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Egypt: As in the past, women at forefront of political change PDF Print E-mail

images/stories/TheHindu_logo.gif Sunday Magazine ~ February 6 2011

images/stories/EgFemaleVoices.jpg Egyptian voices

By images/stories/KalpanaSharma2_thumb.jpg KALPANA SHARMA

Far from being ‘stable', Egypt is a country of multiple fissures as the current uprising shows…

The world has been transfixed by the developments in Egypt. Out of nothing, it seemed, an uprising of unbelievable proportions has emerged. Women and men, young and old, rich and poor, have all been heard saying the same thing ­ we want an end to three decades of repression, we want a change. It is as if the steam has been let off from a pressure cooker. There is clearly no going back.

Much of the world saw Egypt as a ‘stable' country in West Asia. For Western nations, it was their most faithful ally. But for Egyptians, the story has been vastly different. For them, Egypt's real face was that of increasing poverty and disparity, of unaccounted riches by the few, of the denial of human rights, of police brutality.

At the time of writing (February 1), it was unclear how this will end. Can this apparently leaderless upsurge lead to a peaceful change? Will the people who lead be able to meet the heightened expectations of millions of people in this most populous Arab country?

Change is here
Whatever the final outcome, the events beginning January 25 have forced the world to look again at Egypt and at Egyptians. We cannot fail to notice the fearlessness of men, as well as women. Within what appears to be a sea of men, you see the women, old and young, conservative and modern ­ and fearless. Yes, the women are there, but sometimes you have to look closely. One of the most striking images doing the rounds on the Internet is that of an elderly woman kissing a rather startled policeman, dressed in full riot gear.

Egyptian women are as vociferous and as articulate as the men even if the media sometimes fails to make the effort to seek out their voices. Thanks to the Internet, we have heard the voices of so many women in the last week, voices that spoke out strongly against emergency laws, against police brutality. These women were not afraid to state their names nor did they mince words.

Truthful portrayal
An Egyptian woman who first gave me an idea of the real situation within Egypt was the remarkable writer, Dr. Nawal El Sadaawi. Her book Woman at Point Zero, about Firdaus, a woman condemned to death for having killed her pimp, is one of the most gripping and moving books I have read. Dr. Sadaawi, a professional psychiatrist, met Firdaus in the notorious Qanatir Women's Prison in the mid-1970s. She narrates Firdaus' story of violence and abuse. But the book also gives us an insight into the life of millions of Egyptians, particularly women, living in conservative rural societies.

Less than a decade later, Dr. Sadaawi was incarcerated in the same prison for her political views and her trenchant opposition to the treatment of women, especially the practice of female genital mutilation. Such criticism was deemed a ‘crime against the State' and over one thousand intellectuals like Dr. Sadaawi were thrown into prison by the government of Anwar Sadat in September 1981. Her experiences in prison are captured in Memoirs from the Women's Prison, which she wrote on the basis of notes written with the help of a “stubby black eyebrow pencil” and “a small roll of old and tattered toilet paper”.

After her release from prison, she wrote: “Danger has been a part of my life ever since I picked up a pen and wrote. Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies.”

The repression did not end when Sadat was shot and the present incumbent, Hosni Mubarak took over. Women like Dr. Sadaawi have continued to face problems from the State and from conservative elements, some of whom have functioned under State protection. At one point Dr. Sadaawi chose to leave Egypt and live in exile. Even after she returned, the attacks on her continued.

Looking at the life of just one person like Nawal El Sadaawi gives us an idea of life in Egypt for people who question, who speak out. In fact, the women of Egypt have a long tradition of resistance. They were equal partners with the men who fought against colonial rule. There are newspaper reports from 1919, when Egypt faced political turmoil, that sound almost as if they are describing the scenes on the streets of Cairo ­ of women of all classes coming out to demonstrate against British rule.

Yet, as Nemat Guenena and Nadia Wassef write in their monograph, Unfulfilled Promises, Women's Rights in Egypt (published by the Population Council, 1999), “it has been noted that women's liberation has never come to assume the primacy of political or economic liberation. Women's particular concerns have been, and continue to be, subordinate to those of society, the nation, and development. Also, Egyptian men like their counterparts in the West have resisted the process of redefining gender roles and allowing women more equality.” Sounds familiar, does it not?

Token gestures
In many ways, Egypt represents the typical contradiction seen in many countries where governments accommodate some changes but essentially deny people the right to question. Thus, some progressive changes were made in laws that affect women, but many more were denied. And statistics, such as the gap between male and female literacy, the increasing incidence of violence against women, the continued practice of female genital mutilation that continues to have cultural acceptance, high maternal mortality and low political participation ­ only eight out of 454 seats in the current Parliament are occupied by women ­ reveal the real status of women.

At the moment, the specific concerns of women, or of the poor, will be subsumed under the over-arching demand for a regime change. But in the end, whatever the shape and form of a new government, these basic issues will have to be addressed. One can only hope that the voices of the courageous women and men that are being heard around the world today will not be muzzled.


images/stories/WomensENews_logo.jpg Thursday, February 3, 2011
Egyptian Women Lay Claim to Revolutionary Role
By Dominique Soguel / WeNews correspondent
Women who have been joining the Egyptian protests to oust Mubarak minimize the risk that the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood could dominate a future government. If the revolution succeeds, they look forward to playing a part in the transition.

(WOMENSENEWS)--For Egyptian women in the March of a Million and other street protests to oust authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak, the sometimes deadly demonstrations have been a show of force.

"Women are key actors in this historical moment of Egypt," Mozn Hassan, executive director of the Cairo-based Nazra for Feminist Studies, wrote Women's eNews at 5 p.m. on Feb. 2, moments after the Egyptian army fired warning shots in Cairo in a bid to break up violent clashes. "Women are giving a statement that they are working closely with men to change Egypt."

As a swelling opposition movement clamors for Mubarak's departure by Friday, the protests have turned increasingly dangerous, with armed men on camels and horses tearing through demonstrations as pro- and anti-ruling regime rallies clashed.

On Wednesday, Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the U.N. nuclear agency who is providing the leading voice of the political uprising, expressed concern about a possible "bloodbath" by the armed forces of an increasingly desperate regime.

Rights activists have put Egypt's death toll at over 300 people and the injured at around 500. Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday it had verified 80 deaths at two Cairo hospitals, another 36 in Alexandria and 13 in the port city of Suez, all protest flashpoints.

As authorities scrambled to shut out satellite news channel Al-Jazeera and unplug Internet and cell phone providers, men and women marched out again to the heart of Cairo yesterday morning, which marked the ninth day of continuous demonstrations.

Twitter's Role in Revolution

Twitter has played a key role in helping demonstrators spread the word. Google Inc., the Mountain View, Calif.-based Internet services company partnered with Twitter, the real-time microblogging platform, according to press reports.

On Feb. 1 the two providers of Web-based communication launched a phone-to-tweet platform to help protestors work around the government's tightening grip on media and cell phone communications.

The protest movement--powered by a mix of Islamists and pro-democracy activists from across the political spectrum–demands regime change and has rejected Mubarak's bid to remain in office until the conclusion of his term in September.

While protesters have not produced a detailed agenda for the post-Mubarak era, Western and Israeli leaders have expressed concern over the potential role of an empowered Muslim Brotherhood, linking it to Iran's theocracy and a loss of women's rights.

The Muslim Brotherhood, an international Islamist movement and the best organized opposition to Mubarak's regime, is formally banned in Egypt but some of its members, including women, have participated in local elections, running as independents.

Azza Soliman, at the Center for Egyptian Women Legal Assistance, is one of many activists underscoring the interreligious and national character of Egypt's unrelenting pro-democracy rallies.

"I want you to know that during the past demonstrations not once has there been an Islamic slogan," she said in a Feb. 2 email. "None of the opposition leaders would attribute this revolution to himself as we witness a popular uprising by the youth of Egypt, which are regular citizens oppressed by Mubarak's regime for 30 years."

Soliman added the movement's leadership is aware and confident in putting together a national coalition to reform the Egyptian constitution and uphold the principles of citizenship and establish a civil state in Egypt.

Women's stance at Tahrir (Liberation) Square in central Cairo and their presence in protests across the country is also making an online splash. Women of Egypt, a Facebook group, created a photo gallery to document women's role at the historic hour.

Solidarity Protests Triggered
The uprising has spurred solidarity protests outside Egyptian embassy premises across the Middle East, with large showings in the capital cities of Jordan, Lebanon and Yemen, as well as the world.

There have been blackouts.

But the power of Egypt's new tech-savvy generation is shining through and perhaps best captured by the image of a young girl in Cairo with a banner depicting a computer. An arrow sends a desktop icon in the image Mubarak's face straight into the trash can.

The call for democracy not only crossed gender lines, it is also changing street conduct. Nazra for Feminist Studies' Hassan highlighted that women had been able to protest freely without men to protect them and without confronting the usual sexual harassment rampant on Cairo's streets.

"Egyptians citizens gave a message of civility," she said. "During all the last days, no single sexual harassment incident occurred and people were aware of that."

On Feb. 1 women were widely visible on TV; donning sunglasses, hijabs and burkas, wardrobes that mirror the colorful fabric of Egyptian society. Mothers betting on the movement's success brought their daughters out to the streets hoping to witness the coming dawn of democracy.

While the protests have at times turned dangerous and deadly, the unified stance taken by men and women brought a sense of relief to Hibaaq Osman, founder and CEO of Karama (Dignity), a coalition of partners building a movement to end violence against women in the Middle East and North Africa.

In a blog post early on Feb. 2, she wrote proudly about the high turn out of women in the previous day's demonstration.

"Amidst the chaos…we have seen people of all backgrounds, religions, and occupations come together. But more than this, we have watched as men and women dissolved the gender barrier that has long been held between them."
images/stories/Guardian_logo.gif London ~ Wednesday 9 February 2011, page 2
Egyptians renew appeal for Mubarak to resign now on biggest day of protest
Hundreds of thousands of protesters pack Tahrir Square in Cairo and reject concessions on transfer of power in September
Chris McGreal in Cairo

images/stories/EgyptianFemTahrirSqFeb.jpg The demonstration drew significantly larger numbers of Egyptians who have not attended the protests before, like women, children and government workers . (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians have turned out for the largest demonstration to date in Cairo, with renewed demands for the immediate resignation of their president, Hosni Mubarak.

Vice-president Omar Suleiman, the former intelligence chief who is leading negotiations with Egypt's opposition groups, sought to appease protesters with a TV assurance that Mubarak had endorsed a timetable for a "peaceful and organised transfer of power" in September.

Suleiman said that Mubarak has set up a committee to recommend constitutional amendments to remove tight restrictions on who can run for president, and promised there will be no reprisals against protesters.

"The president welcomed the national consensus, confirming that we are putting our feet on the right path to getting out of the current crisis," Suleiman said.

However, in a sign of growing impatience with the demonstrations, he warned last night the protests could not go on indefinitely. "We can't bear this for a long time, and there must be an end to this crisis as soon as possible," he said. State news agency Mena said he made the remarks at a meeting with newspaper editors, where he rejected any departure for Mubarak or "end to the regime" and said they prefered to deal with the crisis using dialogue, adding, "We don't want to deal with Egyptian society with police tools."

But the consensus among the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who packed into Tahrir Square on the 15th day of protest – discrediting government claims that support is fading – was that Mubarak must go now and that the regime cannot be trusted.

On the streets, the concessions were viewed as further evidence of the government's weakness and spurred a determination to keep protesting.

The demonstration drew many Egyptians who have not attended the protests before – including women, children and government workers – in a sign of the broadening base of support for the action. But some of the regime's opponents said they feared the scale of the defiance could again provoke a violent backlash. The UN estimates that 300 people have died in state-sponsored violence against protesters.

Foreign secretary William Hague warned last night that the Middle East peace process was in danger of falling victim to the revolutionary tide sweeping the Arab world. On an emergency tour of the region, Hague also urged Israel to tone down its "belligerent" language in the wake of the uprisings which have spread from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond.

Speaking to the Times en route to Jordan, Hague said: "Amid the opportunity for countries like Tunisia and Egypt, there is a legitimate fear that the Middle East peace process will lose further momentum and be put to one side, and will be a casualty of uncertainty in the region."

Among those who appeared in Tahrir Square was the newly-released Google executive and blogger Wael Ghonim, who was held by state security for 12 days. He made an emotional TV appearance, which had a powerful impact in Egypt and on the web, and helped motivate more people to attend the protests.

"You are the heroes. I am not a hero, you are the heroes," Ghonim said.

Thousands of the protesters began a sit-in on the road outside parliament, which the opposition has been threatening to take over since the protests began.

Opposition activists said Suleiman's statement fell far short of their demands for Mubarak's departure, for parliament's dissolution and for the installation of a broadly representative interim government.

A leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Essam el-Erian, said his organisation would give Mubarak a week to resign and then reconsider its participation in negotiations with Suleiman, which began on Sunday. Amid concerns among some activists that the regime will drag out talks until the street protests fade, el-Erian denied that the Muslim Brotherhood was being used.

"The Viet Cong was negotiating in Paris and fighting in Vietnam," he said. "We give them [the regime] some time to discuss. They are afraid of facing Mubarak and saying to him: Go.

"They are arranging their affairs because he was a symbol of the regime and he was controlling them. They need some time. We give them this chance. A week."

After that, el-Erian said, the brotherhood would reconsider its participation in the negotiations. But el-Erian said that whatever happened, the protesters on the street would win. "I think the revolution cannot be defeated. It can achieve all goals in the end, it can achieve some. But it cannot be defeated. It isn't personal against Mr Mubarak himself, it is against what Mr Mubarak represents."

Asked if his organisation had only belatedly thrown its weight behind the street protests, el-Erian said the brotherhood had not pushed itself to the forefront out of concern that it would be used against the demonstrators.

"We are keeping a step behind, not in the forefront, because Mr Obama, Mrs Clinton, Mr Cameron, Mr Sarkozy, when they see us at the front they say we are another Khomeini, another Iranian [revolution]," he said.

Among those who joined the demonstrations were staff from Cairo University, a former director of the state bank and off-duty soldiers. A group of women at the demonstrations chanted: "Mubarak, you were head of the air force. Fly out of here."

One of the protesters was dressed as a football referee and waved a red card with Mubarak's name on it.

Ayman Abdullah, a 43-year-old teacher, said he regards the square as liberated territory.

"This is the first piece of the new Egypt. Mubarak does not rule here anymore. Suleiman does not rule here. We will rule here and will rule all of Egypt," he said.

Also in the crowd was prominent Egyptian feminist author Nawal El-Saadawi, whose life has been threatened by Islamists, and who predicted that Mubarak will be gone within days.

"What's beautiful about this revolution is that it is a revolution, not what they're calling a crisis … It's a real, real revolution," she said. "We have won. Mubarak is leaving. He is very stubborn and stupid, and blind to the power of the people. But he has lost power because there are millions. It's not thousands ... nobody can abort the revolution."

The protest organisers have called another mass demonstration for Friday, when they plan to hold a symbolic trial of Mubarak.

Mubarak also ordered an investigation into the assault by his supporters on opposition protesters last week that led to an estimated 300 deaths and mass detentions.

"The youth of Egypt deserve national appreciation," Suleiman quoted the president as saying.

"They should not be detained, harassed or denied their freedom of expression."

However, there is scepticism among opposition activists given that thousands of them have been detained in recent days.
images/stories/Reuters_logo.gif Wednesday February 16, 2011
Egypt activists ask: "Where are the women?"
By Dina Zayed

images/stories/EgWhereRTheWomen.jpg An opposition supporter sits between newly painted pavement close to the front line near Tahrir Square in Cairo February 12, 2011. (REUTERS/Suhaib Salem)

CAIRO (Reuters) - The lack of women on a committee charged with amending Egypt's constitution for elections post-Mubarak casts doubt over whether the country can develop into a true democracy, a group of activists said Wednesday.

The group of over 60 non-governmental organization and activists said the committee, which is presided over by a respected retired judge known for his independence, had begun work Wednesday by "marginalizing female legal experts."

"This sheds doubt over the future of democratic transition in Egypt and raises questions about the future of participation, and whether this revolution sought to liberate all of society or just some of its sectors," a statement said.

Mass demonstrations that ousted President Hosni Mubarak from his 30-year rule were led by both men and women.

"We affirm that Egyptian woman participated in the revolution, and proof of such is that many remain missing or arrested. They have every right to participate in building the Egyptian nation," the group said in a statement sent by Nahed Shehata of the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights.

Protesters have demanded several changes, including making presidential races fair and putting limits on a president's term in office. Mubarak served almost five six-year terms and had been expected to seek a sixth.

The committee is due to propose its changes within 10 days as a prelude to parliamentary and presidential elections due to take place in six months.

The committee includes one senior Muslim Brotherhood legal expert in an unprecedented move to include the Islamist opposition group, but the panel did not give details on how it selected its members.

"Signatures to this statement have received with great concern the list of committee members as there is no participation from female experts, which is unacceptable marginalization of half of society," the statement said.

"We also question the standards used to select the members of the committee," the group said, although adding they supported the military's efforts in moving to a democracy.

The role of women in Egyptian politics has been limited, with few occupying ministerial and parliamentary seats. Their role in the judiciary has been the subject of wide debate in recent years.

Last year, a top court ruled that women should be allowed to serve on the State Council, a court that tries cases involving the government and which had resisted including female judges.

Mubarak appointed Tahany el-Gibali, Egypt's first woman judge, to the Constitutional Court in 2003. Conservative judges campaigned to stop what they regarded as an exception from becoming a trend.

Activists called on the Higher Military Council to revisit "values of citizenship" and asked that female experts be incorporated in the constitutional committee.

(editing by Elizabeth Piper)

images/stories/AlAhramWeekly_logo.gif 17 - 23 February 2011 Issue No. 1035

Now for the gender revolution
Women were among the keenest demonstrators in Tahrir Square, and they have as important a role to play as men in rebuilding Egypt

By images/stories/FatmaKhafagy.jpg Fatma Khafagy *

I want to see the opposite of what has always happened after revolutions take place now in Egypt. History tells us that women stand side by side with men, fight with men, get killed defending themselves and others along with men, and then nurse the wounded, lament the dead, chant and dance when the struggle is victorious and help to manage the aftermath when it is not. However, history also indicates that after the success of a political struggle, women are too often forced to go back to their traditional gender roles and do not benefit from the harvest of revolution.

I am sure the Egyptian revolution will not allow this to happen. In the same way that the Egyptian revolution was an inspiring pioneer movement in every sense of the word, it will also break new ground when it shows the world that women and men will be equal in all walks of life after the revolution as much as they were during it.

Young Egyptian women proved to be brave, effective, fervent, devoted and valuable partners in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in all the governorates during the revolution. All the divides that were institutionalised by the former corrupt regime in Egypt, intended to make us fight each other instead of fighting the real enemy, have now fallen.

During the 18 glorious days of the revolution, there was no divide between men and women, between Muslims and non-Muslims, between rich and poor and between the educated and the illiterate: all were undertaking the same responsibilities and acting freely by disregarding the conventional gender relations that have been entrenched in our minds by a vicious media, unethical education and an inconsistent political discourse. The former regime sometimes used religion and sometimes used culture to justify the strict gender division that put women aside and that prevailed for decades.

Despite the millions in Tahrir Square, women of all ages were treated with respect, and there was not a single case of sexual harassment reported. Some young women slept side by side at night in Tahrir Square, and women prayed side by side with men during Friday prayers. Men and women kissed one another when victory was achieved.

Before the revolution, no one could have thought that these things could happen. We spent much of our time as feminists counting cases of sexual harassment and trying to explain them. Other people kept themselves busy answering questions such as should women pray beside or behind men. Now, the revolution has put such petty discussions aside, and Egypt's young people have acted freely to throw away in 18 days what we have speculated about and analysed for decades. How can we now make ourselves useful to our revolutionary youth?

Let us examine the gender discrimination that prevailed in the pre-revolution era and was institutionalised by corrupt governmental institutions. The Egyptian family law has been in place since 1920 without change, and the parliament has refused to change it for almost a century. This law has discriminated against women in the private sphere and has enslaved them.

In addition, when a gender quota system was finally enacted for political institutions, the result was to increase the number of parliamentarians who belonged to the former ruling National Democratic Party, and it was in no sense an act of positive discrimination in favour of women. The government also insisted on keeping those who work in the informal sector of the economy, the majority of whom are women, unprotected by laws guaranteeing a decent level of pay or social and health insurance.

There is a high rate of illiteracy among women in Egypt, amounting to at least 30 per cent, and the rate of illiteracy among women is almost double that among men. These are only examples of institutionalised gender discrimination. Let us make use of the revolution to dismantle what the regime strived to do for decades, in other words to divide and rule. Let us use the revolution to free women in order to be able to stand side by side with men to rebuild a just and equal Egypt.

The Egyptian revolution, as I witnessed every day and night in Tahrir Square, was not only about getting rid of a political system. It was also about creating another more beautiful and just Egypt that would guarantee human rights to all its citizens. I saw young women discussing with young men what kind of life they wanted to achieve for Egypt. I feel sure that the gender equality that was witnessed in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt will now prevail because we need it to create a better Egypt.

I would like to seize this opportunity to ask all old and newly formed groups that support the 25 January Revolution to pay attention to the need to include women in their memberships and not only as a token. Let us aim to include at least 40 per cent women in all groups and organisations that support the young people in their revolution.

I would like to call on all the country's media, especially radio and television, to talk to women as much as you talk to men, put women in your pictures, interviews, programmes and talk shows. In whatever you do, act to confirm that the new Egypt will now be built by both women and men.

The author is a women's rights activist and a board member of the Alliance for Arab Women.