What Will Happen for Egyptian Women After Mubarak?

What Women Really Think
Feb. 14 2011 9:27 AM

What Will Happen for Egyptian Women After Mubarak?

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Much has been written about the female presence in the Egyptian protests, which included female activists as well as first time protesters; rich women and poor women; young women and old women; Christian women and Muslim women. Sexual harassment, normally rampant, seemed to be absent. In my previous post on this topic , I wrote that women made up an estimated 20-50 percent of the protesters. From my perspective, it was consistently closer to 50 percent. Women slept in Tahrir Square, worked in field hospitals, and led choruses calling for the ouster of Mubarak.

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It worked. Mubarak’s gone, the parliament has been dissolved, and the Constitution will be revised. Now what? The protesters demands did not explicitly include women’s rights, the rationale being that all of Egypt was unified toward one common cause-the fall of Mubarak-and that all Egyptians would benefit equally by achieving this. To call for, say, attention to equal pay in the workplace or reproductive rights or access to education or a concerted effort toward the abolishing of female genital mutilation (which is extremely common in Egypt) seemed to be a selfish distraction from the solidarity of the Egyptian people. But will this adherence to a unified vision end up hurting women in a post-Mubarak Egypt?

Even in the midst of the inspiring female turnout, many Egyptian feminists and rights activists noted the unequal focus by the media on men. Nehab Abou El Komthan, the chairwoman of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, said that the "society is blind" to women’s participation. In Tahrir, large groups of women formed stationary choruses, chanting against the president while men roamed in groups. Still, news interviews, both locally and internationally, favored male participants, and photos of the protests almost always showed a male majority, unless they were being used to illustrate the women’s participation.

The main concern is that women will be thanked, and dismissed. Dr. Amal Abdel Hadi, co-founder of the New Woman Foundation, an Egyptian NGO dedicated to promoting the rights of female workers, told me that, historically, "revolutions tend to celebrate women’s part, then ask them to go back home." Nawla Darwish, also of the New Woman Foundation, is concerned about the same thing, recalling the 1919 revolution against British colonial rule, in which "women helped the revolution strongly" only to have their specific demands denied by the ruling Wafd party. Darwish worries that because women were not coordinated together during this revolution, their rights will be again forgotten and representation in the new government, whatever form it takes and whoever is at the helm, insignificant.

Female representation in the Mubarak regime was "tokenism" at best, "puppetry" at worst, according to the women I interviewed. And now, only days after Mubarak resigned, their presence in the aftermath is already outrageously smaller than their participation in the protests themselves. Abou El Komthan sees the need to aggressively lobby for female participation in the committees being formed right now to deal with the press and address the constitution, not just the government that will be the outcome. So far, she’s not happy with what she sees. "Egypt is full of women professors, including in the Faculty of Law. There are many women who specialize in constitutional law," and yet only one that she knows of had been recruited to help in the aftermath of the revolution. Not even the youth leaders, commended for their liberalness, are working hard enough to include women. Out of a 27-person strong group of anti-government protesters interviewed on Saturday night by talk show host Mona El-Shazly, only one was female.

Demands from women must be outlined explicitly, and guaranteed by players in a new government. None of the women I spoke to were particularly worried about established opposition parties like the Muslim Brotherhood taking power in September-"the opposition parties are cartoons," said Sahar ElMogy, a professor and radio host-nor were they worried about the religious future of the country affected women’s rights. At this point, nothing is certain except that the voice of women, which rang so forcefully for eighteen days in Cairo, will rapidly become history unless they continue to speak out.

Photograph of Egyptian women by Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images.

Jenna Krajeski is a writer based in Istanbul. Reporting for this article was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.