Equality/Women’s Rights

Women's Rights in Egypt Join Liberal Outcasts

Monday, February 13, 2012

A year after the toppling of Mubarak, women's rights activists confront a sobering landscape. With Islamist parties taking control, it's important to note the difference between ultra-conservative Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood.

CAIRO, Egypt (WOMENSENEWS)--Sheesha and cigarette smoke fill the air in this downtown Cairo coffee shop, lending a hazy glow to the harsh lighting illuminating the room, which overflows with tables and chairs. Half the patrons are out on the sidewalk.

This could be any number of tiny ahwas, or coffeehouses, tucked away in the capital's ubiquitous nooks and crannies.

But the Wust el Balad Cafe (Downtown Cafe) is the symbolic headquarters of the April 6 Youth Movement, a civil society and labor rights group established in 2008 that is credited with orchestrating the beginnings of the Jan. 25 revolution. On most nights members gather here to discuss campaigns, meet with other activists or brainstorm ways to challenge the military government still at Egypt's helm.

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A year after the historic 18-day revolution that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak, the group is also forced to mull the degree to which two Islamist parties--the ultraconservative Al-Nour party and the Muslim Brotherhood's more moderate Freedom and Justice party--are benefiting from the democratic transition.

Despite hours of planning, protests and grassroots campaigning, the young activist patrons don't see gains for human and women's rights, media liberalization and personal freedoms.

"We feel we have gone a year back and not a year ahead," says April 6's co-founder Amal Sharaf. "It's getting worse and worse… This is the start of a new revolution. We're starting from scratch, zero. Instead of fighting [President Hosni] Mubarak, we are fighting the military, which is worse. They hijacked the revolution with the Islamists."

Egyptian women's rights activists emphasize different objectives, but the overall agenda includes promoting female literacy and repealing family law provisions that discriminate against women in marriage, divorce, guardianship, custody and inheritance. Many activists look forward to passing laws to protect women from domestic violence and sexual harassment crimes.

Enforcement of the country's 2008 ban on female genital mutilation is another typical priority. A 2005 government health survey found 96 percent of Egyptian women who had ever been married had undergone the procedure. [Subhead] Only One Minister

The post-revolutionary decline of women in the upper echelons of the government, however, does not bode well for such efforts. Only one female minister is in the cabinet, down from three in the Mubarak era. There are no female governors across Egypt's almost 30 governorates.

Nor have women made much of a mark in parliament, where members of the upper and lower houses will choose the 100-member task force slated to write Egypt's new constitution. Women are just 1 percent of the lower house and it's likely that will be mirrored in the upper house once the ballots are counted.

The April 6 movement is far from bowing out. It is running three concurrent campaigns to get their 10,000 members--of which between 20 and 30 percent are women--in the streets and talking to people.

Not only are they informing them of their rights as voters, they are also hoping to get them actively involved in writing the new constitution by asking their views on how they would change Egypt's charter.

April 6 joins moderate secularists in other countries in the region--such as Morocco and Tunisia--in facing a growing Islamist political opposition.

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To watch the documentary online visit: