Historian Juan Cole maintains that the young activists did lead successful revolutions, defining revolution as a rapid change in social and political institutions and attitudes caused by a social movement.[i] Various social movements acting together create a revolution. Specifically, the radical youth stopped the practice of presidents for life turning power over to their sons as Mubarak was planning to do in Egypt. They disrupted the financial control of the ousted presidents and their allies in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Also, they opened up discussion of political issues and youth unemployment and creation of new political parties. What youth most wanted was karama (dignity), individual rights and freedom similar to social democracy in Nordic countries. Cole said they made “new social and media spaces in which their demands could be voiced.” However, they were naïve to think that deposing an autocrat would change the oppressive system. After the revolutions, they turned their focus from government to organizing thousands of new NGOs, where they continue to use their horizontal and pragmatic organizational skills. He predicts, “They have kicked off what is likely to be a long intergenerational argument.” Because the key problem of youth unemployment hasn’t been solved, they will continue to “agitate for change” having had practice in how to mobilize and network.[ii]
[i] Juan Cole. The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East. Simon & Schuster, 2014, pp. x-xiv.
[ii] Ibid., p. 270.
Ghadeer Ahmed organized Girls Revolution on Facebook and Twitter on the first anniversary of the revolution as “an icon of rebellion” in order for women to share their experiences of sexism and to be able to discuss prohibited topics such as sexuality, sexual violence, or abortion rights. She feels safe to talk publically about women’s rights because the government “considers women’s rights defendants as having leisure time just talk about women, not a threat to the state.” She grew up in Mahalla in a non-political family of lower-middle class workers who don’t own land. When she was a college student in what she says is a low-quality government school, she was politicized by local demonstrations in her hometown during the January revolution. She took photos and tweeted news of the uprising. She and her two sisters took the train to demonstrate in Tahrir Square, an almost three hour train ride but they were required by their parents to return home the same day. The revolution inspired her to uncover her hair; when her parents pressured her to wear hajib, due to criticism from their acquaintances for not raising her to be a moral woman, she moved to Cairo. She worked for an NGO for women and development and then for Nazra for Feminist Studies (the government closed down its office) and earned a master’s degree in Gender and Women’s Studies. She became so brave she chased after a harasser on the street, yelling and hitting back with her shoes in hand. She’s currently writing a book about women’s abortion tales although it’s illegal. If she put up a paper poster about women’s rights to control their own bodies, she could face great harm. Like other feminists I interviewed, she doesn’t feel hopeful except for the fact that her younger sister is even braver than she is.
History of Egyptian Feminist Activism
Some colonized countries included women’s movements as part of their nationalist struggles against British rule, as in Egypt and India, and Egyptians point to their ancient history of women pharaohs like Queen Hatshepsut (1473 B.C.). They reject Orientalist portrayal of Arab women as backward and submissive. Women such as feminist Hoda Shaarawi were active in the 1919 “Ladies’ Protests” against British occupation, part of the educated elite. Women demonstrators (some wearing niqab face veils) helped achieve independence in 1922 although British domination continued until the revolution of 1952 when Egyptians overthrew the monarchy and expelled the British military from Egypt. In 1923 Shaarawi co-founded the first formal feminist organization, the Egyptian Feminist Union (EFU) and its two journals, and wrote a memoir describing her activism.[i] The EFU was involved in organizing the pan-Arab feminist movement in the 1930 and 40s. Disbanded by the Nasser government in 1956, it continued as the Huda Sha’rawi Association. (The EFU re-organized in 2012 headed by Hoda Badran.) Shaarawi dramatically removed her veil on a Cairo train station, saying it was a relic of the past. In opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood criticized feminism as Western colonialism and immoral—a theme that widely persists to the present. Providing an Islamic framework, the Muslim Women’s Society was founded by Zaynab al-Ghazali in 1936.
The Daughters of the Nile Union (Bint El-Nil) was organized in 1948 by Doria Shafiq to gain political rights for women. She and 1500 women invaded the parliament in 1951 to demand their rights, reform of the Personal Status Law and equal pay for equal work. The next year the army seized power from the king and gave women the right to vote and fun for office in the 1956 constitution. The Egyptian Feminist Party was founded in 1942, headed by Fatma Neamat Rashed. A sign of re-birth of the women’s movement, Dr. Nawal El Saadawi’s book Women and Sex was published in 1972. The backlash against it signaled increasing Muslim fundamentalism, opposed in the 1980s by new feminist groups such as the New Woman Foundation, the Alliance for Arab Women, and the Committee for the Defense of Women and Family Rights (to reform the Personal Status Law).
Despite decades of feminist activity, extended family remained more important than the husband and wife relationship, youth were expected to obey parents, and sons were valued over daughters, as revealed in the two autobiographies of an exceptional woman, El Saadawi (a documentary about her and other women is Hidden Faces (1990).[ii] She was born in a village near Cairo in 1931 when the British ruled Egypt, as she explains in her books about her rebellion against tradition. Big landowners owned most of the agricultural land, not the peasants who took their young girls out of school to help work around the house. Although her relatives were disappointed about the birth of a girl, her parents were loving and supportive of her and her education, as her father was an educator and she was a bright student. Yet when she was six, without warning, a midwife grabbed her and cut off her “impure” clitoris with a razor, saying it was God’s will.
Her parents also bowed to family pressure from her aunts, uncles and grandmother to search for a husband for her, starting when she was only 10. She found ways to scare off the suitors, like blackening her teeth and smiling to show them off to one unappealing man. She also spilled coffee in his lap while deliberately tripping on in her new high heels. This tactic earned her a “sound thrashing” but kept her single. She later picked her own husbands, three of them over time, with two divorces. Starting at age 11, she was no longer allowed to go out of the house to play with other children in the fields, safely kept inside to do domestic tasks. Her parents did allow her to live with her aunt to go to school in Cairo. She joined other girls in her high school to break down the metal door to their boarding school to join a protest march against the British. With her mother’s support, Nawal continued going to school rather than getting married. She became one of the few women doctors, receiving her medical degree in 1955, and then became director of public health education for the government until she was fired and threatened for her feminism.
The most striking theme of Dr. El Saadawi’s autobiographies is the cruelty with which girls and women are treated by both sexes. The custom in her village was that a bridegroom should beat his new bride with a stick before she eats any of his food to make the point he ruled over her on earth, just as Allah rules from Heaven. The Quran teaches “to the male a share equal to two females,” so her grandmother gave the boys twice as much as the girls. Romantic love was also haram (sinful, forbidden) despite all the love songs on the radio that didn’t mention marriage. The boys had a saying, “Nothing shames a man but his pocket,” since not having money is the only thing to cause shame to a man.[iii] In contrast she explained, “Everything in a woman’s life was seen as shameful, even her face”[iv] (similar to Manal al-Sharif’s girlhood, the Saudi woman driver who wrote about her transformation to feminism in Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening.) El Saadawi’s wrote about her aunt and other women like her, “It was the cruelty that had grown in them through suppression, the steam held back under pressure until their bodies were filled with it to bursting point.”[v]
She slept in Tahrir Square during the January 2011 revolution, said she was changed by the revolution, and opposed the counter-revolution that occurred afterwards: “We are still facing a system based on power and no justice, in Egypt and in the world.”[vi] She observed that more education is necessary in a country with so many illiterate people who can be brainwashed. Two months after the revolution El Saadawi founded the Egyptian Union for Women (EUW).[vii]
An EUW staffer explained feminist history to me. Omar Ahmed studied foreign trade at Helwan University, participated in the Tahrir Square revolution in 2011, and is the only male staff member for the organization committee at the EUW. He believes he only has one life so he invests in it fully. His parents are liberal, although his mother wears hijab because she considers it her duty as a Muslim woman. His feminist beliefs started when he was a boy and his nanny read to him, including Qasim Amin, a 19th century male nationalist writer who some consider the Arab world’s first feminist. Amin wrote, “The inferior position of Muslim women is the greatest obstacle that prevents us from advancing toward what is beneficial for us,” and opposed veils for women as a symbol of slavery.
Omar stated that under King Farouk women had the right to vote and go to school, but when army officers overthrew Farouk in 1952, women lost ground under President Gamal Nasser (1954-1970). State feminism was implemented by Nasser and the presidents who followed him and their wives, providing access to education and work but not changing male-dominated family law. Doria Shaiq and other feminists conducted a hunger strike to pressure the Nasser Regime to give women the vote, which they got in 1956. Family law remained unequal although Nasser’s socialist Charter for National Action stated in 1962, “Woman must be made equal to man.” His administration didn’t allow opposition or feminist organizations.
President Sadat’s rule (1970-1981) brought Islamic fundamentalism to the fore, influenced by Saudi Arabian Islam. Sadat’s 1971 constitution allowed gender equality only if it didn’t conflict with Shari’ah law. It lives on in the Muslim Brotherhood whose older members view women as the gateway to hell, not fully human, as Dr. El Saadawi was told as a child, because women are “bent” and need to be straightened—perhaps by being beaten, so that the majority of souls in hell are female. Egyptian identity cards include religion and people can also tell the difference between a Coptic Christian and a Muslim by their names. A Muslim woman who married a Christian told me that it was illegally and socially unacceptable to even be seen together on the street. Omar believes Islamic traditionalists have majority support in the villages and that the Egyptian education system teaches obedience to parents, teacher, and boss. Around six TV channels are Islamic. (The military regime outlawed the Brotherhood in 2013 accompanied by much bloodshed and imprisonment of thousands of Brotherhood and secular protesters.) As the Internet expands to the villages, Omar thinks it will gradually counter the influence of fundamentalists. (Over a third of Egyptians have Internet access, 31 percent of women and 37 percent of men[viii]).
In the late 1970s Sadat encouraged programs for women’s rights in order to appear modern to the West. Encouraged by his wife Jihan Sadat and feminist groups, he developed the Egyptian Women’s Organization and the National Commission for Women. Jihan led legal reforms for women’s family law that were later canceled by President Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011) who formed the state-run National Council of Women headed by his wife Suzanne in 2000. He passed a law giving the Ministry of Social Affairs the power to dissolve NGOs. Dr. El Saadawi was jailed for months in 1981 due to her feminism, the same year that Sadat was assassinated and replaced by Hosni Mubarak. She wrote Memoirs from the Women’s Prison on toilet paper with a smuggled eyebrow pencil.
Pressed by Islamists, President Mubarak abolished Sadat’s progressive laws. Suzanne Mubarak banned the Egyptian Feminist Union as she took control of women’s and children’s issues and became associated with the women in development movement and the National Council for Women formed in 2000. A law passed making FGM illegal and giving women the right to initiate divorce, but Egyptian writer Rana Allam states that it was passed for wealthy women because a lawyer is expensive in contested cases, the woman give up all financial rights, as well as having to give back her dowry and wedding jewelry. It costs a lot to file these cases and it takes a minimum of two years in court, during which time the woman remains under the control of her husband. Basically they are made for the rich and powerful women who are unable to get their husbands to divorce them. Men can divorce their wives without going to court, sometimes without her knowledge until get gets a notification. Another divorced woman, Kessa explained when I asked what led to her feminism,
It wasn’t much of a choice really, when you face sexism and discrimination, sometimes by law, since you are a child. The inheritance laws robbed me of my inheritance from my father. Going through life without a male (father, brother, uncle at home can be very tough in a misogynistic society. Then the laws hit me again as I was trying to leave my ex-husband. I ended up giving up my home and all my financial rights, to get my divorce. My marriage itself was a challenge, because most men, including my ex-husband, believe they have a right to “straighten their wives” and “obedience” is the name of the game, or you get beaten. Then misogyny struck again as I became a divorced mother living alone. That is not to mention what we face on the streets and at work. It is really hard not to become a feminist and fight for our rights.
I asked her why other women who face abuse don’t protest and which groups are most effective in helping women without the advantage of a good education.
Maybe they find it easier to conform and get a man to handle all thing– surrender instead of fight which is rooted in the culture and tradition they were brought up to believe. The best approach I saw was that of Legal Aid NGOs, those who take the fight to court for these women, free of charge like Azza Soliman and her CEWLA organization. Many civil society organizations worked on awareness, but now that work has stopped since Sisi passed the harsh NGO law. These organizations would go to rural communities, talk to women, hold sessions, and tell them about their rights.
Women’s rights organizations were allowed to develop and they proliferated with a focus on economic development, and commitment to the United Nation’s CEDAW[ix] was reaffirmed. In 1982 Al-Saadawi founded the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, critical of Shari’ah. In 1986 it organized its first conference with the slogan “unveiling the mind.” The Women and Memory Forum organized in 1995 to publish translations of feminist books; their first book was Reader on Gender and Political Science in 2010, moving on to books about academic disciplines. Groups formed to combat sexual harassment, such as Hasassmap that showed online where assaults occurred.
Family laws were passed to give women the right to divorce, travel without their husband’s consent, etc., in what is called First Lady Syndrome.[x] The Child Law was amended in 2008 to raise the minimum legal age for marriage to 18 and ban FGM. The literacy rate for women age 15 to 24 increased to 77percent by 2009 and most girls were enrolled in elementary school (by 2014, 65 percent of women were literate compared to 82 percent of men). When Mubarak was ousted, “Suzanne Mubarak laws” were suspect.
After Mubarak, the military ruled Egypt for 18 months, then a Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, was elected in the first free election. He only served a year because he was ousted and jailed by the military led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who felt backed up by a huge demonstration against Morsi’s Islamist policies–even bigger than the January 2011 protests. Rana Allam said that actually, “Not bigger by all means. The 2011 protests erupted in all of Egypt, the June 30 were only in Cairo and very small ones in a couple of other cities. Sisi propaganda claimed they were bigger, but they were not.”
El-Sisi became the next freely elected president although as head of the Armed Forces he defended the invasive “virginity tests” of women demonstrators as protecting the soldiers from accusations of rape. Allam explained that women supported him because they were afraid of Morsi’s Islamic government because “ The first thing Islamists do is to oppress women. Women have to be covered, not work, etc. Sisi spoke nicely, promised to rid them of the oppressor.” However, he is the most repressive ever. In one of the worst killings of demonstrators in recent history, his security forces killed about 1,000 pro-Morsi demonstrators occupying Rabaa al-Adawiya Square on August 14, 2013, and thousands more were wounded. His regime allows for no criticism, jails and tortures thousands of men and women, and shuts down feminist and other civil rights NGOs. The government shut down independent media except for a few online news outlets, charity libraries, and blocked over 400 websites including Human Rights Watch website, as reported by Allam. She said as feminist groups are shut down, their leaders are the face of the woman’s movement. They continue to speak out on social media. President Trump praised Sisi for doing a “fantastic job” with no mention of the rollback in civil rights.
[i] Hulda Shaarawi. Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist, 1879-1924. Feminist Press, 1987.
[ii] Nawal El Saadawi. A Daughter of Isis. Zed Books, 1999. She also wrote two novels, The Circling Song (1989) and Searching (1991) about women in a patriarchal society.
[iii] Ibid, p. 312.
[iv] Ibid., p 11.
[v] Nawal El Saadawi. A Daughter of Isis, p 235.
[vi] Faisal Al Yfai, ‘Top Egyptian Feminist Says ‘Nothing has Really Changed,’ Since Revolution,” The National, May 12, 2012.
[viii] Women’s Learning Partnership
[ix] The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is considered the most important international agreement on the rights of women and girls and has been ratified by 188 nations. “The CEDAW Convention is at the core of our global mission of peace, development and human rights,” observed former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
[x] Women’s rights activism in post-Jan25 Egypt: Combating the Shadow of the First Lady Syndrome in the Arab world
- Source: Middle East Law and Governance, Volume 3, Issue 1-2, pages 84 – 93 Publication Year : 2011
- DOI: 10.1163/187633711X591440