By Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani
Cairo, Aug, 2012. Throughout the course of Egypt’s January 25 Revolution, which culminated in the ouster of longstanding President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, female protesters stood on the frontlines of the uprising alongside their male counterparts. But as Egyptians continue to celebrate the downfall of Mubarak’s oppressive regime, many female activists say the lot of women hasn’t improved – either socially or politically – in the post-Mubarak era.
“Despite the central role played by female protesters in the uprising, when women stood shoulder-to-shoulder with men, Egypt has seen scant improvement when it comes to women’s rights and female political participation,” Zeina Agha, media coordinator for the centrist Guardians of the Revolution party (established in the wake of the revolution), said.
Although Egypt’s 1956 constitution granted women the right to vote – even run – in national elections, female participation in the political sphere remained sorely limited throughout Mubarak’s 30-year tenure.
According to figures from the Cairo Centre for Development, a local NGO, female participation in national elections stood at a mere 5 percent between 1981 and 2010. During the same period, women held only 2 percent of the seats in parliament and fewer than 5 percent of the seats in Egypt’s municipal councils.
Women in vanguard in Tahrir Square
Last year’s Tahrir Square uprising, however, which saw women turn out in the tens of thousands to demand the departure of Mubarak and his regime, appeared to change all that. For 18 days, women of all socio-economic backgrounds took part in the revolution: as anti-regime protesters, field paramedics, media spokespeople and, later, as lawyers for detained activists.
“Women participated, no different from men, in all aspects of the revolution,” said Asmaa Mahfouz, a leading member of the April 6 youth movement during last year’s uprising and currently an ardent political activist. “Women fought with police in Tahrir Square throughout the 18-day rebellion, and have continued to take part in street activism into the post-Mubarak era.”
Established in 2008 to show solidarity with striking textiles workers, the April 6 youth movement played a prominent – some would say leading – role in last year’s revolution, in which more than 800 unarmed demonstrators were killed by Mubarak’s security forces.
“Despite all the violence meted out to anti-regime protesters, women insisted on taking a place at the vanguard of the uprising,” said Injy Hamdi, another prominent female April 6 member.
Yet according to Hamdi, female participation in Egyptian political life didn’t begin with the January 25 Revolution, but with Egypt’s 1919 Revolution against the British occupation of Egypt.
“Since that time, courageous women have been calling for equality, justice and their political rights, along with the right to equal opportunity in terms of education and employment,” she said.
Taking to the streets to fight abuse
In some cases, female activists were specifically targeted by security forces – not only during the 18-day uprising, but also in subsequent clashes between demonstrators and Egypt’s new military rulers, who assumed control of the country following Mubarak’s departure.
“Women took part in political demonstrations in the Mubarak era, but they were seldom assaulted by security forces,” said Hamdi. “During the post-revolution transitional phase under Egypt’s interim military rulers, by contrast, army personnel employed unprecedented violence against female protesters.”
In November of last year, during a violent clash in Cairo between military police and unarmed demonstrators, several female protesters were badly beaten. One woman in particular was caught on video being stomped on by policemen, who, in the process, partially ripped her clothes off.
The video spread like wildfire across online social-networking forums, leading to a series of women-led demonstrations and marches throughout the capital to protest the abuse of female activists by security forces. “Egypt’s women are a red line,” marchers chanted, as they converged on Tahrir Square in the tens of thousands on the Friday following the incident.
“Since Egyptian women have begun taking part in street activism in greater numbers, they have become increasingly subject to violations – beaten, arrested, even sexually assaulted – at the hands of security forces,” lamented Mahfouz.
A long road ahead
Yet despite the many dangers faced by Egypt’s female political demonstrators, and their central role in last year’s revolution, women remain politically marginalized, say many activists.
“We had initially thought that the revolution, and the important role played by women therein, would inevitably lead to greater female participation in Egyptian political life,” said Mahfouz. “But, unfortunately, this has not been the case.”
Hamdi agreed. Despite Egyptian women’s almost century-long struggle to achieve equality and a degree of political empowerment, she said, “no real progress has been made – either before or after the revolution – only superficial changes.”
Both women pointed in particular to the relatively low number of female MPs in Egypt’s first post-Mubarak People’s Assembly (the lower house of parliament), in which only 12 of the assembly’s 498 seats are held by women. Of these, ten belong to Islamist parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party – which won roughly half the seats in the assembly in last year’s legislative polls – and the ultra-conservative Salafist Nour Party.
“Why are there only 11 female members of parliament to represent half of the national population – some 40 million Egyptians?” asked Agha. “This is not an acceptable ratio.”
Notably, according to elections-monitoring groups, more women cast ballots than men in Egypt’s parliamentary polls late last year, which were largely swept by Islamist parties.
In 2009, the People’s Assembly, thoroughly controlled at the time by Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, approved a law setting a quota – 64 – for female MPs. This quota, however, was subsequently abrogated by Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which assumed control of the nation’s affairs upon Mubarak’s ouster in February of last year.
In place of the quota, the SCAF ordered that all party lists vying in Egypt’s legislative elections must include at least one female candidate. While political parties (most of them established in the wake of the revolution) followed these instructions, their female candidates were more often than not placed at the bottom of their respective lists – a fact to which many critics attribute their generally poor electoral showings.
Female activists, for their part, say that set quotas for female MPs are an overly simplistic – and ultimately unconstructive – way to promote female political participation. “Rather than simply setting quotas, Egypt’s political class must work harder to support women and encourage their participation in the public sphere,” said Agha.
Besides the People’s Assembly, Mahfouz pointed out, women must also try to establish a presence in Egypt’s Constituent Assembly – tasked with drafting a new constitution – and in the incoming government of Egypt’s newly-inaugurated president, Mohamed Morsi.
Setting sites on the presidency
But while Egypt’s parliament appears, at least for now, to largely remain the preserve of men, one woman at least has recently made history by making an unprecedented bid for Egypt’s presidency.
In the spring of this year, Buthaina Kamel became the first Egyptian woman to attempt to run for the country’s highest office. Although the attempt ultimately failed (she was unable to obtain the 30,000 citizens’ signatures necessary to register her candidacy), it nevertheless represented a watershed in terms of female political participation.
Kamel, for her part, a 49-year-old television presenter, always knew her chances were slim.
“I did it on principle,” she said. “I did it to show the world that Egypt is a modern country, in which women have the right to vie for the highest positions of state, which – like the right to vote – is a basic human right.”
When Egypt’s revolution erupted, Kamel was in the thick of it from the very beginning. She was inspired to make a run for the presidency by the courageous young activists – including numerous women – whom she met during the course of the uprising.
“Women played a major role in the revolution, and many fell as martyrs,” she said. “Hopefully, despite recent setbacks, Egyptian women will play a more active role in national politics than they did in the past.”
Esmat al-Merghani, a political activist and Egypt’s first female head of a political party (the Free Social Party), says that even though Kamal failed to enter the presidential race, “she nevertheless opened a new door for the advancement of Egyptian women.”
In the meantime, Kamel and other Egyptian female activists say they will never stop – despite the apparent obstacles – fighting for their rights.
“We will not give up the fight to obtain our political and social rights,” said Agha. “We will not surrender to the backward mindset that wants to see women confined to the home.”
For her part, Mahfouz concluded: “Despite the obvious dangers involved, Egyptian women will not stop participating in political and revolutionary activity, be it demonstrations and sit-ins or clashes with security forces.”