Egypt: from equality of purpose to equality on the ground

"We acted together and we all adhere to the same values: justice, compassion, and unity, and these values are engraved in our souls. It is our unwritten constitution – the ethics inside all of us. Women died with men, and men protected us as women". Nora Rafeh Refa Tahtawy, 23 year old student protestor

There can be no question that women have been an integral part of the revolution across the Arab region, standing and dying alongside men in the streets. Arab women are now asking whether this equality of purpose will be translated into real gender equality on the ground as new constitutions and laws are drafted, elections held, and new committees and political parties formed from mainly male coalitions. Women know they must be vigilant in the coming months. Already some dark clouds are gathering.

In Egypt not one woman is a member of the Constitutional Drafting Committee; few women sit on any of the committees formed to shape the new government and its institutions. In meetings held with the Prime Minister and the Army Chiefs women were not included in the protest movements’ delegations. New political parties are rapidly emerging where men predominate. Questions must be answered, and soon. Will there be quotas for women candidates at forthcoming elections? How can the voting behaviour of the masses be changed, especially in the villages and rural areas where patriarchy is so dominant, so that the concept of a female parliamentarian is no longer abhorrent or alarming? Prejudices abound across the region at the grass-roots, especially in the rural areas.

What measures can Arab women take to ensure that post-revolution politics properly embraces women’s rights and empowerment?

In Egypt there is no shortage of well-qualified women in the fields of law, medicine, economics, education, science and administration, so there can be no excuses for this failure to include them proportionately in the committees formed to shape the new government. Nor can there be any representation of their views by the old regime. The coalition of women's NGO's in Egypt was quick to issue a statement last week denouncing the decision of the of the National Council of Women - established and presided over by the wife of the ex-president - to represent their views at international gatherings such as the 55th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women now meeting in New York.

In New York last Friday the new UN gender entity UN Women, in its first week of work, brought together a panel of Arab women activists to describe their experiences of the past weeks and to discuss their role in political transition. How can these women ensure that the values they fought for are not lost in the succeeding months? How can they insure that the momentum of the revolution is maintained, and that women who came out onto the streets under the slogan of “Freedom, Democracy, and Social Justice” are not now simply shunted into the background, left without a voice just when the hard decisions determining the new models of government are being made.

UN Women’s Chief Executive, Michelle Bachelet, is determined to see all women empowered and participating in decision-making: hosting this panel of Arab woman activists in New York was an early indicator of this commitment. Also taking part, by video link, was a panel of Egyptian NGO workers in Cairo.

Dr.Maya Morsy, UN Women Director for Egypt, sees the revolution as offering unique opportunities to accelerate gender equality and gender justice because women have been such an integral part of the protest. But she sent out a warning signal. “Women’s status may remain unchanged, even if the conditions alter”. She called for women to act collectively to insist on real empowerment, and not be satisfied with small improvements that do nothing to change the status quo.

Nora Rafeh Refa Tahtawy, a 23 year old student protestor, was out in Tahrir Square during the most dangerous days. She saw people beaten, wounded and killed, but is full of optimism. “Words cannot describe the experience of being in Tahir Square . It was closest to Utopia”. Awed by the enormity of what they, the people, had achieved, she begged us to remember the martyrs and the wounded who were the “true heroes”. “We succeeded because we were leaderless and there were no boundaries, we were all there together men and women ; covered and uncovered girls; rich and poor; Christians and Muslims; secular and religious.” “Don’t keep saying the revolution was led by youth – it was all of us, old and young! We acted together and we all adhere to the same values: justice, compassion, and unity and these values are engraved in our souls. It is our unwritten constitution – the ethics inside all of us which is why we succeeded. Women died with men and men protected us as women. We were “one family. I say to all you women in other countries, keep fighting and you will win!” She and her friends would continue to fight until they achieve all their goals. “The sky is the limit for women in this region and the world”.

Writer and journalist Dr Azza Kamel, a prominent Egyptian women's rights activist, used poetic metaphors to describe this “revolution without violence” and the euphoria of engaging in it. Women had “offered their souls as well as their bodies, weaving their way to freedom in a new world”.

Nihad Abut el- Komsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, spoke of the women activists who had risked imprisonment, torture and death by signing and distributing petitions and holding protest meetings, and remembered the young woman who told her story on 6th April on Facebook and who had been arrested. She wrote on her wall “I am not afraid to go to prison. I don’t need your protection. But you must protect the future”. More than seven thousand people had responded on line - in a precursor of what was to come months later.

The front page of a popular Egyptian newspaper last week carried the headline “ We prefer no woman to be Prime Minister nor President” with an article ridiculing women’s campaigns for equal rights. The Egyptian cabinet has no new post for a woman nor any new woman Minister. A male member of one of the coalitions was heard to say that this was "no time to be talking about gender issues"; this discussion could come late once the new government has been formed.

Moez Doraid , UN Women’s Director of Programmes in the region, called this revolutionary time a great historic moment for Arab Women, and a testing time for also for UN Women with so many demands on its resources. It is also a testing time for the various coalitions that are nurturing new political parties. The people rose up for freedom and democracy, and Doraid said that if women are not free and equal, there can be no democracy, that much depends on getting support from men heading the coalitions and committees, and from men in the villages who are the custodians of traditions.

Women talking to us from Cairo said that they are developing a Road Map to advance actions to promote women’s rights. They are looking to UN Women for technical expertise and support to help them reach the most marginalised rural women who have all suffered under years of tyranny and corruption. Expectations of UN Women are running high as it reformulates its programmes in North Africa and the Middle East, and works to build on the comparative experiences of women in the region as it draws up its Strategic Plan to be launched in June 2011.

Margaret Owen was reporting from a panel discussion on Breaking new ground: Arab women and the path to democracy, hosted by UN Women at the UN Commission on the Status of Women being held in New York.