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.

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'Almost Nothing on Women'

Hoda Badran is chairperson for the Alliance for Arab Women, a Cairo-based organization that has operated throughout Egypt since 1987 to educate and train women on their rights and to push Egypt to follow the global plan for women's rights laid out in the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995.

From the early 1980s to 1995 there was "almost nothing on women," Badran said in an interview held in her Cairo office. "Then in 1995, there was Beijing and Suzanne Mubarak came back almost, not really, but almost, ashamed of where Egypt was in terms of gender rights."

Badran initially joined the board for the National Council for Women, but was slowly pushed out in the first three years with 10 other activists she says were seen as too critical, too radical. While over the years Suzanne Mubarak raised the profile for women and children in Egypt, critics like Badran and Saadawi believe she did not do enough to tackle controversial issues or provide a space where women's rights could be actively debated.

"Under Mubarak, everything was going backwards, including women's rights. There was always unfinished business. Whatever has been done has been little by little and left unfinished, incomplete," Badran said.

As an example, Badran points to how Mubarak reformed the nationality law to allow Egyptian women to pass on Egyptian citizenship to their children. But the law stopped short of enabling women to pass on citizenship to foreign husbands or to any woman who has children with a Palestinian or a Sudanese man and was not made retroactive for children born before the law's passage in 2004.

Prioritizing Literacy

Badran and her staff at the Alliance for Arabic Women are prioritizing a literacy campaign in coming months.

A third of Egypt is illiterate, while some estimate that the percentage of women who cannot read is over 40 percent.

While the Internet--especially Facebook and Twitter--has been praised for its unifying role in the protests, millions of Egyptians cannot access the Web. And it is these Egyptians Badran wants her group to focus on in the coming years, with hopes to eradicate illiteracy by 2013 as they join forces with a coalition of nongovernmental organizations to recruit volunteers to teach others to read.

A longer-term goal for Badran is to establish public nurseries and more support systems for women working outside the home.

Egyptian women's lack of understanding of their rights and a possible rise in conservative Islamic views about women's social roles are other challenges Badran sees ahead.

Fifty-four percent of Egyptians favor the legalization of gender segregation in the workplace law, the highest level after Pakistan in a poll of seven Muslim-majority countries conducted in the spring of 2010 by the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center.

The Inclusion of Men

Both Badran and Saadawi stress the inclusion of men as activists as well as men as recipients of their projects and educational work.

"I think about what happened in Algeria," Badran said. "To stop this, we have to demand our rights. I myself am optimistic but we cannot just sit around and do nothing."

Badran's office is only six blocks away from Liberation Square.

On Monday, those streets were filled both with citizens still celebrating and those shopping for sweets for Tuesday's holiday, Prophet Muhammad's birthday; others continued to clean up the streets, paint new street markings or scrub off graffiti.

Aisha Bassyouny, 24, spent the first weekend after the revolution like thousands of Egyptians--sweeping streets and picking up trash with several of her friends.

"We saw the initiative on Facebook to come to Tahrir [Liberation] Square to clean, but when we started walking people we met told us there were so many people already there that we decided to clean up here," Bassyouny said, standing in a small park in front of Cairo's Mustapha Mahmoud Square, the scene of one of the larger pro-Mubarak rallies. "Yes, Mubarak" graffiti still covered billboards and shop fronts in the area.

"The revolution is over but hopefully it will evolve and never really be over. We have so much to do," Bassyouny said, before walking over to continue sweeping the brick path with her friends.

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Iman Azzi is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon.

For more information:

Nawal El Saadawi's Web site:
http://www.nawalsaadawi.net/

"Muslim Publics Divided on Hamas and Hezbollah," Pew Research Center:
http://pewglobal.org/2010/12/02/muslims-around-the-world-divided-on-hamas-and-hezbollah/

"The Women's Movement" by Haleh Esfandiari:
http://iranprimer.usip.org/resource/womens-movement

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