Egyptian women were at the heart of the revolution that toppled president Hosni Mubarak. Their contribution ranged from work in the labour movement to a female journalist breaking taboos by suing the government for harassment. They walked shoulder to shoulder with men as the Egyptian population demanded the fall of the regime, as did the people of Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. Yet nearly three years later, a poll from the Thomson Reuters Foundation has declared Egypt the worst country for women in the Arab world. So, did the Arab spring lead to a regression of women’s rights in the region – and particularly in Egypt, as the report suggests?
Egyptian women have certainly been politically marginalised in this post-revolutionary period. The male-dominated military in charge of the transitional phase eradicated the quota for women’s representation in parliament, which reduced female members from 64 to nine, and it did not include any women in the constitutional review committee. The police also targeted female political demonstrators, going as far as stripping them naked in the street and urging molestation by thugs. They introduced virginity tests for women arrested during political demonstrations. The message was clear: women should go home and leave politics to the men.
Women’s rights had been used as a velvet glove during Mubarak’s regime (as with other administrations of the time, such as Ben Ali in Tunisia and Gaddafi in Libya), which passed laws to protect women while suppressing all other political rights. The elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, rescinded some of these rights: restrictions on polygamy were lifted; a reduction of the marriage age was proposed; women’s right to seek divorce was limited. This reflected the Brotherhood’s patriarchal attitude to gender roles and family structures, and had little to do with the reality of the Egyptian economy, where women make up a large proportion of the labour force and are found in all sectors of public life.
So first the military and then the Muslim Brotherhood undermined women post-revolution. This triggered a wave of anger. Many of the issues the Reuters poll refers to, such as female genital mutilation and sexual harassment, are not new. But Egyptian women – as with women in other Arab countries after the Arab spring – are more determined than ever to confront these challenges. If they stayed silent about sexual harassment in the past, today they are writing testimonials on Facebook or creating public campaigns to confront it.
Furthermore, women today are no longer willing to see themselves as simply women’s rights activists; they are going beyond gender or class to demand citizenship rights. This is part of a progressive discussion that was triggered in post-revolutionary Egypt and is strengthened by young people, who make up about 60% of the Arab population. The impact of impassioned, youthful voices has been seen in Saudi Arabia, too – which is ranked third worst among Arab nations. (The comparison between Egypt and Saudi Arabia is unfair, however, as the two cultures are very different, making it difficult to evaluate both countries on similar standards.)
The Arab spring turned women’s issues into a battle in the war of ideology between Islamists and so-called modernists. Both see women through a traditional lens and have deprived them of full participation in the political process. But women are not silent in this historical moment. They are speaking up, organising, and amassing support, not only for their rights but also for all who believe in freedom, democracy, and stability of the region at large. It is vital we hear their voices because they represent the most solid hope for the region. It is too early to be fatalistic about what is happening now. I know I still hold out hope.
Zainab Salbi is an author, filmmaker and the founder of Women for Women International.