Egypt's Women: Still Fighting for Their Rights

Rena Effendi / Institute for Newsweek

Dina Wahba approached Tahrir Square on the evening of Jan. 25 with her heart in her throat. She had heard of the protests that had broken out against President Hosni Mubarak, the man who had ruled Egypt her entire life, and she'd come to join. But this was her first public act of defiance; it was already nighttime, and she was there alone. "I was scared of the police, of all the men, of being harassed," she says.

Once she arrived, though, she saw other women of all ages, veiled and unveiled, demonstrating along with the men. A friend took her hand and pulled her into the crowd. As chants arose around her, Wahba's fears melted away.

During the weeks that followed, women and men challenged the dictator side by side. Female activists helped organize rallies, staffing the entrances to Tahrir Square, bringing in provisions, and running makeshift clinics and schools. Mothers of young men killed by the police spoke to the crowd, urging them not to give up; university students shouted themselves hoarse denouncing Mubarak.

But eight months after the Egyptian revolution, as the country prepares for its first democratic elections, that elation and electrifying unity of purpose has given way to disappointment, even dread. Egypt is preparing for its first democratic elections this fall, but the schedule for a transition to civilian rule remains murky, and the country is beset by unrest and insecurity. Many women fear they won't be represented—or, worse, that existing rights may be taken away.

The council of Army generals that currently runs the country has appointed no women to positions of power, and doesn't seem interested in consulting with women's-rights groups. In the current interim cabinet of 34 ministers, only one is a woman, and she's a holdover from the previous regime.

Worse, an Army spokesman publicly questioned the morals of the young women who camped in the square overnight alongside male protesters, and the military administered "virginity tests" to female demonstrators it arrested. And when Wahba and hundreds of other women went back to Tahrir Square on International Women's Day, just a month after Mubarak's resignation, they were heckled by bystanders and counter-demonstrators with a crowd of men circling a woman wearing the full-face veil known as a niqab and chanting: "Here's a real Egyptian woman!"

"It was such a wake-up call," says Wahba. "We're not welcome anymore. We're not welcome to ask for our rights." Some of the men were particularly incensed at the idea of a female president—something that is technically possible now. As one man said: "All Egyptians refuse the idea. We're used to men ruling. Who ruled in my house? My father!" Today about half of all university students in Egypt are women. Yet Egyptian women face enormous hurdles, including the expectation that even educated women will be homemakers first and foremost. "You are raised to believe that you are less than a man," says Wahba. "In the street, at home, at school: you're always seen as less."

The Parliament to be elected this November will be particularly influential, as it will oversee the writing of the country's new constitution. But many fear that women will have a limited seat at the table. Not only has the military abolished the Mubarak-era quota that mandated 64 seats in Parliament be reserved for women, but even liberal parties are hesitant to field female candidates: accepted wisdom holds that men always attract more votes.

When activist Bothaina Kamel announced that she would seek the country's presidency—she is the only woman to do so thus far—the media here asked: "Can society accept this?" Islamic preachers have suggested that a woman can't be president because menstruation incapacitates her.

"As time goes by I become more worried about the situation of women in Egypt," says Wahba, a project coordinator at the Arab Women Organization. Although women are in the street, she says, "they are excluded from the decision-making process."

When the Muslim Brotherhood and the religious fundamentalists known as Salafists (who take their name from the Prophet Muhammad's companions) recently held a mass demonstration at Tahrir Square, women were conspicuously absent. Instead, the square that had been an oasis of freedom and equality was full of bearded men chanting, "The people want to implement Sharia!" Some Salafist leaders say an Islamic Egypt should enforce prayer times and make women wear the hijab, or headscarf. "They were flexing their muscles," says Kamel. "They wanted to scare us. But we aren't scared."

gypt became the birthplace of Arab feminism in 1923 when, with a flick of her wrist, Hoda Shaarawi removed her face veil at the Cairo train station as she returned from a women's-suffrage conference in Rome. Soon Cairo became home to some of the region's first women's magazines and feminist organizations.

But the Arab women's movements of the early 20th century stalled in face of social conservatism and political repression.

The Mubarak regime paid lip service to women's rights while sidelining independent, critical women and doing little to stem religious bigotry. Former first lady Suzanne Mubarak made herself president of the National Women's Council and, just like other first ladies in the region, patroness and representative of all her country's women. The council helped pass some legislation favorable to women, but it also associated women's rights—in the mind of many Egyptians—with a corrupt regime beholden to the West.

Egypt is also known as the birthplace of Islamism. Just five years after Shaa-ra-wi's defiant stance, Hassan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood here, and the writings of one of its seminal leaders, Sayyid Qutb, later inspired Islamist and terrorist movements across the region. The Brotherhood, though, renounced violence in the 1970s and under Mubarak became the dictatorship's biggest adversary.

Wahba's family straddles these historical and political lines. Wahba is a self-described feminist and an active member of a new social-democratic party. Her aunt Karima Abdel Ghany Kamar, meanwhile, has been a dedicated supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood most of her life. Kamar believes that Islam—if properly interpreted—guarantees women's rights.

Seated in the shade of a tree on the leafy campus of Cairo University, where Wahba studies political science and her aunt is pursuing a degree in Islamic studies, Kamar, 49, and Wahba, 25, make an incongruous pair. Wahba wears jeans and has short bleached-blonde hair. Her aunt's brown polyester niqab covers everything but her eyes. The two women, however, have the same bright eyes and warm, engaging manner. It's not hard to see why Kamar has become influential in the lower-income suburb of Cairo where she lives and spends her days preaching—at local mosques and in her home—to other women about religion, morals, and current events.

During the uprising, Kamar stayed home, glued to her TV, "fasting and praying they would succeed." She says the Brotherhood laid the groundwork for the revolution. "We said it's not right to accept injustice and inequality. We prepared society for change."

Until Mubarak's overthrow, the Brotherhood was officially banned, its members regularly jailed. But one of the immediate after-effects of the revolution has been the emboldening of Islamist groups, which range on the political and religious spectrum from the Brotherhood to the Salafists, who under Mubarak shied away from participating in politics. Half a dozen Islamist parties have been established in the last six months.

Women such as Kamar are key to the Brotherhood's influence. When elections come, she'll be sharing her views on the candidates and encouraging women in her neighborhood to go to the polls.

And Islamist groups have long been more adept at mobilizing women than their liberal counterparts. In Egypt's past rigged elections, Kamar and other Islamist women insisted on their right to vote, even if it meant getting beaten by pro-government thugs at the polling station. When the Brotherhood's new political party was officially registered in June, it made sure more than a tenth of the founding members were women.

Still, unlike her niece, Kamar believes that women should be helpers and supporters—not leaders. "Any reasonable woman," she says, "wouldn't think of a career in politics." A woman's duty is to take care of her family; political office doesn't suit her "nature." When Wahba challenges her aunt on this—mentioning several women in public life they both respect—she corrects herself. "Nothing forbids it, if a woman has the nerves and the intellect. Look at the Queen of Sheba," she says, referring to the female monarch who appears in both the Bible and the Quran.

Kamar dismisses women's rights as a "high-class" concern and says Western-style freedom isn't the solution to Egypt's problems. The working-class women in her neighborhood have simple expectations from the revolution, she says. "They want a dignified life … They want Hosni's money," she adds with a laugh, referring to the billions Mubarak is believed to have stolen from the country.

he hallways of the Family Court in Giza form the backdrop for an endless series of small, quotidian tragedies. Underneath exposed pipes and free-hanging wires, hundreds of cases scheduled for the day's sessions are tacked to the dingy walls. A stream of petitioners shuffle up and down the narrow staircase to the judicial chambers upstairs. Near the entrance, women crowd around a battered photocopier machine, making triplicates of their documents. An elderly woman in black bursts out a colorful complaint while her lawyer, clutching a sheaf of papers in his hand, murmurs his counsel. Several women speak in urgent tones on cellphones while others brief their assembled families on the proceedings.

In family courts such as this one, where matters of inheritance, divorce, and child support are decided, Egyptian women dramatically experience the bias of law and society. (According to a number of surveys, most Egyptian women have experienced sexual harassment or domestic violence. Yet such cases are rarely prosecuted.)

Meanwhile, the Personal Status, or Family Law, which is derived mainly from Islamic law, amounts to "a conspiracy against women," says Reham Mohamed Samir, a pharmacist and mother of two, who has been in and out of court since 2008 in a divorce case that's still ongoing after three years. "You have to prove you should get a divorce, that [your husband] harmed you or the children," she says. "You have to prove his income. You have to prove everything." Samir says she was only recently granted proper child support after proving her husband wasn't destitute. She showed the judge Facebook pictures of him on European sojourns, she says.

But there are those who now argue that the existing law in fact gives women too much, with Islamists and social conservatives challenging a number of gains women made under Mubarak. There have been calls for the government to lower the marriage age, to change custody laws in the fathers' favor, and to repeal a divorce law allowing women to escape unhappy marriages by giving up all their financial claims. (Husbands can divorce their wives whenever they choose; women must prove ill treatment or abandonment.) "They are taking advantage of the revolution—their voice is the loudest now," says Samir's lawyer, Friyal Hassan Mourad. "I think we are going backward, not forward," she adds. "Women face a terrible danger."

Others are more sanguine about the changes sweeping the country. "It's only natural—after decades of repression—for every political and cultural current to rise to the surface," says justice Tahani al-Gebali, one of the country's few female judges, who is seated in her wood-paneled office in Cairo's Supreme Constitutional Court. The Salafists who came out in force in Tahrir Square last month have always been there, "but hidden," says Gebali. The fact that they are now out in the open, competing in the political arena, "is good in and of itself." Given that the most radical Islamists "will be against human rights, against progress, against secularism," she says, their opponents need to present their own, enlightened view of Islam and gird themselves for "a long political and cultural struggle."

Fundamentalists are misinterpreting and misusing religion, Gebali argues. "They say women's rights are a Western imposition. But if you study our culture and history and Islamic law, you can find strong support for women's rights. We can beat them on their own terms."

n the sayeda Zeinab neighborhood, a raucous religious festival celebrating the prophet's granddaughter is well underway. Families crowd the street, snaking between food vendors, carnival rides, and stages for musicians. In the middle of the square, on a grassy enclosure by the mosque from which the neighborhood takes its name, an enormous Egyptian flag has been fashioned into a tent. In its shade, one of many new coalitions set up in defense of the revolution is holding a rally.

"We're here because we don't want the revolution to be stolen from us," says Azza al-Homassany, 50, who, during the days of the revolution, marched in the streets of her native Alexandria. Homassany directs a charity that helps lower-income mothers and children, and she doesn't believe that Islam and women's rights are incompatible. "Islam gives women all their dignity," she says. "It allows them to work. It allows them to own property."

What concerns her is the rise of more conservative Islamic groups and political parties. "We're afraid of the Salafists and of their Saudi funding," she says, referring to the widespread belief that Egyptian fundamentalists receive money and encouragement from Egypt's conservative neighbor. "If we end up a Wahhabi country like Saudi Arabia, we women will all be at home, cooking," she says, laughing at what still seems a ridiculous prospect. "We won't even be allowed to drive."

A ripple suddenly runs through the crowd. The commotion announces the arrival of Gameela Ismail, a TV presenter turned activist and politician. Ismail is the ex-wife of Ayman Nour, who in 2005 contested the presidency and then served five years in prison on what his supporters say were trumped-up charges of forging party-member signatures. (Ismail also used to work for Newsweek as a Cairo stringer.) While her husband was in jail, Ismail emerged as a leading voice of opposition to the regime—and paid the price. She was harassed, attacked in the media, and banned from work.

Ismail ran for Parliament in the elections of 2010 and was soundly defeated by a businessman affiliated with Mubarak's National Democratic Party. But, she says, "I didn't lose because he was a man and I'm a woman. I lost because I was with the opposition and he was with the ruling party. I lost because he had access to the security agencies and to the workers inside the polling station." The elections were widely condemned as fraudulent, and the Parliament they brought to office was dissolved soon after Mubarak's ouster.

Today, Ismail is back on TV—and back in politics. This fall she will run for Parliament again, likely as part of a coalition of liberal and left-wing groups. She admits that female candidates face the same problems as always—social prejudice, a lack of party support and funding—but is nonetheless optimistic. The revolution is a lesson for women about what they're able to accomplish, she says. "We, as women and feminists, failed to get our rights. But we were able to get freedom for the whole of Egyptian society. We did for Egypt what we couldn't do for ourselves. We were in the front lines of the revolution. And I am so proud—as a woman and a citizen."

Around her, the slanting afternoon sunshine illuminates the busy, dusty square with its piles of garbage, its jerry-built entertainments, its poor, curious, and cheerful crowds. "If we want to be in a better position, we have to put in the effort," says Ismail. "I don't expect the military council to hand out privileges and roles to women. I don't expect the interim cabinet to come looking for us and ask us to participate. But I'm not waiting for an invitation."