March 7, 2012
After decades of authoritarianism, the months after the Arab Spring seemed to promise that anything was possible. But mostly, however, for Egypt’s men: Not one woman was included on the committee that drafted Egypt's transitional constitutional declaration. Soldiers routinely conducted “virginity tests” on female protesters. Aspiring female politicians complained that they were facing sexism at best and utter marginalization at worst. The quota system that guaranteed women 64 seats in parliament, put in place by the Mubarak regime, was replaced with a rule stating that each party merely had to have one female candidate.
Concern about the fate of Egyptian women seemed to peak when the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party, together with the ultra-puritanical Salafists, took 70 percent of the seats in parliament. Western media outlets from Fox News to the BBC began suggesting that the Arab Spring would be followed by what the New York Daily News called a “misogynist winter.”
But looks can be deceiving. The Arab Spring has led to Egyptian women engaging with a free political process like they never have before—voting, organizing, protesting, and running for office. A volunteer pollworker told Al-Arabiya that the mere fact of unprecedented voter turnout among women was “an important step,” adding that a local police officer “said in 13 years of monitoring sort of all these like elections, he's never seen so many women.” Furthermore, nearly a third of the candidates running were women.
(For perspective, compare this to the 2010 US Senate Race, wherein only 15% of the candidates were women, and keep in mind that the US ranks behind Bangladesh, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates in terms of its female representation.)
The flipside is that women ultimately only won two percent of the available seats, which is a stark number. However, it’s possible that the poor showing can be attributed more to issues with the legislative process—such as the relative position of women candidates on the ballot—than with the public’s reluctance to vote for women. Additionally, one could argue that women aren’t necessarily the only people who can or will stand up for women.
"We want freedom for everyone,” said a recently-elected male Freedom and Justice MP, when a constituent who complained that he wanted women “back in the house.” “Egypt can only be rebuilt by all the people. Women can help us address a lot of problems, such as drugs and education.”
Besides, Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood are not, as it turns out, monolithic. Like America’s Blue Dog Democrats and GOP R-I-N-Os, Egyptian political parties can’t accurately be reduced to simply “good for women” or “bad for women.” Mary Hope Schwoebel, senior program officer at the Academy for International Conflict Management, told Wharton Arabic, “The fact of the matter is there are factions and branches within them. There are lots of women in the Muslim Brotherhood and younger men in the Muslim Brotherhood who are articulate and forthright in saying, yes, women must be involved in the public sphere.”
For instance, one of the newly-elected Muslim Brotherhood MPs is Hoda Ghaneya, a physician and a mother of four. According to the BBC, she was “mobbed like a pop star” by men and women alike when she announced her victory.
"People now have equal rights regardless of their colour, sex, race or religion,” Ghaneya told constituents shortly after she was elected. “There will be complete rights for all citizens and we will all feel the existence of these rights in the coming period. This is why people voted for us and this is what we promise to deliver, God willing.”
While changing deeply-held cultural attitudes is even harder than overthrowing a dictator, Egyptian women are creating their own opportunities as the revolution evolves. The photos of the famous Tahrir Square uprising reveal a new reality: in the days leading up to Mubarak's resignation, women had gone from the fringes to making up almost half the crowd. This is earthshaking in an unapologetically patriarchal society where most women choose to wear the veil, and are discouraged from even going out in public alone. As Egyptian writer Sahar El Mough told one newspaper: “Taking part in the revolution is a statement that no political Islam can take away. Never. Not in this lifetime.”
And, perhaps most crucially, several months into this supposed “misogynist winter,” Egypt had found its first female presidential candidate ever: Bohaitha Kamel, a former newsreader and radio host who courageously quit her Mubarak-era job because she could not in good conscience be part of a propaganda machine.
"They told me the Egyptian people can't accept a woman president but now they accept me,” she told CNN International. "The stereotype of Egyptians is that they won't vote for a woman, but people will vote for someone who can help them. If I'm ready to help people, they will vote for me. People are very practical."