Gendered paradoxes of Egypt’s transition

Four years after the downfall of Mubarak, women face a new patriarchal bargain: abandoning all forms of independent organizing in return for protection of their rights.

Nicola Pratt
2 February 2015

Gendered paradoxes abound in Egypt following the departure of former president Hosni Mubarak four years ago. Under Mubarak, the women’s rights agenda was almost totally monopolized by the National Council for Women under the leadership of former first lady Suzanne Mubarak, whilst independent women’s organizing was severely constrained by limits on freedom of association. After the overthrow of Mubarak, women’s rights were threatened but independent women’s organizing flourished. Since July 2013, under the post-Morsi regime, advances have been made in women’s legal rights. However, independent women’s organizing is once again endangered by heavy handed control of the civic sphere.

The price of mobilisation and new voices against violence

Despite their high visibility during the 18-day uprising in 2011, women protesters soon faced serious attempts after Mubarak’s departure to exclude them from the public sphere. In March 2011, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) cleared Tahrir Square of protesters, detaining 18 women, 17 of whom were then beaten, tortured, strip searched in front of male soldiers and forced to undergo so-called virginity tests. At the time, an army general (who later was revealed as General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi) defended the practice as necessary to protect the army from accusations of rape, since ‘The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine … These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square’.

The day before, a poorly attended march in celebration of International Women’s Day was attacked by unknown groups of men in Tahrir Square, who accused the protesters of being against religion. Islamist and some non-Islamist politicians and commentators began calling for the repeal of laws passed under Mubarak that women’s rights activists regarded as gains for Egyptian women, amongst them, the Khula’ law (allowing women to divorce their husbands in return for relinquishing their financial rights), the criminalization of FGM, and increasing child custody rights for mothers. Opponents of the laws referred to them as ‘Suzanne’s laws’, inferring that their passage was due to the influence of the former First Lady, thereby associating women’s rights with corruption and dictatorship. When Islamists won 70 per cent of seats in the first parliamentary elections, many women worried that their  rights were seriously in peril.

After decades of state feminism, Egypt’s women’s rights advocates were ill-equipped to respond to the challenges. However, unprecedented mass activism for gender issues emerged outside of the established spaces of women’s rights organizations. Samira Ibrahim, one of the victims of the ‘virginity testing’, was supported by revolutionaries when she bravely raised a court case against the doctor who performed the procedure. After a video went viral of soldiers dragging a woman protester across the street, beating her and stripping her to her blue bra, thousands of women, and men, marched to condemn SCAF violence, under the slogan ‘Egypt’s women are a red line’. In contrast to the previous year, the 2012 International Women’s Day march was well attended and presented a list of women’s rights demands to parliament. Throughout 2012, a number of very visible and loud marches were organized to protest against the Muslim Brotherhood’s constitution and the increase in sexual violence against women protesters.

The ferocity of the backlash against women in the post-Mubarak period led to the emergence of a new feminist consciousness, not only amongst women but many men too, and revolutionized the paradigm of women organizing for their rights. The street, rather than the conference hall, became the prime space in which women claimed their rights. They legitimized their claims not in relation to international human rights and women’s rights conventions but in terms of their participation in the 25 January Revolution and its goals of social justice and freedom. Protesters held up banners and placards depicting icons of Egyptian popular culture, such as Um Kulthoum, Souad Hosny and Faten Hamama, legitimizing women’s presence in the public sphere as part of Egypt’s heritage. Simultaneously, women revolutionized gender norms by redefining female respectability as active participation in public spaces. They also broke the social taboo surrounding discussion of violence against women, celebrating the bravery of Samira Ibrahim and the anonymous woman of the ‘blue bra’ incident, respectfully named ‘sitt al-banat’ or ‘the best of girls’, in graffiti images around Cairo’s streets. 

Women’s increased mobilization on the streets came at a heavy price. After June 2012, there was an alarming escalation in a particular pattern of sexual attacks against women protesters, in which large gangs of men surrounded an individual woman and brutally beat her, sexually assaulted her and even raped her, sometimes using sharp objects. One report presented over 250 cases of sexual assault and rape that took place between November 2012 and January 2013. During protests leading up to and after June 30 against former president Mohammed Morsi, at least 91 women were victims of sex attacks. In response, women and men organized in unprecedented cross-gender alliances to directly resist this violence. Groups such as OpAntiSH and Tahrir Bodyguards patrolled protests, organized rescue teams and provided medical and psychological support to victims. Meanwhile, Shoft Taharrosh and Basma Imprint Movement worked to prevent sexual harassment and assault in other public spaces as well as providing awareness and education on the issue. Like other youth initiatives after 2011, anti-sexual harassment groups included women and men, however, OpAntiSH distinguished itself because women are also part of the rescue teams, thereby challenging the paradigm of ‘masculinist protection’. Significantly, women victims increasingly began to speak out publicly, such as Hania Moheeb and Yassmine El-Baramawi who were interviewed on prime time TV, directly resisting their victimization and stigmatization. The major achievement of the anti-sexual violence movement has been to reframe violence against women as a political and public issue and to challenge nationalist and Islamist discourses that reduce women’s bodies to repositories of collective honour and shame, blaming the victim for her violation.  

The new deal: protection and obedience

With the ousting of Morsi, the controversial constitution of 2012 was cancelled and a committee appointed to draft a new constitution that would reverse the previous Islamization efforts. One of the few selling points of this constitution, which was passed in a referendum in January 2014, was the inclusion of an article explicitly committing the state to ensuring gender equality and women’s participation in state institutions.  Despite this, many activists rejected the constitution for empowering the army and others were disappointed that there was no mention of a quota for women in parliamentary elections. Hoda Elsadda, a member of the drafting committee and a key actor in bringing about the gender equality article, argues that the article’s inclusion was a result of a combination of factors, including the desire of the committee to differentiate itself from the Muslim Brotherhood, to reaffirm the dominant narrative of Egypt’s modernity, of which progress on women’s rights is seen as a key marker, as well as to recognize women’s role in the revolution. No doubt these reasons, in addition to a public outcry over shocking footage captured of a woman stripped naked and brutally attacked during the celebration for El-Sisi’s presidential election in June 2014, also contributed to the government’s amendment of the Penal Code to stiffen punishment for sexual harassment, paving the way for the prosecution of some cases of gang rapes in Tahrir Square (although the majority are still not investigated), as well as the announcement of a national strategy to combat violence against women. Significantly, El-Sisi is the first Egyptian president to speak publicly about sexual violence against women.

The gains made in legal rights for women stand in stark contrast to the reversals in the freedom of association and expression after the ousting of Morsi. The post-Morsi regime has broadened its circles of repression, initially focusing on Morsi’s supporters but later including other activists criticizing the post-Morsi political order, such as revolutionaries, politicians and human rights groups. They have been subject to smear campaigns and attacks in the media as ‘unpatriotic’ as well as harassment by state security. In November 2013, an anti-torture NGO was forced by state security to cancel a workshop on early marriage and the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights has been raided by police twice since July 2013. Following the passage in November 2013 of a law banning public protests, several non-Islamist protesters were arrested and tried, including high profile revolutionary figures, such as Alaa Abdel-Fattah, Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma and Mahinoor Masry, as well as other women activists such as Yara Sallam and Sana Seif.

Even those supporting the post-Morsi political order are no longer safe. On  24 January, during a march to commemorate the victims of the 2011 uprising, security forces shot dead Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh, a member of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party.

Meanwhile, in the summer of 2014, the government announced that all civil society organizations should register with the Ministry of Social Solidarity or face dissolution, announced a new law that threatens NGO independence and amended the Penal Code so that anyone found guilty of receiving foreign funding for the purpose of ‘harming national interests’ would face life imprisonment and a fine of no less than half a million Egyptian pounds. These measures disproportionately impact human rights organizations as well as women’s rights organizations addressing taboo issues. These have been periodically accused of ‘tarnishing Egypt’s reputation’ by highlighting rights violations and relying on funding from abroad to sustain their operations. The new regulations also threaten to institutionalize and bureaucratize the myriad gender justice initiatives that have emerged since 2011, undermining their creativity and responsiveness to developing conditions on the ground. 

Whilst the state has declared its commitment to women’s rights, the surge of independent organizing for women’s rights that emerged after Mubarak is clearly in danger. Women’s protests have been almost absent from public spaces since the downfall of Morsi. For the first time since Mubarak’s departure, women’s rights activists did not organize a public march to celebrate International Women’s Day. Women activists are divided. Many are refusing to comply with the protest law that requires that the Ministry of the Interior be informed of any public gatherings, whilst others have rallied to support the pro-Morsi political order, including the 2014 constitution and the election of former general Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Even established women’s rights NGOs face challenges when it comes to building upon achievements in women’s legal rights given the new constraints on civil society organizations. This is problematic given the failure of the government to put into practice its gender commitments, most notably in relation to women’s inclusion in state institutions.

The National Council for Women and its president Mervat al-Tallawi (who incidentally oversaw the drafting of a repressive NGO law during her tenure as Minister of Social Affairs under Mubarak) have been rehabilitated as the official voice of women’s issues after being sidelined during the transitional rule of SCAF then the Morsi presidency. The Council is leading the drafting process for the new national strategy for combating violence against women, which has already been criticized by women’s rights organizations for its lack of transparency and inclusivity. Some women activists stayed away from an anti-sexual violence protest in June 2014 because of NCW involvement. At the same rally, two men holding placards condemning sexual violence perpetrated by state security services were arrested.

The new regime also threatens to reverse the revolutionized gender norms created through independent women’s organizing, which rejected any notions of honour and shame attached to the female body. In contrast, in a statement referring to the June 2014 sexual attacks during the celebrations for his presidential election, El-Sisi said, ‘Our honour is being assaulted in the streets’. Meanwhile, Mervat al-Tallawi threatened to sue Al-Jazeera network for using the issue of sexual harassment to ‘tarnish the image of Egypt’ and discredit the ‘30 June Revolution’, thereby reducing women to symbols of Egypt’s reputation and, particularly, its post-Morsi regime.

The ‘pro-women’ policies of President El-Sisi and his supporters do not aim to liberate Egyptian women but rather to co-opt them within a new patriarchal bargain.  Women who are obedient to the new regime are deemed worthy of the state’s protection. However, the Islamist and secular women activists arrested for protesting against El-Sisi’s regime are subjected to numerous rights violations including sexual violence at the hands of security officers and police. The patriarchal bargain will remain in place as long as El-Sisi’s regime remains popular. Widespread disillusionment with El-Sisi will undoubtedly be accompanied with a backlash against his ‘pro-women’ agenda, similar to the backlash witnessed after the fall of Mubarak. Activists face a huge challenge in the coming period to maintain their dynamic paradigm for gender justice, to resist state cooptation and top-down impositions and to embed revolutionary gender constructs from the grassroots-upwards.





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