Egypt In Transition: Women’s Movement On Crossroads

by Maha Al Aswad

I was humbled by an invitation from Socialist International Women to be their keynote speaker in their regional meeting in Rabat, Morocco, September 30, 2011- as an Egyptian blogger.

The theme of the meeting was “The Role of Arab Women in Emerging Democracies”.

This is the speech I delivered during the meeting earlier today.

“ In Tahrir square, I felt for the first time that women are equal to men” . These were words of Nawal El Saadawi, the famous Egyptian feminist who spent her entire life struggling for gender equality in Egypt.
The fact that we all felt that way in Tahrir. Tahrir was a large space that gathered a diversity of people of different intellectual, social and political affiliations, not only linked together for the sake of single goal, but there was this kind of  tolerance and the sense of acceptance of the different other.

But it was not only in Tahrir for young Egyptian women who decided long before the revolution to participate in small demonstrations calling to end injustices and corruption. For us to talk about lack of equality was absurd because we always had the feeling we have already achieved it by taking to streets and calling for freedom to all Egyptians. We were surrounded by the same police cordons as men, we were exposed to the same humiliation and degradation from the police and the chances of kidnapping and torturing us by state security agents were equal. We have liberated ourselves and conquered fear and therefore we are free. The sense of freedom is internally formed inside you, no one can take that from you, even if you are surrounded by a million walls. Many of Egyptian women who decided for the first time to participate in the demonstrations on 25 January or later in Tahrir, definitely had the same feeling of self-liberation.

The announced locations for gathering and starting the marches on January 25th were the main squares and in front of big mosques and churches. But in fact, that marches began earlier from places security wouldn’t have imagined. This was intentional so as not to disburse marches from the very beginning. Groups of 200-300 activists headed to various locations in Cairo and Giza and other governorates, in the middle of the crowded urban slums and neighborhoods. At a certain point we all started chanting against the regime. As we were marching in Nahya street among the crowd and in the middle  of all the shouting that fill the throats, I looked around  to find more than half of the group are young Egyptian females, veiled and not veiled, coming forward and leading the chants.  Along the march, which was one of hundreds across Egypt, we managed to escape all of the police attempts of preventing and stopping us. Hundreds then thousands of people joined us, which was the main aim of the march.  I get the shivers whenever I remember that day. In Tahrir,  women had the same roles played by men with no exceptions. Doctors in the field hospitals, members of the committees for inspection  and the popular committees responsible for security and protection of Tahrir. Even in times when thugs and Mubarak cronies attacked Tahrir, we were in the front-line ready to die for freedom.
I always like to tell an incident that happened to me personally in Tahrir square. I went to a Mosque in Tahrir to use the toilet in the Social occasions room attached to it. I found a long queue of ladies who were wearing Hijab, talking to each others in groups while waiting their turn. I heard a lady then reminding everyone about the “silent march” planned later that day in Tahrir only for women.  She further explained that it is silent because women shouldn’t be talking or shouting ( from an Islamic point of view) and that they will write everything they want to say on banners and signs and carry them along. I stood there in surprise, feeling I shouldn’t interfere, being totally alien to the scene, with my uncovered hair and my tights. I hoped that a lady with a Hijab would interfere, because if I did, I won’t have the same credibility she would have.  This is exactly what happened. Suddenly another lady who is wearing Hijab interfered, she had a less conservative kind of Hijab, and it was very clear she is a working lady. She wondered in surprise why should the march be silent?!  Others were mumbling sentences like “because of the men around—our voice is weak”. Then the lady that suggested the silent march replied that we can walk behind any man and chant behind him, not to lead the chants. That is when things became more interesting. The objecting lady said that if any lady volunteered to lead the chants everyone would chant along including men! The first lady was silent and gave the look of having nothing more to say and that she kind of agrees, so did other mumbling ladies.
That day was a turning point for me.  I am an Egyptian that despises the veil and sees it as the cause and not just a manifestation of the oppression of women in my country.  That day kind of shook the stereotype image I have about veiled women in my country, I guess exactly as western media which was surprised by this staggering amount of women in Tahrir and other squares of the revolution. It does not matter your educational and cultural background , What matters is how you see yourself as a human being in this life and what you are capable of doing.
Traditional roles for women?  Never occurred to me that term throughout the first 18 days of the revolution. Consciously or unconsciously, women did not see themselves as different from men. This is the key to the puzzle. If women want equality, they must deal as equal and strive to take spaces in the public sphere as men. Women should never remain isolated  from the political context in the country. We are part of society and we remain regarded as such until we choose to isolate ourselves.

The Egyptian feminist/ women’s rights movement managed to gain much under the former regime, the unilateral divorce, significant reforms in personal status law and freedom of movement without the permission of a guardian, and others. But that was before the revolution. The Movement was reformist in nature. But now in a state of revolution that we live, the movement should not be separated from the changes that occur around. It is a must now that the movement chooses a revolutionary route.
Some women’s groups called for a one million woman march on the international women’s day March 8th to call for women’s rights after the revolution. I was an extreme opponent of the idea. I felt that we will lose ground on that day that could end all that we got from the over the previous days.

I remember quite well the demands as were written on the home page of the event (on facebook): this day serves as “a reminder of the role of women in the revolution.”  Of course among other demands like calling for an article against gender-based discrimination in the constitution. But I stopped for long at this sentence. Who needs a reminder? The whole world witnessed that the Egyptian revolution was not gendered. Women participated in everything, played all the roles as Egyptian citizens. Why go back to isolating ourselves. Why do we isolate ourselves from the public sphere, which we had long fought a lot for joining?
Note that in March the revolution was still intense, Egyptians gathered every Friday in Tahrir square  for other demands of the revolution. It is true that Mubarak stepped down but his cronies were still in power. In March, Mubarak was still having fun in his palace in Sharm Al Shiekh. We were few days before the referendum on constitutional amendments proposed by the military, which was rejected by almost all civil forces, including women’s groups. It was unfortunately passed because of Islamists mobilization.

I would have been happy if women’s groups announced their participation in the million people marches, as pressure groups, to reject constitutional amendments, or claim any of the demands of the revolution. Of course members of these groups were participating  individually, but when they decided to be presented to the public as a unified bloc was on March 8th to demand only – women’s rights. To remind the public that women participated in the revolution and now it is the time for the society to pay back! As if women participated only for some political wins. I was literally heartbroken  at the time. I felt we were betraying the souls of over 300 hundred female martyrs of the revolution.
Of course we all know what happened that day. Unfortunately, the ability of these groups to mobilize the public was very poor, because of the same old mentality of segregating ourselves. They didn’t think of approaching any emerging political parties or youth coalitions to participate with them in the women march. On that day there weren’t more than a thousand protester, including photographers and journalists. It was a grave mistake. We just can’t follow  the same approach that was going before the revolution. Calling for equality is an indisputable right, but the integration of the Egyptian feminist movements with other political and human rights groups is important. To sit at one table with all political forces to talk about Egypt in transition and  in a broader  and more comprehensive aspect than the rights of women only is very important. It is not us against everybody, but it is us with everybody, we are part of this society and we have to negotiate, give and take and show power. This is a Phase of revolutionary struggle for the rights of all Egyptians and it is still going on.

After the fall of Mubarak, there was a clear marginalization of women, started with the selection of the committee to amend the Constitution without a single woman. Constitutional amendments that came with an outrageous article that includes the criteria to run for presidency.  According to the article,  the candidate must be male, as he must not be married to a foreign “wife”- not spouse. They fixed it later – in the Constitutional Declaration – to be gender sensitive.  But even so, this reflects what is in the public collective consciousness  about women anticipated role in society and that the president can never possibly be a woman. This is what we must acknowledge then start the critical discussion about.

A similar tragedy is found in the newly issued People’s Assembly Law which stipulates that Egyptians with ONLY an Egyptian father should run for parliamentary elections. Egyptian women gained few years ago the right to pass their nationality to their sons even when married to a foreign father. Yet, the famous patriarchal mind set refuse to consider those granted nationality from their Egyptian mothers enough citizens to run for elections in their country.
YES there is marginalized. Who is taking over the transitional phase in Egypt? Who chose members if the Committee amending the Constitution? The military.

Now our enemy is one. Since the military took over power in Egypt, they do not let anyone, let it be a man or woman to participate in the decision making in the transitional phase. The first decree-law issued by the military after they took over power was the criminalization of protests and sit-ins in a serious crackdown on freedoms – the same old ways which the revolution had erupted to end.

It is certain that the transitional period was run by civil body, everything could have been different. Speaking  to civilian authority is always easier and more logic than speaking  with the military who derive their legitimacy from force and tools of war.

In the March 19th referendum, Egyptians voted on 6 articles- only to find the military, few days later, issuing a constitutional declaration of 62 articles we knew nothing about. The declaration Gives the ruling military council (SCAF) more powers than those which were granted to the president under the 1971 constitution.

They also passed a constitutional amendment to their own constitutional declaration  few days ago without bothering informing the public. Laws governing elections and political rights were issued by them without consulting anyone. Now political and civil powers are threatening to boycott the upcoming elections if the proportional list system wasn’t applied 100%.

This comes amidst a severe crackdown on freedoms that includes confiscating newspapers, summoning journalists to the military prosecutor, forcibly disbursing protests and of course the worse of all: conducting virginity tests to female revolutionaries to humiliate them.

12, 000 Egyptian civilians were prosecuted before military courts since January.
Personally, I considered it something totally immoral and against all my principles to ask the military for anything. All I want at this stage is for them to leave immediately and hand over power to civilians at the earliest opportunity.
Egypt is now full of strikes and protests by workers, doctors, engineers teachers, students, university staff and others. I am  very proud of the situation of the revolutionary struggle that continues throughout Egypt, but it saddens me that they do not demand immediate withdrawal of the military, but limited to the claims of economic, such as minimum and maximum wage, and in the best cases, demanding the exclusion of the former regime from positions of leadership after the revolution.
I spoke with a friend from the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists, who is involved with the strikes, about my concerns. He had a genius answer: Strikers in all parts of Egypt now know about the marriage between the businessmen and the military, and that the status quo cannot be changed unless the military withdrew not only from political life, but also all aspect of the economy.  All roads lead to Rome, I so discovered.

The role of the women movement in this historical moment is to join the revolutionary movement that does not calm down or sleep. There are two kinds of movements right now from my point of view:

The first is the movement that calls directly for the departure of the military and reveal violations of human rights they committed, like [no to military trials for civilians group], which is struggling to stop the military trials for civilians – and similar groups.

The second is the labor rights and strikes movement led by independent trade unions.

Rights demanded by women in Egypt at the end are political rights and not based on gender. Building  grass root support comes from the integration of Egyptian women’s movement in different sectors demanding  their rights in this historical moment. This is normal since those who strike are both men and women and those subjected to military trials are men and women.

I read a report recently that  there were 4 independent trade unions/syndicates before the revolution, but now the number reached  88 independent trade union with 250 000 members. 50% of the membership of these unions are women. This is the opportunity for the Egyptian feminist movement to support them and their just demands. The transfer of those demands to those of a political nature is a burden falls on the women’s movement and civil groups, which unfortunately left most of the revolutionary struggle for the sake of elections.

Today September 30th, is officially the date when the state of emergency should end.  It is also the last day of the transitional period identified in the constitutional declaration. Unfortunately few days ago, SCAF extended the state of emergency until June 2012- which is by the way against the constitutional declaration they themselves wrote.

In a reaction to their decision, millions are gathered in Tahrir today in what is called “Friday of taking back the revolution” or “the recovery of the revolution” – and of course it is understood recovery from whom.  Egyptians come out today to declare it explicitly to the military: It is enough. You took your chance to manage transition to fill it with chaos and violations of human rights. People who were ready to die for their glorious revolution against injustice and tyranny, will not accept being silenced or sidelined anymore.

One last thing.
Tomorrow is the birthday of a young Egyptian blogger,  Michael Nabil. Tomorrow he completes 26 year-old.

Maikel was arrested on 28 March at his home in Cairo, tried in a military court on 10 April and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment over comments he made on Facebook, and for allegedly spreading lies and rumors about the armed forces on his blog. On it, he criticizes the military’s use of force against peaceful protesters in Tahrir Square, and describes how he was detained and tortured by the Egyptian military in February.

He started his hunger strike 37 days ago. Doctors said that people on hunger strike don’t survive more than 40 days. This is the kind of crimes committed by the military against us in Egypt after a glorious revolution. Maikel is in prison merely for expressing his opinion and is going to die for it. I just wanted to say it out clear that all my support goes out to him in his suffering.
It is time for the military to back off and leave Egypt alone.  And the struggle continues.