Women in Egypt: Fighting for Space in Tahrir Square and Beyond
Last February women and men stood shoulder to shoulder in Tahrir Square to call for an end to Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship. These women had many motivations, but among them was the hope that their lives, and the lives of all Egyptian women, would be better under democratic leadership. And yet in the months after Mubarak’s resignation, the repression continued, this time at the hands of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Not only were women beaten and sexually assaulted by the SCAF but they also fell victim to humiliating “virginity tests.” They have been driven from both the public space as well as the public arena – the post-revolution Egyptian Parliament contained fewer women than had held seats during the Mubarak era (the parliament has since been dissolved by the SCAF). Nazra for Feminist Studies, an NGO based in Cairo, issued a report, “One Year of Impunity,” detailing the violations committed against women human rights defenders in Egypt from August to December 2011. The report outlines how women who dare to challenge social conventions, by chanting against the regime or taking part in a strike, or simply walking at night, are vulnerable to sexual violence, threats, and derogatory public accusations aimed at discrediting their moral character. Masa Amir, a researcher in Nazra’s Women Human Rights Defenders program told Human Rights First, “[t]he violence used against women human rights defenders in a matter of five months, from August to December, witnessed a rapid escalation in its intensity and brutality. From beatings in August to violent sexual assault and attempts to suffocate women human rights defenders to stripping a woman on the street and stomping on her chest, a sense of growing desperation on the part of the state was obvious. The targeting of women human rights defenders and the use of unprecedented violence are by no means just acts of senseless brutality, but are committed for political reasons – the disciplining of the national female body.” Women’s rights have again come under attack in a section of Egypt’s draft constitution. Article 36 of the “Rights and Duties” section states that “[t]he state is committed to taking all constitutional and executive measures to ensure equality of women with men in all walks of political, cultural, economic and social life, without contradicting the precepts of Islamic Law.” Political parties, civil society coalitions and public figures issued a joint statement expressing their “deep concern” for the draft article’s wording, saying it could compromise the rights that women have been fighting for in the past few decades. Mona Eltahawy, a prominent journalist and blogger, was sexually assaulted last year while she was held in detention for attending a pro-democracy rally before parliamentary elections. The attack left her with two broken arms. Despite this, she continues to remain optimistic that women will eventually be better off after the uprising. “Under those so-called secular regimes every first lady would adopt a feminist cause and it actually hurt feminism because it became associated with the dictator’s wife, but now we are taking feminism away and making it of the street and not of the dictator’s wife.” Nazra’s report recommends halting the smear campaigns carried out against women human rights defenders, which are a blatant attempt to remove them from the public sphere. The report also calls for an investigation against perpetrators of the violence in order to end impunity and seek justice for the victims.