Letter from Hibaaq Osman
On January 25th of last year, the Egyptian people sparked an unexpected series of protest against the decades-long rule by the Mubarak regime.
According to Gallup, Egyptian women made up almost a third of the protesters during the revolution. Women were on the front lines and at every stage, caring for the wounded, protecting their communities, leading demonstrations, and building coalitions.
They put their lives at risk not for women’s rights alone, but for the rights and participation of all Egyptians in a society plagued by discrimination, power imbalance and abuse of basic human rights including access to jobs, healthcare and legal protection.
But in the aftermath, women witnessed a backlash they never expected. In March 2011, women—and some men—gathered in Tahrir in honor of International Women’s Day to advocate for a greater voice for women only to be met with verbal abuse and violence in counter-protest.
Towards the end of the year, post-revolution parliamentary elections took place to select representatives to fill the 508 seats of Egypt’s new assembly. A new electoral law was passed before the elections, eliminating the hard won 64-seat female participation quota approved under Mubarak. Less than two percent of women were selected as the law only required one woman to run per political party, with no regard to placement on the party list, and another two were appointed by SCAF, bringing women’s total share of seats to just over two percent.
The election results left two-thirds of decision-making in the hands of Islamist candidates. The Muslim Brotherhood promised it would not field candidates outside the Freedom and Justice Party, yet Muslim Brotherhood candidates ran and won the majority of votes.
Not far into the new assembly’s term, conservatives in parliament proposed to cancel the no fault divorce law (“khula”) and revise the early marriage and custody laws to include discriminatory clauses against women. Conservatives associated women’s rights laws won under Mubarak with the old regime, and used this to campaign for their cancellation.
Between May and June, Egypt held the first post-Mubarak presidential elections. The top two candidates, former Mubarak Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party’s Mohammed Mursi, competed in runoff elections from June 16-17. Meanwhile, the SCAF dissolved the new parliamentary assembly and the Supreme Constitutional Court upheld Ahmed Shafiq’s protested entry into the race, once again uniting men and women in Tahrir.
Following a week of delays and protests, Mohammed Mursi declared victory. Parliament has not been effectively reassembled to date--despite attempts by Mursi to contest the ruling and bring lawmakers back into session--and it is unclear how much power Mursi will have compared to the Egyptian military.
"The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces adhered to its pledge not to go beyond the will of the people. And the elected institutions will come back to take their role, and the great Egyptian army will do their job to protect the boundaries and security of the country," declared Mursi at a speech this weekend, in a clear challenge to SCAF’s political role.
As I write, the power struggle continues as legislators have defied the country’s highest court and generals by holding a brief session of the dissolved parliament, per an order given by Mursi. The session lasted only a few minutes and was held to allow lawmakers to decide in a voice vote to appeal the military’s order dissolving Parliament to a higher court.
As Egypt’s transition continues, we should look to the values and goals of the revolution to examine how they have helped or harmed women and our wider society. The revolution began as an outcry against poor conditions, dwindling job prospects and unfair treatment. Yet Gallup surveys showed a positive correlation between men’s life satisfaction and their support of women’s rights, suggesting that the economic situation in Egypt is a strong indicator of the strength or weakness of women’s rights.
Last week, Mursi told newspaper editors that he had no plans to restrict women’s rights, while his policy adviser, Ahmed Deif, told CNN that one of the new president’s first steps will be to appoint a Christian vice president and a female vice president. However, in pre-election speeches, Mursi made remarks such as, “The Koran is our constitution, [and] the prophet is our leader,” raising fears that he would seek a constitution based on Shari’a and impose discriminatory laws.
Meanwhile, the situation for women reminds us of the struggle ahead. In Egypt, 57 percent of women said they felt safe walking alone at night now, compared to 76 percent before the revolution. 44 percent of women and 50 percent of men said that Shari’a should be the sole source of legislation in Egypt. The challenge, then, is advancing interpretations of Shari’a that are consistent with both Islam and women’s rights.
Indeed, we must build on the common ground between men and women. Consider the following:
- 88 percent of men and 89 percent of women agreed that both genders should have equal access to education.
- 71 percent of men and 89 percent of women agreed that women should work outside of the home.
- 71 percent of men and 86 percent of women agreed that women should have the right to initiate divorce.
These areas are certainly a base for a coalition of men and women in support of women’s rights.
Mursi was sworn in as president on Saturday, June 30. Women’s civil society has already put together efforts in hopes to convince Mursi to meet with them and listen to their arguments lobbying for increased representation for women in the cabinet and ministries.
We realize that there may be a short timeframe to make an impact on the developing government in Cairo, yet there are positive signs.
More than 1,000 women’s organizations cooperated to reestablish the Egyptian Women’s Union last year.
And on July 2, the organization began a campaign on Facebook and Twitter to encourage women to tell Mursi what they expect of him as president. The initiative, dubbed “I Demand from the President,” calls on women to send their demands to Mursi on July 13.
Meanwhile, organizations and activists have been meeting in Egypt and across the region in order to identify the priorities for women in the constitution and demand a greater role in decision-making.
Karama works with partners in Egypt to do this at the local, regional and international levels, providing linkage with experts, activists and diplomats to provide models to help guide efforts in Egypt. Our partners in Libya, Tunisia, Yemen and beyond have gathered to provide recommendations, exchange expertise and analysis, and anticipate upcoming challenges and opportunities.
The future remains unclear, and it is a test of patience for us now to build off the momentum for change in the region. But we must not wait to seize chances to advance reforms and protections that are desperately needed for the good of Egyptian women and society.
The 2011 uprisings have had mixed impacts across the region, yet, at their best, they have inspired in all of us a spirit of sacrifice and courage in our people.
Now the question is how to transform what has been created to be inclusive of women and as demanding as ever in its engagement of the founding principles of the revolution: fairness, dignity, equality, and prosperity. For all.