Conflict & Justice

Egyptian Women Want a Role in The New Egypt


(Photo: Floris Van Cauwelaert)

At the headquarters of one of Egypt's many new political parties, a meeting of the women's committee is in progress. The Egyptian Social Democratic Party is a liberal, secular party and the purpose of the committee is to keep women's rights on the agenda in post-revolutionary Egypt.

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Dina Wahba, a 25-year-old activist, chairs the committee. Like everyone else in the room, she fears that women, who helped topple Mubarak, will have little say in the country's future. Wahba said it's common, after revolutions, for women to lose out.

"You always give something of yourself in the conflict and then post-conflict you're told: Thank you, now you go and we sit on the table and plan for you your whole life," Wahba said. "And this is what's happening. Women are not on the table. Now we're not welcome anymore. It's very worrying."

The army that runs the country now has appointed only one woman to the new cabinet. It hasn't appointed any female governors, or asked any female jurists to be part of a committee it formed to amend the constitution.

Women's rights activist are also worried by the rise of Islamist groups, from violent fundamentalist to the once-banned but popular Muslim Brotherhood, which has announced it will form a political party.
Women in Public Life

Ironically, women have always participated in Islamist politics. But their role isn't one that most women's rights activists would appreciate.
"In this new stage in Egypt's history all the laws that affect women need to be reviewed," said Mariam Ibrahim.
Ibrahim joined a new Islamist party because she thinks it's important for women to be involved in public life, to support religion and tradition.

"Of course I don't support a quota for women in parliament," Ibrahim said. She also doesn't think it's the government's place to ban female genital mutilation. And she doesn't believe women should have the right to divorce their husbands without their consent – it's "something no Eastern man accepts," she said.

Ibrahim believes that her party's positions represent the views of most Egyptians. That's exactly what progressives like Wahba are afraid of.

But Tahani El-Gebali , the only female judge on the country's high constitutional court, says she isn't afraid.

"It's only natural, after decades of repression, for all sorts of political and cultural forces to rise to the surface now," said El-Gabali. "Some of them will be against human rights and against a secular state."

The best way for women to defend their rights is simply to be active participants, and leaders, in public life, El Gabali argues. She says the problem is that women are always waiting for someone to invite them to get involved.

"(Women ask): Why aren't we present in leadership circles?" said El Gabali. "But no one invites women to play a role. They impose themselves by their presence, by their competence, by their awareness of what they have to offer. Before we talk about rights, let's practice them."
Socialized Not to Argue

That's easier said than done, says Dina Wahba, when we meet a few days later at a cafe near her house. She says women in Egypt are socialized not to assert themselves: not to argue with men, not to raise their voices, not to compete.

"You are raised to believe that you are less than a man," said Wahba. "So in everyday practices – in the street, at home, at school – you're always seen as less."

Not that she accepts that for herself. In fact, she's planning on running for her municipal council when it becomes possible (she is too young to run for parliament).

"Even if I'm going to lose, which I pretty much will," she said, "I want to know what it's like, I want to get the experience so I can run again, stronger."