Not yet a revolution: the fight for women’s rights in Egypt continues

While the eighteen day uprising saw Egypt’s men and women equally contribute to the greater good of the country and fought side by side in the face of violence and drastic uncertainty, women’s rights are being undermined.

February 11 2011 seems a long time ago for many Egyptians. That night, millions in Tahrir Square, across the nation and across the world through Egypt’s diaspora celebrated a victory they never thought possible. That night, Egyptians celebrated together because their fight was won as a collective unit striving towards the same goals of bringing down Hosni Mubarak and his dictatorial regime. Slogans that night began to be chanted just as they were during the eighteen day uprising: “Muslims and Christians are one hand” and “Bread, freedom, and social justice for all” were among the most popular. Tahrir was full to the brim and the elderly were crying with overwhelming emotion while Egypt’s youth were hoisting each other up on their shoulders chanting and singing. You got the sense that you had stepped off the world and into a tiny utopian square where only joy and unity resided.  

Twenty months have passed since that celebratory evening, but February 11 seems a long distant memory, perhaps for Egypt’s women more than any other sect of Egyptian society. If you ask Egyptians today whether women were involved in the eighteen day uprising against Mubarak, you often receive a puzzling look followed by a, “Of course they did, everyone participated to get rid of Mubarak.” The question is received as nonsensical. Yet, the last twenty months have shown that while the eighteen day uprising saw Egypt’s men and women equally contribute to the greater good of the country and fighting side by side in the face of violence and drastic uncertainty, women’s rights are being undermined in the fight for a new democratic and progressive Egyptian era.

On March 9, 2011, less than two months after Mubarak’s resignation, Samira Ibrahim and seven other women were rounded up from Tahrir Square by military police who then subjected Ibrahim and the other women to virginity tests as well as beating them. The only reason the world is aware of such degrading acts is because Ibrahim had the courage to bring the humiliating practice of virginity tests to the public eye and take her case to a civilian court where in December 2011 virginity tests were banned. However, Dr Adel El Mogy, the man accused of carrying out the tests, was acquitted by a military tribunal, claiming that no such tests ever took place. I bring up the case of Ibrahim and the virginity tests because while being beaten and tortured are non-gender specific crimes and were carried out routinely on both men and women during Mubarak’s rule and the SCAF’S temporary rule in 2011 and half of 2012, virginity tests are a gender specific type of torture that seeks to specifically degrade women, and this has been a common theme that has been repeated over the last twenty months in many different ways.

Sexual harassment

The sexual harassment of women in Egypt appears to have mushroomed rapidly over the past twenty months. It has not been limited to only foreign women who do not dress modestly in a conservative state, as so many Islamist groups would like us to believe, and even if that lie were true, would not authorise sexual harassment. Rather, sexual harassment is a problem for foreign and Egyptian women alike, veiled or unveiled.

“Where has this all come from?” There are many answers to that question but it is first important to note that sexual harassment has always been a problem in Egypt and is not a new phenomenon born out of the eighteen day uprising. It has occurred most notably in recent years during the Eid holidays in 2006 and 2008 where a number of Egyptian men went far beyond cat calling and started grabbing and ripping off women’s clothing.

One of the main causes for the increase in sexual harassment is the lack of respect and fear towards the police who became a symbol of enmity during the eighteen day uprising, leaving them unable to contain the protestors – a failure which saw the military take over Egypt’s policing duties. The police have since returned to Egypt’s streets, but they have returned with reluctance to get involved in actual policing for fear of being targeted by protestors and civilians who may seek revenge for the police brutality exercised during the uprising. This has left some Egyptian men to act without impunity and combating sexual harassment has been left to civilians and vigilante groups.

These vigilante groups are a step in the right direction and they should be commended for taking an active stance in protecting women’s rights to walk freely without fear on Egypt’s streets. But vigilantism is not the solution and the problem lies in spreading the message across the country and through the rule of law that sexual harassment is a serious crime. Moreover, relying on men to protect women on the streets only reinforces the notion that women need a man’s protection which again undermines any sense of gender parity. While the acquittal of Dr. Adel El Mogy was a damning blow to Ibrahim and other women’s rights activists, there is some cause for hope, in that only last week a 42 year old man was sentenced to two years in jail for a sexual assault crime which may pave the way for further convictions and as a deterrent to others.

Egypt’s new constitution

The fight for women’s rights goes far beyond the physical domain of virginity tests and sexual harassment. The Constitutional Assembly responsible for drafting Egypt’s new Constitution has already been heavily criticised for its positioning on women’s rights. The latest twist came in the form of Article 68 which provided equal rights and treatment for women so long as it was “without prejudice to the provisions of Islamic law.” This condition, which conforms to Article 2, stating that, “Principles of Islamic law (shari’a) are the principal source of legislation” left women’s rights open to abuse through the interpretation of Islamic law.

In reaction to the protest against Article 68, it has subsequently been removed from the latest constitutional draft and it remains to be seen how women’s rights are to be safeguarded in a new constitution without conditions. There is also the argument whether in fact a constitutional article needs to specifically address women’s rights because by doing so it immediately highlights a reading that sees men and women as part of a binary composition where each gender’s rights and duties must be separately highlighted and defined. Again, a far cry from the days of Tahrir where no such distinctions were made. We begin to see how the slogans of “One Hand” and “Bread, freedom, and social justice” have begun to fall apart in dealing with Egypt’s gender dynamics.

The Islamist Government

What has the new Islamist dominated government that swept to power in the  parliamentary elections in December 2011 as well as the presidential election of former Muslim Brotherhood member, Mohamed Morsi, in June 2012 contributed to this gathering crisis? The current constitutional assembly, which originally only had six women in a committee of one hundred members, is dominated by members of Islamist parties that sadly seek to limit the role and rights of women through their interpretation of Islamic (Shari’a) law that can have vast implications on women’s rights including women’s rights to divorce as well as blur women’s social and political rights.

This domination of Islamists in government has a trickle down effect on Egyptian society, and so long as women’s rights are not protected at the very top institutions and assemblies in the nation, it will not be respected throughout the nation. That is not to say that women’s rights cannot be achieved through an Islamic framework, and there are plenty of women’s rights activists and groups that do seek equality through Islam. However, what is alarming is that this Islamic framework, as shown through the now defunct Article 68, currently resides in the subjective opinion of a select group of members from Islamist parties who also happen to be men, and they are not seeking out the opinion or listening to the demands of women’s rights activists, whether they be secular or Islamic in their ideology. The Islamists are being challenged by liberals and secularists who are also seeking to protect the rights of religious minorities such as Egypt’s Coptic Christians who make up 20% of the population, but as parliamentary and presidential elections showed, it is currently an unfair fight.

You may have noticed that I have consistently referred to the eighteen days as an uprising and not a revolution. That is because I believe a revolution is not just the toppling of the political regime of a nation, but rather a wholesale change in a nation’s social behaviour and attitude towards one another. Egypt’s women protested, chanted and fought alongside men equally during the uprising and so no revolution in Egypt will be complete until Egyptian law and society does away with any inequalities that target women.  The fight for women’s rights is a fight that continues on Egypt’s streets and in its governmental corridors, and many Egyptians now use a different slogan from what was chanted that night on February 11 - one that goes hand in hand with women’s rights: Al Thawra Mostamera. The Revolution Continues.

About the author

Ahmed Kadry is currently doing his PhD in Arab Cultural Studies at Imperial College London on Egyptian socio-political feminist identity and discourse in the 1952 and 2011 Egyptian Revolutions. He blogs here and tweets @ahmedkadry.