Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Women and Egypt

This was not a good day for women in Egypt. Today, which just so happens to be International Women’s Day, a mass rally for citizen rights was held in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Indeed, this was billed as a "Million Women March." But on the ground, observers estimated than no more than 1000 and as possibly few as several hundred women participated. Even worse, those women who did show up were subjected to horrific behavior from men who also gathered at the scene. Women, even girls, were sexually harassed and beaten. Men intimidated, pursued and chased women away from the Square. They chanted and hurled insults against women. In particular, men shouted that women "belong at home" and "will never be president," and screamed epithets such as "cook" to demean women. And very few did anything to help the women demonstrators under extreme duress.

Perhaps this should throw some cold water on the premature celebrating over the role of women in Egypt. Undoubtedly, women provided valuable organizational skills, contributed to securing neighborhoods, and protested in large numbers. Just as importantly, they operated as de facto reporters and journalists by taking pictures and writing reports, blogs, Facebook status updates, and Tweets. And by granting a host of articulate and fascinating interviews, women even served as the backbone of many television, newspaper, and web reports. In many ways, women were the eyes, ears, and face of the so-called Egyptian Revolution. As is obvious, all of these tasks and responsibilities were important, and women should feel immensely proud of their efforts. One commentator even went so far as to call these developments a feminist revolution. But based on today’s events, it is clear that Egypt still has a ways to go before it reaches that point. Egyptian men and women were able to come together in their opposition to Mubarak, but the roles that women played in facilitating that outcome did not fundamentally transform how some men think of and view women, unfortunately.

The unfair, unequal, and oppressive treatment of women is a longstanding problem for Egypt. Human rights monitors and analysts consistently give Egypt low scores on the protection and defense of women’s rights. For example, "a recent report by the World Economic Forum ranked Egypt 125th out of 134 countries when judging the equality between men and women, in good part because so many women do not work, 42 percent of women cannot read or write and almost no women are political leaders. (In 2010, only 8 of the 454 seats in Parliament were held by women.)" As another example, Freedom House–a distinguished non-profit organization that assesses countries on the basis of respect for civil and political liberties–considers Egypt a"Not Free" country, in part because of how Egyptian women are treated by the state and society in general. Additionally, according to a 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, this is a country in which 83% of Egyptian women claimed to have been sexually harassed at least once in their lives, and at least half are sexually harassed every day.

In a larger context, at least for now, this is not a good sign for democracy in Egypt. Men in leadership positions, and men in general, cannot disempower women and expect democracy to thrive. Democratic processes, institutions, and ideas will never take root and sustain themselves over the long-term if half the population is frozen in subservience. Such treatment flies in the face of basic and essential democratic principles like fairness and equality and toleration/respect for others. And this is not merely an abstract, theoretical argument. When women are fully integrated into the social, political, cultural, and economic fabric of their countries, so many powerful, practical benefits inevitably follow. Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half The Sky chronicle a number of these benefits. When women are empowered, countries have higher education and literacy rates, improved women’s and children’s health rates, a more skillful population, a better economy, and a vibrant bulwark against political extremism and violence. These are exactly the kinds of conditions under which democracy can thrive.

It will be a terrible shame if Egyptian women are forced back into the background, especially after their heroic contributions during the January 25th uprising. To avoid this, we need to see a cultural shift. Egypt has been a patriarchal society, and the attitudes of some men reflect this. It will take courage, but women must continue to press the issue of equal rights for all Egyptians. They must speak out in public and on the Internet. They must push business, government, religious, and other prominent figures to make women’s rights a priority. But the bulk of action is not only a burden for women to bear. Cosmopolitan, sensible Egyptian men also need to contribute mightily. These men cannot remain apathetic in this struggle, and they must avoid being cowed and bullied by cruel and barbaric men who treat (or advocate treating) women poorly.

Egyptians should strive to model their society after the joyous scene in Tahrir Square on February 11th–the date that Mubarak stepped down. There, we saw men and women, people of various religious and political backgrounds, young and old, they all gathered together and were united as one, looking forward to a better, happier future. This is the kind of society that Egyptian women want, I have no doubt. We need more Egyptian men to want this as well.

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