Women Fight to Maintain Their Role in the Building of a New Egypt

Tuesday 8 March 2011

The NY Times: CAIRO — When the prime minister of Egypt stepped down on Thursday, Shereen Diaa, 32, was cooking lunch for her two young sons in a suburb on Cairo’s outskirts. A veiled woman who molds her life around her children, Ms. Diaa had promised herself she would stop attending political protests and focus on her boys, ages 6 and 8. But when she saw on Facebook that the new prime minister himself would address the protesters the next day, in an unprecedented act, she could not resist.

“I will leave you only two hours,” she said she told the children, dropping them off with her mother and then heading downtown to Tahrir Square.

In the raucous crowd, she stepped on a water jug to catch a glimpse of the prime minister, Essam Sharaf, who had stood with the demonstrators before Hosni Mubarak was ousted as president. “I see him! I am really happy!” she exclaimed, beaming, one voice among thousands. “Raise your head high, you are Egyptian!” they chanted.

Egypt’s popular revolution was the work of men and women, bringing together housewives and fruit sellers, businesswomen and students. At its height, roughly one quarter of the million protesters who poured into the square each day were women. Veiled and unveiled women shouted, fought and slept in the streets alongside men, upending traditional expectations of their behavior.

The challenge now, activists here say, is to make sure that women maintain their involvement as the nation lurches forward, so that their contribution to the revolution is not forgotten.

“Things have not changed, they are changing,” said Mozn Hassan, 32, the executive director of the organization Nazra for Feminist Studies. She barely returned home during the 18 days it took to topple Mr. Mubarak, but that is not enough, she said. “Revolution is not about 18 days in Tahrir Square and then turning it into a carnival and loving the army,” she said. “We have simply won the first phase.”

It is an indication of the place of women here that Ms. Hassan was referring to the need for political gains and true equality, rather than some more basic rights denied to women in parts of the Arab world. Even as this country has become more devout, experts say roughly 25 percent of Egyptian women work outside their homes. And they are allowed to mix more freely in public with men than in some other Arab countries.

But a recent report by the World Economic Forum ranked Egypt 125th out of 134 countries when judging the equality between men and women, in good part because so many women do not work, 42 percent of women cannot read or write and almost no women are political leaders. (In 2010, only 8 of the 454 seats in Parliament were held by women.)

Genital cutting of women is still widely practiced in Egypt, especially in rural areas. Women here also suffer a level of sexual harassment that would not be tolerated in many countries. They are often verbally harassed on the street in Cairo and sometimes groped in crowded spaces whether they are veiled or not, leading many wealthier women to simply abandon walking downtown.

Egypt is a step ahead of other popular uprisings in the region, which have had similar bursts of female participation, accompanied by a recognition from men that their support is vital. In Bahrain, hundreds of women wrapped in traditional black tunics stood up to the authorities in the demonstrations against the government, but in a nod to their conservative culture, they slept and prayed outside during protests in a roped-off women’s section. In Yemen, only in the past few days have significant numbers of women started to protest in Sana, the capital, but their numbers were dwarfed by the crowds of men.

Ms. Diaa, whose husband works for a multinational corporation, said the role of housewives in Egypt’s revolution has been critical because they often have more time to protest than their husbands. The importance of wives has long been clear to the Muslim Brotherhood; women are active in the charitable groups that form the organization’s backbone.

“We feel this is our country now,” said Abrar Mousad, 15, a Brotherhood supporter who stood in the square with her mother, aunt and cousin. They had come from the northern city of Tanta to take part. “Everything has changed. I can say what I think and what I need without any fear from anyone.”

That assessment may be overly optimistic; feminists acknowledge that the battle for equality will not be easy. Still, women here are energized, and say perhaps the greatest change so far has been internal. They came to be convinced that the traffic-choked streets of downtown Cairo, long a male-dominated space, could be equally theirs despite years of rampant sexual harassment.

A study in 2008 by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights found that a vast majority of the women surveyed had been harassed. And the harassers, who are often members of the state security forces, are almost never punished, said Nehad Abu El Komsan, the director of the organization.

Ms. Komsan placed blame for the problem on the lack of laws protecting women against sexual violence, women’s fear of reporting trouble, and a powerful undercurrent of oppression and frustration in Egyptian society, particularly among the millions of poor, uneducated and unemployed young men. But during the revolution, women faced snipers and tear gas on those same streets, and they interacted with men they had been told to avoid.

“The same men they were afraid to talk to in the streets were saying, ‘Bravo, the girls’ revolution,’ ” Ms. Hassan said.

It did not take long, however, before the sense of unity that had grown in Tahrir Square was interrupted. On Feb. 11, just as Mr. Mubarak fell, the crowd suddenly swelled, crushing people against one another.

It was shortly afterward that Lara Logan, a CBS News reporter, was sexually assaulted; the details of the attack remain unclear. Several Egyptian women also reported being groped and harassed.

Ms. Komsan and other women said they believed that the violence, which had been absent during the revolution itself, was the work of outsiders or young men who treated the night as they would a victorious soccer match, which are notorious for harassment.

But it was still a reminder of how far Egypt has to go to address one of its most disturbing social problems.

“I was so disappointed,” said Yasmeen Mekawy, 25, an Egyptian-American who had been surprised that she faced no harassment during the revolution, but who was grabbed from behind the Friday after Mr. Mubarak was driven from power.

There have been disappointments outside the square, too. The committee of eight legal experts appointed by the military authorities to revise the Constitution did not include a single woman or, according to Amal abd al-Hadi, a longtime feminist here, anyone with a gender-sensitive perspective.

As a result, one proposed revision states that the Egyptian president may not be married to a “non-Egyptian woman” — seemingly ruling out the possibility of a woman as president.

A coalition of 63 women’s groups started a petition to include a female lawyer on the committee, arguing that women “have the right to participate in building the new Egyptian state.” Ms. Hadi noted that in past Egyptian revolutions, in 1919 and 1952, women’s contributions had been met with similar setbacks. One of the feminists’ worst fears is that expected revisions in the country’s laws will erode the rights they do have, especially if conservative Islamic forces play a greater role in government.

But many women also note progress. On Friday, some of the many young women in Tahrir Square wore unofficial police headbands and held up signs reminding men to respect women. Outside the square, the deep suspicion that had separated secular feminists from Islamic feminists, who believe Islam should be the paradigm for women’s rights, is being bridged, said Fatma Eman, 28, an Islamic feminist who is a co-founder of Nazra.

“After the revolution, I was welcomed in a very decent way,” she said. “They needed something to prove that we were allies.”

A coalition including Nawal el-Saadawi, a leading feminist, is planning a million women’s march for Tuesday, with no set agenda other than to promote democracy. Ms. Diaa said that she planned to stay home now to give the new prime minister a chance to work and to help her children. But she said she would return to the streets if Mr. Sharaf did not quickly make democratic changes.

“I don’t see a difference between men and women,” she said, talking about her many days of protesting. “The only difference is that men are more able to take the sticks of the thugs. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a voice. I believe that I have a voice, so I can’t stay at home. I have a responsibility. I can be one of a million.”


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