In the days following the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians have begun to outline the characteristics of their ideal country. The “New Egypt” will be clean, it will lack discrimination, it will be corruption-free. The initiative is the beginning of a push for specific demands that were secondary to the removal of Mubarak during the 18 days of protests, and they signify the indomitable idealism and forward-thinking mentality of triumphant anti-government protesters.
Among these demands are women’s rights–a list including lack of sexual harassment, equal pay in the workplace, and representation in the government that were not articulated during the protests in spite of significant female participation. But will the unity–expressed in favor of specific women’s rights–exhibited during the protests themselves hurt women in their push for equality in a post-Mubarak Egypt?
The protests in Tahrir were an “incredible time” for women, according to Amal Abdel Hady of the New Woman Foundation, a nonprofit women’s rights group. The women in the square “represented all generations and social classes.” Still, Abdel Hady noticed that the media did not pay as much attention to them as they did to the men, leading to the perception that young men led the Egyptian revolution, with the female presence remarkable but less important. And “never mind the Egyptian media,” she said, which barely represented the reality on the ground, never mind the strong female role.
Abdel Hady is not the only one who noticed such discrepancies. Her colleague at the New Woman Foundation, Nawla Darwish, worries that because women were not organized during the protests, with specific rights in mind, women will not be served well in post-Mubarak Egypt. Historically, she told Al-Masry Al-Youm, women are commended for their participation in revolutions and then told to go home. Such a thing occurred in Egypt in the 1919 revolution, when women, who came out strongly against colonial rule, were largely ignored by the ruling Wafd Party. Is misogyny a stronger foe than Mubarak?
“We are living in a patriarchal society,” she said. And the values therein are strong enough to withstand even the groundbreaking protests of the 25 January revolution. The tokenism apparent in the representation of women in the Mubarak regime must be counteracted by a strong female presence even now that protests have subsided. The New Woman Foundation is working to collect testimonials from the women who participated in the protests, both as evidence and as a way to get women–many of whom had never been politically active before–to continue their involvement.
Nehad Abou El Komsan, chairwoman of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, likewise lamented the representation, or lack thereof, of women’s involvement in the protests in news media, both local and international. “The culture of society makes people blind,” she told Al-Masry Al-Youm. Now that the protests are over and many different people are vying for political influence, “we must document the participation of women, not just perception or opinion,” Abou El Komsan added. “We must lobby for participation of women in all committees and procedures,” leading up to and during the elections and the promised revision of Egypt's national charter. No group now–not even those led by young people–are proactively making room for a female voice.
Whether or not women will have a larger role politically and socially in a post-Mubarak Egypt–and whether such a country will be more open to their rights–remains to be seen. Iman Bibars, the 60-year-old chairperson of the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women, ran for parliament as an independent candidate in 2005. Her experience went beyond mere disillusionment. NDP officials and security threw out 3000 of the 5,920 ballots in her favor, she says, and prevented countless numbers of her supporters from voting at all.
This “bleak, oppressive” and unabashed display of their own corruption may have led to the downfall of the NDP, Bibars says. But the rights activist and former politician (who was, for a brief time, an NDP party member), who ran on a platform for the support of marginalized and impoverished Egyptians, as well as women’s rights, does not plan to run again. Instead, she told Al-Masry Al-Youm, the young people who led the protests should also lead the new government. Bibars admits that, during the revolution, she “was a follower, not a leader.” The young people, she says, “insisted, and they won–we should be there to support them.”
But the young people have so far made little effort to include women in their committees following the revolution. Abou El Komsan noted that out of 27 young people interviewed by talk show host Mona al-Shazly following Mubarak’s resignation, only one was a woman. This ratio is closer to the pathetic quota established by the Mubarak regime than it is to the inspiring turnout seen during the protests–and does not bode well for a strong female voice in the new government.
Women need to continue to speak out–for their own rights, in addition to the solidarity of the Egyptian people. Egyptian feminists are hopeful, but, as Abdel Hady said: “We are happy. But no sane person would be not worried.”