If you were to read a first draft of last year’s Egyptian revolution, it would probably be written by a woman. The uprisings that spread across the country from late January were originally chronicled by prolific female writers such as Nawara Negm, who used everything from internet blogs to appearances on Al Jazeera to spread information to the outside world. “Freedom is only for those who are ready to die,” was her mantra, although the protesters’ tactics proved less extreme. Civil disobedience, marches and strikes were preferred to violence, with the number of women in Cairo’s Tahrir (“liberation”) Square peaking at around 50%.
How dispiriting, then, a year and a half on, to see a highly politicised female population relegated to near-onlookers during Egypt‘s first bona fide presidential election race.
In Cairo today, there is no longer a sense of a traditionally patriarchal society yielding to the democratic spirit of the Arab Spring. Instead, the hundreds of thousands of women who contributed so much to the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak find themselves marginalised, if not ignored.
Commentators have made much of the 40% of seats won by the Freedom and Justice party of the Muslim Brotherhood in parliamentary elections earlier this year. Some have suggested that Egypt has replaced a western-backed, secular dictatorship with an Islamic version, but for others the true headline figure was the paltry 12 seats for women out of a total of 498.
This translates into female representation of 2.4% compared with an already low UN world average of 19%. The 13 starting candidates in the presidential race – the run-off takes place 16-17 June – were all men.
“The truth is that women were doing better under Mubarak,” says Dina Shobra, a 20-year-old law student at Al-Azhar University who is out shopping in downtown Cairo. Dina, who wears a headscarf and still lives at home with her parents and four younger siblings, thinks that a combination of complacency and fear has reversed the successes of the 18-day revolution. “The complacency comes from conservative Egyptians who believe that a woman’s place is in the home,” she says. “The fear is of the army and its oppression.”
The scale of the challenge for women such as Dina becomes clear the moment Manal Abul Hassan speaks. She is a spokeswoman for the Muslim Brotherhood, and thinks there is “no problem whatsoever” in having only a handful of women in parliament. “Social justice will be delivered anyway,” she says over the telephone. She condemns the women demonstrating against the excesses of the military: allegations against the soldiers include forcing virginity tests on the unmarried, and physically attacking women who have protested or written blogs. Dr Hassan, arguably the most powerful female politician in Egypt, believes it is up to “fathers, brothers and husbands to march and protest on behalf” of women.
The notion of male “guardianship” prevails everywhere – from the cafes and restaurants dominated by pontificating men, to the huddles of teenage girls making do with cracked civic benches for their social life as burly male police officers keep an eye on them. One veiled Salafi woman, one of around 300 female candidates in the parliamentary elections, put her husband’s photograph on her campaign poster.
A teen huddling on a bench, 16-year-old Noha Husseini, points to a shop close to Tahrir Square packed with posters of scantily clad US pop stars such as Rihanna and Beyoncé. “The young may be offended by many aspects of western culture, but are not as shocked as the older generation who want to go back in time,” she says. “You cannot change centuries of conservatism overnight. None of us want to become pop singers, but we do want to succeed as independent women. Going abroad may be the only way we can do this.”
Noha’s views, like those of so many other young Egyptians, are informed by the social media and blog posts that spearheaded the revolution – but they are as alien as Rihanna to many. Gender equality, to many, is just another undesirable western import, like fast food and Hollywood films. Mubarak was seen as a great friend to the west, especially to the US, and that very closeness now presents a huge challenge to feminism. The widespread desire to reject everything the dictator stood for, including his western sympathies, is in fact helping Islamists to flourish while liberal progressives, including feminists, are being left behind.
The danger is that if Islamists dominate not only parliament, but the executive and judiciary, women’s rights are likely to regress further. Suzanne Mubarak, the deposed first lady, pushed for pro-women legislation including the right of wives to sue for divorce and a quota system favouring female election candidates. The latter has already been scrapped, while the former is under threat. Disturbing new measures currently before parliament include a reduction in the age at which girls can marry to 14, while proposed changes in custody law will award children over eight to divorced fathers. It all amounts to a feeling of betrayal, but not one that is by any means new.
As in 2011, women played a crucial role in the 1919 revolution against British rule, but found themselves sidelined by the nationalist Wafd party after Egypt was granted nominal independence in 1922. The foiled legacy of Huda Shaarawi, who launched the Egyptian feminist movement a year later by publicly removing her veil, continues. Asmaa Mahfouz, a 26-year-old activist, is now referred to as the “Leader” of the Arab spring revolt because she uploaded a video in February 2011 calling for men to join her and her protesting sisters. What the frustrating narrative of Asmaa and thousands like her prove is that Egyptian women are deemed fit to inspire and mobilise, but not to assert themselves in the political process.