March 8 marked International Working Women’s Day and March 16 celebrated Egyptian Women’s Day, the anniversary of the first large feminist demonstration in 1919 and the founding of the Egyptian Women’s Union of 1923. March is, therefore, a good opportunity to reflect on the status of Egyptian women and Egyptian feminist movements amid the existing complex political situation.

March 8 marked International Working Women’s Day and March 16 celebrated Egyptian Women’s Day, the anniversary of the first large feminist demonstration in 1919 and the founding of the Egyptian Women’s Union of 1923. March is, therefore, a good opportunity to reflect on the status of Egyptian women and Egyptian feminist movements amid the existing complex political situation.

During the 25 January revolution, the issue of women’s liberation assumed new dimensions, the most notable of which was the rise of what can be defined as a new generation of Egyptian feminism and a new level at which women’s causes were brought into public debate. The debate was primarily focused on the issue of sexual violence and confrontation, as well as other major political issues such as the struggle for women’s rights in the 2012 and 2014 Constitutions.

The events held every year in March to celebrate Women’s Day not only give an idea about the position of the feminist movement, but they also reflect their advocacy on the rights of women and the broader democratic movement to which they belong. The democratic movement and the state in Egypt have not recognized the tradition of celebrating International Women’s Day, or the Egyptian Women’s Day on a large scale. However, with the outbreak of the revolution and the rising hopes for transferring women’s democratic struggle to broader horizons, the idea of street celebrations on Women’s Day has started to take root.

Two revolutions

In March 2011, a number of activists and members of women’s organizations decided to stage a march from the journalists’ union to Tahrir Square. The number of participants was limited as the political groups affiliated with the revolution had shown little enthusiasm, including the coalition of revolution youth which comprises the most prominent revolutionary groups like April 6, Youth for Justice and Freedom and Muslim Brotherhood youth. The new democratic parties had not yet been created.  When they arrived at Tahrir Square, the demonstrators were intercepted and assaulted by several men and were asked to leave the square. Amongst them, according to a woman demonstrator, was a veiled woman to whom the assailants pointed and chanted, “Here is the Egyptian woman!” They branded the women demonstrators of being ‘Susan’s (Susan Mubarak) daughters’.

In March 2012, the situation was somewhat reversed when a new democratic atmosphere appeared. New parties such as the Popular Socialist Alliance and Egyptian Social Democratic party as well as young women’s initiatives emerged.  Soon after, the older feminist groups joined forces and a demonstration was staged from the Journalists’ Syndicate building to the Parliament. The demonstrators called themselves ‘Pro-revolution Women’. The demonstration ended with a meeting between a woman delegation from the organizers and some MPs, during which time they handed over feminist demands in the Constitution which was expected to be drafted by the constituent committee appointed by a parliament consisting of a majority of Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists.

Women versus the Brotherhood

In March 2013, came the largest and best organized and coordinated march entitled ‘Women with the revolution’ to uphold women’s rights in the face of Muslim Brotherhood rule.

After Morsi’s removal, a new era started which combated terrorism and confiscated public liberties at the same time. An anti-demonstration law was promulgated under which many opposition male and female activists were imprisoned and no more large street demonstrations were organized in 2014, except for a small march comprised of a number of female politicians of whom at least one activist, Sanaa Yusuf, was thrown behind bars on account of her defense of other imprisoned political activists.

No coordination with the feminist groups was made, nor was there any feminist demand connected with political, economic or personal rights for women. There were only raised slogans related to defense of prisoners and prisoners of conscience in addition to general democratic demands like abolition of the demonstrations law.  Among the slogans raised was a call for a fierce attack on the National Council for Women being the mouthpiece of the ruling power.  Now in March 2015, the street is still completely confiscated in favor of the battle between the state and armed groups.

Denied the right to protest

The ‘despotic’ anti-demonstration law is so strictly enforced that it has turned into a license for killing, not just imprisonment and fines. The popular mood has been totally divided between a solid pro-Muslim Brothers block and another more fluid group that supports the existing regime and is known for its repugnance of terrorism and violence. It was obliged to accept the exceptional actions taken by the ruling regime. No demonstrations are seen on the streets except for, ironically, small numbers of Muslim Brothers’ supporters in a few governorates and colleges in defense of Samia Shanan, who was sentenced to death for acts of torture and killing of Kerdasa Police station soldiers. That news was circulated by the Islamist sources.

The celebrations and discussions of the democratic forces now take place inside closed rooms like the headquarters of parties, associations or libraries. The only activity, as far as I know, that has taken place in a public open place happened at the Cairo University campus organized by the unit set up to address anti-molestation and violence against women at the university. That event was officially sponsored by the university president under the slogan ‘Safe University for all’. To my knowledge, it was the first time in which such an event has taken place at the university. That unit was set up in the aftermath of a major sexual assault case against a female student, triggering the anger of a number of parties and NGOs.

Sharp criticism about the performance of the university administration was published, especially against the statement made by its president in which he criticized the girl’s attire—he later regretted this.  A number of professors and students have pressured the university administration to address the issue more seriously in cooperation with a number of women’s organizations where a policy to address sexual violence in the university was developed and a pertinent unit was set up.

Women’s status under the current regime is complex and confusing. There are positive aspects where a number of demands brought by the feminist movement have been met including the amendment of the penal code through expanding the concept of sexual violence and tightening sanctions against it. A department for combating violence against women was set up in the interior ministry in addition to more seriously addressing a number of sexual violence crimes on the street. Most notable of these crimes are the sentences against perpetrators of mass rapes in June 2014 and January 2013. Additionally, a fully paid maternity leave for three to four months for expectant mothers was introduced to the new civil service law.  Among the changes are the increase in number of women MPs in accordance with the new election law, inclusion of an anti-discrimination mandate in the Constitution, as well as other articles prohibiting discrimination against women in public offices, including the judiciary, in addition to the amendment of a law allowing children of unknown parentage to be treated in official documents like orphans. It allowed children to move to alternative families, if available, from the age of three months instead of two years.

It is interesting to note that all these positive aspects have been consistent with the objectives of the feminist movement and democracy for many years, and some of them, like the amendment of the penal code, have been severely flawed. However, the problem is that the regime that has taken these positive steps is the same that tightens the noose on the movement itself.  

In light of unprecedented political and security tyranny—frequent complaints by political or criminal female prisoners against sexual abuse by police officers, development of a strange electoral law that bans women, the crack down on civil society organizations including women’s organizations and resistance of the law with regard to women’s participation— the question remains : who will defend women and bring women’s rights into the public debate agenda in Egypt and exercise pressure on the state and society for their cause?

The battle over women’s rights requires an active struggle within the community and with the government apparatus, in which hegemonic masculinity prevails. The struggle must take place in the street and in all forums, not within closed rooms. For example, the Child Law of 2008 and its amendments and personal statute law of 2000, which the state boasts as a quantum leap towards promoting women and children’s rights, would not have been issued and preserved in the face of the fierce Brotherhood and the onslaught of Salafism after the 25 January revolution had it not been for the struggle launched by the democratic and feminist forces that are presently facing stifling constraints.