I was not surprised by the contents of a report published recently by the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the status of women’s rights in the Arab world. Reactions to the report among Egyptians, however, were interesting, ranging from support to opposition to complete dismissal. Egypt was found to be the worst state for Arab women – worse than Sudan and Saudi Arabia – based on several axes, all of which were unfavorable to Egyptian women. Those who objected to the report questioned the credibility of the Reuters news organization, accusing it of bias and a lack of professionalism. The majority of these responses came from female activists working in the field of women’s rights.
I am not writing to defend the report or the Reuters news agency – which, as anyone who works in the media profession is aware, is a prestigious organization with a reputation of neutrality and professionalism. And before discussing the details of the report, I would like to remind everyone of an incident that occurred a few days after the report was published. An Egyptian girl, “Asra,” was subjected to a terrible encounter in which burning material was thrown onto her body while she was walking down a street in Cairo. As the news spread, it was discovered that this was not the only such case, and that there is now is a “return” to a pattern of abuse of women who do not wear the hijab in the streets. Therefore, this is not an isolated event; rather, we are confronted with an alarming phenomenon that targets women daily in every part of Egypt. This phenomenon of harassment, in fact, is one of the factors that determined Egypt’s ranking in the Reuters report.
I ask those who oppose the report to review Egypt’s situation in isolation in order to see the whole picture objectively. The report is based on the following factors: participation of women in public life; social freedom; political representation; reproductive rights; domestic violence; female genital mutilation; economic participation; laws that protect women’s rights; and education.
If we analyze Egypt’s performance in each of these areas, the report’s results are not surprising. Examining the state of Egyptian women, it is clear that there is a continuing decline in women’s rights, especially in terms of political representation, as well as the increase in percentages of female genital mutilation, the state of laws protecting women’s rights, and social freedom. These areas have suffered from persistent degradation in Egypt, especially in the period following what is known as the Arab Spring.
“Despite the figures and statistics… Egyptian women remain present in the streets and on the political scene, where they confront all of these suppressive forces with strength.” – Marianne Ibrahim
There are several factors contributing to the deteriorating circumstances of Egyptian women. The Arab Spring brought the rise of religious movements and the decline of voices demanding women’s rights, a decline in awareness, and the deterioration of the country’s education system as a whole. But the big shock for Egyptians was to see their country occupying the last place after countries like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which prohibits women from driving cars.
It is possible that Egypt’s turbulent political situation contributed to the decline in the status of women. Since the revolution of January 2011, two factions that do not prioritize women’s rights have vied for power: the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian military, both of whom lack female representation by their very natures. The Brotherhood’s Guidance Office does not include women, and the meager female leadership within the Brotherhood had the worst track record for women’s rights and women’s issues. Meanwhile, the Egyptian military is an organization that, of course, lacks female influence altogether.
Prior to the 2011 revolution, the Mubarak regime, despite its repressive actions, maintained a keen interest in women’s issues, even if it was just a formality. Suzanne Mubarak, the ex-president’s wife, organized several state-sponsored campaigns such as the campaign against female genital mutilation, which had a major impact on the reduction in the rates of that phenomenon. She also strove to raise interest in women’s issues and laws supporting women’s rights before the international community.
Due to the political change and instability, the deteriorating security situation has led to rising rates of sexual harassment, and the meager legislative representation for women has fallen from 64 representatives in the 2010 parliament to just nine members in the 2012 parliament before it was dissolved. In addition, percentages of female genital mutilation have risen – an effort allegedly organized by the Muslim Brotherhood in some Egyptian villages - and laws specific to the protection of women’s rights were cancelled. Such factors contributed to the decline in the state of Egyptian women and the collapse of the meager achievements that had been previously attained under the Mubarak regime.
Meanwhile, as women’s rights in Egypt witnessed a decline in the fields of law, health, society, and politics, some other countries in the region witnessed positive developments in favor of women’s rights. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for example, showed interest in the state of women in the fields of education, healthcare, reproductive rights, and violence against women.
Despite the figures and statistics, however, Egyptian women remain present in the streets and on the political scene, where they confront all of these suppressive forces with strength. Women in Egypt go to work every day and face the tragedy of rampant sexual harassment, which has begun to take on violent forms in the streets. Egyptian women participate in the country’s political movements, and dive into battles for freedom and social justice for all Egyptians. Perhaps for this reason, so many of the female activists working in the field of women’s rights in Egypt responded with rejection to the Reuters report. But acknowledging the reality of women’s rights in Egypt does not negate the important efforts by Egyptian women, nor does it render Egypt’s women weak. Rather, it renews the mission for those working for women’s rights in Egypt to remain as vigilant as ever, and pressures Egypt’s new and future leaders to acknowledge the severity of the problems at hand.
This post was originally published on Fikra Forum.
Marianne Ibrahim is a human rights activist and the co-founder and executive manager of Egypt’s Al-Gisr Center for Development and Dialogue, an organization working with young men and women to end discrimination based on gender or religion in Egyptian society.