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Women and the Arab Spring

Hopes for freedom in Egypt remain unfulfilled.

Egyptian elections
An anti-military protestor in Cairo (photo: Getty Images)

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been described as Egypt’s Michele Bachmann for her views on women, believes the ban on female circumcision should be withdrawn.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”.