Women’s rights in post-revolution Egypt

 

In 2011, when Egyptians stood for ‘bread, freedom, and dignity,’ and won their first great victory in ousting former president Hosni Mubarak, they took with them to the streets their memories of police brutality, enforced disappearances, torture, corruption, the destruction of unions and civil society, the slow death of agricultural communities, gender based discrimination, unemployment and hunger, and the quiet violence of paranoia. The personal yet commonplace traumas of a people fuelled their resolve to remove a crippling decades-old regime from power.

Unprecedented state violence against women between the time of the revolution (2011) and the election of a new government (2012) contravened international law, and violated the spirit of the revolution. The short-lived government of Mohammed Morsi, democratically elected in June 2012 and overthrown in June 2013, demonstrated great resistance towards calls for gender equality, and stood defiantly against its responsibilities under international law. Egypt’s first democratically-elected, post-revolution government overwhelmingly failed to recognise crucial women’s issues such as marital rape and human trafficking and contributed to the culture of sexual harassment; one of the most pressing problems for Egyptian women today.

Since 1952, women have, slowly but surely, made progress in their fight for equal rights under Egyptian law. Recognising the legacy of prominent feminists from the first half of the 20th century; particularly the work of Hoda Shaarawi (1870-1947) and her colleagues from the Egyptian Feminist Union, which yielded the first great surge of feminist activity in the 20th century, resulting in the opening of the first secondary school for girls and the admission of the first women to Fuad I (now Cairo) University[1]; this article will briefly detail the gains and losses of the women’s rights movement since 1952.

The 1952 revolution, a military coup d’état, was marshalled in to an Egypt that had fought its way to the 1950’s under considerable strain. Frustrated with chronic poverty, government incompetence and corruption, and the King’s loyalty towards the British, the Free Officers Movement overthrew King Farouk I (1920-1965) in a CIA backed coup. The coup, instigated under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Mohammed Naguib, instilled the military as the principal rulers of Egypt and, in the minds of many Egyptians, forever shifted the dynamic between the people and the state. In 1953, the monarchy was abolished and the Arab Republic of Egypt was born, led by Mohammad Naguib, the first President of Egypt. Following several years of disputes between Naguib and Nasser culminating in Naguib stepping down as President, Nasser became Egypt’s second President; and to this day, arguably, it’s most loved.

Over the next five and a half decades women edged closer to equal status with men under the law.Under Nasser’s government, women were granted the right to vote and equal participation in public life, and education was encouraged. The state was, ostensibly, championing the women’s cause like no other government before it. Over time, however, it became clear that Nasser’s Egypt was built on expediency and political artifice. Writing for the American Socialist in January 1959, Harvey Braverman summarised Nasser’s government as follows:

The hallmark of the present military regime is while sincerely seeking the industrialization and modernization of Egypt, it hopes to achieve that goal without breaking up the old social structure.”[2]

By preserving the social structures of the first half of the twentieth century, the Nasser regime undoubtedly made it difficult for the women’s rights movement to advance its agenda. While the state itself did introduce landmark reforms such as universal suffrage, it did little to combat harmful traditional customs and practices; to take a ‘bottom-up’ approach to development. Additionally, the Nasser regime did not tolerate free speech, brutally suppressed civil society, and opposition parties were eliminated. Ultimately, calls for reform in any area were drowned by the state.

Following Nasser’s death in 1970, his successor Anwar Sadat (1918-1981) looked to capitalism to cure Egypt’s ills and announced a programme of liberalization of the economy; a stark contrast to Nasser’s socialist programme. His ‘open door’ policy, or infitah, opened Egypt up to the West[3] and also prompted the transition from military rule to (mostly wealthy) civilian rule. [4]

Fatefully, Sadat invited Muslim Brotherhood members who had been exiled by Nasser back to Egypt in the hope that an increased Islamist presence would silence his liberal critics. However, Islamist groups were among the harshest critics of infitah and they gained popularity with Egyptians who had lost faith in Sadat’s capitalist programme. Consequently, between 1970 and Sadat’s assassination in 1981, the Islamist presence within communities, universities, the media, and everyday political discourse grew enormously. Wahhabism, an absolutist, fundamentalist interpretation of Islam made its way to Egypt[5] at around the same time as exiled Brotherhood members had returned, further accelerating the Islamization of Egyptian society.

This cultural Islamization began to manifest in the seventies, when more and more women started donning extreme conservative dress like the Niqab (a veil that covers the entire face apart from the eyes,) and a surge of Islamist university students started veiling in Cairo.[6]

Efforts to contain the influence of Islamism culminated in September 1981 with the mass arrests of known Islamists from the Brotherhood. A month later, Sadat was assassinated; conferring the presidency to the unexceptional Hosni Mubarak.

Throughout the 1990’s, the Brotherhood were gaining support from the marginalised and the radical. As Mubarak’s National Democratic Party became more corrupt, the Brotherhood became more popular. No other opposition movement during the Mubarak era gained as much support (even from secularists) [7] in response to government corruption and electoral fraud as the Brotherhood, who had been publicly critical of the NDP, even holding protests in solidarity with victims of the NDP’s corruption, when others had not dared speak out.[8] Interestingly, however, a trend of ‘down veiling’[9] (choosing less conservative forms of Islamic dress) emerged in the nineties, a sign that Islamists perhaps had less cultural influence than political influence. Additionally, gross enrolment of women in schools reached 72% in 2001,[10] and in 2009 64 seats exclusively for women were created in Parliament, in a move to ensure female representation in politics.

Despite these victories, the problem of street harassment was growing in Mubarak’s Egypt, especially during his last decade, and the perception of women as little more than bargaining chips, brides, and sexual objects still prevailed in greater Egyptian society. Victim-blaming and a chronic lack of will to challenge sexual harassment by the state and the general population made harassment one of the most pressing problems for Egyptian women by the time the Egyptian revolution began in 2011.

 

Women’s rights in post-revolution Egypt

By 2010, Egyptians were living under the shadow of the state security forces[11] who had gained notoriety for corruption, the arbitrary arrest and detention of civilians, and extreme violence. The brutal murder of twenty eight year old Khaled Sa’id by state security in June 2010 was among the last of several key events that triggered the Egyptian revolution in 2011. Khaled Sa’id’s appalling murder resonated widely, provoking street protests; highlighting the collective antipathy of the people towards state security.

Energized by the popular uprising in Tunisia in January 2011- by which time Egyptian opposition movements had organised themselves- hundreds of thousands of Egyptians descended to the streets and called for ‘bread, freedom, and dignity’, many in the memory of Khaled Sa’id. On January 25th 2011, National Police Day, the Egyptian revolution began; culminating with the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak on February 11th. During those eighteen days, gender activists noted the absence of sexual harassment, assault or discrimination against female protesters; an unprecedented, but welcome, manifestation of the transition from the old Egypt to the new. Men and women, Muslims and Copt’s[12] ate, slept, and marched side by side.

After the fall of Mubarak and the detested National Democratic Party, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took control of the country, promising a handover of power to civilians after six months; a promise they failed to keep. Additionally, under SCAF rule an estimated 12,000 civilians were tried in military trials in the eight months after the revolution, more than had been tried during Mubarak’s thirty years in power. [13] Hopes for gender equality were quickly dashed when violence against women on the street not only resumed, but escalated to unprecedented levels. Women who returned to the street to express their hopes for gender equality on International Women’s Day (March 8th 2011) were met with extreme violence and harassment not only from security forces but by other protesters.[14]

The following day, eighteen female protesters were arrested, threatened with false charges including prostitution, beaten and tortured with electricity, and forced to submit to virginity tests at the hands of a military doctor[15]. Charges were later pressed against the military and the incident gained global press coverage, yet faith in SCAF rule remained. Consequently, a trend of public victim blaming supervened, especially by the military.

In December, the military again attacked female protesters with shameless brutality. One woman was photographed being dragged and beaten by military police who pulled her abaya (a full-length over-garment worn by many Muslim women) over her head, exposing her blue bra. The beating of the ‘blue bra girl’ became to the women’s movement what the death of Khaled Sa’id was to the fight against state security brutality.

On June 30th 2012, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, became the first democratically elected President of Egypt. The SCAF was dissolved shortly after; a sign that meaningful change was happening within government institutions.

Morsi appointed two women to his cabinet, including a Coptic Christian. However, the preponderance of Islamists within the Shura Council (the upper house of the Egyptian Parliament) was quickly becoming a cause for concern. The Muslim Brotherhood’s FJP held the largest proportion of seats, and the Salafi Al Nour Party held the second largest proportion. Like Wahhabism, Salafism is a fundamentalist form of Islam that seeks the creation of an Islamic state, with laws based on a literal interpretation of Islamic texts. Yet, the revolution had promised secularism, pluralism, and dignity. If Islamist parliamentarians had ambitions of implementing Sharia Law as the sole law of the state, it would be in violation of the spirit of the revolution.

Unsurprisingly, in the 2012 Constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt, women were almost entirely erased from public life. The role of women, the controversial constitution alluded, is in the home; reminding women of their ‘family duties’; duties that the government, plainly, believed it had the authority to prescribe.

Crucially, however, Article 219 of the constitution inaugurated Sharia law as the principal foundation for state law. [16] Under Sharia law, women can be denied many of the basic rights that they are guaranteed under international law. The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, for instance, may become obsolete in a state that recognises conservative interpretations of Sharia law. In a statement published on its website, the Muslim Brotherhood describes a 2013 UN Women report calling for gender equality as “deceitful”; adding that calls for the state to recognise marital rape as a crime; to ensure equality between men and women in marriage, divorce, and mattes of inheritance; as well as an end to polygamy and dowry were attempts to “undermine Islamic ethics, and destroy the family.”[17]

Vague talk of the balance of duties between family and public life left open the possibility for abuse; by enforcing measures to prevent women from divorcing their husbands, for example, in order to preserve the family unit. In Egypt, under Islamic Law, Muslim women cannot marry men who belong to other faiths, and can be charged with apostasy. Any children who are born in such a union can be taken away from the mother and placed in the care of a Muslim relative[18]. Such double standards regarding ‘preserving the family unit’ exposed the inconsistencies of the state’s policy on women.

It is worth noting that Egypt is one of only three countries to have expressed reservations to articles within the 1981 African Charter on Human and People’s Rights: Paragraph 3 of Article 18, which reads “The State shall ensure the elimination of every discrimination against women and also ensure the protection of the rights of women and the child as stipulated in international declarations and conventions,” and Article 8, which concerns freedom of religion. Egypt expressed reservations about these two articles, stating that it would only implement the articles in accordance with Islamic Law.[19]

In keeping with the state’s historic reluctance to abide by international laws regarding the protection and promotion of women’s rights, the prevailing position within the Morsi government was extremely conservative and did not abide by international standards. The government response to FGM, sexual harassment and assault, marital rape, and human trafficking overwhelmingly manifested in two distinct ways: sponsorship, or denial. While many within the government exhibited support for FGM and contributed to the culture of rape and sexual harassment; the existence of problems like marital rape, which remained legal, and sex trafficking were denied.

In an interview with the New York Times, Pakinam Sharkawy, an aide to Mohammad Morsi, claimed that marital rape is not an issue in Egypt; that it is an imported Western idea.[20] Sharkawy led the Egyptian delegation at a session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women on March 4th 2013, where she praised the position of the new government on women and women’s issues as set forward in Egypt’s new Constitution.[21]

Where the Constitution was vague and ambiguous as to how the state would enforce Islamic Law, public statements and attempts to write and repeal key laws affecting women and children within parliament ultimately laid bare the government’s policy on women.

Parliamentarians for Al Nour also expressed extreme conservative views on women. Younis Makhyoun, an Al Nour party member of the 2012 Constituent Assembly, advocated for early marriage, claiming that girls could be married at 9 or 10. Additionally, Makhyoun denied the problem of human trafficking in Egypt, and was among those who pushed for a clause addressing human trafficking to be removed from the draft constitution, claiming that including the clause would “tarnish Egypt’s image abroad.”[22]

The view that human trafficking is not a problem in Egypt is common, yet a 2013 study by the Thomson Reuters Foundation named Egypt the worst place in the Middle East to be a women; citing human trafficking as a key reason for Egypt’s appalling result. The responses to a poll of experts from the 22 countries studied were converted to data used to rank the countries from best to worst country for women. In response to the statement “Women are in danger of being trafficked within or from this country”, Egypt received the highest score from the experts: a high score denoting a high level of truth. [23] In addition, severe levels of sexual harassment, poor representation in politics, discriminatory laws, and harmful beliefs and practices all secured Egypt’s place as the worst of the 22 Middle Eastern countries in which to be a woman. [24]

Gender-based discrimination and gender-based violence have become an increasingly public problem in Egypt. In the past, violence against women (especially sexual violence) was rarely acknowledged; much less seen. In recent years, however, sexual harassment and assault has reached unprecedented levels. Cairo, in particular, has gained notoriety for being a dangerous place for women to walk, whether in groups or alone. A 2008 study by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights found that 83% of women (including foreign women living in Egypt) have experienced sexual harassment and 46% experienced it on a daily basis. [25]

Numerous factors have contributed to this crisis. Chief among them are government failures in addressing or acknowledging GBV and harassment. In addition, harmful religious customs and practices, misogyny and nationalism have engendered the culture of sexual harassment that distinguishes Egypt from its neighbours in the Middle East and North Africa.

Public victim blaming of women who were harassed and assaulted did not stop with the election of a new president. Following reports of 19 sexual assaults during public demonstrations marking the two-year anniversary of the January 25th revolution, the Human Rights Committee of the Shura Council blamed the victims of the assaults, claiming that women who participate in public demonstrations and choose to make themselves vulnerable to assault are entirely responsible.[26]

Sexual harassment and assault reached horrifying new levels during the June 30th protests (which started prematurely on the 28th) against Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Egypt. By July 9th, 186 reported incidents of sexual assault against female protesters and observers had occurred in Tahrir and the surrounding areas, including rape with a bladed weapon.

Ultimately, however, inattention to women’s rights was not the reason why, on July 3rd, Mohammed Morsi was overthrown in a military coup; overwhelmingly supported by anti-Morsi protesters. After issuing himself sweeping powers soon into his term as President[27], Morsi’s popularity plummeted; falling further when parliament attempted to integrate civil society NGO’s into government, and impose restrictions on foreign funding[28]; and nose-dived when a draft law was introduced that all but banned peaceful demonstrations[29].

A brief analysis of the first democratically elected post-revolution government of Egypt, particularly its Islamist members, reveals that the state policy on most anything was, more often than not, inconsistent with that of the revolutionary street, as well as international standards regarding state obligations and limitations; particularly in the area of women’s rights, and the responsibility of the state to protect them.

Conclusion

The Egyptian revolution created the space for freedom of expression and movement; and, for a time, from public displays of violence and harassment against women. For women’s rights activists, feminists, civil society, and other actors in the women’s rights movement, the revolution created the right circumstances for meaningful change both within government institutions and on the street.

However, extreme violence exhibited towards women during the transition period following the revolution, and the subsequent failure of the Islamist-dominated government to promote and protect the rights of women violated both the spirit of the revolution and international law.

The position in society that the state prescribed for women in the 2012 Constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt was hugely inadequate; and did not reflect the reality that women were, and are, among the principal champions of democracy and human rights in Egypt.

Further, the response of the government to sexual harassment was not only insufficient, it contributed to the culture of harassment which already greatly threatens the safety of women in Egypt. When the Human Rights Committee of the Shura Council issued a statement admonishing women who participate in public life and holding them accountable for any harassment and assault they endured, it not only abandoned the victims of sexual assault, it implicitly sponsored violence and harassment against women. The Human Rights Committee of the Shura Council, in effect, communicated to the perpetrators of violence against women that they could victimize with impunity.

 

 

Abbreviations

 

ACHPR           African Charter on Human and People’s Rights
CEDAW          Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women
CRC                Convention on the Rights of the Child
FJP                 Freedom and Justice Party
FGM                Female Genital Mutilation
GBD                Gender based discrimination
GBV                Gender based violence
NDP                National Democratic Party
SCAF              Supreme Council of the Armed Forces
UN                   United Nations

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Margot Badran, Al-Ahram Weekly (30 Dec. 1999 – 5 Jan. 2000: Issue No. 462), Feminism in a Nationalist Century, http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/1999/462/women.htm (Retrieved 01/27/2014)

[2] Harry Braverman (American Socialist, January 1959), The Nasser Revolution, http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/amersocialist/amersoc_5901.htm (Retrieved 01/13/2014)

[3]Malak Zaalouk (1989). Power, Class and Foreign Capital in Egypt: The Rise of the New Bourgeoisie. London and New Jersey: Zed Books Ltd. p55

[4] Ibid. p133

[5] John R. Bradley (2012). After the Arab Spring: How Islamists Hijacked the Middle East Revolts. Palgrave Macmillan. p81

[6] Linda Herrera, Downveiling: Gender and the Contest over Culture in Cairo, Jeannie Sowers, Chris Toensing (Eds.) (2012) The Journey to Tahrir: Revolution, Protest, and Social Change in Egypt. London, New York: Verso, p266

[7] Ashraf Khalil (2011). Liberation Square. New York: St, Martin’s Press, p50

[8] Samer Shehata and Joshua Stacher, The Muslim Brothers in Mubarak’s Last Decade, Jeannie Sowers, Chris Toensing (Eds.) (2012) The Journey to Tahrir: Revolution, Protest, and Social Change in Egypt. London, New York: Verso, p167

[9] Linda Herrera, Downveiling: Gender and the Contest over Culture in Cairo, Jeannie Sowers, Chris Toensing (Eds.) (2012) The Journey to Tahrir: Revolution, Protest, and Social Change in Egypt. London, New York: Verso, p265-266

[10] Karen Pfeifer, Economic Reform and Privatization in Egypt, Jeannie Sowers, Chris Toensing (Eds.) (2012) The Journey to Tahrir: Revolution, Protest, and Social Change in Egypt. London, New York: Verso, p213

[11] Ashraf Khalil (2011). Liberation Square. New York: St, Martin’s Press. p24

[12] Mohamed A. J. Althani (2012). The Arab Spring & the Gulf States: Time to Embrace Change. London: Profile Books. p90

 

[13] Human Rights Watch (09/10/2011) Egypt: Retry or Free 12,000 After Unfair Military Trials, http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/09/10/egypt-retry-or-free-12000-after-unfair-military-trials (Retrieved 01/18/2014)

 

[14] John R. Bradley (2012). After the Arab Spring: How Islamists Hijacked the Middle East Revolts. Palgrave Macmillan. p80

[15] Amnesty International, (03/23/2011) Egyptian women protesters forced to take ‘virginity tests’, http://www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/egyptian-women-protesters-forced-take-virginity-tests-2011-03-23 (Retrieved 01/27/2014)

[16] Amnesty International, (11/30/2012) Egypt’s new constitution limits fundamental freedoms and ignores the rights of women, http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/egypt-s-new-constitution-limits-fundamental-freedoms-and-ignores-rights-women-2012-11-30 (Retrieved 01/16/2014)

 

[17] IkhwanWeb (03/14/2013), Muslim Brotherhood Statement Denouncing UN Women Declaration for Violating Sharia Principles, http://www.ikhwanweb.com/article.php?id=30731 (Retrieved 10/02/2013)

 

[18] United States Department of State: Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Egypt 2012 Human Rights Report, http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/humanrightsreport/#wrapper (Retrieved 01/29/2014)

 

[19] African Charter on Human and People’s Rights http://www.achpr.org/instruments/achpr/#eg (Retrieved 01/27/2014)

 

[20] David D. Kirkpatrick and Mayy El Sheikh, New York Times, (03/14/2013) Muslim Brotherhood’s Statement on Women Stirs Liberals’ Fears, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/15/world/middleeast/muslim-brotherhoods-words-on-women-stir-liberal-fears.html?_r=0 (Retrieved 01/27/2014)

 

[21] Statement by H.E. Dr. Pakinam Al Sharkawy Before the 57th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women, (03/04/2013) http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/csw/57sess.htm#part (Retrieved 01/28/2014)

 

[22] Human Rights Watch, (10/08/2012), Egypt: Fix Draft Constitution to Protect Key Rights, http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/10/08/egypt-fix-draft-constitution-protect-key-rights (Retrieved 01/27/2014)

 

[23] Thomson Reuters Foundation (11/12/2013) Full Poll Results: Women’s rights in the Arab world, p28, http://www.trust.org/item/20131108160435-v2nm4/?source=spotlight-writaw (Retrieved 01/01/2014)

 

[24] Thomson Reuters Foundation (11/12/2013) Poll: Women’s rights in the Arab world, http://www.trust.org/spotlight/poll-womens-rights-in-the-arab-world/ (Retrieved 01/01/2014)

 

[25] Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (03/16/2010) Clouds in Egypt’s Sky, http://egypt.unfpa.org/english/publication/6eeeb05a-3040-42d2-9e1c-2bd2e1ac8cac (Retrieved 01/29/2014)

[26] Egypt Independent (02/11/2013)Shura Council committee says female protesters should take responsibility, if harassed, http://www.egyptindependent.com/news/shura-council-committee-says-female-protesters-should-take-responsibility-if-harassed (Retrieved 01/27/2014)

 

[27] Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, (24/11/2012) New constitutional declaration Gives Morsi sweeping powers and deals lethal blow to judicial independence, http://www.cihrs.org/?p=5084&lang=en (Retrieved 01/27/2014)

 

[28] Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, (02/28/2013), Morsi’s government must withdraw bill to nationalize civil society from Shura Council and reject FJP bill to stifle human rights organizations, http://www.cihrs.org/?p=6011&lang=en (Retrieved 01/26/2014)

 

[29] Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, (02/01/2013), New Draft Law Aims to Criminalize Peaceful Demonstrations, http://www.cihrs.org/?p=5861&lang=en (Retrieved 01/26/2014)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All writers' views in articles are their own and do not necessarily represent the opinion of the Asfar team.

Published by Asfar in London, UK - ISSN 2055-7957 (Online)