Women and the Revolution

What does the new democratic future hold for Egyptian women?


CAIRO — When 19-year-old Nahal protested in Tahrir Square several weeks ago, she wasn’t there to fight for her rights as a woman, but to fight for her rights as an Egyptian. "There are no differences between men and women here," she said. "We are all one hand."

Thousands of women echoed Nahal’s sentiments as they raised brazen signs, led lively chants, and stood next to men in what some have deemed an unprecedented display of equality between the sexes in modern Egyptian history.

Although the movement that ended a dictator’s 30-year reign in just 18 breathtaking days had little to do with feminist concerns, in the weeks following the country’s uprising, women are saying the empowerment they felt during the demonstrations should be used to effect change for women themselves.

"In the square, I felt for the first time that women are equal to men," said activist and feminist Nawal El Saadawi. Now more than ever before, she says, there is a promising opportunity to act. "It’s like I carried a burden on my back, and now I feel free."

Saadawi, a a spry octogenarian, has led the fight for women’s rights in Egypt for decades. She was arrested and censored for her work under Anwar Sadat’s and Hosni Mubarak’s regimes. "Suzanne Mubarak silenced women, killed the feminist movement, and did nothing for us," she said, dismissing the former first lady’s "National Council of Women" as little more than a PR campaign for the regime.

Women have long faced challenges in Egypt, from sexual harassment on the streets to prejudice at work to paternity laws upheld in the courtroom, Egyptians say.

As the country grapples with a transition to democracy, some worry that these problems could get worse with an Islamic revival. Many, however, do not see this as a real threat. "The younger generations of the Muslim Brotherhood believe in a secular constitution, believe in equality between men and women, equality between Muslim and Christians," Saadawi said. "So we are not afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood."

In 2005, designer-turned-activist Hind el-Hinnawy created a national scandal when she took famous Egyptian actor Ahmed el-Fishawy to court to prove that he was the father of her child. Egyptian law stipulates that if a woman gives birth outside legal marriage, the child is illegitimate and is not recognized under the law.

Hinnawy sought to prove that an urfi marriage contract — an Islamic agreement that binds a couple under God — existed. "It was only when I faced the laws and talked to lawyers that I understood how difficult it would be," said Hinnawy, who hurdled legal battles to eventually win the landmark case.

Legal cases like Hinnawy’s are just one set in a series of struggles facing Egyptian women, says Hala Galal, who directs films that deal with women’s rights. "[A woman] doesn’t have the right to wear what she wants, to marry who she wants, to go out in the street any time she wants," Galal said. "Small things like this show she doesn’t choose her life. She’s not a free person."

A 2008 report conducted by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights found that nearly half of Egyptian women are sexually harassed every day. Eighty-three percent of the Egyptian women surveyed reported being harassed on the street at least once in their lives.

But some old habits changed in the days leading up to Mubarak’s ouster. Despite isolated, albeit extremely disturbing, incidences of sexual violence such as that experienced by CBS News correspondent Lara Logan, many Egyptian women say cases of abuse in Tahrir Square were unusually low — even with men and women pressed shoulder to shoulder on some of the square’s most crowded days.

In the weeks ahead, activists vow there will be more transformations. "The future will show us a lot of systematic and organized groups of women fighting for their rights more than ever before," Galal said.

Fatma Emam, head researcher for Cairo’s women’s rights research organization Nazra, is documenting experiences of women in the revolution, establishing a forum to aggregate young feminists’ demands in the upcoming era, and taking steps to stop legal discrimination against women.

Some are already beginning to see change. "Before [the revolution], my dad would only really talk about politics with my brother," said Sarah Abdelrahman, a student at the American University in Cairo who was featured on the cover of Time magazine. "But now he’s talking about it with me. It’s like a barrier was lifted and I feel more empowered and appreciated than ever."

Still, activists concede many challenges lie ahead. "I am optimistic, but I also believe that we shouldn’t think it’s going to be something that will come mechanically," said Iman Bibars, regional director of Ashoka Arab World, an NGO that develops the citizen sector through entrepreneurship. She has lobbied for decades to have women included in important governmental committees. But as recently as last week, efforts were clearly lagging. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces appointed a committee to amend the country’s constitution, but not one woman was included.

In fact, it wasn’t until 2003 that Egypt appointed its first female judge, Tahani el-Gebali. In 2007, the Supreme Judicial Council swore in 30 female judges to preside over family courts in what feminists saw as a major step for women’s rights. But in February 2010, council members voted to bar female justices from serving in administrative courts. The new Egyptian cabinet includes few women, with less than a handful of female ministers.

Amy Mowafi, managing editor of Egyptian women’s magazine Enigma, counsels patience. "Democracy, as history has shown, is the first step," Mowafi says. "Then we start to look at subtitles of that, and one of those things is equality and freedom for women."

<p> Lauren E. Bohn is a Fulbright fellow and multimedia journalist based in Cairo. Follow her on Twitter at @LaurenBohn. </p>