Egyptian women’s rights on the backburner

On Monday night, the official results of Egypt’s landmark post-revolution democratic elections confirmed the progression to a second round of voting between former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik—referred to as a “feloul,” or a remnant of the deposed Mubarak regime—and the Muslim Brotherhood’s highly conservative Mohamed Morsi. Egypt is already ruled by an Islamist parliament, and if either man wins the election, many believe, the country would no doubt move in a conservative direction.

Following the Egyptian revolution in January 2011, a number of media outlets highlighted the plight of women in the country, the most notable being Egyptian American journalist Mona ElTahawy’s controversial Foreign Policy article “Why do they hate us?” about backward Arab attitudes toward women.

Interestingly, prior to the elections in Egypt last week, none of the campaigns mentioned women’s rights. During the two-day polling, NOW Lebanon took to the streets of Cairo to figure out why women’s rights is not a major issue to many Egyptians, including women themselves.
While for foreign women in Cairo, sexual harassment tops the list of daily annoyances, only one Egyptian woman interviewed complained about the pervasiveness of the phenomenon. Sarah Mounir, a 23-year-old Coptic Christian, said that the majority of Egyptian men harass women on the street. “They think that if you’re not veiled it is an invitation to be harassed,” she said. She noted, however, that a small group of people is fighting back, citing recent initiatives such as the harass map project.

All the other Egyptian women interviewed, however, cited general security as a more pressing concern, especially in light of increased post-revolution violence by random thugs and street gangs.  
The economy was by far the most popular concern. “I am happy about these elections and support Morsi because he is making great efforts to help our economy. I want my children to be able to eat and go to school,” said Hanin Zakariah, a 42-year-old mother of two, monitoring the polls in downtown Abdeen, Cairo. When asked about whether women face unequal treatment in Egyptian society, she said, “Yes, we have a lower salary, but Morsi is specifically working on this,” she said.

Echoing concerns about the economy was Yasmeen Shardawi, a woman in her 30s working on the campaign of opposition leader Hamdeen Sabahi, who did well in Cairo and was most popular with liberal revolutionaries. “The economy, stability and safety, this is what we must work for first,” she stressed. “Then we move onto issues related to women’s rights.”

Most women didn’t believe that there was even a problem to be addressed. “Women here are strong and were even more threatening to the power when they marched upon Tahrir Square,” Shardawi said.

Some went as far as to say that Egyptian women have a significant voice, especially as head of most households.

At a polling station in Abdeen, three girls under 30, who were thrilled about participating in Egypt’s first free electoral process, casted their votes for Morsi. When asked if women are sidelined in Egyptian politics and in general, Ola Hassin, 28, said, “All women are participating; there is no sense of women not belonging in the realm of politics.” She also did not express concern over the issues of domestic violence, female genital mutilation or sexual harassment in her country.

Sally Samir, media spokesperson for the socialist candidate Khaled Ali, noted the discrepancy between rural and urban ways of thinking, especially on issues like female genital mutilation, which was criminalized in Egypt in 2008 but is still widely practiced. Recently, there was an outcry by human rights groups after the Muslim Brotherhood sponsored doctors performing the procedure in the Minya governorate south of Cairo.

Several activists remained skeptical of the seeming lack of concern among women about their rights, saying they were simply not speaking out of fear. But Samir felt otherwise. To her, women are both aware and increasingly speaking up.

“We’ve seen how the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood has gone down, not only because of the situation with the constitution and the assembly, but also because of the female candidate in parliament trying to push regressive legislation.” 

“On the contrary, women, especially women living in poverty, are demanding, and we will not give up on them,” she added.