The Role Of Women In Egypt’s Popular Uprising
FRIDAY FILE: On January 25, 2011 thousands of Egyptians began a popular uprising against the regime of then President Hosni Mubarak. Egyptians took to the streets protesting against the lack of democracy, rising levels of poverty, unemployment rates and rampant corruption in government. They demanded that their President resign.
By Kathambi Kinoti
Inspired by similar demonstrations that had taken place in Tunisia in late 2010/early 2011, the protests started out as a non-violent act of civil disobedience but after a few days violent clashes between the protesters and pro-Mubarak supporters erupted. Owing to the protesters’ sustained pressure, on February 11, Mubarak stepped down from office.
Although the protests were nation-wide, Tahrir Square in Cairo was the epicentre of the revolution. Hadil El-Khouly[i] one of the Tahrir Square protesters, spoke with AWID about the integral role of women in the revolution.
AWID: Can you describe the current situation in Egypt since former President Mubarak left?
Hadil El-Khouly (HEK):The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is governing Egypt until presidential and parliamentary elections are held. Elections should take place within six months of the Council assuming power. The Council has suspended the constitution and dissolved Parliament.
One of our major concerns about Mubarak’s leadership was that he made piecemeal amendments to the constitution in order to give himself excessive powers. He also tailored it to ensure that his son could take over from him when he retired.
On March 19, 2011 the military Council held a referendum on proposed amendments to the constitution, which will limit the presidential term to two four-year periods, and will create new requirements for presidential candidates.
Like most other activists, I hoped that the amendments would be rejected because we would have preferred that a more comprehensive constitutional reform process be undertaken. In particular, I would have liked to see stronger guarantees that limit the potential abuse of power by any future president. However the majority of voters approved the amendments.
AWID: How did women participate in the uprising, have they participated in this way before?
HEK: Egypt is a pioneer in the region with regards to women’s political participation and activism for political reform. In 1956 it was the first Arab country to have women members of parliament. So it is not unusual that women were at the centre of the recent revolution.
The women who participated did so as citizens, side-by-side with men and not necessarily with a “women’s rights agenda.” The revolution unfolded in a very organic way and there was a sense of togetherness. Everyone felt they had a role to play regardless of sex, religion or age.
AWID: What influence did the revolution in Tunisia in late 2010 and early 2011 have on the Egyptian protesters?
HEK: The events in Tunisia were definitely a contributing trigger to Egypt’s revolution because they showed that it was possible for citizens to make their voices heard in a powerful way. However the revolution in Egypt was a long time coming. We were weary of the widespread corruption, abuse of power by the police and leaders and other injustices. We were determined to reclaim our rights as citizens.
The media played an important role in relaying developments in the Tunisian revolution, and later the Egyptian revolution. By allowing a limited amount of media freedom, the Mubarak regime made it appear that it respected democracy. However, the reality was that the regime often cracked down on prominent critical journalists, writers and bloggers. As soon as it became apparent that the protesters were becoming more and more powerful, the authorities cut off mobile phone and internet communication. Their intention was to impede people from organizing and to block the flow of information to the outside world. They wanted to hide the fact that the regime was collapsing. The communication shutdown had the initial effect of making us fearful about the safety of our friends and families. We were apprehensive that the government was planning a brutal crackdown and did not want the world to know about it. Some protesters were untraceable for days, with their families not knowing whether they were dead or alive, or where to locate them.
However, the determination of the people was strong and we were still able to communicate and organize. We worked with Egyptians outside the country to relay to the rest of the world information about what was happening in Egypt.
AWID: How did women's rights and feminist organizations mobilize women to participate in the demonstrations?
HEK: They did not need to because women were already out in the streets! Civil society organizations and political parties always seemed to be a step behind the people as the revolution unfolded. Initially, the opposition parties had called for demonstrations against Mubarak’s attempt to have his son take over the presidency. This action metamorphosed into calls to topple the regime.
AWID: What were the concerns of Egyptian women about the Mubarak-led government? What were your demands?
HEK: Egypt has a number of discriminatory marriage, divorce and child custody laws. It is difficult for women to be granted divorce, cases tend to drag on in the courts for years and women frequently face difficulties in getting alimony orders enforced. There are also a high number of female-headed households. Women who are breadwinners are still expected to perform traditional roles at home, so their husbands continue to enjoy privileges while relying on their wives’ incomes.
There are also high levels of violence against women and sexual harassment and we need tougher laws to protect women. We would also like to see child marriage banned.
AWID: Egypt is notorious for high levels of sexual harassment against women, how did men treat women during the demonstrations? Has this trend continued post demonstrations?
HEK: While I was at Tahrir Square I felt safe and did not experience any harassment. On the contrary, I experienced an unprecedented sense of unity. For instance, I witnessed people protecting their fellow demonstrators while they were praying.
I am not aware of any harassment of women during the demonstrations,[ii]but I am aware that on March 8, 2011, some men disrupted and harassed women taking part in a march to mark International Women’s Day. It is, however, not known whether these attacks were committed by thugs or organized remnants from the regime.
AWID: What do you expect to happen concerning the governance of Egypt and how are women planning to ensure that they influence what happens next?
HEK: We expect presidential and parliamentary elections to be held in September this year. Women will need to ensure that they work closely with other sectors of civil society to ensure that constitutional reforms are comprehensive and that the institutions of governance are strengthened. We will need to ensure that the constitution-drafting process addresses women’s demands. So far, women have not been included in the constitutional committee or appointed to office.
AWID: Do you think it is possible that women's participation in the revolution could be a catalyst for positive changes in gender power relations in the country?
HEK: Women’s critical role in the revolution was very prominent. However, it often happens that women participate side-by-side with men in revolutionary struggles but lose out when laws and institutions are established. It would be simplistic for us to expect that having women at the top will necessarily change power relations. There needs to be sustained engagement by women’s rights organizations. It will be important to ensure that women play meaningful roles in all the reform processes and that there is no tokenism towards them.
On a final note, I would like to express how proud I am of being an Egyptian, Arab women. I'm proud of my people, the women, men, the youth and especially the workers of Egypt for changing the course of history not just in the region but in the whole world, inspiring people to rise up and hold their governments accountable. For the longest time the mainstream media around the world had portrayed stereotypes of Arab women as passive victims, youth as hopeless and helpless and Arab men as evil. These revolutions challenged every stereotype of what it means to be Arab, Muslim and of course the image of women in the Arab region who have demonstrated that they can be leaders and speak out against injustice.
I would also like to express my solidarity to the brave people of Syria, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen, as Egyptians are demonstrating in solidarity for their freedom. They are writing a new chapter of history and justice will prevail.
[ii] There were media reports that a woman journalist covering the demonstrations was sexually assaulted. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/feb/16/egyptian-activists-condemn-brutal-attack