How Egypt's Revolution Has Dialed Back Women's Rights

The Women of Tahrir Have a Bigger Battle Ahead

(Mosa'aberising / flickr)

This past week was a pivotal moment for the struggle for women's rights in Egypt. In response to more protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square, police and government security forces beat and stripped several female demonstrators. One moment captured by a photographer ricocheted around the country, and seemingly just as fast, around the world: A woman, her black abaya yanked over her head to expose her naked torso and blue bra, was dragged by helmeted security forces over the pavement. One of them stood over her, hurling his foot down at her bare stomach. Days later, an estimated 10,000 women struck back in a mass rally in central Cairo declaring, "the daughters of Egypt are a red line" that cannot be crossed.

But the abuse of female protesters in Tahrir Square is just the latest in a series of challenges to women's rights since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. Soon after his regime fell, many quarters of Egyptian society started fighting to dial back many of the gains women have made in recent years. And, the success of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis in the first two rounds of elections suggests that the new parliament may in fact push restrictions into policy. The revolution may have come to Egypt, but for women, it may mean anything but progress.

Fearing the rollback of some women's rights, the United States may consider supporting the Egyptian military's bid to maintain control in the hope that that the generals will protect women's position. But given the military's own atrocious record on women's rights -- as its treatment of female protesters makes clear -- Washington should avoid this temptation at all costs.

Women began complaining about their lack of representation in positions of policy within days of Mubarak's departure, when the SCAF appointed an all-male committee to write constitutional principles for a March referendum. Things only got worse after that. On March 9, soldiers subjected at least 20 female protesters to electric shocks and beatings and inflicted so-called virginity checks on seven of them. An Egyptian officer justified the abuse by claiming that "the girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine. These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square." Virginity checks were necessary, he said, because "we didn't want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren't virgins in the first place. None of them were (virgins)."

Despite their responsibility for violence against women, military officials regularly invoke their concern for the safety of female activists as a reason to exclude them from government and to maintain emergency law. After the Minister of Local Development said that he would consider appointing women to head some of Egypt's 26 governorates for the first time in Egyptian history, the government announced that women could not hold these positions because the lack of security made it too dangerous for them to go into the streets to monitor citizens' problems. In early October, SCAF head Hussein Tantawi argued that emergency law, the removal of which was a key demand of the revolution, had to be maintained because of the current lawless conditions, saying that "no one would believe that a man should see his wife kidnapped in front of him and raped." The military has also launched an assault on civil society organizations and human rights groups, including one that collected the testimony of the victims of the virginity checks, accusing them of illegally receiving foreign aid and of "grand treason."

Over the last decade, the battle for women's rights in Egypt has centered on personal status laws (PSLs), which govern marriage, divorce, and child custody issues based on prevailing interpretations of sharia (Coptic Church law determines PSLs for Christians). A series of laws passed by the parliament in 2000 have made progress in the intervening years. For example, the new guidelines created a form of divorce, khula, which gave women the power to request a divorce without having to prove maltreatment. The legislation also gave mothers custody of their children until the age of 15, replacing earlier laws that awarded them custody of sons until the age of 10 and daughters until 12. It granted women the ability to obtain birth certificates for their children and permitted mothers who had custody of children after a divorce to make educational decisions for them. In several ways, for the first time these laws granted mothers similar parental rights as fathers.

After the revolution, conservative forces argued that women's rights laws passed under Mubarak, like all remnants of his regime, were illegitimate and should be repudiated. For example, several thousand Salafis demonstrated outside of al-Azhar University in Cairo in May, demanding the return of educational authority solely to fathers. The general secretary of the High Council of Islamic Affairs, a government body, called for lowering maternal custody ages from the current age of 15 to age six for boys and nine for girls. Challenges came from supposedly liberal forces as well. In April, the Freedoms Committee of the Journalists' Syndicate held a conference condemning the current women's rights standards in Egypt. Three months later, Judge Abdallah al Baga, president of the Family Court of Appeal, submitted a draft bill to the prime minister that called for abolishing khula divorce and reinstating, under some conditions, a practice in which husbands can forcibly return "disobedient" wives to their homes - a practice that has been outlawed since the 1960s.

Women's rights activists have fought back. Several organizations strongly condemned al Baga's proposal. After arguing that abolishing khula divorce would equal "a return to slavery," Nihad Abu al Qumsan, director of the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, reported receiving a death threat from a group called the "Northern Region of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice."

Going forward, the most important decider on women's rights will probably be the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), whose victory in Egypt's elections seems assured. Accordingly, women's activists have cause for concern. The FJP platform calls for reassessing existing women's and children's rights laws to rid them of provisions "destructive to the family." One female FJP candidate said that she would work to overturn "women's and children's laws that . . . violate sharia and human nature." Brotherhood representatives have criticized women's rights provisions in the past. In 2008, several Brotherhood parliamentarians fought against allowing mothers to obtain birth certificates for their children, arguing that it would encourage female promiscuity (on the assumption that children for whom fathers refused to obtain birth certificates must be illegitimate).

And the Brotherhood will also have to account for forces further to the right -- namely, the hardline conservative Salafi al-Nour party, which won 24 percent of the vote in the first round of elections and 35 percent in the second. Two months before their protest outside of al-Azhar in May, Salafis hung posters in Alexandria criticizing "indecently dressed women" and showing an unveiled woman encircled by insects. Although it is unclear whether al-Nour officially supported these activities, at the party's first conference for women in October -- entitled "Women's Role in Political Life" and attended by 700 female party supporters -- not a single woman was among the speakers. And one of al-Nour's key activists, Yasser Burhami, criticized female journalists covering the event for not wearing proper Islamic dress, calling them "clothed yet naked," and claimed that it was "incumbent" on him to criticize such women because those who fail to wear proper clothing "will not enter heaven."

Opposition to women's rights extends beyond the Islamists as well. When khula divorce passed in 2000, the head of the largest secular party, the Wafd, called it a "crime against Egyptian society." This past March, the Wafd party's newspaper published a lengthy attack on women's rights laws, such as those allowing women to obtain passports and travel abroad without the permission of their fathers or husbands.

The United States has a role to play, mainly by encouraging a rapid transition to a fully empowered civilian government and conditioning continued aid to the military on its withdrawal from politics. But if the newly elected government restricts women's rights, Washington would be wise to avoid advocating particular outcomes. Such intervention would likely backfire, strengthening the argument of social conservatives and Islamists that the West is attempting to impose its own social norms.

Egyptian women's activists and their international supporters understand this well. A project manager for an international NGO in Cairo described to me how international donors agreed not to put their logos on materials for campaigns against female genital mutilation in Egyptian villages, lest they lend credence to the widespread presumption that the project is a Western effort to encourage female promiscuity.

In addition, Washington should oppose the army's attempts to limit civil society groups' freedom of operation. Existing human rights organizations, and new ones that may emerge, are ultimately best positioned to protect women's rights in the new Egypt. The actions of the 10,000 female protesters that took to the streets this week against military abuse of women -- and the commitment of the men that formed a protective cordon around them -- demonstrated the bravery and determination of civil society advocates, who are ultimately best positioned to protect women's rights in the new Egypt.

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