In the past two years much has been said about how Egypt’s popular uprising has affected women. All too often Egyptian women have been portrayed in absolute terms, as victims of a revolution that is in itself still a fluid work in progress. But as the one-year anniversary of Mohamed Morsi’s ascent to the presidency approaches, it’s clear that the struggle for equality will require new ideas.
The current threats to women’s rights in Egypt are significant. Speaking about her years of work on gender and human rights issues, Gihan Abouzeid, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) consultant and managing editor of Ikhwan Papers magazine notes, “We are actually facing two types of challenges. The first is on the policy level because of the conservative religious government and how they understand Islam, and the second is on the cultural level.”
The setbacks women experienced since the Muslim Brotherhood gained political power vary, from the approval of a constitution that lacks a clear statement on women’s rights, to the removal of the unveiled, historical feminist figure Doriya Shafiq from school textbooks.
In May 2013 more than 4,500 leaders and advocates from 149 countries convened in Kuala Lumpur for the Women Deliver conference, coined as the largest meeting of the decade focused on the health and rights of women and girls. The Arab Spring proved to be a hot topic in panels ranging from ending violence against women to the impact of web-based advocacy.
“Perhaps the most pressing problem is how to break through the cultural barriers to women realizing their rights.” – Jenny Montasir
At a session on strategies for building a gender-inclusive democracy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, National Council for Women president Mervat Tallawy touched upon the current cultural challenges to women’s rights.
“I’m not defending the Islamists, but I’m saying that the general mood around the world is more conservative. And this is clear in particular in the case of anything related to women, whether rights or services or freedom.”
Tallawy pointed out that in Egypt the political hurdles are intensified by a strong wave of anti-female sentiment where women’s actions are policed at all times, coupled with a decreased emphasis on education in favor of marriage and homemaking.
Watch Jenny Montasir’s video:
What can be done?
At a seminar on investing in the infrastructure for social change, Srilatha Batliwala, associate scholar on building feminist movements at the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) in India, underlined the importance of reflection and self-criticism at the organizational level. She emphasized that failed movements must retreat, regroup, and reexamine their understanding of the political moment. They must also consider changing tactics. “You can’t perpetually have people on the streets. They get tired. They have to earn a living, they have to eat, and they have to till their land. So in fact, movements have phases where the strategic action is actually meeting the daily needs of people. After all, that’s why the movement exists.”
In Egypt, UNFPA’s Abouzeid stresses that the advancement of women’s causes is further hindered by the fact that non-governmental organizations operate within a framework of harsh government restrictions and a perpetual lack of funding. But she also believes that women’s rights groups have not changed their ways enough since the revolution, often working in a reactionary way rather than developing new ideas or tackling the deeper issues.
During Egypt’s 18-day uprising in 2011, Abouzeid found women from every part of the country joining in the demonstrations because they felt something in the call for change that resonated on a personal level.
“After the revolution, we had an assumption that talking about equal rights in personal law, for example, is essential both for me and a woman in a very small village. This is not true. She might have her own way to get her rights: her tribe, her family, or the sheik of the mosque. So we have more work to do on the real common issues between all women, and to develop their sense of empowerment to make choices, set their own priorities, and express themselves well.”
A further obstacle for all progressive organizations in post-revolution Egypt is reaching marginalized groups across social classes, outside of major cities, and without access to the Internet. Abouzeid maintains that this outreach must take into account gaps in understanding their needs, and, for this, more on-the-ground interaction and research will be required. The second consideration, Abouzeid believes, must be the high rates of illiteracy, which can be addressed by utilizing audiovisual media campaigns, along with changing a media culture dismissive of women and their plight.
The bigger challenge
Perhaps the most pressing problem is how to break through the cultural barriers to women realizing their rights.
Ahmed Awadalla of Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance (AMERA) was among the experts invited to the Women Deliver conference to speak about his work with survivors of gender-based violence in Cairo. Awadalla believes that a vision for progress both globally and in Egypt will not only require media campaigns and education reform, but must also include the efforts to address how men, from an early age, are raised and conditioned with negative attitudes, misinformation and stereotypes about women.
“Most men feel that women’s rights are a threat to their masculinity and their authority over women,” said Awadalla. But he does think that the picture is slowly changing as “more male voices are joining the struggle, especially on sexual violence topics like street harassment and rape.”
In her closing statement at the Women Deliver MENA region panel, Mervat Tallawy insisted that while women’s rights are under threat in Egypt, so are the forces that are trying to suppress them. And the movement, she believes, will not fail from lack of action.
“We are not desperate. In Egypt… the fall of the existing system will be because of women. They don’t sit still at all. Their voice is very raised at demonstrations, signing petitions – they are everywhere. We will not accept the situation. We will fight it until the end. Either they will put us in jail or they will change their attitudes.”
A version of this post was first published on 19twentythree.com. The above video opens with the publication’s logo.
The views expressed in this Voices post are the author’s own and are not endorsed by Middle East Voices or Voice of America. If you have an opinion on this post, you may use our democratic commenting system below. And, if you would like to share your own reflections on events or issues about or relevant to the Middle East, we would be glad to consider them for publication. Please email us through our Contact page with a short proposal for a Voices post or send us a link to an existing post already published on your personal blog.
Jenny Montasir is a documentary filmmaker based in Cairo and New York.