The women's movement in Egypt goes back a long way. But how has the situation of women changed in the 18 months since the start of the Arab Spring? The Egyptian-German political scientist and women's rights activist Hoda Salah takes stock
Both inside and outside Egypt, people are asking themselves whether Egyptian women are the winners or the losers of the revolution. Women were a highly visible presence on Tahrir Square and in the revolution as a whole, but where are they now?
I have noted that many people in the so-called 'West' have a primarily negative view of developments in Egypt. In this respect, they are much more pessimistic than most Egyptian women and men. That being said, this fundamental optimism in Egypt cannot hide the fact that most women's rights activists really did expect more from the revolution.
As an Egyptian-German political scientist and activist, I am of the opinion that the answer to the question as to whether women were the winners of the revolution is both "yes" and "no". But at what level are we considering the women's question? Are we talking about the level of government, the level of state, the level of civil society? Or are we talking about an overall change in values?
A question of perspective
We must state quite clearly which women we are talking about. It must be clear that there is no such thing as "the Egyptian woman". Gender must always be considered in the light of class and origin – these are strong markers of identity. This is a truism, but one that is given too little consideration in the context of the Arab rebellions.
Established political science views politics from above. It considers the level of state, analyses constitutions and electoral law or counts how many women are members of parliament or in decision-making positions.
When viewed from this perspective, the answer is clear: Egyptian women were the losers of the revolution. They account for only 2 per cent of members of parliament. Moreover, there are hardly any women on the constitutional committee. A quota system that was in place in the Mubarak era guaranteed women 12 per cent of all seats in parliament. This system was abolished by the military council in July 2011. There are only 12 women in the newly elected Egyptian parliament.
But let us adopt the perspective of transformation research and take a look at "politics from below". From this perspective, we can see that when it comes to social movement and a change in values and in terms of the relationship between the sexes and the different generations, women are the winners of the revolution.
The revolution of values
When Egyptian women were called whores by both the regime and the conservatives, they coolly replied: "exactly, we are whores" and just carried on demonstrating.
The fact that women spent the night on Tahrir Square was in itself an historic moment. Today, some of these women appear on satellite television and tell millions of Arabs how they were humiliated, sexually harassed and beaten by police officers. Today, they say such taboo sentences as "he touched my vagina" or "he threatened to rape me" loudly and confidently. That in itself is a revolution.
Previously, the attitude in Egypt and in many Arab countries was that if someone made a pass at a woman or harassed her, it was the woman's fault. Victims of rape were often forced into marriage. Now, however, a growing number of parents are standing by their daughters and bringing charges against the rapists. The Egyptian army was forced to apologise.
Society has become more aware of women's rights. Women are showing that they are indeed victims, albeit victims with pride.
The question is, of course, whether the counter-revolution will destroy the green shoots of influence and liberty. In response to this question, I pose another question: about what kind of women are we talking here?
Middle-class women are mostly interested in very individual human rights. They are calling for freedom in the private realm in particular. They want sexual self-determination and they do not under any circumstances want to have to abide by any dress codes. They are calling for the freedom of art and the freedom of the press. But hardly anyone is listening to their demands at the moment.
Women who live beneath the poverty line – and these women still account for 40 per cent of the Egyptian population – have very different needs for the time being. Above all, they are looking for economic human rights. They quite simply want clean drinking water, electricity, health care, and more security for their largely informal jobs. The freedom of art is not a priority for them; they don't have access to the world of culture.
And let's not forget: many women voted for the Islamists, which means that they are on the side of the winners. Most of the small number of women who do have seats in parliament are very religious indeed. They are resisting – some of them aggressively – the introduction of women's rights.
Female members of parliament who represent the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, want to reverse the ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which requires countries to take action against discrimination against women. Egypt was one of the first countries to sign the convention. The Egyptian women's movement is one of the oldest and strongest in the Arab world, but a more secular Egyptian society is on its agenda.
Hope for the future
Nevertheless, there are enough well-educated, strong women who could take political office. It is true that women and men alike from the Socialist, left-wing, liberal, and secular movements lost the first round in the new Egypt. However, they could be the winners in four years' time.
In order to do so, it is absolutely essential that they enter into political alliances. To date, however, the non-conservative camp has been deeply divided. Moreover, feminists have to behave more assertively. After all, there is no point waiting for someone to invite them to participate in the constitutional committee. They have to open the door themselves.
© Qantara.de 2012
The Egyptian-German political scientist Hoda Salah works at the Freie Universität and the Otto-Suhr-Institute in Berlin. She also works as an independent political adviser in Germany and Egypt and is active in both Amnesty International and the Arab Women's Solidarity Association. Salah lives in both Berlin and Cairo.
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de