Egyptian women's rights: no time for dissent

The act of dissent should match the need for equality, rather than the time for equality. In the fight for a right, there are no divisions.

Zainab Magdy
7 March 2015

Was there going to be a march in Cairo for International Women's Day?  The question is ridiculous. Since November 2013 an anti-demonstration law has been issued and used against Egyptian citizens. The question of a march was therefore futile. Protesters were in prison for months on end before they received their sentences: all from one to five year sentences for protesting in the past year and a half.

Who's up for some women rights talk these days anyway? We’re fighting terrorism.

The excuses that deem the current moment unfit for dissent are endless. Yet those finding excuses are not only those propagating an endless stream of nationalist discourse across the country. There are those who see the moment as unfit for women's rights when none of us have any rights at all.

I can't argue with that. We don't have any rights. Even the single act of taking to the streets which has brought us to this very moment has been taken away, and with heavy costs. But what brings us to this point where we start giving up the fight for certain things because there are other matters more pressing at the moment?  I think that what we do not realize is that it is patriarchy at play when we yet again decide what to fight for and when.

What makes me think of all this is the conversations I have with people who share my beliefs of social equality, yet who believe that women's rights are at this moment unimportant in the face of other constant human rights transgressions. There are also those who think that women and men from a certain educational and social background are forcing their own beliefs about equality on others less privileged than themselves. What remains of these conversations is that I feel that the importance of fighting for women's rights has become something one has to stress not only among people whom you know do not believe in those rights, but also among those who you assume do believe in them.  

Despite the fact that everything around us is extremely depressing I am still always impressed and moved and inspired by the work that groups fighting for women are doing wherever they are in the country. The current situation of women especially those marginalized by class, religion, social constructions of beauty and sexuality and sexual orientation, compels them to force upon the society their feelings of the necessity of dissent despite whatever excuses are made. They are fighting for themselves in whatever small way they can through endless initiatives, campaigns and social events, and even if just by expressing themselves on social media.

Until that moment when someone argues with you about state violence being gendered, or that when you insist on women being granted equal civil rights in Egyptian laws you disregard the problematic of class and labour, or that the work you are doing for a better understanding of gender equality is targeted at a specific class which makes you elitist. Then I start thinking about compromise, and how all those who are marginalized by state, the community, by tradition and customs, will again be those who will be asked to wait while we all get treated as human beings.

The heart of patriarchy of this society lies in shunning a number of individuals as 'unfit' and as 'different'. So that fighting for the equality of women is in itself an act of going against a very deeply rooted patriarchal mentality that is at the base of what our society is made of. To fight for women who are further marginalized by whatever sets them differently from the traditional concept of what a woman should be in the society becomes even harder. You are going further against what a patriarchal community can comprehend when you fight, for instance, for a woman's right to live on her own without belonging to a patriarchal unit: a father, brother, or a husband.

What happens then when this woman lives on her own not abiding by societal norms, starts advocating for the rights of women less privileged than herself? It becomes a bit messy at that point. It becomes messy because questioning whether an activist working for gender equality is fit to fight for the rights of those who are less privileged is crippling not empowering. By no means should a person decide that people should live in a certain way. Also, by no means should my own beliefs and choices in life determine whether I am fit to work to help people.  

Questioning their 'capability' is yet a further step in the marginalization of these women. Even if you are left to fight your own battle, it is patriarchal control that decides whether you fit to speak up for a woman whom you cannot 'represent' because you are different from her. That woman cannot however represent herself, for she has to be represented by someone, other than you.

But why does she have to be represented at all? Is not 'representation' patriarchal after all? Feminism is a break away from representation. It is a fight for simply being. Yet questions of representation are crucial at this moment because they seem to hinder whatever progress is taking place in the sphere of women's rights. I see around me initiatives, movements, and workshops, cultural and artistic events wanting to make the lives of women bearable. The point is not to force, for example, a woman to file for divorce because her husband has taken another wife. The fight is for a law, a state and a community that will give this woman the right to divorce without going through the traumatizing experiences of Egyptian courts, if she wants to. This is after all what we all dream of when we speak of civil liberties: the right to practice those rights after they become existent.

In the same sense that white upper-class heterosexual feminism was as one point unable to include and comprehend the situations of women from a different class, race, religion and sexual orientation, I do not believe that one group or initiative will be able to address all the issues that Egyptian women with all their diversity face every single day. When I say that torture practiced by the state is gendered, I do not deny the face that inhumane sexual assault and torture happen to men as well as women by the same patriarchal system. When I say that LGBT rights are non-existent in this society, I do not mean that heterosexuals are granted all their civil rights.

There was no march for Women's Day. The thought that there wasn't even a call for one came and passed in the middle of a mess of other thoughts. Thoughts on how marches for and by women are vital because they fight the very fabric which this society is made of: that women – and others marginalized by 'labels' – are second class citizens. It is a state of mind of a society, not just its' laws and its' system, which is even harder to break. The act of dissent should match the need for equality rather than the time for equality.

Another thought that swam through my head as I thought of  Women's Day and marches which I had walked through in celebration of 'who we are', was that I wasn't  just thinking of myself as a woman. I was thinking of all of us. The misfits. The odd ducklings. Those who appreciate the word 'no'.

I was thinking in nostalgia of a march in the street with my sisters, with a friend, her mother and her 5 year old niece, knowing that this is a harsh reminder that the fight will get uglier before it gets better. Yet it is also a gentle reminder that in the fight for a right, there are no divisions.

The title of this articles is inspired by Laila Soliman's documentary theater piece "No Time for Art" on state and police violence which the author took part in.


Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.

Related articles


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData