Egypt’s women refuse to be intimidated

Zainab Salbi – Guardian – Wednesday, 20 November 2013 (originally published 15 Nov)

Female protesters in Cairo
Egyptian women were prominent in the demonstrations against former president Hosni Mubarak in Cairo’s Tahrir Square from the start. Image: Amel Pain/EPA

Egyptian women were at the heart of the revolution that toppled president Hosni Mubarak. Their contribution ranged from work in the labor movement to a female journalist breaking taboos by suing the government for harassment. They walked shoulder to shoulder with men as the Egyptian population demanded the fall of the regime, as did the people of Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. Yet nearly three years later, a poll from the Thomson Reuters Foundation has declared Egypt the worst country for women in the Arab world. So, did the Arab spring lead to a regression of women’s rights in the region – and particularly in Egypt, as the report suggests?

Egyptian women have certainly been politically marginalized in this post-revolutionary period. The male-dominated military in charge of the transitional phase eradicated the quota for women’s representation in parliament, which reduced female members from 64 to nine, and it did not include any women in the constitutional review committee. The police also targeted female political demonstrators, going as far as stripping them naked in the street and urging molestation by thugs. They introduced virginity tests for women arrested during political demonstrations. The message was clear: women should go home and leave politics to the men.

Women’s rights had been used as a velvet glove during Mubarak’s regime (as with other administrations of the time, such as Ben Ali in Tunisia and Gaddafi in Libya), which passed laws to protect women while suppressing all other political rights. The elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, rescinded some of these rights: restrictions on polygamy were lifted; a reduction of the marriage age was proposed; women’s right to seek divorce was limited. This reflected the Brotherhood’s patriarchal attitude to gender roles and family structures, and had little to do with the reality of the Egyptian economy, where women make up a large proportion of the labor force and are found in all sectors of public life . . .

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