On March 8, 2011, a few hundred Egyptian women went to celebrate International Women’s Day in Tahrir Square. Less than a month before, the same location was the scene of an eighteen-day utopia where gender norms were seemingly suspended. However, on March 8, these women were attacked by groups of men who hurled sexist verbal abuse in their direction and told them to “go home.” For many women’s rights activists, March 8 was all the proof they needed to confirm that the eighteen days were the exception, not the rule.
Two and a half years later women’s rights are back on the table as a drafting committee votes on amendments to Egypt’s constitution—including articles on gender equality and the protection of women. During Mursi’s rule the gender and women’s rights movement in Egypt was not stifled, but badly fettered, just as Egypt’s wider political climate has gone from the tumultuous to complete disarray. From parliamentary elections to a cancelled parliament, a constitution that has gone the same way, and a second ousted president in as many years, the movement has not escaped unscathed.
As the Muslim Brotherhood and their Islamist partners swept parliamentary elections in the winter of 2011, the worry for women’s rights campaigners was that any moves toward gender equality would be blocked by those in power due to their brand of Islam. Their worries were not unfounded, as the newly elected parliament sought to undermine the gains made under the Mubarak regime, labeling progressive gender laws as “aiming to destroy the family.”
Prominent women’s rights campaigner and member of the current Constituent Assembly, Hoda Elsadda, has also made the compelling argument that since February 2011, progressive laws pertaining to women’s rights that were passed under the Mubarak regime have been pejoratively cast off as qawanin al-hanim, “laws of the madam,” a reference to Mubarak’s wife, Suzanne. Just like all things related to Mubarak, such labeling is meant only to discredit.
The presidential victory of Mohamed Mursi did little to quell the fears of women’s rights campaigners, as the 100-member Constituent Assembly formed under his presidency contained only six women, and the final constitutional document drafted under his leadership left far too many articles vague and consequently open to manipulation by a Muslim Brotherhood government or whoever succeeded them.
Today the situation looks very different, as Egypt tries to reboot its democratic process, starting with the constitution and the current fifty-member Constituent Assembly. I spent a month with different women’s rights groups this past September, and it was obvious to see that there is a cautionary hope among many activists—not simply because of the removal of a seemingly unsympathetic president and his party, but also an acknowledgment among activists of past mistakes that can now be rectified.
One such example of learning from past mistakes can be seen in the debate over a parliamentary quota for women. Following Mubarak’s resignation and prior to parliamentary elections being held later that year, the quota was removed and not campaigned for again in the 2012 constitution. As the current fifty-member panel drafts a new constitution, women’s rights activists now see the removal of the quota as a mistake and are vigorously campaigning for a quota system to be enshrined in the new constitution, guaranteeing a level of participation for women in any future parliament.
Other challenges lie ahead for women’s rights groups and campaigners. Presidential elections next year may not equate to an entirely new political landscape, and neither does the current nationalistic frenzy necessitate new social norms. Many of the activists I spoke to still see political parties as being guilty of not having enough women within their senior ranks, as well as relegating women’s rights issues from the tops of their agendas. One activist admits that after 2011, many women’s rights campaigners allowed political parties to place women’s rights under the broad banner of human rights. As a result, their campaign was bumped even further down the list of priorities—a compromise they will not make again.
The attack on March 8 was a very early reminder that progress on gender equality will not happen instantly, and that it is far easier to change regimes than it is to change a mentality. Crucial issues remain on the reform of personal status laws, tackling female genital mutilation, and criminalizing domestic violence and sexual harassment. But there is now something of a second chance on offer for gender rights groups, with Egypt pressing the restart button this past summer.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.