FRIDAY FILE - AWID Interviews three Egyptian women’s rights activists, Yara Sallam, Shahinaz El Hennawi and Dina* about their hopes and concerns since Egypt’s first free elections this year.
By Rochelle Jones
As clear as mud
Since the Mubarak regime was toppled by a mass uprising on the streets of Egypt in January 2011, women have been negotiating the irregular and fragile terrain of equality and women’s rights. The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) - the de-facto political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood - won elections at the beginning of 2012, and since then Egyptian politics has been as clear as mud.
The Lower House of Parliament or People’s Assembly was dissolved in June 2012 over an unfair election law that allowed political party representatives to run for seats reserved for independents. And instead of tackling the most important economic and social issues facing Egypt, the People’s Assembly started the debate on imposing Sharia laws, which included lowering the legal marriage age for girls. Meanwhile, the Constituent Assembly (CA) – appointed by the People’s Assembly to draft Egypt’s new Constitution - is the subject of a Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) challenge on whether its formation is legal. Despite this, the CA continued to move forward on the draft Constitution, which was completed and adopted at the end of November. Now President Mohamed Morsi has called for a referendum on 15 December. As the Supreme Court recently shelved the case against the CA, it is likely that the new Constitution will go to referendum before the court rules on the CA’s actual legality. The Constitution and the CA have caused recent protests on the streets.
Through all this, women continue to strategize, protest and mobilize for a fair and equal Egypt that values and encourages women’s involvement in all aspects of life. Women took to the streets when the first draft of the Constitution was released late October, highlighting that some articles threaten women’s rights, and calling for equal representation of women and men on the Assembly, which currently has only seven women out of 100 members.
Women and the revolution
Much of the media coverage of the Egyptian uprisings in 2011 focused on women in the streets, fighting for the revolution beside men. This was popularly portrayed as contrary to Egyptian social norms – with the revolution depicted as a platform for women to finally be seen and heard. While women saw the revolution as a door through which they could achieve positive change for women’s rights, Egyptian women’s agency and activism did not just suddenly materialize during the revolution.
Yara Sallam, Program Manager of the Women Human Rights Defenders Program (WHRDP) at Nazra for Feminist Studies, believes that since the revolution “the major gain for women is their space in the public sphere… new women activists started organizing in different revolutionary and rights groups and in larger numbers… they [were] present during this transformative period playing different roles, speaking to the media, and being involved during negotiations and talks with government officials”. Dina*emphasizes that women in Egypt were already out in the streets: “they work, they study, they join life, they face hostility yes - but that never prevented them from being out there. Protests were just another form of public involvement.”
Shahinaz El Hennawi, reminds us of the work that women were already doing under the Mubarak regime: “In my view they (women during the revolution) were empowered and gained more agency on the personal and social level… [however] women have been active way before the revolution and I think their participation in the revolution is a result of previous social work and activism.”
The legacy of state-sponsored women’s rights
In the post-Mubarak democratic transition process, the realities and challenges for women’s rights advocacy became apparent. Women’s rights are not only associated with a former dictatorship, but with a regime that supposedly courted Western interests. This has far-reaching implications for women in a new Egypt led by an Islamist party.
According to Sallam “the changes that came with the revolution risk taking back some gains that the women’s rights movement already achieved”. El Hennawi, who worked with the Suzanne Mubarak Women’s Peace Movement, told us: “though I was in the revolution and I believed in every part of it, I won't deny my history and I can't deny that women were supported and backed by the ex-first lady regarding legal rights.” Dina argues however, that “there was never real or tangible gender equality between men and women in Egypt; during the Mubarak era the regime depended on women's rights to appear progressive without doing much”. Sallam explains how this relates to the plight of women today: “The public was used to hearing about women's rights from the state when it was sponsored by the dictator's wife. [The revolution] resulted in a rejection of all the laws enacted during Mubarak's time, which were generally perceived as decorating the regime's image to the Western world.”
So what avenues are available for women’s rights activists and their allies to defend and advance women’s rights in the context of these demands being associated with the previous military regime? Sallam believes that, “women organizing in the public sphere, in different rights groups is the best solution... [Women] should work within the national struggle and include women’s issues in all issues, not maintain women's rights as a separate set of rights to advocate for”. According to El Hennawi “there are so many strong women activists who are capable of continuing [the] path” but there is a need for “more women religious scholars who can reply to those who think they can talk in the name of religion [and take women backwards]”.
Are women’s rights going nowhere?
The causes of the 2011 uprising were situated in economic justice and basic survival, rather than social transformation. Furthermore, the success of the Islamist bloc in the elections and the low representation of women in leadership positions mean the challenges for women’s rights activists are great.
Dina says Egyptian women “face political Islam’s dogma and society being sceptical of issues related to women”. She argues that the “average Egyptian has no problem with [gaining more] economic rights, but would resist women's rights because it is related to identity”. Sallam agrees that, “the societal struggle will be stronger than the political one now. The fact that both the FJP and Al-Nour party won the elections with such a large number of people voting for them, not only reflects a backlash from the previous regime, but also shows a manifestation of Egyptian conservative (not religious) society, which was not obvious before.” She fears the public space will “close up again due to societal restrictions, which will affect personal rights”.
Militarism is feared an equal, if not bigger, threat to women than the rise of religious fundamentalist parties to power. El Hennawi believes that “in order to have a call for social transformation, a belief in equality in its general sense should be in place, which is missing at the moment. Sectarian violence, racism and sexism still exist and are even spreading with the violent atmosphere in Egyptian society. Militarism cannot be ignored as an element leading to that - the Supreme Council for Armed Forces (SCAF) ruled Egypt for over a year, committing huge violations against civilians.” Dina however, sees the rise of religious parties as an equal threat to women – that political Islam is just as ‘violent’ as militarism since the ideology of political Islam excludes women who don’t fit the right criteria.
Women’s hopes and strategies and the way forward
Even in the face of such challenges, women remain hopeful. Yallam hopes for “civil groups to unite, both in the political arena and on the societal level, to gain more ground with the public and with increased involvement of women”. El Hennawi admits women are facing a backlash and has “great reservations on women belonging to [Islamist] parties as they speak in the name of women, yet are against women’s rights”. However, she says her hopes stem from “a belief that Egyptian women are strong and they can fight this backlash.”
Regional political developments and parallels with the other Arab Spring uprisings bring feelings of solidarity. El Hennawi highlights the “Arab Women Uprising” campaign: “They are doing a great job and I really feel that this has to grow and be taken seriously since we need to come together and speak up for our rights from our culture perspective. I also believe in the role of men alongside women. There are more men now involved and this is great. Women are fighting and moving forward and I am optimistic as I don't think they will let go of the gains they had during the previous years.”
Can international solidarity play a role in supporting women’s rights activists in Egypt? Sallam says, at the moment “international actors are portrayed as spies or people with foreign agendas trying to destroy Egyptian values, and one of [the] problems [with international solidarity] is that it's not always done in consultation with local groups”. Dina agrees that presently it does more harm than good: “It's used against the movement as foreign intervention in internal issues… and already society is alien to [women’s rights] discourse - it's very easy to manipulate once you mention western support.” El Hennawi believes in international solidarity, saying “we have so much to learn from each other as well as share experiences… we need to respect our differences and cultural backgrounds, so we work together with openness towards oneness, without judgement and ensuring equal power dynamics.”
The journey ahead for Egyptian women could include some of the greatest challenges they have faced so far. But positive outcomes are achievable by mobilizing together, guided by their optimism and strength. Regional and international solidarity also have an important role as long as they are buttressed by a deep understanding of local specificities and the recognition that interventions be designed and led by local women.
* Name changed for privacy reasons.