of the fact that the appointment of governors lacked any female representation one of the presidential candidates, Amr Moussa, contacted the Coalition and asked for a meeting. The meeting established that women are a constituency worth addressing and that our votes must be taken into consideration: more meetings are planned with all the presidential candidates. Coalition members are actively intervening in public debates, and starting new initiatives. One of the member organizations, the Women and Memory Forum, formed a research group working on a gender sensitive constitution to be made available to the drafting committee of the new constitution. We are taking initiatives and exerting political pressure where we can.

Another positive development is that women activists have begun to join political parties. Under the old regime political parties were not taken seriously; nowadays we have a proliferation of political parties of all stripes and persuasions, from left to right. Women are joining these parties and participating in politics. I have myself joined the Egyptian Democratic Socialist Party where, thanks to the work of feminist women and men, the party committed itself to a 30% representation of women in leadership positions in the short term, and parity in the long term. This demonstrates that feminists are working at the heart of the political system. The only space available previously for feminists as all activists in general was civil society; now there are more opportunities to participate in formal political society.

Still, scepticism persists about formal politics and formal parties and there are a large number of initiatives that are, structurally speaking, informal and primarily voluntary. To give just a few examples: the Freedom Bus takes people around the regions to do political consciousness raising and explaining the new rules about elections, and Alsahwa (Awakening) holds meetings and workshops all over Egypt to strengthen and promote political participation. In short, there is a proliferation of groups, and movements, all aiming to encourage participation in politics as well as in civil society in general. All initiatives draw on the newly discovered sense of empowerment and agency experienced by Egyptians after January 25th.

Of course, now that everyone is claiming public space we have competition over these spaces. For instance, we have witnessed an all-male demonstration of Salafis on 29th July 2011 that was well orchestrated with participants in traditional garb bussed in and out. We have also had massive turnouts of liberal men and women insisting on their political rights. At the moment the situation is very fluid. There is a battle over the identity and political future of Egypt.

There is also a battle over hope and morale. The official media is contributing to “killing the spirit” by reporting uniformly bad news and disseminating counter-revolution arguments. There is a concerted effort to portray the revolution and revolutionaries as responsible for the lack of security and the economic crisis in Egypt. These two claims are total rubbish, as the lack of security is first and foremost the responsibility of the police and the ruling SCAF, and the economic crisis is compounded by the failure of the SCAF and the government to adequately respond to the needs and demands of this transitional phase. It is crucial that we keep the momentum and that we do not surrender to the machinations of the prophets of doom and gloom.

DK: How do you see prospects for the future?

HES: If we are to see democratic processes take root, the first priority for women, as well as all Egyptians, is to make sure that military rule gives way to an electorally based, democratically constituted government. Any prolongation of the rule of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) will be detrimental to a genuine democracy. We do not want to replace one form of authoritarianism with another.

It is also important to recognise that there is an ongoing war over Egypt, and that the players are not exclusively internal but are also regional and international. We are all aware of funds pouring into Egypt from the Gulf countries and the West and many pressures are being exerted on local actors. Unlike Tunisia (luckily for them), Egypt happens to be very central to the geopolitical struggles in the Middle East, complicating the equation.

Women’s rights issues will remain at the forefront of the battleground, caught on the one hand between conservative religious agendas promoted by local forces, regional actors fearing contagion from democratic politics, and supported by imperialistic agendas competing over the wealth of the region, and on the other, those who aspire for genuine democratic freedoms. How the women’s rights agenda fares in the course of these struggles will be a litmus test for the future of democracy.

Bearing in mind all of the above challenges, and recognising that we might have to go through tough times as we transition to democracy, I have confidence that the newly discovered power of the people will stand us in good stead and pave the road to a better future for women and men.

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About the author

Hoda Elsadda is an academic and women’s rights activist.  She is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Cairo.  She is co-founder  and current Chair of the Board of the Women and Memory Forum , and is author of Gender, Nation and the Arabic Novel :Egypt 1892-2008 (Syracuse University Press and Edinburgh University Press, 2012).