Has the Egyptian Revolution Been Good For Women’s Rights?

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By Richard Armstrong

One year after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, women’s rights in Egypt have made unsteady progress. There are fears that should conservative Islamic parties win the upcoming elections, rights will be curtailed. But after playing a role in the protests, Egyptian women are fighting back.

There is particular concern over women’s safety . In Tahrir Square, the site of the revolution’s triumph, female protestors are being assaulted by their male counterparts. The behavior of security forces is also worrisome. In a now infamous video, Egyptian police were caught beating a female protestor while dragging her down the street.

In the new parliament female representation is very low, with only 1 percent of seats held by women. Women aren’t even allowed to run for any of the 26 governorships. The ruling military council says that these positions are too dangerous for women to hold, as they would be required to go out into the streets to deal with constituents.

As well as publicizing abuse of protesters, women’s rights NGOs are working with liberal and minority groups to ensure that not only is the constitution liberal, but that it also provides protection for women and minority groups. Women did make some progress in the last few years of Mubarak’s rule. Reforms were made to custody and divorce laws that made it easier for women to divorce their husbands and take custody of their children.

But now conservative parties are seeking to roll these reforms back. Amnesty International contacted all of the political parties and asked them if they would commit to a number of liberal reforms, including equal rights for women. Only two small liberal parties said they would, while ten others agreed to everything but equal rights for women. The ultra conservative Al-Nur party, which is likely to come second to the Muslim Brotherhood in forthcoming elections, disagreed on women’s rights and abolition of capital punishment components. While it is good that many parties appear to supportliberal reforms, it’s worrying that the parties don’t view women’s rights as an essential element of human rights.

Many in Egypt fear that if Sharia law is imposed, as the popular Islamist parties wish, they will face the same curtailing of rights inflicted on Iranian women after that country’s revolution in 1979. Already a group calling itself the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice has emerged, based on the barbaric morality police in Saudi Arabia. At present it appears to be engaging in low-level harassment of women, such as telling passersby to wear a Burqa. But in post-revolutionary Egypt there are fears that such a group could find a receptive audience.

[Photo courtesy of Lorenz Khazaleh]

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