On the day when Egypt’s revolution began, when huge crowds came out to protest former president Hosni Mubarak’s government, women came. When protests turned into battles with police, women faced the tear gas with the men. And when protesters settled in for the long haul and occupied Tahrir Square, women were among those who pitched their tents and slept in the cold.
But though they fought for their nation’s freedom, some women now fear they are being sidelined in the process of building the new Egypt. Today, on International Women’s Day, they are returning to Tahrir, where the revolution began, for a “Million Woman March” aimed at reminding the nation that they should have a voice in its future.
“When the prime minister came to Tahrir to speak to the people, was he blind? Did he not see that half of the people filling the square were women?” asks Nehad Abu El Komsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, referring to the fact that the new prime minister’s cabinet includes only one woman. “If we're not involved in building the constitutional and legislative future of this country now, then when? Why do we see women, who were almost 50 percent of the protesters in Tahrir, not represented in decision-making rooms?”
Ms. Komsan lists the ways women have been excluded from the political process since Mubarak’s fall: The military council ruling the country until new elections are held failed to appoint a single woman to the committee tasked with drafting constitutional amendments. One of the proposed constitutional amendments implies that the office of presidency is limited to men by saying that a president cannot be married to a non-Egyptian woman. And the only woman in Prime Minister Essam Sharaf’s new government is from Mubarak’s government.
Women seek a voice in new constitution
Those who have fought to increase women’s rights in Egypt over the past decades say it's important that women have a role and a voice in the new parliament, and in the council that will be elected by the new parliament to write a new constitution later this year. They want women's input in order to make sure that the new document doesn’t include the discrimination in the current constitution, but also doesn’t erase the gains they’ve made.
In recent years, Egypt has passed laws allowing women to divorce their husbands, pass their nationality on to their children, and be treated equally under tax law, among others. But Komsan says discrimination remains, particularly in the family status law, which “treats women as second-class citizens who need protection."
Women’s advocates fear that the truncated timeline for holding new elections will benefit already organized groups like Mubarak’s National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood, leaving women without strong voices to influence a new constitution and legislation.
'Continuation of the revolution'
Yasmine Khalifa, who is completing a master’s degree in gender and women’s studies at the American University in Cairo, is one of the organizers of the Facebook page calling for today’s demonstration. She points out that during the Tahrir demonstrations calling for Mubarak's ouster, which were also organized by Facebook, men and women were chanting side by side, working for the same cause.
“When we were in Tahrir as citizens, we as women did not even have to think about voicing our rights because we were living our rights,” she says. “After the resignation, that's when things started to shift in the other direction.”
She and the other organizers hope the march will help enable women’s voices to be heard in the new Egypt. The challenges are not just political, but social as well. Komsan says that some of the issues her organization works to confront are cultural norms of protecting women, which end up violating their rights, and a society tolerant of violence against women. Sexual harassment is also a problem, and is often blamed on the victims.
Egypt’s revolution encouraged women to speak out, she says. But women will need to continue to fight to ensure their place as Egypt moves forward.
“We need to change social and cultural concepts about what women's role is to begin with. That is one of the biggest battles,” says Khalifa. “This is a long process that needs to be done, and today's event is not a beginning, it's just a continuation of the revolution.”