History Repeating Itself
Iranian women were instrumental in bringing down Shah in 1979. However, the regime that revolution brought about is very different from the one most Iranian women were hoping for when they took to the streets. Indeed, speaking to the BBC on the 30th anniversary of the revolution Shirin Ebadi claimed that:
“Only five months had passed since the revolution when the Revolutionary Council took away all the rights that women had won over the previous years even though the new constitution had yet to be passed and the new president had not been elected.”
For anyone familiar with the fate of women in Egypt since the revolution, this makes for chilling reading. As with Iran, despite the initial hopes the situation of women has in many ways worsened since the revolution. As Dina Abou el Soud, founder of the Women’s Revolutionary Coalition puts it, “after the revolution, everything started to go backwards.”
Whereas in Tunisia, the revolution was used as an opportunity to consolidate and improve women’s rights, in Egypt the limitless optimism and euphoria of January has been replaced by a desperate fight to hold on to what they had before.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that now rules Egypt was rightly denounced when it subjected detained female protesters to virginity tests – tests that were described by Amnesty International as tantamount to torture. A general anonymously told CNN:
“we didn’t want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren’t virgins in the first place.”
The perverse logic of this comment aside, it’s emblematic of the misogyny that exists at the very top of the military government. However, along with such disturbing and high profile infringements of women’s rights, there lies a deeper and perhaps even more troubling current among Egyptian politics that involves an eroding of the political representation and legal status of women. Rather than the great opportunity to push forward with gender equality that many had expected the revolution to herald, women’s rights activists are now fighting just to hold on to what they had in before the revolution.
The Exclusion of Women from the Political Process
The new government that was formed in the wake of Mubarak signified the reduced role that women play in the new Egypt. The new cabinet contained only a solitary woman, compared to four in the pre-revolution one. On the 19th March amendments to the constitution were passed. However, the committee appointed by the SCAF that determined these amendments didn’t include a single woman. Predictably, the committee then proceeded to enact measures that further limited the political representation of women in Egypt.
The most important of these was the removal, on 20th July, of the already small quota (64 of 454 seats – 12%) of female MPs that existed in the Mubarak era. Though the new law requires each party to have at least one woman on their party list, they are likely to be at the bottom. It seems inevitable that when a new parliament is formed it is will hold less female MPs than previous one.
Another heavily criticised move was the amendment to article 26 of the constitution that seems to prohibit a woman from becoming president. It stipulates that the president ألا يكون متزوجاً من غير مصري (cannot be married to a non-Egyptian). The repeated use of the masculine pronoun implies that the President must be a man. However, rather than a deliberate ploy to prevent a woman from becoming president, it is more likely that it simply never occurred to the committee such is the political irrelevance of women in contemporary Egypt.
It is not only in parliament that women are un(der)represented. The main groups that were active in the revolution have very few female leaders. There are, for example, no women in the Muslim Brotherhood’s highest body, the majlis shura (consultative council). My interviews with April 6th members revealed that the youth movement has far more male than female members and doesn’t have a women’s officer or any project specifically designed to pursue the interests of women in Egypt. Though they maintain that the issues of women are pursued within a broader democratic project.
The Fight to Keep Suzanne’s Laws
Along with the political representation, another threat to the position of women in Egypt is an increasing pressure to reform family laws. The ‘Suzanne Mubarak Laws’, passed between 2000-2010 and named after the former presidents wife who was instrumental in getting them passed, are some of the most progressive in the Egyptian legal system. They include the جلع (khula’) law that allows women to be granted a divorce even if their husband refuses so long as they pay back the dowry and an amendment to the custody law that enables mothers to keep their children until they are 15 (increased from 9).
Whilst acknowledging that these are some of the most progressive laws in Egypt, the relativity of this statement must be kept in mind. In many ways the laws are already problematic. For example, the khula’ divorces routinely take a long time to pass through the courts with women often forced to remain with abusive partners. Furthermore, there are problems with women’s access to lawyers and the requirement of paying back the dowry and legal fees restricts the process to relatively well off women. Secondly, whilst, as the name implies, the passing of the laws was largely due to Suzanne Mubarak, the laws were the product of years of work by women’s NGOs that Mrs. Mubarak provided the rubber stamp to.
The problem they now face is that a conservative discourse is gaining strength that decries the laws as undermining the traditional Egyptian family, increasing the divorce rate and damaging the social fabric. Combined with a drive on to purge Egypt of everything associated with Mubarak, there is a significant threat that these laws will be repealed.
Is Islamism the threat?
The conservative nature of the opposition to these laws has lead many to equate it with Islamism. The recent decision of grand mufti Gomaa to ‘review’ these laws adds weight to such claims. Isabel Coleman writes in Chatham House’s World Today that in Egypt there is a danger of backsliding as
“women can no longer count on authoritarian rulers to hold the line on women’s rights in the face of Islamist pressures”.
However, the assumption that Islamism and women’s rights are essentially at odds is problematic. Coleman herself writes in the same article that women’s rights are a contentious issue within the Muslim Brotherhood – seemingly evidence of the compatibility with women’s rights with at least some Islamists. Indeed, in June there was a mass conference of female members of the Muslim Brotherhood (the sisters) to which there were 1000s of attendees. Whereas before the revolution their activism was limited on security grounds, there is now increasing pressure from the women to be more openly involved in the organization and many of the female MPs in the next parliament are likely to come from the Muslim Brotherhood.
The potential compatibility between Islamism and women’s rights can be seen from the experience of other North African States. In Tunisia the Nahda party has consistency stated its support of the most progressive family code in the Arab world. Similarly, the 2004 reform of the family law in Morocco was supported by the two main Islamist groups. Nadia Yassine, head of the women’s section of Islamist group al-Adl wa-Ihsan (Justice and Charity) described the new law to me as ‘a beautiful thing, 100% Islamic’ and even the more conservative Party of Justice and Development (PJD) voted for it in parliament. Rather than Islamism per se, the problem in Egypt is one of patriarchy. Many Islamists may be against women’s rights but that is not simply because they are Islamists.
Indeed, all the Suzanne laws take their inspiration from Islamic law and cannot be consider Western imports into the Egyptian legal system. Indeed, Claudia Ruta, a governance specialist at the UN women office in Cairo argues that opposition to the laws are based less on religious grounds that and more on financial factors. For example, one of the main determinants of opposition to the custody law amendment is that once custody of the child is given to women the father must pay significant costs including a flat for the mother and child to live in. Reducing the age of custody reduces the cost that separated fathers must pay. The opposition is rarely a Fathers for Justice-esque.
A Problem of Perceptions
The patriarchal nature of Egyptian society leads to perceptions of women and even their own self-perceptions that limit the ability of women to enjoy political, legal, or social equality in the country. Dina Abou El Soud angrily recalls that in the period after the revolution she was told by many male activists that they were thankful for the help of women during the revolution but that now they should return to their homes.
Such views are even repeated by educated women. Hana, an activist and senior member of the April 6th movement confessed to me that she didn’t think there was enough competent female MPs to fill a quota and was thus in favour of its abolition (this is despite the mess that men have made in ruling Egypt over the past 50 years!). This lack of faith in the ability of women to participate and perception that they should be kept away from the public sphere runs through society and is one of the most serious problems facing women’s rights campaigners.
Many of the activists I have spoken to stress the need to work extensively with the young generation, both at high school and university levels to change the discourse surrounding women in Egypt. However, it is less clear where the resources and staff needed to implement such a scheme on the scale needed will come from.
Divided We Fall
In order to create widespread changes in the status of women in Egypt cooperation between the disparate women’s groups is needed. However, as Dina Abou El Soud reveals, the relationship between groups is defined more by competition than cooperation. With funding limited, groups are left to fight among themselves and protect organisational interests rather than work together for a common goal.
An Optimistic Note
To counter this division several coalitions have been formed including Dina’s own Coalition for Revolutionary Women. This coalition will seek to work with 13-18 year olds to create a basis for pushing for greater representation of women in the elections after the next ones. Alongside this, next month the Arab Alliance for Women will launch a Federation of women’s groups that will be the biggest in the Arab world that will seek to facilitate the effective cooperation of women’s groups. The Alliance has already produced a charter with clear aims at improving the situation of women in Egypt and includes detailed aims in a variety of fields. Such plans provide tentative optimism into post-revoltuionary Egypt.
Another positive aspect of the revolution is that it has enabled women’s rights activists to work freely – now holding meetings in the open and advertising them on facebook. The revolution also inspired a new generation of activists, many of whom support gender equality. Dina describes the revolution as having “woken women up” saying that “I went out on to the streets in January and I never came back.”
Shirin Ebadi says that while the Iranian revolution:
“caused women to go back a few steps under the law … this only made women work harder to regain their rights and to prove themselves”.
Once again, the parallels with Egypt are clear.