CAIRO — As fireworks lit the sky after Egypt elected its first Islamist president last month, Nadeen Gamil, who had endured years of sexual harassment, knew that the battle for women’s rights had taken an ominous turn.
While thousands celebrated in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt’s revolution, women were intimidated and rhetoric intensified that President Mohamed Morsi’s victory would herald an increase in piousness and hijabs: “Tomorrow, Morsi will cover you all up, your days are over.”
Gamil said she “felt torn between my happiness for the people and my personal cause.” The 21-year-old university student and advocate for the Women for Egypt campaign added: “A couple of months ago in Tahrir, men mocked me after I struck a man who groped me from behind. I slapped him in the face but he didn’t even look me in the eye.”
As women of the revolution battle the patriarchal and rigid politics of Egypt's military and rising Islamists, they are also pushing for a social reawakening and an acceptance of women's freedoms. Women make up at least 52% of Egyptian society and 33% of them are considered the sole breadwinners in their households. However, the state, even after the Arab Spring uprising, has largely failed to protect them from sexual assault and domestic violence.
The role of women has been further complicated by Najla Mahmoud, Morsi’s wife and Egypt’s first lady, who wears long headscarves and traditional dresses. Liberals and Twitter activists have complained that her appearance and style do not reflect a modern Arab woman for a new state. But most Egyptian women wear headscarves and dress modestly.
“She is not an alien, she represents many Egyptian women you see everywhere in the subway or in the streets, many can relate to her,” said Gamil.
Mahmoud has refused the title of first lady and instead prefers to be called a “servant of the people,” a stark contrast from her predecessor, Suzanne Mubarak, who was unveiled, bejeweled and dressed in Western styles. Although women often felt marginalized under Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year secular rule, the women’s movement did win the right to divorce and travel alone without a male chaperon.
Women held fewer than 10 out of 508 seats in the Islamist-dominated Egyptian parliament elected this year. A court ruling dissolved the chamber last month, but during its sessions ultra-conservative Islamist parliamentarians sought to abolish women’s laws enacted under Suzanne Mubarak because they were associated with the previous regime. Efforts to undercut women also included proposals to decrease the age of marriage for girls from 16 to 14 and revoking a woman’s right to divorce her husband.
Despite concern that a Morsi government might further curtail women’s rights, a recent Gallup Poll showed that many Egyptian women were not worried about implementation of sharia, or Islamic law, or dramatic changes under the new president. The study found that 44% of women surveyed believe sharia should be the only source of law; 38% said it should be one of a number of sources.
The report also suggests that as long as there’s a struggling economy and high unemployment, there may be a "greater threat to women's rights than public support for religious legislation.”
Egypt’s economy has suffered since last year’s uprising and ensuing political unrest. Women’s demands for equal participation over the last 16 months have often been resisted by many Egyptians who felt that economic problems and instability were not the time to discuss “factional or trivial demands."
Morsi, who recently resigned from the Muslim Brotherhood to show he represents all Egyptians, said his aim is to build a unified government that protects the rights of all. He has vowed to name one woman and one Christian Copt to be his vice presidents.
“We would never interfere in personal choices of citizens, unless they are illegal. We are completely against the notion of dealing with women as property, women have their freedoms and they must be respected,” said Khaled Hamza, a spokesman responsible for the Muslim Brotherhood’s online outreach.
“So far, we’ve heard good intentions, but it’s important that he chooses active, competent advisors on his team, not just a token woman and Copt,” said Dalia Ziada, a women’s rights advocate and director of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Democratic Studies.
The Brotherhood has “Islamist views that are not representative of democracy, such as their idea of women. The organization is very authoritarian and elitist and internal practices don't encourage self-critique or accountability,” said Ashraf Sherif, political science professor at American University in Cairo.
Sherif, an expert on the Islamic political movement, added that the Brotherhood perceive their leadership to be infallible while youth and women are not represented in decision-making.
“Many in the Brotherhood and their supporters will justify their actions by referencing religion or God,” Ziada said. “But I think it is very important for women not to give up.”
— Reem Abdellatif
Photo: The election of Mohamed Morsi as Egypt's president has raised concerns that his background in the Muslim Brotherhood might signal new restrictions on women. Credit: Khaled Elfiqi / European Pressphoto Agency.