Sidelined within weeks of helping lead the revolution, women face new challenges in post-Mubarak politics
A woman holds an Egyptian flag in front of riot police during a protest in Cairo, January 26. Asmaa Waguih/Reuters
You saw them. I saw them. We all saw the women of Tahrir Square, marching, yelling, dancing, singing, smoking, waving signs and taking hits alongside their fellow citizens. Then we blinked, and they were sidelined, pushed out of the political process faster than you can say, "Women are human beings too."
The way things have shaken out for women in post-revolution Egypt, it's easy to forget that it was a courageous young woman who summoned protesters to the streets in the first place. On January 18th, a charismatic activist with the April 6 youth movement named Asmaa Mahfouz invited fellow Egyptian citizens to join her for a Day of Rage on January 25th. Facing down the camera, she told her audience "Do not be afraid."
"Asma knew how to get to the guys, by saying 'If I can get out there, surely you can,'" said Mona Eltahawy, a New York-based Egyptian commentator and political analyst. Her call to arms brought millions of women and men out on the streets, marching and loitering en masse until the dictator fell. Western news outlets noted women's participation, and the absence of sexual harassment, with surprise and admiration.
But despite their valor and sacrifice, women protestors were quickly cast aside as the army consolidated its hold on power.
"Now reality has come back to the foreground," said Eltahaway. "Those 18 days in Tahrir Square were utopian, but now there's a lot of work to do in a very ugly reality."
Buzzkill that he is, when Mubarak retired in ignominy to his villa in Sharm el-Sheikh, he appeared to take the spirit of gender equality along with him. The same women whose voices had inspired and sustained the revolution found themselves iced out of the equation. A so-called "Council of Wise Men" went to negotiate with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) on transitional measures. On February 15th, the Army convened an all-male Constitutional Committee, which came up with some troubling amendments to the constitution. Article 75, which protesters had not requested to be reviewed, was nonetheless rewritten to read that a presidential candidate "cannot be married to a non-Egyptian woman."
With a laundry list of problems to tackle, political parties have kicked women's rights issues down to the bottom of the pile.
Nehad Lotfy Abu el Komsaan, director of the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, saw the backlash coming a mile away. During the protests, she tried to engage other women in discussion about the future of their rights in a post-Mubarak Egypt. "They said there's no added value of women for these issues, that the constitution is just the constitution. But then we saw article 75, and they started to discover the trap they'd put themselves in. They started to see the value of having women's perspectives at every level."
The speed with which that ugly reality reasserted itself shocked protesters like Nahla Hanno. "I never saw this 'reversal' coming so soon," she said. The testosterone-heavy scent of post-revolution politicking, she said, did not worry her much at the time. "I was too jubilant about the revolution and the positive atmosphere. I only started worrying when the Military council chose Tarik al-Bishry as the head of constitutional reform panel," whom she said led the opposition to the appointment of Egypt's first female judge in 2003.