by Salma Talaat
“The current situation of women in Arab political life shows that their status has deteriorated: this is reflected in their role and in their participation in public life. Political participation by women involves two main dimensions: the legal constitutional framework, on the one hand, and the political climate and social and cultural aspects, on the other.”
Political participation comes in many forms; it is not limited to voting or joining a political group/movement. Reading newspapers, discussing politics, signing petitions, watching the news, participating in rallies/protests, volunteering for political activity, civic participation and social engagement are all part of political participation. While the above examples fall into traditional examples of political participation, there are also other unconventional forms of political participation, such as civil disobedience, breaking laws for political beliefs, boycotts and political violence (which could be interpreted as terrorism by some). Political participation is the offspring of political culture’s process of “political socialization”; without culture and thought, there would be no participation. Hence, “all political activities of citizens as well as the attitudes and orientations [are] relevant for these activities.”
Egypt has always, in my opinion, had a participatory culture. Looking back at its history — of monarchy, British occupation, revolutions and uprisings (1919, 1952, 2012, 2014) — I can see that Egyptian citizens are both knowledgeable about politics and consider it highly important, and so, they participate to endorse a change of some sort. However, political participation does not always allow for positive results for everyone involved. After almost five years since the 25th January uprising, the rights and aspirations of Egyptian women, who have been side by side with Egyptian men in the struggle for bread, freedom and social justice, are still put on hold and even ignored.
Egyptian women’s participation — in the form of active presence on the frontlines during clashes with Hosni Mubarak’s regime, standing at polling stations all day to vote, and their role in the field hospitals of Tahrir Square — did not seem enough of a plea on women’s behalf to be part of the new regime governing Egypt. In fact, what women witnessed was a drastic retrogression in their status. According to Dina Samir:
The Egyptian women’s status report for 2012 by ECWR also reveals the factual deterioration of women’s position. Egypt ranked first among countries witnessing a decline in the political status of women, ranking 126 on women’s rights… according to the Global Gender Gap Report. Regarding women holding ministerial positions, Egypt ranked the lowest, with zero female governors. Egypt also ranked first in the list of countries that recorded a decline in economic opportunities for women.
The report draws attention to the debilitating circumstances of Egyptian women on all levels — socially, politically and economically. As a woman, and former participant in the uprising of Tahrir Square, I find it ironic that women’s rights have dramatically regressed after the uprising. While many men were the “spectators” in and outside of Tahrir, a large number of women were the “gladiators” — “the leaders and activists who [ran the political organization and protests of the 2011 uprising],” thus exhibiting high levels of political participation.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s ultra conservative regime, which governed Egypt for almost a year, adopted a discriminatory and misogynist discourse that was projected in the performance and suggestions of its male members in the parliament. The Brotherhood with its authoritarian attitudes “concluded debates on gender with a swift finality. Their teachings maintained that the patriarchal system is the ideal system for the [country] where gender differences are clearly delineated, and men have authority over women.” What was really awful and shocking was that four women representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood Party — Freedom and Justice Party — were also extremely fierce, not in presenting women’s claims, but in attempting to deprive them of the few rights they have managed to extract from the lion’s teeth in previous years. Azza Al-garf, a member of the Freedom and Justice Party and former parliament member, represented a flagrant example of someone who parrots her party’s views for the sake of personal gain. Shamelessly, she called for the revocation of the law that banned and criminalised the circumcision of young girls. Not only that, she demanded that laws allowing women to have custody of children be revoked; and also called for tightening Egypt’s already stringent divorce laws. Brotherhood-backing women in parliament believed that women were unsuited for political participation despite the fact that these women were political participators themselves. The majority of women were relegated to “marginal” status or “political marginality” and have been pushed to the fringes of politics, and therefore have little influence — a fact that still persists. While some may say that after the June 30th uprising women were acknowledged in the political sphere, I disagree.
Right now, the new Egyptian cabinet only has three female ministers out of thirty-three. The attempt to confine Egyptian women within the domestic sphere is a longtime strategy to reinforce their supposed inadequacy and incompetence in participating effectively in the political leadership of the country. Sadly, Egyptian women’s political alienation and poor representation began long before the Brotherhood rose to power, despite the fact that Egypt has the most advanced constitution among Arab countries. While the 1956 constitution granted women the right to vote and to run for office, the actual representation is extremely limited. According to Mustafa, Shukor and Rabi’,
women held two seats in the legislature (0.57 per cent of the total number of seats) in 1957 and 11 (2.49 per cent) — seven elected and four appointed by the president — in 2000. This poor representation extends to women’s presence in political parties…[with] the highest proportion of women members in a political party [being] 2 per cent.
Egyptian women didn’t expect to be flagrantly marginalized after their heroic role in the uprising. They want their “material interests” — money, promotion and security — and “ideal interests” — freedom, justice, political values and religious beliefs — acknowledged and met. Mervat Tallawy, the head of the National Council for Women, stated at the Women Deliver MENA region panel: “We are not desperate. In Egypt, the fall of the existing system will be because of women. They don’t sit still at all. Their voice is raised at demonstrations, signing petitions — they are everywhere. We will not accept the situation. We will fight it until the end. Either they will put us in jail or they will change their attitudes.”
To reiterate, political participation is not only limited to political activities, but also civic engagement. So, in contrast to their situation in the political arena, women play a major role in the civil sector and voluntary work. Internationally, women’s rights have come to be inseparable from human rights, so the Egyptian state felt pressure to increase the role of women. Hence, in the year 2000, the National Council for Women was established to support women in voicing their opinions and urging them to enter public and political life. If only the level of education of girls and women were to grow, Egypt would have an increase in the level of politically aware, confident women willing to enact change and progress in the political sphere. Such an achievement is an indivisible part of the plan to modernize state and society. As part of cognitive mobilization, “education and wealth bring greater awareness of politics and better skills to participate.”
With every new regime, Egyptian women seem destined to start anew their struggle for equality and just treatment. Women’s active participation seems to be recalled only in moments of crisis or drastic upheavals, but once the change takes place, they are shoved aside and men emerge victoriously at the forefront as the main actors in the revolutionary process. The exclusion and circumvention of Egyptian women from active political participation in the political scene after their momentous role in recent events, is, in fact, reminiscent of what took place after the 1919 Revolution. After participating in protests against British rule side by side with men and the success of the Revolution to bring partial independence in 1922, women’s active roles were deplorably overlooked, and they remained deprived of their rights to vote, work and equal education until 1956.
The new generation of female activists, who emerged after the January and June uprisings, recognize that the claims for their inclusion and participation in decision-making, in matters of the state, will require the restructuring of gender relations to rectify the prevalent inequities between men and women. As Heba Afify maintains:
Egyptians regard women as unfit for political leadership because of these domestic roles and their need to take maternity leave after giving birth, according to [Nehad Aboul] Komsan: “As if Egyptian women were different from women all over the world who are presidents.”
The remarkable revolutionary role played by women in the two uprisings provides concrete proof that they are eligible beyond doubt to take their well deserved place in the leadership of the new Egyptian state. The notion that oppression breeds resistance is echoed in the words of prominent political activist Doctor Karima El-Hefnawy who says, “when society keeps telling women they cannot be Judges or presidents, they try to prove the opposite and this gives them more motivation to excel… As a female you have to snatch your rights, one after the other, you have to defy traditions and be in the frontlines.” El-Hefnawy, together with other female activists, insists on resistance against all forms of subjugation, and that women assert their determination to exercise their full rights as equals to men.
The politicization of the Egyptian people in general, and women in particular, can be attributed to undergoing two major uprisings within three years. Political culture is “passed on from one generation to the next so it persists over time”; it changes slowly and provides stability for many. This explains why many cling to the current gendered status quo. Nevertheless, Egyptian women have become more conscious of their rights and also more aware of the need to reproduce new structures of power relations that maintain an equal representation of women in all institutions of society. Hopefully, Egyptian women will start to witness tangible progress in their social, economic and political status and promote the agency and parity among individuals regardless of gender. Their participation in the reconstruction of the Egyptian political agenda can never be undermined or ignored. Women’s active participation in the political dialogue constitutes a major step in the initiation of a cultural revolution that should fuel the political transformations going on in society.