How Did the Egyptian Revolution Impact Women?
By Lobna Abouelleil
As Dalia Mostafa (2015) put it, “A revolution cannot be imagined and enacted without women’s political action at its center” (p.125). Women were key participants in the Arab Spring revolutions that swept the Arab world in 2011. In fact, according to Muhamad S. Olimat (2014), “it was an Arab woman who sparked the Arab Spring” (p.12), referring to Fedya Hamdi, the Tunisian policewoman who slapped a fruit vendor, inciting the protests in Tunisia. With a specific focus on the 2011 Egyptian revolution, women’s active participation in Tahrir Square has not only been well-documented, but has also been central to the revolution itself, with some of the first demonstrations being led and organized by women. Analyzing their participation is key to understanding the overall dynamic of the revolution and examining the status of women’s rights and political participation in Egypt post-revolution. Given Mary Hawkesworth’s (2012) argument that we must expand our conception of political frames, and taking into account that “official institutions of governance are only one site of political action” (p.8), it becomes evident that women’s participation in the Egyptian protests is a form of political activity. As such, departing from an examination of women’s active “outsider” political participation in the revolution, this paper documents the impact of the policies enacted by the two ensuing regimes, under Morsi and el-Sisi, on women’s ability to pursue “insider” political participation.
There is widespread agreement in the literature on the Egyptian revolution that women played a key role in the uprisings. Their active participation in the revolution represented a visible push for change in gender roles, especially regarding women’s political position in Egypt. To incorporate Farida Jalalzai’s (2009) discourse, women’s participation in the revolution is considered “outsider” participation, which is engagement in “informal political institutions,” such as protests and grassroots mobilization (p.30). This is contrasted with “insider” participation, which involves representation in formal political institutions (Jalalzai, 2009, p.30). Women’s participation was high both during the revolution and in the events leading up to it, such as the 2005 demonstrations against the Mubarak regime’s scheme to ensure his sons’ succession to power. Since the early uprisings in Egypt, women had been suffering an obscene amount of sexual assault with their high level of activity in the public sphere (Dyer, 2013, p.54). The Mubarak regime repeatedly sent security personnel to sexually harass and violate female activists and journalists, attempting to repress their voices (Shorbagy, 2013, p.101). Egyptian women fought against this form of state-sanctioned harassment by forming movements such as “the Egyptian Mothers” which represented “the voice of the silent majority of women” (Shorbagy, 2013, p.94). What is most notable, however, is the inclusive, class-neutral character of women’s participation. This inclusivity is evident in the mobilization of such non-politically motivated movements, as the “Egyptian Mothers,” and in women’s vocal insistence that they were “protesting in their capacity as citizens, not in their sex roles” (Shorbagy, 2012, p. 154). Dalia Mostafa (2015) further elaborates on the inclusivity of women’s participation, writing of a “feminine sensibility” which united the women in the fight against the predominant “masculine chauvinism” of Egyptian society (p.125). This notion of “feminine sensibility” is parallel to what Hawkesworth (2012) identifies as a “feminist consciousness,” which aims to critically engage with the established status quo and target root causes of inequality such as the gendering of laws and constitutions (p. 168). Furthermore, the inclusivity of women’s “informal,” or “outsider,” participation is a contrast to the elitist nature of Egyptian women’s rights NGOs and state-sponsored organizations during the Mubarak regime, such as the National Council for Women. The class-blind nature of women’s participation in the 2011 revolution signified a shift from the “visual public sphere” which was formed and dominated mainly by middle and upper-class women (Mostafa, 2015, p.126). Women’s participation in the Egyptian revolution was not only highly inclusive, but also multifaceted and dispersed. As Emily Dyer (2013) writes- “women were everywhere: from looking after demonstrators, to standing ‘on the frontline’ of the protests, throwing stones with the men” (p.54). Women’s participation did not merely challenge patriarchy as a political hegemon which systematically excludes women, but also as a doctrine embedded in social structures (Sholkamy, 2012, p.156). Overall, women’s participation in the revolution can be considered a conscious effort to enter political hierarchies in Egypt.
In order to discuss the status of women’s rights and political participation in Egypt post-revolution, it is important to integrate an understanding of women’s rights during the Mubarak regime. Aliaa Dawoud (2012) writes of the importance of analyzing “the identity of the key decision makers concerning women's’ rights under the Mubarak regime” (p.160). Since the Mubarak regime was authoritarian and repressive, policies and organizations set in place during its time came to be associated with the regime which Egyptians passionately fought against during the revolution. One of these organizations is the National Council for Women (NCW), which was established in 2000 by presidential decree (Dawoud, 2012, p.161). The NCW was headed by Suzanne Mubarak, the First Lady, with the purpose of acting as a mediator between NGOs and the government in matters related to women in Egypt. Suzanne Mubarak was involved at almost every level within the NCW, from leading the Legislative Committee to appointing coordinators within the organization (Dawoud, 2012, p.161). Her high involvement within the NCW complicated Egyptians’ attitude towards the organization after the Mubarak regime was overthrown, as the NCW became largely associated with a regime which lacked legitimacy. Miwa Kato (2017) dubs this the “First Lady Phenomenon,” through which the efforts to progress women’s rights are “tainted by perceptions held by some that an authoritarian regime that suppressed freedom and social justice was instrumentalizing women’s rights.” Despite the negative association of the NCW with Mubarak’s autocracy, it is crucial to note the measures under his regime which progressed women’s rights. One such example is the khulalaw, which was introduced in 2000 and granted women the right to “swift, unilateral and irrevocable divorce” (Dawoud, 2012, p.161). Similarly, the amendment of the Egyptian nationality law in 2003, allowing children of an Egyptian woman and non-Egyptian man to obtain the Egyptian nationality. Mubarak also appointed the first female judge in Egypt, and, perhaps most notably, adopted a parliamentary quota in 2009 to ensure women’s access to seats (Dawoud, 2012, p.161). As a result of this, under Mubarak, 13% of the seats in the lower house were given to women, and women comprised 10% of parliamentary representation. (Dyer, 2013, p.57-58). The overthrow of the Mubarak regime brought along changes to women’s formal and informal political participation in Egypt.
The first post-revolutionary government was led by the Islamist Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), under the presidency of Mohammad Morsi. The government was faced with “an invigorated post-revolutionary” body of citizens (Dyer, 2013, p.53) who carried fresh memories of the autocratic Mubarak regime and sought a government that would revive their civil rights and freedoms. However, Morsi’s regime presented a regression of women’s rights, which were already vulnerable due to the aforementioned issues. During his presidential campaign, Morsi adopted an agenda which claimed to empower womenbut was deemed by most as “nothing more than an effort to gain publicity and political legitimacy” (Dyer, 2013, p.52). Amongst Morsi’s many (unfulfilled) promises to achieve in the first 100 days of office, there was no mention whatsoever of women’s rights or gender-related issues. When he did address women’s issues, Morsi “focused on the family and women’s roles as mothers, not as citizens with equal rights and duties” (Kato, 2017), foreshadowing the FJP’s rhetoric of undermining women and containing them to the private sphere. This rhetoric was guided by a conservative Islamist ideology which prioritized the family unit and viewed women as “the culture-bearers of Islam” (Dyer, 2013, p.21). The FJP undermined the instrumental role of women had played in the revolution, reducing it to a supportive role and referring to them as “the daughters, mothers, sisters and wives” of the revolutionaries (Dyer, 2013, p.54) rather than independent political activists. Such a discourse neglected the view that women’s participation in the revolution had been a form of active “outsider” political activity, and instead positioned Egyptian women in a manner which did not reflect the reality that they were, and are, “among the principal champions of democracy and human rights in Egypt” (Bastawy, n.d., para.37). The Morsi regime also denounced NGOs such as the New Women Foundation, cutting their budget, under the belief that they are “political fighters from the Left… one of the biggest threats to state stability” (Dyer, 2013, p. 64). The Muslim Brotherhood publicly denounced the ratification of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)’s “End Violence Against Women” declaration, which calls for basic forms of gender equality, arguing that it would “undermine the family as an important institution...subvert the entire society, and drag it to pre-Islamic ignorance” (Ikhwan Web, 2013). Morsi’s regime also took steps to systematically exclude women from the House of Representatives, Shura Council, and Constituent Assembly, repealing the parliamentary quota, and appointing only 3 women amongst Morsi’s 21 advisers, 2 of them Islamists (Dyer, 2013, p.56). Only 6 of the 100-member Constituent Assembly consisted of women (p.59); only 2% of the seats in the Lower House were given to women (p.57); and the parliament had 3% overall female representation (p. 58).
The low representation of women in the Constituent Assembly was especially disappointing, especially since those women who were chosen were mostly Muslim Brotherhood members, and, as a result, they were “broadly unrepresentative of women and women’s issues in wider Egyptian society” (p.59). This posed a more deeply rooted issue of women being placed in high-level state positions, simply because of their gender, “so as to lend the regime the appearance of inclusivity”, which would result in these women not acting as though they were representing a constituency of women, but rather “present[ing] defensive counter-arguments to controversial women’s issues” (p.60). In fact, one of the female MPs’ main aims was to undo the khulalaw (Moghadam, 2016, p.205). According to Jalalzai’s differentiation between “descriptive” and “substantive” representations of women in power, those under Morsi’s regime more accurately resembled the former, filling the role just because they are women and essentially acting as token representatives, rather than actively acting on women’s behalf (Jalalzai, 2009, p.38). The constitution drafted by Morsi’s assembly reinforced the regime’s commitment to rule according to Islamic Sharia laws, and contained only one article about women which simply reinstated their familial role and denied them basic rights (Bastawy, n.d.). Legalizing such a conception of women is especially problematic because it reinforces and propagates essentialist ideas about gender, women, and motherhood. One of the few efforts made by Morsi in the favor of women’s rights was the implementation of a law that provided financial and medical aid to “female-headed households” (Moghadam, 2016, p.206). In spite of this, and as a whole, under the short-lived Morsi regime, 85% of Egyptian women claimed that they felt no political group represented their views (Dyer, 2013, p.61).Bastawy sums up the attitude of the Morsi regime towards women’s rights, arguing that, in short, it “demonstrated great resistance towards calls for gender equality” (n.d., para.2).
The literature on el-Sisi’s regime contains more varied opinions with regards to his attitude and policies concerning women’s rights. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power in Egypt in May 2014 after the ousting of Morsi and the FJP, and he immediately annulled the 2012 constitution. Morsi being removed from power, there was now an important need for women “to mobilize from the bottom up and press on for greater rights and social justice” (Kato, 2017), especially after the neglect and dismissal they faced under Morsi. The “Committee of Fifty” which drafted the 2014 constitution was distinctly more diverse than the previous constitutional committee. Even though it contained only 10% women, the result was “the most progressive constitution in Egyptian history with respect to women’s rights” (Kato, 2017). Some of the most relevant and conducive constitutional provisions to progress in women’s rights are: Article 9, which declares the state’s commitment to “equal opportunity for all citizens without discrimination;” Article 53, which emphasizes the equality of all citizens before the law and the establishment of “an independent commission” to eliminate discrimination; and Article 180, which allocates a quarter of local council seats to women. However, most notable is Article 11, which states,
“The state commits to achieving equality between women and men in all civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights...[and] to taking the necessary measures to ensure appropriate representation of women in the houses of parliament...the right to hold public posts...and to appointment in judicial bodies and entities. The state commits to the protection of women against all forms of violence, and ensures women empowerment...” (Constitute Project, 2014)
The 2015 parliamentary elections had record gains for Egyptian women, with 14.9% of the legislative assembly seats comprising of women (Kato, 2017), in stark comparison to the low numbersduring the Morsi regime. Moreover, unlike Morsi and the FJP, el-Sisi acknowledged and publicly condemned the disturbingly high levels of sexual harassment and gender-based violence prevalent in Egypt. He also announced his commitment to revive the NCW, appointing a new board of 30 members in an attempt to make the organization more diverse and accurately representative of Egyptian women (Kato, 2017). El-Sisi has also taken considerable steps to publicize women’s rights, declaring 2017 the “Year of Egyptian Women,” stressing the central, inextricable role that women play in Egypt and the importance of including them in efforts for future economic, political, and social development of the nation (Ismail, 2017, para.2).
Despite the outlined successes of the integration of women into Egyptian politics under el-Sisi, some would argue that “the political representation of women is not an indicator of the improvement of women’s situation in general” (Abdelatty, 2015, para.7), citing the continued marginalization and exclusion of women from the labor market, as well as the high rates of sexual assault and harassment. An Amnesty International Report in 2015 reveals the extent of state violence, domestic abuse and sexual harassment that Egyptian women undergo, arguing that the government has “systematically failed to meet their international legal obligations…[and] adequately investigate and punish violence against women and girls” (Amnesty, p.5). The report claims that Egyptian authorities’ inadequate penalization of such atrocious instances of violence has resulted in “a culture of impunity in which sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls is pervasive” (p.7). Moreover, it is crucial to look beyond the statistics and observe the nuances of the political inclusion of women. For example, while el-Sisi’s regime has appointed women as vice governors in Cairo, Giza and Alexandria, this number wanes in comparison to the overall proportion of women in Egyptian society (Abdelatty, 2015, para.9). Furthermore, even though the 2014 Constitution contains more explicit commitments to the inclusion of women, it has no outline of the practical implementation of such commitments.
Returning to Jalalzai’s conception of “insider” and “outsider” political participation, it can be deduced that while women had a high level of “outsider” participation in the Egyptian revolution, their “insider” participation post-revolution remained highly restricted by the Morsi and el-Sisi regimes. While Jalalzai (2009) argues that outsider participation eases access to formal political structures (p.30) the case in Egypt was more nuanced, especially after the significant constitutional changes the country underwent. As Shorbagy (2013) bluntly puts it, Egyptian women were “sidelined” (p.101) after the revolution and did not reap their gains from their active participation in the revolution. This pushing aside of women was more explicit under the Morsi regime, but more efforts have been made to advance women’s civil and political participation under el-Sisi. Since el-Sisi’ regime remains in power, it is difficult to conclude what the outcome will be for women in Egypt.
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