The Revolution in the Square and at Home: The Continuing Struggle of Women in Egypt

by | September 18, 2013
filed under Feminism

Photo of protesters in Tahrir Square, 2011by Nina Verfaillie

In the two years since the onset of the Egyptian Revolution we have witnessed the struggle of Egyptian women as they have actively participated in the overthrow of the Mubarak regime. They have stood next to their male counterparts as primary actors in the revolution and have fought for rights in the following reformation of governance, law, and order.

The subsequent democratic election of new leadership, which was the first in Egypt’s history, saw the historical participation of women en masse from all walks of life. It was also punctuated by their public disenfranchisement through humiliating sexual assaults in the public and revolutionary spheres. This encroachment on basic human rights and security in the reformation of government and power resulted in women losing many protections and rights that were previously afforded to them.

Even though women were key participants in the successful coup, they have experienced a loss in rights and political representation, while sexual violence against women has become an ongoing theme in the revolution. This past summer brought even more change and upheaval with the July ousting of Mohammad Morsi, and it was followed by another series of violent sexual attacks against women in the public sphere. It is time for a serious look at the continuing struggle of women in the revolution, and the role feminism has played in providing access and narrative to their fight.

For many, the plight of Egyptian women following the revolution has been a disappointment. Initially they were welcomed members of the revolution and their images of protest became central to the overall identity of the movement. The early protests were noted for their lack of sexual harassment and the sheer number of women involved and publically engaged. They went to the same protests, took the same risks of participation, and fought for the same cause.

The tone of the revolution shifted, and public assaults and rapes somehow became part of the protests. Female revolutionaries were then subjected to “virginity tests” and further rape and assault at the hands of riot police. Their exploitation now included their brothers in the revolution and ordinary citizens.

Although public sexual harassment in Egypt is an oft discussed topic in western media, the voice of women in Egyptian revolutions is not. Previous generations held famed Arabic singer Uum Kulthum as the voice of their revolutions and wars, and still hold her songs as the nation’s sobbing lament for a fallen president and his movement. As much as the revolution would not have been truly successful without all of the women who participated in it, they have also seen themselves used as political tools for parties and politicians who wish to use their disenfranchisement to solidify support and project religious legitimacy and do not see their equal participation as a cause for concern. Mubarak may be gone, but the oppression and exploitation of women still remains, in government and in Egyptian daily life.

Once the revolution had gained traction and enough footing to depose of Mubarak, women were exposed in the splintering of a political revolution from a social revolution. Women’s participation in the revolution was key to its success, but not to its implementation. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists have used the suppression of women as a step-stool in their own seizure of power.

The Brotherhood has a long history as a voice of political resistance in Egypt, and for a while functioned as one of the only points of protest in parliament against the human rights abuses of. In the Lotus Revolution they have become a platform for the coalescing Islamist interests behind Morsi, and they have maintained political influence by strengthening ties with fundamentalist Islamist movements that seek strict religious, social, and political control.

They condemned a UN report on women’s rights released earlier this year, and oversaw a rewriting of the Egyptian constitution that offered vague utterances of protections and no mechanisms for gender equality or protection from violence. The revolution brought the removal of a quota system enacted by Mubarak to guarantee women’s political representation in government, and Islamists have pushed to change laws governing rights of divorce, age of consent, maternal and custody rights, forced veiling, and the decriminalization of genital mutilation.

The identity of women in this revolution has shifted from comrade to objet d’politik. They are blamed for their own exploitation, and some Islamists in government like  Adel Abdel Maqsoud Afifi have claimed that women  are “100 percent” to blame for the attacks, and use their assaults as evidence justifying further oppression.

In the formation of the new government it might seem that women were written out as participants and sent home to their kitchens, but that is only because the feminist fight has left the inclusive political arena and has become a personal one fought on the streets.

We see the emergence of feminist and political activists being the voices that inform the outside world of Egypt’s daily revolutionary affairs, and because they fight in both the political and social revolution, their words are all that more pertinent and powerful.

Feminists like Mona Eltahawy have insisted on directly confronting, criticizing, and disavowing the individuals, practices, and institutions of suppression. She has spoken out against this disenfranchisement of women, and her protests have offered a continuing dialogue amidst disorder and devolving security. Her resistance to the exploitation of women for political or religious reasons which she has fought in public through media outlets has been a noted risk that many feminists in this struggle have seized as oppourtunity, and that she, in this revolution, has seized as liberation.

The feminist movement has been active for nearly a century in Egypt, and is still a relevant force. NGOs are now a part of the political landscape and groups like NAZRA fight for the protection of women through reporting, advocating, and making legislative recommendations. Proving legal framework and public support for women is crucial in this transitional period of Egyptian politics, and allows for the private revolution of the disenfranchised individual to not be lost in a more public political fight.

Actively discussing a narrative of women’s rights means that the larger issues of: government transparency and corruption, the individual freedoms of all citizens that frame a functioning democratic government, and the equitable enjoyment of said rights are goals of both revolutions, and are therefore a key caveat to any successful transition of power. The continuing fight of feminists in the streets and in public spheres shows that women will not be silent, absent, or controlled. Feminism that is culturally and politically visible is feminism that has a platform to fight and has agency to protest and enact change.

(photo of couple in Tahrir Square, 2011, by Essam Sharaf, CC-licensed via Wikimedia Commons)

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