Women will continue to fight for social justice

Hania Sholkamy , Tuesday 22 Jan 2013

Despite the many setbacks and struggles in the year after the revolution, Egyptian women are mobilising to bring about gender justice

The women’s movement is slowly becoming socialised and is percolating in a variety of political circles. It may even one day soon develop roots in Egyptian society as whole.

In the decades preceding 2001, the calls for gender rights and justice had been co-opted by the machinations of state sponsored elites.

In 2003, the National Council for Women was created by presidential fiat so as to hold the state accountable to its obligations of gender equality as mandated by international agreements and conventions. The president’s wife was amongst the 30 then-new appointees who included respected scholars and technocrats. The president’s wife was elected by her acolytes to chair the council.

With Mrs. Mubarak at its helm, the council had the clout to steer through significant policy changes and initiatives. The right to mobility, to unilateral divorce (khula), to a longer custody of children in cases of divorce and to educational guardianship of children were some of the achievements of this council.

A quota for women was also awarded after much lobbying in elite circles, for the public was not privy to these rarefied climates, and sixty-four women-only constituencies were added so as to increase the number of women in parliament.

Moreover the council succeeded in issuing millions of identification cards for women, particularly in Upper Egypt, thus rectifying a long standing travesty whereby that majority of poor and rural women had been deprived of papers or identification of any kind.

From a developmental point of view, the council was a success as it had managed to shepherd a number of internationally recommended policy initiatives; but from a political one it became the focus of scorn and hatred as the phenomenon of state sponsored feminism that the council embodied became an ever more apparent thorn in the side of Egypt.

Figuratively and physically, the council was burnt down by the protestors of January 2011 as its premises were torched on 28 January and as the principles of elitism and exclusion upon which it was built were reviled. The revolution rejected the official face of gender politics, but what of the cause itself?

The first year after the revolution was a bad one for women. The transgressions against Samira Ibrahim who was subjected along with others to enforced virginity tests while in the custody of army personnel; the violations perpetuated against women in the Majlis El-Wozara and Mohamed Mahmoud protests and which culminated in undressing the brave 'blue bra' girl; the dismal 2 per cent representation of women in the new parliament (which was dissolved by the military council after a court ruling in June 2012); and the threats to established rights to divorce and custody made by some parliamentarians all added up to alarm and a sudden realisation that revolution and its anticipated freedoms would not necessarily free women.

The proliferation of conservative and in some cases coercive religious media figures, politicians and scholars added to the fear of the middle classes and of ordinary working women.

This second year has been a better one as women’s groups have emerged to fight against the threat to their right and dignity. Finally a political movement is slowly and surely emerging to establish the centrality of gender to social justice.

There are networks of young women who have no qualms about demanding equality and no tolerance for the shy and less abrasive ways of the past that settled for equity. There are women’s committees in every political party and in every social movement who sometimes cooperate and often jointly protest online and on the streets.  

The protests against the constitutional amendments of November 2012 were astounding for their recreation of gender balance first witnessed in Tahrir Square in January 2011. Women's networks raised millions to fund the no vote and to organise logistical support for demonstrators as well as to act as observers during the referendum itself. Even the yes vote crowd brought out its women members to show gender-blind support for the president and for the constitution.

Women also joined the National Salvation Front from across the political parties to mainstream women into the politics of protest. The Maspero youth have a women’s group; so do other youth movements. The mothers of martyrs are the face of public protest and are not confined to a symbolic status, as they are vocal and opinionated in their political engagements.

In effect we have a younger, more radical and wholly home-grown movement for gender justice working itself into the political fabric of Egypt. Gone is the embarrassment that was a feature of most things feminine. Many no longer bother to distance themselves from feminism choosing rather to redefine what it means for them.

It is true that the constitution we have has failed to add any rights to women or to guarantee gender equality, and true that the Shura Council that now legislates has even worse female representation than parliament did and is dithering in its vote on making it mandatory to have a woman in all election lists; but the public condemnations against the constitution, the Shura Council and the election law are loud and angry. 

Opposition parties, networks and social movements are now aware of gender justice as an inclusive domain which will liberate both men and women.

The road is a long and winding one and the women and men travelling it may be few or many but there is no doubt that gender justice is now a proud call coming from a broader base not an embarrassed whimper circulating in the corridors of power. There is also no doubt that the situation of women and their rights and freedoms is at the core of Egyptian politics as different moralities and ideologies collide and in so doing change the identity politics of gender.

The millions of women's ID cards issued by the old National Council for Women enabled the sweeping victory of political Islam, as women voters are now the key to political success. Such are the unforeseen consequences of many development interventions.

The revolution will also yield its fruits in good time. It will enable a genuine movement of unashamed and effective women politicians and activists whose impact and numbers will grow. Change is coming at the hands of women and men who understand the meaning of justice and the price that must be paid to secure a better world.

Short link: