When a woman in our country assumes the leadership of an institution it is an event that calls for joy and pride, particularly if the institution in question is a democratic one such as an opposition party, a syndicate, or an independent student union trying to establish its position through hard work and not as the gift of some authority.

When a woman in our country assumes the leadership of an institution it is an event that calls for joy and pride, particularly if the institution in question is a democratic one such as an opposition party, a syndicate, or an independent student union trying to establish its position through hard work and not as the gift of some authority.

That is why many people affiliated with democratic forces were rightly happy and gratified by Hala Shukrallah winning the contest for the presidency of the Constitution Party, beating another prominent female politician, Gamila Ismail, who herself took over the day-to-day running of the party (as Organization Secretary) at a critical moment in its history. They also celebrated Mona Mina’s election to the post of secretary-general of the Egyptian Doctors’ Syndicate following a long struggle during which she managed to found a movement to restore some of the doctors’ neglected rights, especially those of young doctors working for the state. The parties and professional syndicates are institutions whose membership is overwhelmingly male, as are most of the influential figures within them.

The reason for the delight is readily understandable: these cases are a sign that our societies are making progress when it comes to the issue of accepting women and their role in the public sphere, particularly a leadership role—long the object of criticism from various quarters of society and the religious community. More importantly, in my estimation, it is also a sign that the vibrant democratic forces can struggle within themselves to apply the very principles that they seek to disseminate in society and on which basis they criticize their reactionary rivals, the forces of religion and state.

Over the years I have followed the progress of individuals like Hala Shukrallah, Mona Mina, Gameela Ismail, Fatima Ramadan (elected deputy-president of the Egyptian Union for Independent Labour Syndicates in the first ever elections held by its executive office) and Bahiya Mohammed Morsi (the twenty-year-old who was elected general coordinator for the largest student grouping at the University of Alexandria during the last academic year). These women’s electoral victories give hope and a powerful morale-boost to young female party members and syndicate activists and encourages them to participate ever more closely in public life because they now have a chance of being promoted and of their efforts being recognized.

However, these women taking over leading roles in male-dominated institutions (as all institutions in our societies necessarily are) does not seem to me to be enough—in itself—to ensure that women are empowered within from to “gender” these institutions or to make them more sensitive and proactive regarding gender issues. This is especially true in our countries, where economic and political development is crippled, where the world of politics is superficial and savage and where the forces of democracy are squeezed between an authoritarian state and an exhausted, crisis-wracked society. In these countries, where many basic issues are not addressed by politics and almost everything seems unresolved (such as the right to life itself and the unity of the state) women’s issues can seem irrelevant, bourgeois or an unaffordable luxury. In the battle against religious fascism, some might regard the rape of dozens of young women in a square heaving with millions as an irrelevancy or as one of the unavoidable side effects of the revolution. In the battle over the role of the religious and military establishment in the legal structure of a state like Egypt, the fight for laws regulating the rights of women and outlawing discrimination leaves many people cold.

Observing these women leaders it is clear that there is a difference in the way each uses her position to address women’s issues. One instance comes to mind: the voice of Sanaa Al Saeed (MP for Asyut in the 2011 parliamentary elections when she ran on the Egyptian Bloc list, having previously contested for a seat in the 2005 and 2010 elections and been elected a member of the local council in 2008), loudly stating during one of her election speeches that, “ Markaz Sahel Saleem must have men to represent it in parliament.” Maybe this is just a superficial observation and this powerful female MP did not intend to disparage her own status as a women, but it gave me the impression that women are sometimes forced to prove that they are not women in order to strengthen their political standing. Gameela Ismail has been a prominent political figure both under Mubarak and post-revolution and has engaged in fierce electoral contests for the Qasr Al Nil parliamentary seat (which incorporates the neighbourhoods of Downtown Cairo, Boula Aboulella, Zamalek and Sayyida Zeinab) in both 2010 and 2011, to the extent that some believe her to be Qasr Al Nil’s MP. Ismail has not engaged with the sexual assaults that took place in her district, in and around Tahrir Square, during the revolution, yet she is a powerful personality who came to the square dozens of times to debate with people, confront thuggery, resolve disputes and break up arguments. Likewise, I am yet to see the Constitution Party under Hala Shukrallah address gender issues.

For instance, the party has given no clear response to the issue of sexual assault other than a Twitter statement from Dr. Shukrallah commenting on the mass sexual assault that took place at Cairo University and the University administration’s own responses, and the party’s signing up to joint initiatives involving other parties and feminist organizations. On the other hand, the person who proposed amending the penal code to incorporate more contemporary definitions of crimes of sexual violence against women in the 2011 parliament was the male MP, Amr Hamzawy. The party to which Hamzawy belongs (the Freedom Egypt Party) and the Popular Socialist Alliance Party are the only two members of the Salvation Front coalition (formed in opposition to Muslim Brotherhood rule), which have engaged with the issue of sexual violence on the ground. The Socialist Alliance could be found issuing statements, calling on members to volunteer for anti-harassment groups and organizing training workshops for members, despite the fact that its political office employed only two women out of a total of 25. There are women, and feminists, in both these parties, but they do not make up a significant proportion of their higher leadership and are mainly to be found in middle-ranking posts. Nevertheless, these women have succeeded in ensuring that their parties take on a serious feminist issue that many others have ignored. At the top of the Doctors Syndicate Mona Mina has similarly failed to bring out any laws or initiatives concerning women, whether doctors or nurses.

Bahiya Mohammed Morsi, general coordinator of the Voice of the Square Bloc has held a two-day workshop to train members in how to fight harassment, and although the concept was of course not purely her invention but rather the result of the topic of harassment imposing itself on the general debate within the campus, it was the first time such an activity had taken place at Alexandria University.

So much for these women-led institutions taking on gender issues. As for the situation of women within these institutions, this, too, varies from one institution to another. Sometimes the presence of a woman at the summit of an institutional pyramid can give the misleading impression that other women lower down the ladder are similarly empowered. In the Constitution Party, for example, the proportion of women in the executive is three out of 11. In another party, the Bread and Freedom Party (which “under construction”), two out the four founders are women as are five of the executive committee’s 13 members, but they are only 23 per cent of its membership, while the proportion of women who are representatives on the geographical units within the leadership (also called the Preparatory Committee) is no higher than one in four. Some female leaders fall into this trap, but others, like Fatima Ramadan, fight for female empowerment within their organizations even if they personally are in no need of positive discrimination. Fatima has championed a quota for women and youth in the electoral lists of her Union’s executive committee despite the fact that her popularity among members and her long history of public service as a unionist and socialist politician means she herself needs no help. But she knows that the women who enter the electoral contest alongside men need a guarantee, or extra encouragement, to overcome the male cultural prejudices that guide the selection of worker representatives.

In brief then the presence of a woman at the head of a democratic institution like a party or syndicate does not in itself guarantee the gender-blindness of that institution, nor that it will adopt important feminist issues or strengthen the standing of other women in that organization, but it certainly does provide a positive incentive and encouragement to many women to participate in public life and contest leadership positions. It is a sign that these bodies are making forward progress in the adoption of democratic principles and values and overcoming male prejudice, and this is something I believe is only possible in the presence of a democratic movement. These questions and problems concerning women, their empowerment and their battle to establish themselves in the public sphere become far more difficult when they occur in the context of an authoritarian status quo that appoints certain women into the institutions of state to play pre-defined roles, as opposed to women giving voice to sensitive issues and various political and social programs evolving and competing, as happens in a free environment.