Arab Women in Revolution: Reports from the Ground

Part: 22

Cairo Leaders: Suzanne Mubarak Held Women Back

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Two Egyptian women's rights leaders say Suzanne Mubarak controlled their arena and stymied progress. Now they look ahead, with an eye on history. The Algerian and Iranian revolutions were different, but still cautionary for women.



CAIRO, Egypt (WOMENSENEWS)--On Sunday, Feb. 13--just 48 hours after the resignation of Hosni Mubarak as president of Egypt in response to 18 days of street demonstrations--physician, novelist and former political prisoner Nawal El Saadawi welcomed 12 other women's rights activists into her Cairo apartment.

They joined to celebrate and look forward and backward.

"We need to guarantee that there is no abortion of the revolution," she told Women's eNews, adding that she had already been in touch with women and men as to how to proceed in this new Egypt. "I have confidence in the revolution. I am optimistic by nature. I believe in the collective power of women and men."

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Saadawi and her allies wasted no time in planning to revive the Egyptian Women's Union, an organization banned under Mubarak's regime after first lady Suzanne Mubarak, widely celebrated internationally for her humanitarian work, consolidated control over women's issues throughout Egypt.

Author of over 15 books on gender and the Middle East, Saadawi wants to make sure women are not pushed aside in post-Mubarak Egypt.

The meeting, organized at the last minute, was to make sure that women's voices--loud and listened to both at Egyptian rallies, in the media and popular blogs, Facebook and Twitter--do not go unnoticed in the transition period, while the country is under military control and until a constitution is reformed and a new parliament and president are elected.

Beige tanks and soldiers manned several corners around Cairo, but otherwise, just days after the protester's victory against Mubarak, life on the streets looked remarkably similar to the days before the protests, which took the lives of 300 Egyptians and injured thousands.

One of Saadawi's immediate priorities is to keep Egypt from developing any resemblance to post-revolutionary Algeria.

'We Learned a Lesson'

"We learned a lesson from Algeria. We saw that when men take over, women's rights are ignored. We have to claim our space today," Saadawi said.

During Algeria's 1954-62 war for independence against France, women played roles as combatants, bombers, spies, nurses and communication officers.

But after the French left, revolutionary slogans about equality dissipated and women were pushed back into submissive roles. Islamic groups linked women's rights to Western cultures and discouraged legal reforms. Women's participation in the work force dropped.

The Iranian revolution tells a similar story.

In 1979, thousands of women in Iran protested the regime of the Shah, only to see the demonstrations usher in the start of Islamic rule and limitations on several of their freedoms.

Despite rallying cries of "liberty" and "independence," when Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile he prioritized ridding Iran of secular laws, including the Family Protection Law, which denied husbands the right to automatic custody of the children and the right to unilateral divorce. Women were required to wear the veil. Violent punishments for violating dress code and adultery were imposed.

But Egypt is not a colony fighting for independence nor was this an Islamic revolution. This uprising was driven by a notably non-ideological populace protesting a generally oppressive regime.

Saadawi is quick to point out that it was not just men who stalled the Egyptian women's movement but also the ousted first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, who consolidated women's activism under the umbrella organization, the National Council for Women, which she controlled. Women's groups could register independently, but work often had to be approved by the ministry and activists felt uneasy about the first lady's leadership role.

"Suzanne Mubarak killed the feminist movement so she could be the leader," Saadawi told Women's eNews.

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