Will It Get Worse for Women in Egypt After the Protests?

What Women Really Think
Feb. 2 2011 4:14 PM

Will It Get Worse for Women in Egypt After the Protests?

Read more of Slate 's coverage of the Egyptian protests .

"I’d rather have Mubarak than an Islamic government," a woman in the street wearing a full black niqab told NOS, a Dutch news service yesterday. Seeing the fear in her eyes makes it hard for me to feel excited for the revolution. Though there has been footage of women in the streets, looking through most recent photos from Cairo, I see an ocean of men. ( Read more on women in the Egyptian protests in Slate .) Women appear to be almost completely absent from any wide-angle shot you see of the protests at this point, and those I do see are often in Western clothes, speaking to the cameras with American and English accents. They are not representative of the majority of Egypt's women, who are working class and in hijab.

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Though Mubarak has been in power for too long, and violated the human rights of his people, for the average Egyptian woman, there is the potential for things to get far worse. The position of women in Egypt has already declined in the past two decades.

You could blame it on the stagnant economy, which could of course be blamed on Mubarak’s bad policies. On even a normal day, thousands of men loiter in the streets of downtown Cairo. Young and unemployed, most have never had a normal sexual partner. This kind of young, male frustration manifests itself in religious devotion, aggressive sexual harassment, or both. The Egyptian streets have become increasingly conservative, and women, in turn, have covered up.

Look at photos from 20 years ago and you’ll see women in skirts that show their calves, their hair and make-up done. These days, the women’s car (I dare you to ride in the men’s section during rush hour) on the Cairo subway smells from the sweat trapped by layers of black polyester. Subway reading material of choice is the Koran, held open and aloft by black-gloved hands, read through eye-obscuring lenses. And 85 percent of Egyptian women have had their clitorises removed, a practice that Suzanne Mubarak campaigned to end, citing its African, rather than Islamic origins.

Once Mubarak is gone, the climate of the country will still be frustrated and devout. The real will of the common Egyptian could be dangerous to women. A recent public opinion survey in Egypt showed that 80 percent of men think it is OK for a husband to beat his wife for speaking to another man, one-third of men and women believe that it is OK to resort to violence if a woman refuses sex. Acid attacks and honor killings are already far too commonplace, but they have been condemned by the current administration. A new government could turn a blind eye to domestic abuse or even worse. The new government will have to actively engage women in the political process in the increasingly hard-line country to keep their oppression from seeming democratically sanctioned. Revolutions have begun like this in other countries-Iranian women certainly thought they were getting something far different for themselves when they took to the streets to depose the corrupt Shah-only to leave women suffering and invisible behind metaphorical and literal curtains when the dust settled.

Jessica Olien is a writer and illustrator living in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow her on Twitter at @jessicaolien.

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