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125 years of the Egyptian women’s movement

A new generation of Internet activists has been trying to inject new life into what it sees as a moribund official women’s movement in Egypt

Hanan Haggag , Tuesday 25 Sep 2018
Nabawiya Moussa, Hoda Shaarawi and Saiza Naharawi
Nabawiya Moussa, Hoda Shaarawi and Saiza Naharawi, participants in the women’s conference in Rome
Views: 6449
Views: 6449

The Egyptian women’s movement is the oldest women’s movement in the Arab world. It first emerged in the last quarter of the 19th century and evolved in tandem with a century and a quarter of social and political developments.

However, in recent years the movement has undergone what might be termed a historic ebb as it has become caught between funding-related charges brought against some of its leading organisations, the outmoded and unwieldy bureaucracies governing some long-established women’s institutions, and stiff competition from little-known feminist pioneers who have forayed into cyberspace with individual or collective initiatives.

Although feminist leaders in the institutionally established women’s movement understand the need for internal reform to shed cumbersome bureaucracy and develop more efficient modes of operation, they also realise that the new virtual women’s movement does not have the wherewithal on its own to promote change. As one leading feminist activist put it, “there’s a big difference between a ‘loud voice’ and ‘effective influence’.”

How is the Egyptian women’s movement faring at present? Has the conventional movement succumbed to stagnation preparatory to finding new ways ahead? And have social-media initiatives swept the rug out from under established entities and official organisations? Al-Ahram Weekly put such questions to leading figures in the established women’s movement in Egypt, also taking a look at some of its rivals in virtual space.

Five years ago, the widest circulating hashtag in Egyptian cyberspace was #I saw harassment. Eventually this found its embodiment in the concrete world in teams of people patrolling the streets during holidays and at other times when rates of harassment are high in order to stamp out this problem.

The people running the programme, independent from NGOs and other civil-society organisations, managed to turn the fight against female harassment into a popular cause, to the degree that the government felt compelled to adopt it and create anti-harassment units consisting of female police officers.

Hala Mustafa, one of the leaders of the group that spearheaded the #I saw harassment movement, relates how it started. “We were just a group of friends disturbed by the violence to which women and girls were exposed, especially on public occasions and specifically following the 25 January Revolution. We saw this as a reflection of the mounting violence in society as a whole and of the attitudes among certain parts of society toward the participation of women in the revolution and after it. We did not have any particular political agenda, and none of us were connected with any political bodies or organisations. Instead, we began our campaign on social-networking sites in November 2012, and before long our Facebook page had more than 60,000 followers,” Mustafa said.

“The decision to take our idea to the streets was not as easy as some might imagine, even though we had a reasonable number of volunteers. We were about 30 volunteers who patrolled the Downtown Cairo area, particularly between Maspero and the Corniche which are areas where harassment is most frequent during the holiday seasons. At one point, we turned in an unofficial capacity to an NGO called ACT that offered us logistical support. We set ourselves three main objectives: monitoring and identifying harassment hotspots; documenting incidents of harassment including details regarding perpetrators and victims; and awareness-raising. We performed the latter in universities, in the Cairo Metro and in gathering places for young people.”

“With regard to the first two objectives, we relayed the information we acquired to the relevant authorities, specifically the Interior Ministry, to help them combat the phenomenon. I think that this was an important contribution to the government’s handling of the problem. Also, our presence and our efficacy gave us the opportunity to take part in the committees formed to draft the anti-harassment law. The committee sessions were organised by the National Council for Women (NCW). Our group has now begun a new campaign seeking stiffer penalties in order to prevent violence and harassment against women,” she added.

According to Mustafa, her group’s Facebook campaign included a page dedicated to documenting the testimonies of victims of harassment and violence, but it was not the only one in cyberspace.

The global #me too hashtag also triggered a surprisingly large response in Egypt, one which probably even the most long-serving women’s rights activists had not anticipated.

A more recent phenomenon has been the hashtag #Diala’s Right involving a child, Diala, and a paternity suit involving a young female journalist and a well-known visual artist.

As a number of media outlets have joined the cause, the hashtag continues to be one of the most widely followed and influential movements in Egypt.

Some claim this case holds up a mirror to the current state of the more traditional women’s organisations in the country and how weak their influence is today when compared with how influential they were in a similar case 16 years ago involving Egyptian actor Ahmed Al-Fishawi and Hind Al-Hinnawi who succeeded with the help of civil society and women’s organisations to compel Al-Fishawi to admit that he had fathered her daughter.

Virtual reality: Lamia Lotfi, a long-established lawyer currently working with a women’s legal rights centre, is representing Diala’s journalist mother in the recent hashtag case.

Lotfi has no doubt that the feminist establishment, what she terms the institutionalised movement as embodied in governmental organisations and official NGOs, is miles behind the virtual entities on social networking sites.

“The women’s organisations that began to emerge in the mid-1980s are like government agencies. They are just as encumbered in bureaucratic red tape and just as sluggish,” Lotfi said. “They change their identity in accordance with the person directing them, and their involvement in issues never goes beyond the theoretical level. There is no genuine contact with the people and their needs which, of course, change with the times.”

“However, we cannot deny the accomplishments of the older generations of female activists in the causes for which they fought long and hard, such as the fight to end female circumcision (female genital mutilation). When they first began work on this at the outset of the 1990s, the rate of female genital mutilation was 97 per cent. By the time we began to deal with it, as a case of violence against women, it had been criminalised and the rate has now dropped to around 60 per cent. This is significant progress in a difficult society such as ours,” Lotfi said.

“Sometimes I liken women’s rights work in our society to drops of water falling on stone. Perhaps part of our problem is that we don’t realise this and we lose patience.”

“The government deals with women’s issues as part of development issues more generally in which women are supposed to be partners. It accepts women as participants in development work, but it objects to them fighting openly for certain causes. To be frank, most of the recent gains for women have come from the top down, and with only a few exceptions this has characterised the Egyptian women’s movement from the outset,” Lotfi said.

“As the role of the state recedes today, there has emerged the powerful influence of single issue initiatives that suddenly surface, like the fight against harassment. This and other causes have taken the women’s struggle into the virtual world, which has the advantages of speed and impact, as well as new blood. Perhaps in a year or two, the single-cause women activists we see today will be replaced by new faces that will at least guarantee the continuity of the struggle, even if only in the form of temporary initiatives. This is much better than the stagnation that characterises the establishment women’s movement today,” she added.

According to reports on women’s rights associations, only seven such associations or organisations are still active today. Foremost among them is the NCW, which in spite of its nominal independence is classed as an official entity because of its funding and leadership mechanisms.

The Arab Women’s Organisation (AWO), which falls under the Arab League, is little different. Both organisations were established in 2000.

There are also five independent NGOs dealing with women’s issues: the Al-Nadim Centre, which offers psychological and legal support to the victims of violence; the New Woman Foundation, which was founded in 1995 and officially registered in 2003 as a foundation dedicated to women’s legal issues and providing support to women; the Women and Memory Forum, which was established in 1995; the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women, which, founded in 1987, is the oldest women’s organisation still in operation; and the Nazra Feminist Studies Centre, which is one of the best-known women’s centres in spite of its relatively recent creation about a decade ago. The Nazra Centre was unfortunately recently shuttered by court order.

Egypt is not Tunisia: “I admit that the organised women’s movement is going through a decline,” said Mazen Hassan, one of the most active of the new generation of feminist activists.

“But at the same time we are in the midst of a rough time organisationally and operationally. I believe that the whole of civil society in Egypt is suffering from constraints on its activities and difficulties in finding sufficient funds. We’re supposed to be non-profit organisations depending on grants and donations to finance our activities, but now we’re legally threatened because of this. It is a true dilemma for our Centre [the Nazra Feminist Studies Centre], which has now been closed down forcing us to continue our activities on the Internet,” Hassan said.

“We recognise some of the accomplishments achieved on the ground, however, especially in the fight against violence against women. There has been the creation of the anti-violence committee in the interior ministry and the legal amendment criminalising harassment. A specific strategy has been formulated to deal with the question of violence, though no one discussed it with us. It’s very important for there to be channels of communication between civil society organisations and individual activists and the government in order to produce real change,” she added.

“The situation in Tunisia, often seen as a model for women’s ability to win their rights in the Arab world, is also not just the product of the present day or the years since the 2011 Revolution. It is the product of more than 50 years of feminist work through mechanisms in which the state worked with civil society and feminist activists. The Tunisians also had a clear agenda which was put into effect immediately after the revolution. Unfortunately, even though we preceded them chronologically, we are lagging quite a bit behind them organisationally and operationally,” Hassan said.

Although she faults the state for abandoning its support for the women’s cause in recent years, she does not deny flaws in the feminist movement itself. “Unfortunately, the women’s movement in Egypt has come to resemble many of the state bureaucracies. This applies in particular to the performance of the older generations of feminists who are generally not open to change or to criticism from the younger generations. If we are to succeed in effecting change, we have to accept the need to change ourselves and the ways in which we work. For example, I disagree that there has to be a unified agenda for the whole movement. It is unacceptable to insist that we all have to rally around a single cause.”

“Each feminist organisation or entity should have the freedom to choose the causes it wants to espouse and to press for necessary changes. All we should be asked to do is to support one another. There is another important point here concerning interaction with the governmental women’s agencies. I am not totally opposed to working with them. But I find it hard to see them as a genuine part of the feminist movement because in the end they are governed by the political agenda of the regime,” Hassan said.

“On the other hand, I think it’s possible to take advantage of their presence as a national mechanism for lobbying and realising our demands. We complement the system; we’re not competing with it. We need a multiplicity of entities. At the same time, we shouldn’t snub the younger groups, especially those operating through the Internet. In fact, we should utilise whatever resources we have to work with them through training, support, or joint efforts them. We must acknowledge that the initiatives and hashtags on social media have had a genuine impact,” she added. 

Four waves of feminism: Hala Kamal in her history of the feminist movement in Egypt, A Century of Egyptian Women’s Demands, divides the movement into four waves.

The beginning of the first in the late 19th century was marked by the publication of the first women’s newspaper in Egypt, Al-Fatah (The Young Woman), in 1892. Founded by Hind Nofal, Al-Fatah became the mouthpiece of the nascent Egyptian feminist movement which emerged about a decade later.

There then followed other periodicals such as Anis Al-Jalees in 1898, Fatat Al-Sharq in 1906, and Al-Jins Al-Lateef in 1908, all of which advocated women’s rights and sought to express women’s points of view.

It was during this phase, largely dependent on the press, a new media at the time, that Egyptians became acquainted with the names of the first generation of Egyptian feminists, such as Malak Hifni Nassef and Aisha Taimour.

Then the baton was passed to the generation of the 1919 Revolution, when discussions revolved around questions of marriage, divorce, polygamy, the veil and domestic life.

Thanks to the efforts of the pioneers of the Egyptian feminist movement, the first wave, which lasted until 1952, achieved major inroads in improving women’s rights.

One of the most significant achievements was equality in the right to education at all levels, and the first class of Egyptian female university students graduated in 1933. This wave also brought the first women’s party in Egypt and the Arab region in the shape of the Egyptian Women’s Party founded in 1942.

The second wave, lasting from the 1952 Revolution to the beginning of the 1980s, was characterised by the Nasserist regime’s determination to contain and co-opt the feminist movement and was consistent with its rejection of independent political parties or other entities.

Nevertheless, according to Kamal women achieved important successes at this time, the most important being Article 31 of the 1956 constitution which stated that all Egyptians were equal before the law in rights and duties and which for the first time gave women the right to vote and stand in legislative elections.

However, the state remained resistant to women’s demands on questions concerning family law and personal status law.

In the third wave, which began with the beginning of the Hosni Mubarak era, the government began to relax its grip on civil-society activity, making it possible for independent feminist entities to re-emerge.

Egypt also ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). This was the period in which Cairo hosted the International Conference on Population and Development (1994), which Kamal describes as “a milestone in placing women’s rights on the national agenda”.

Kamal dates the fourth wave of Egyptian feminism from the outbreak of the 25 January Revolution, in which there was a massive turnout of women in all its activities.

However, she observes that as spectacular as the women’s presence was in the Revolution, they were also exposed to unprecedented levels of physical violence. The sexual harassment crisis they encountered was fed by a combination of political, religious and social motives.

This was also a period that saw the ebb of the organised feminist movement and the remarkable rise of feminist Internet activists, although it should be borne in mind that established feminists continued to make important contributions to the drafting of the new constitution and other political activities.

Nola Darwish, a prominent figure in the Egyptian feminist movement for more than 30 years, explained what she sees as the positive and negative aspects of the Egyptian women’s movement.

“The movement in Egypt has tended to focus on women’s issues from either a philanthropic or a developmental perspective. Feminist demands were voiced alongside or beneath the umbrella of philanthropic work, and this obscured the feminist cause and rendered it incapable of direct confrontation. Successive regimes in Egypt worked to promote this, and they greatly obstructed genuine efforts on the part of rights organisations,” she said.

On the history of the movement, Darwish said that “I do not date the beginning of the feminist movement in Egypt to the beginning of the 20th century as some still do. The pioneers of the movement were more concerned with the national independence struggle and felt themselves to be part of that general movement.

Perhaps the feminist movement as an independent movement had its start following the promulgation of the 1923 constitution. But political conditions in Egypt were never encouraging for feminists.

Even though the movement came to the fore during the 25 January Revolution, that did not last long in the face of the tyranny of the Islamist movement and the male-oriented culture of our society,” she said.

“We are always seen as guilty when we bring up subjects men don’t like. We’re either accused of undermining religion or of implementing foreign ideological agendas. I’ll never forget the ferocious attacks we encountered in the 1970s when we first began to speak out against violence against women. Nevertheless, we continued to fight until the term took hold and the problem was recognised. This is a crucial prerequisite of the feminist movement: it has to continue for years to attain its goals. Its demands cannot be realised in a day. The effort might take decades.”

If Darwish is an exponent of a vanguard generation of activists, Salma Al-Naqqash is a representative of the rising generation. While she acknowledges the achievements of the older generations, she believes that the feminist movement in Egypt today lags a step or two behind its counterparts in a number of other Arab countries, notably Tunisia.

For example, whereas now there is gender equality in inheritance rights in Tunisia, a large number of women in Upper Egypt are still not allowed to inherit at all. “Even the judiciary, which boasts of granting women the right to work, doesn’t allow women to work in the Council of State, which is one of the most important judicial bodies in Egypt,” Al-Naqqash said.

“In general, we need to understand that the feminist movement in Egypt is not just a bunch of causes that we push for from time to time. It is a social advocacy movement in which we try to avail ourselves of all the means at our disposal. Those who accuse the feminist movement in Egypt of laxity have no idea about the magnitude of the difficulties we face, whether in terms of the prevalent social culture or the prevalent political regime and the extent to which it is interested in supporting women’s rights,” she said.

The Egyptian Women’s Party

Egypt may be the only country in the Arab world to have given birth to a women’s political party officially recognised by the state. Founded in 1942, the Egyptian Women’s Party was headed by Fatma Neamat Rashed, and its charter outlined goals and demands that were very progressive by the standards of the time, such as gender equality, full entitlement to political and social rights as equal citizens, and the right of women to serve in government offices, including in the judiciary.

The party also called for amendments to the laws governing marriage, polygamy, divorce, alimony and child custody. It gave Egypt some of its celebrated feminists, but the party was dissolved soon after the 1952 Revolution.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 20 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: 125 years of the Egyptian women’s movement 

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