Egypt's leading female voice for change warns that revolution is backsliding

Speaking at Tufts University, female Egyptian activist Dalia Ziada accused the Muslim Brotherhood of pursuing anti-democratic policies and said that women needed to be given more power.

Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters
Egyptian women shout slogans and beat drums during a protest against the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic parties in front of the presidential palace in Cairo on October 4. The women were also demonstrating in support of women's rights in the constitution and protesting against issues such as harassment against women and child marriage.

Years from now, when scholars and historians debate the beginnings of the uprisings that rocked Egypt and the entire Middle East in 2011, one woman will likely figure prominently: Dalia Ziada, an ebullient Egyptian woman, civil society activist, and prolific blogger.

The pro-democracy figure warns that the heady optimism that infused Cairo’s Tahrir Square last year is being slowly replaced by fear that the very political forces that helped sweep long-serving Hosni Mubarak from power are remaking Egyptian society into a rigid, religiously intolerant, patriarchal system.

“What’s happening now is the Muslim Brotherhood is coercing everything,” she said, referring to the once-banned conservative Islamic political group that now dominates Egypt’s parliament and the presidency. “What I fear is that we will be facing the Muslim Brotherhood’s theocracy with Mubarak’s autocracy.” 

Ms. Ziada is one of a growing number of women activists in a movement that some have called “The Pink Hijab.” The wave of uprisings that roiled politics and upended dictatorships from Tunisia, to Egypt, to Yemen has featured female activists at its forefront in a way that was previously unthinkable in male-dominated Muslim societies. Her work in particular has garnered accolades: Newsweek magazine called her one of the world’s most influential women, while CNN dubbed her one of the Arab world's eight “Agents of Change."

“I don’t believe our revolution will succeed until one day we will have a woman president. I don’t believe there can be a democracy unless women are properly in power,” she said in a speech at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass., yesterday.

Ziada’s work predates the Tahrir Square events by several years. She helped translate a comic book about Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous 1955 bus boycott in Alabama into Arabic. She helped organize human rights film festivals in Egypt, smuggling in films about the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine and about female genital circumcision. And through her Cairo-based organization, the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, she helped train activists and bloggers from across the region.

Since last year’s revolution, a grim reality has replaced heady optimism in many of the countries that were also convulsed by protests. Syria is mired in a brutal civil war. Yemen is still volatile, despite the ouster of its president. Tunisia is still tense, as society grapples with the question of how prominent a role Islam should play in civic life.

This is mirrored in Egypt’s own struggles, as the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party agitate for policies and legislation – such as child marriage and female genital circumcision – that, Ms. Ziada argues, are contrary to the ideals of last year’s protesters. Law enforcement and police agencies, who she said felt humiliated by the protests last year, have pushed for legislation that would make it easier for police to use deadly force against protesters. Among the myriad political parties that vied for parliament seats in last year’s election, many chafed at the idea that a woman should be listed at the top of the ticket on the ballots. The political party she helped found was no exception.

But Egypt’s political life also mirrors traditional social norms, she acknowledged, particularly when it comes to attitudes toward women in public life. She said her organization helped run a public opinion survey not long ago in Cairo, and of the roughly 1,000 people surveyed, every one of them said they did not want a woman to be president.

“Men are telling women, ‘Go back home, it’s not your time now, we want to build democracy, you should be home,'” she said, wearing one of her distinctive brightly-colored head scarfs. “It’s not proper that the people who led the revolution are now completely out of the scene now,” she said.

The other factor that played an unquestionably pivotal role in the uprisings was social media, she said. The ability of people to post photos and videos and discuss events and organize rallies using Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube has changed the Arab World, particularly for women, she said, who have been able to find communities and solidarity in ways they couldn’t previously.

What led to the uprisings, first and foremost, was the “the strength of human links” – the traditional ties of family and neighbors and clans. “But these communications were speeded by Facebook…. It was the glue, it helped stick everything together,” she said.

“The human connection is essential, civil society is very important, but social media was the tool, the messenger, when people finally found one another,” she said.

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