The images of Egyptians standing side by side in Tahrir Square inspired and captured the attention of the world. During the 18 days of protests that led to Hosni Mubarak’s downfall, women and men stood together to demand their freedom and human rights. This was a significant contrast to the daily inequality and discrimination Egyptian women face, and many dare to hope that overthrowing Mubarak not only ended a repressive regime, but also opened an era of new freedoms for women.
The protests in Cairo and Tunis shattered Western stereotypes about Arab women, who were fully involved in preparing for and leading the demonstrations. They carried banners and placards, demanding an end to dictatorship, and chanted slogans at the top of their voices. Women, like men, were tear-gassed, dodged live bullets, and took shelter behind walls. More and more women, inspired by what is possible, are taking to the streets of Manama, Benghazi, San’a, and elsewhere calling for freedom, equality and a better life.
Many Egyptian women commented on the lack of sexual harassment, a daily feature of life for many women, during the early days of the protests. It wasn’t until thousands more people joined the protesters in Tahrir that problems emerged.
The Mubarak government took some measures to include women in the political process and public life. It reserved 64 seats for women in the People’s Assembly, the lower house of parliament, but women were left out of the Shura Council, parliament’s consultative body. A small number of women were appointed to judgeships, but women are not represented on the boards of professional syndicates or trade unions, despite being active in the labor movement.
The participation of women, on an equal footing with men, should be an indispensable part of Egypt’s transition to democracy. Much more needs to be done as the government evolves to secure women’s participation. Egyptian feminists and women’s rights activists sense a need to seize this opportunity to call loudly for women to be included in all aspects of the transition.
There are real risks that women will be left on the sidelines, without a voice and unable to help shape a transition to a democratic Egypt. The failure to include women in the constitutional committee and the lack of women among newly appointed cabinet ministers does not bode well. The announcement during the protests of a civil society initiative to form a Committee of Wise Men confirmed the likelihood that women could be pushed to the sidelines again. A committee whose very name excludes women should have no place in this process. Some women’s groups are calling on the military council to help establish a special committee to facilitate the full and meaningful participation of women.
The United Nations, recognizing the role that women play at these critical junctures, has set out conditions that should be met to ensure that women are able to participate fully and meaningfully in political life. These include making sure that women can freely express their views about politics, join and participate in political parties and activities and have access to information about political processes. It calls for special attention to empowering young women to participate in politics and civil society. As Egypt’s elections approach, it will be important to encourage political parties to field female candidates and to ensure that women who want to run for office can do so without intimidation.
In addition to ensuring women’s participation, there will need to be a strong commitment during the transition period to protecting and promoting women’s human rights by abolishing discriminatory laws and practices. That means repealing family law provisions that discriminate against women, instead giving them equal rights in marriage and divorce, guardianship and custody, and inheritance. New laws to make domestic violence and sexual harassment crimes should be adopted and enforced.
More also needs to be done to eradicate harmful traditional practices that harm women’s and girls’ health, like female genital mutilation. Past efforts by the Egyptian government to curb this practice have not been sufficient.
The stakes are high: today’s environment may signal the beginning of a social and cultural revolution that will transform the lives of women and men, or they may pass women by altogether, leaving them again on the fringes of society.There is no better time than right now for men and women to sit down together at the table and make decisions about a new Egypt. The chants of “hurria, hurria” (freedom, freedom) should mean freedom for all -- and equality should be at the heart of these calls.
Nadya Khalife is the women’s rights researcher for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch.