Women and the Arab Spring

Hopes for freedom in Egypt remain unfulfilled.

As Egyptians prepare to go to the polls on 23-24 May and vote in the country’s first properly free presidential election, many of their expectations for a liberated Egypt remain unfulfilled. The scenes of men and women marching alongside one another during mass protests to topple President Hosni Mubarak last year had raised hopes that a post-revolutionary Egypt would offer greater opportunities for female empowerment. Instead, over a year later, women face a growing number of threats.

“The revolution was supposed to improve things for women, in fact the situation appears to be changing for the worse,” said Irine Zareef, programme director at the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR).

It is a grim picture. Women today make up just 2 per cent of MPs in Egypt’s new parliament. An unprecedented 984 women ran for parliamentary seats, but only nine were successfully elected after a Mubarak-era 12 per cent minimum quota for women was scrapped. “Nobody fought for the retention of the quota," Zareef said. “Even liberal parties did not take on the issue of protecting women’s rights.” In a further setback, the only female candidate for president, Bothaina Kamel, failed to gather enough signatures of support to qualify for the race.

The impact of this lack of political representation is already being felt. In recent months conservative Islamist MPs have proposed a number of alarming amendments to the laws safeguarding women’s basic freedoms. One MP tried to revoke a law that allows women to obtain a divorce through the courts if her husband refuses to grant consent, effectively destroying a woman's right to divorce. The proposal was later rejected.

The Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR) has called on the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, which holds the largest share of seats in parliament, to clarify its stance on women’s rights after some of its MPs – including at least one female MP – made controversial calls for cancelling laws against sexual harassment and allowing a law that would legalise rape within marriage. Azza Garf, a Brotherhood MP who has been described as Egypt’s Michele Bachmann for her views on women, believes the ban on female circumcision should be withdrawn. Some hardline Salafist MPs have also argued for abolishing the minimum age for marriage.

The threat to women has not just come from Islamists in parliament, but from the ruling military council too. Dozens of women have been beaten, abused and threatened by the army over the past year. The image of a veiled female protester who was dragged through the streets last December and stripped, exposing her blue bra, became a symbol of army brutality against women, while the acquittal in March of a military doctor accused of carrying out virginity tests on female detainees has increased a lack of faith in the military.

On 4 May, during clashes near the defence ministry in Cairo, Aya Kamal, a junior doctor who was treating injured protesters, was among 15 women arrested by the army. She told a parliamentary committee that she and other female detainees were beaten, groped and spat on by soldiers who threatened them with sexual assault.

Women who braved tear gas and live rounds to fight for freedom last year appear to be paying a heavy price for the revolution. “Women became stronger after the revolution, but they are up against greater threats,” said Heba Morayef, an Egyptian researcher for Human Rights Watch. “There are some difficult battles to fight and a very challenging time ahead”.

An anti-military protestor in Cairo (photo: Getty Images)
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism