Did Egypt's Women Win the Revolution Only to Lose Out?
In the immediate aftermath of this spring’s revolution, something new and unfamiliar happened in Egypt: women and men participated equally in political events.
Thousands of women slept in the streets, lived in Tahrir Square and stood side by side with men to fight for democracy. It seemed as though the country’s stereotypical gender roles had disappeared, but just months after the revolution ended and the dust settled, they began to re-emerge.
“Men and women in Tahrir Square were just there chanting and helping each other and supporting each other. And then at the end we see women are put on the side and marginalized,” said Zainab al-Zuwaij of the American Islamic Congress.
Egyptian women began organizing on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, campaigning for equal access to public life. Their demands remain the same today: better implementation of the laws that are already supposed to give them equal access in society.
“Egypt has passed a lot of progressive laws in relationship to women’s rights but we also know that for many women in Egypt they are on paper only and don’t really impact their day to day lives,” said Mary Hope Schwoebel of the United States Institute of Peace.
Labor laws in Egypt provide equal rates for men and women in the public sector, though this does not always happen in practice. In 2010 the average income for a woman in Egypt was $2,003 while for a man it was $5,227. Egyptian women are successfully earning a living in the media, education and banking industries, but they are still unable to break into the political sphere in a significant way. Not a single woman was included in the official body that proposed amendments to the constitution in March.
“I think that women right now would like to push the envelope, to be in charge of key ministries, to have top positions in government,” said Diane Singerman, a political scientist at the American University in Washington.
In 2009, Mubarak confirmed that election law amendments would guarantee women compromise at least 11 percent of the new parliament for the 2010 elections—not far off from the U.S. where women make up 17 percent of Congress. Many Egyptian women feared that while the quota system allowed for female leadership in government, it did not distinguish women as qualified candidates, rather, it acted as compensation for barriers that prevent the equitable participation of women in politics.
Last month authorities canceled the quota system, citing improper implementation. The new election laws for the upcoming parliamentary vote, which is set to begin Nov. 28, mandate that each party include at least one woman on their list, but it does not guarantee a woman’s election.
Women’s Rights: Rural vs. Urban
May Kosba, originally from Cairo, thanks her parents for getting her where she is today.
“Education was the most important thing growing up,” she said.
Kosba, 23, is currently completing a civic health fellowship at the National Conference for Citizenship in Washington. She has become something of an Egyptian cultural ambassador by interacting with activists on social media forums and speaking about Egyptian political events on local TV talk shows.
Before moving to the U.S. she earned a degree in accounting at Ain Shams University in Cairo and later studied at the American University in Cairo.
Her experience as a woman from an educated urban family is far different from the experience of women living in Egypt’s rural areas. When describing the difference between life for rural women and urban women in Cairo, Kosba said, “it’s like night and day.”
According to World Bank data, the rate of women attending school has increased in recent years, but there is still an urban/rural divide. In 2008 in the rural areas of Upper Egypt, 42.9 percent of women had no schooling while only 20 percent of women in the region’s urban areas had none.
Women’s Rights in Egypt: Then and Now
Shady Adbel Salam, an Egyptian author, grew up in an unusual household—his mother was the family’s breadwinner.
“My mother did everything possible to keep us at the same societal level, mainly at the same expensive school,” Salam said. “She was cooking at night, working in the morning, taking care of our studies and personal needs in the evening, sleeping in between.”
Salam said his mother made more money than his father, who died when he was 14. She bought a summer house, a new car and renovated her apartment from scratch. She even helped Salam finance his marriage and buy a wedding ring for his wife.
The majority of women living in Egypt did not easily earn a living independently from their husbands while Abdel Salam was growing up. Women struggled to obtain full and equal access to the job market, even those women who had completed the highest level of schooling.
Despite their struggle to find work, women have made significant gains in other areas of society over the past 50 years. At the beginning of the 20th century women made their mark among the intelligentsia in places like Cairo and Alexandria through the publishing business. Following World War II, the women’s movement in Egypt came to life--feminist organizations formed in various parts of the country and their leaders made public demands for equality. Women finally gained equal suffrage in 1955.
But it was not until the 1970s that women’s status in society made a dramatic change. According to government estimates, the number of working women doubled from 500,000 to 1 million between 1978 and 1980. In these years, women made up 14 percent of all wage-earning and salaried employees in Egypt.
Yet today, political, economic and cultural barriers prevent women from being accepted as full members of society. Egypt’s dwindling economy prevents women from landing jobs in the public sector—which used to offer guaranteed employment.
“A lot of women have worked in civil service and public sector industries,” Singerman said. “It was also a kind of safe place with a short work day, so it made it possible for women to juggle the demands of domestic life.” While there have been gains since 1980, according to the World Bank, women still make up only 25 percent of Egypt’s labor force and suffer from unemployment rates three times those of men.
Abdel Salam said that only one third of Egyptian families are supported by women. “Women are in charge for all home duties, whether she is working and he is not, or whether they are both working,” he said. Abdel Salam’s wife does not work. She is in the process of finishing her master’s thesis after spending years staying at home and raising their two children.
One unfortunate legacy that remains a constant in Egyptian society is the inequality women face in the context of marriage and divorce laws.
According to a Human Rights Watch report released in 2004, Egyptian men do not need to enter a courtroom to end their marriages, but women “must resort to Egypt’s notoriously backlogged and inefficient courts to divorce their spouses.” Since 2000, women in Egypt have had the opportunity to file for “no fault” divorce, khula, if they agree to give up their financial rights and repay their dowry. But women who file for khula are still required to petition the court to end their marriages.
Women in Egypt recognize the equality they felt during the revolution is starting to slip away in the midst of their country’s political instability.
“I almost feel like [the women’s movement] is losing ground a little bit,” Shwoebel said. “There is a need for women across the spectrum to build a consensus, to find out what their common ground is.”
Uncertainty has become the norm in Egypt. Protests and public outcry still dominate everyday discussion and the tumultuous relationship between the government and civil society grows increasingly unsteady with each week. Like much else in Egypt, the prospect of the women’s movement gaining momentum in the near future is anything but clear.
In the eight months since the revolution, women in Egypt have learned that their movement can only gain momentum with more support.
“We are at a crossroads,” al-Zuwaij said. “Women’s issues are not going to be a priority in any of these new changes unless women ask for it.”