Women clap and chant as presidential hopeful Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh enters the conference hall in Cairo, May 15, 2012 (Yuli Weeks/VOA).
Women clap and chant as presidential hopeful Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh enters the conference hall in Cairo, May 15, 2012 (Yuli Weeks/VOA).

CAIRO - Egypt's new political era is inspiring some women to become more assertive of their rights, even as others worry a possible Islamist victory in this week's presidential election might lead to those rights being curtailed. 

Women's rights conference

A recent women's rights conference in Cairo attracted a cross section of Egyptians - Muslims, Christians, leftists and conservatives.

Egyptian Women Look at Prospects Under New Leaders
Watch the Video Report

Organizers of the new “An Egyptian Woman” campaign say they are reaching out to women across economic lines as well, especially to the poor, who often felt disenfranchised by the old government.

“They [i.e., the government] used to buy their votes and we want to teach them to be aware that they are responsible for their country.  They need to know on which criteria to chose their candidate and what does he offer for their future and their children's future,” stated Amani Hassan, conference organizer.

It is a relatively new concept for many in Egypt.  Previous women's rights groups, Hassan says, often were seen as exclusive and largely ineffectual. "The Egyptian women were only from the elite class of the society, she said. "They never felt the problems and daily life struggles of the Egyptian woman at large."

Whether those struggles are set to become greater if an Islamist is elected president is a point of contention.

View full gallery
Challenging traditional attitudes

Human rights advocates note that Islamist lawmakers have tried to lower the minimum age for marriage and decriminalize female genital mutilation.

Hassan, who supports an Islamist candidate, says she is not worried. "There are extremists, yes.  But I don't think they are a majority and they can't lead the scene in Egypt," she said. " I am sure of this, inshallah [i.e., God willing]."

Whether a new president can counter pressure from fundamentalists is unclear.  The powers of the office have yet to be defined.  But some people at the women's rights conference said the average Egyptian's approach to religion will win out.

Noura Mohamed Ismail is a geographer at Cairo's Ain Shams University.

Ismail says moderate religiosity is best, and that Egypt is a moderate nation.  "Everything in the middle," she adds, "is good."

More than religion, Ismail says she worries about traditional, cultural attitudes toward women in a male-dominated society.

A local worker reinforces her point.

He says it is better for young men to work more than women.  "Women," he says, "should not do more because men are more able than women."

It is unclear whether Egypt's next president will play to such prejudice, or whether women's groups will help replace these views with a message of empowerment.