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The Week in Review: The Face of Feminism in Post-Revolutionary Egypt

February 15, 2012

Ludiwien Cooreman ’13

Now that the smell of empowerment is still reverberating in the streets of Egypt: what will the role of women be in post-Mubarak Egypt? Al Jazeera‘s D. Parvaz, in an article called “Egypt’s feminists prepare for long battle,” states that “The Egyptian woman has participated in both the initiation and continuation of the revolutionary surge that pushed Islamist parties to power.” The article depicts the struggle of women in Egypt both for their country and for their rights as women. It questions if the fruits that battle has reaped in the past decades will be turned into legislation and formalized, or if the new democratic government will take women’s rights back to “the dark ages.”

What is the battle like for women in a country in which, according to Al Jazeera, 80% of the female population claims to have been sexually harassed? Women have been able to vote in elections and run for office in Egypt since 1956, and feminism is nothing new to the country. However, it wasn’t until after the revolution that Buthaina Kamel became the first Egyptian woman to run for office. CNN describes her role as important to “normalize the idea of women in politics,” even though Kamel, a famous television presenter, obtained less than one percent of votes in the first polls. After elections, only eight seats in the parliament are held by women (less than two percent), in spite of a law that guaranteed 64 seats to women. The military leadership claimed this law was cancelled on the basis of its connection to the era of Mubarak’s leadership.

Who is to blame for this minimal female representation in the political system? Is the dominant role of Islamist parties really responsible for an imminent regression of women’s rights? Are women misrepresented in the Egyptian political arena? Or does the Egyptian woman not do enough to empower herself to break through this male-made ceiling? The Daily News Egypt exposes this debate in an article titled “Male-dominated parliament worries experts, candidates.” UN Women Country Coordinator Maya Morsy claims women who might run for office are hindered by factors such as slow response to women’s interests by political parties, under-investment in women’s campaigns, and cultural barriers. Even though the influence of extreme Islamist parties should not be neglected as an obstacle to the growth of women’s rights, all of the news articles mentioned here note that the contradictions between feminism, Islam, and Sharia are paradoxical and that feminism in the Middle East is not, and does not have to be, a copy of the secular feminism of the West. Abou Bakr, an Egyptian feminist, points out that, just like in the West, feminism in the Middle East has a wide spectrum of nuances. She states “female members of the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, support women’s rights as they see them through the eyes of the group’s ideology, as compared with both more moderate religious feminists and more conservative Salafist activists.” Ahmed claims Sharia law enhances women’s rights. “Before Sharia law, women didn’t have equal rights… their fathers were allowed to bury them alive,” said Ahmed, who considers herself both a Muslim and a feminist. Emam states to The Daily News Egypt that the position of women in Islam is ill explained: “There should come those who explain what Islam is and help people differentiate between the human-made Islam and the one that is truly sent by God.”

Feminism in Egypt is simmering, but with the current flame of post-revolutionary Egypt, the outcome is yet to be seen. Will the new democracy be more respectful of women’s rights in spite of small female representation in parliament? Will it take stronger female figures to make that happen? Or will, as some sceptics suggest, Egyptian women’s rights go back to “the dark ages?”

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