News / Middle East

In Egypt, Women's Rights Advocates Fear Losing Ground

Egyptian women demonstrate in Cairo's Tahrir Square, Feb. 2011 (file photo).
Egyptian women demonstrate in Cairo's Tahrir Square, Feb. 2011 (file photo).
Noel King

Today's Nobel Committee announcement that three women will split an award for "nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and women's rights" may reenergize gender-equality campaigns worldwide.

But in Egypt, women's rights activists say they are experiencing a backlash. With parliamentary elections rapidly approaching, their new role in the post-Mubarak era remains unclear. From calls for greater political representation to increased rights within the family -- to demands for an end to basic incivilities such as groping and catcalling on Cairo's crowded streets -- Egypt's battle for gender equality is varied and ongoing.

Engy Ghozlan, co-founder of 9-month-old, a volunteer-run website that enables women to document sexual harassment via texting, Facebook and Twitter, has already received hundreds of messages.

"[In] one, the girl says a man followed her from the metro overpass on road nine near a bakery to an apartment building on road eleven," she says, explaining that another women reported being physical assaulted in Cairo's Ramses Railway Station. "A guy approached her and pulled her blouse from the top down and then smiled and ran away and no one helped her out or even asked if [she] was okay."

For many Egyptian women, however, the struggle isn't restricted to crowded transit hubs, but extends to the halls of parliament, which, advocates say, is perhaps the larger part of the problem. Whether the new Egyptian constitution will guarantee women’s rights is uncertain, and Nov. 28 elections for upper and lower houses of parliament will decide who authors the document. Egyptian Islamist groups banned under the Mubarak regime are now able to organize politically, a fact that weighs heavily on the minds of rights activists. Nawaal al Saadawi, an Egyptian feminist author, says many women fear a backlash from the rise of conservative parties formed in the wake of revolution.

Parties aligned with the Salafis -- conservative Muslims who urge a strict interpretation of the Koran -- are of particular concern. "Nothing is improving in relation to women or the working class or the revolution, because we have a counterrevolution," she says. "There is a revival of Islamic groups, the Salafi groups, [and] whenever you have a revival of Salafi and Islamic fanatic groups, you have a backlash against women."

But Salafis have been quick to point out that they marched alongside demonstrators in the Tahrir Square uprisings, and that they have called for an Egyptian society governed by Islamic law that does not demean women.

A familiar struggle: Setting the political tone of women's rights in Egypt

Concerns about women's rights in Egypt, however, aren't focused exclusively on which party is about to wield parliamentary control. Memories of the former Egyptian first lady are fresh in the minds of many women.

Suzanne Mubarak, a self-fashioned advocate of women's rights, championed criminalization of female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation, a practice that Egypt banned in 2007. Ghozlan says the former first lady, whom analysts have described as widely disliked by the public, was an activist in name only.

"She was managing the [political] center for women's rights, but there were a whole lot of NGOs, activists and people who worked all their lives for [this] stuff," says Ghozlan. "We might be losing gains made during the past regime, so there's a lot of pressure on women's rights groups now to prove themselves without any connection to the first lady."

Other activists say what most worries them is a post-revolution discourse that marginalizes women's rights as a political priority.

Rebecca Chiao, an American who also works with Harrassmap in Cairo, recalls numerous positive changes for women since her 2004 arrival. But she says progress has recently slowed.

"You have a lot of people who are repeating this line: 'It’s not time for women’s rights,'" she says. "I don’t think they’ve thought very hard about this. I feel like it’s kind of a slogan that’s being pushed because women’s rights aren’t any different than human rights and democracy and these other things that they’re talking about."

Chiao says the upcoming election may prove a decisive now-or-never moment in the fight for women’s rights. "Now is really the time, I think, when we’ll see who pushes stronger, and right now it’s really a battleground," she says. "I really hope these young women can sustain their effort and pull through."

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