Egyptian women, long allowed to vote, see little progress from revolt

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 26, 2011 

CAIRO — Thousands of Egyptian women fought in the 18-day uprising that unseated longtime President Hosni Mubarak. They hurled stones at pro-regime attackers, delivered meals to hungry protesters, and drew global attention to the struggle through their blogs and Twitter accounts.

At least 15 women died in the uprising, according to official figures. Hundreds were wounded.

And still, complain prominent Egyptian feminists, women are being sidelined from post-Mubarak politics: their names ignored for government posts, and their divorce and custody rights threatened by a powerful new Islamist lobby.

Egyptian activists shrugged off the announcement over the weekend that Saudi women, who cannot drive and require a male guardian for even mundane business, finally won the right to vote and run as candidates in local elections. Egyptian women have been voting, in mostly rigged elections, since 1956.

But the revolution that ended Mubarak's 30-year dictatorship has done little beneficial for women's rights in the Arab world's most populous country. With parliamentary elections just two months away, the outlook for women candidates is so dismal that Egyptian women activists are shelving dreams of leadership and progressive new laws because they fear they'll be too busy guarding their few hard-won gains of recent years.

"We won't waste our time finding women, training women, to run a campaign. They won't win," said Nehad Abu el Komsan, head of the nonprofit Egyptian Center for Women's Rights. "We're using these two months just to strengthen groups that support women's rights."

Another obstacle for activists is that because Mubarak's widely despised wife, Suzanne, projected herself as a champion of Egyptian women, women's rights are stigmatized as belonging to the old regime, or, worse, imposed by the West.

Nonprofit groups that once relied on U.S. or other foreign aid said their funding has dried up, partly because of political pressure against accepting American money, and partly because of new layers of bureaucracy in applying for such grants.

"Since the revolution was against the system, and Suzanne was the wife of the head of the system, women's rights were seen as part of a corrupt regime," said Hoda Badran, head of the Cairo-based nonprofit Alliance for Arab Women, which used to receive U.S. funding. One newspaper published the word "traitor" next to Badran's photo to smear her as an American agent.

As a result, even some of the young female protest leaders are keeping quiet on women's issues, frustrating older feminists who consider them naive for thinking that the slogans of the uprising will automatically protect their rights.

"These girls think the revolution called for equality, democracy and social justice, so when that's accepted, women's rights will be covered," Badran said. "They think equality will free them all. We have great respect for them, and we are trying to discuss this. Our wisdom and years of experience with their energy and technology is what we need."

Many women from the new generation of Egyptian activists bristle at highlighting women's rights, insisting that the revolt was for reform in all sectors of society. To them, cultural and educational changes have to take place before any meaningful discussion of women's rights. And they deride Western-style feminists who push for women's rights without sensitivity to Egypt's conservative context.

"There are still women — and I meet them often — who think they were created to stay at home and be good and faithful housewives," said Rola Badr, an officer in the April 6 Democratic Front, an offshoot of the youth movement that was at the forefront of the uprising. "I can't talk with them about a woman becoming a minister before I help them erase what they've been fed for the past 30 years."

So far, women have been conspicuously absent from the government's efforts to build a more democratic Egypt. An early transitional advisory panel, the so-called Wise Men, included just one woman, out of about 30 members. There were no women on the board to draft constitutional amendments, and none included in the reshuffling of governors. Only one woman serves in the caretaker Cabinet, and she's an unpopular figure from the former regime.

The interim government also scrapped a Mubarak-era quota that guaranteed 64 new parliamentary seats for women. Even youth groups that are demanding quotas for young Egyptians in the next government won't back the same kind of quota for women, activists complained. And despite the recent amendments, wording in the constitution still implies that only a man can serve as president.

"It's a combination between the weak performance of the government and the poor attitudes toward women in Egypt," said Abu el Komsan, who recently received a death threat because of her work. "Instead of asking, we must show our strength."

After several fruitless meetings with senior officials from the ruling military council and caretaker government, women's activists said, some groups are pushing for dramatic measures. One idea — scrapped for security reasons — called for mothers to drop off their children in Tahrir Square and let government forces deal with them for a day.

They're also trying unconventional conduits to decision-makers.

One recent afternoon, a small group of women gathered outside Prime Minister Essam Sharaf's house, shouting for his wife to push her husband to address their demands. Public relations specialists are teaching the activists how to pitch profiles of inspiring Egyptian women to local newspapers.

In June, women's activists held a national conference that created an umbrella group — the National Federation of Egyptian Women — to fight attacks on women's rights in family law cases, promote the inclusion of women in government, and launch a public awareness campaign. They work long hours, fielding calls for guidance from discouraged activists around the country.

"I get literally hundreds of calls, women crying and afraid. After the first 20, I started telling them, 'Go to hell,'" Abu el Komsan said. " 'If you're not going to defend yourselves, I'm not going to do anything.' I told them, 'Go write letters to all the newspapers, write in your own language, write with your spelling mistakes.' Just organize."

In the election-season political grandstanding, candidates are courting the Islamists, the business community, Coptic Christians and the poor. Women, however, still aren't viewed as a vital constituency, despite official figures that show about 20 million women are eligible to vote.

Just one presidential candidate — the former Arab League chief Amr Moussa — has approached women's groups to pitch his vision for a new Egypt. Only a couple of the many emerging political parties explicitly call for women's rights as part of their charter goals. Even the secular, intellectual elites, activists said, address women's rights with flowery words of support, but no real action.

"'Oh, our sisters, oh, our daughters.' I hate that," Badran said, referring to male politicians' pandering. "It's a power transaction. It's not about feelings and emotions, and they won't get it until they feel our power. We have to show that we are half the society, we are organized, and we can use our votes for empowerment."

(McClatchy special correspondent Mohannad Sabry contributed to this report.)

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