Women participated actively in the street demonstrations that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, comprising one-quarter of the protesters at Tahrir Square. Women were among the most prominent bloggers of the revolution. Yet, the recent elections delivered only 8 women to the new parliament. As I watch political developments in Egypt, I cannot escape the queasy feeling that women’s rights are going to be threatened in the coming months.
First, the term “women’s rights” itself is associated with the discredited authoritarian regime. Mubarak instituted a 64-seat parliamentary quota for women as part of the 2010 parliamentary elections. Public disgust with these flagrantly rigged elections contributed heavily to the protests that overthrew him. Not surprisingly, the quota’s cancellation in mid-2011 was greeted with wide approval.
Second, Islamists of various stripes won a clear majority of seats in the new parliament. The more moderate Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), with 45% of the seats, states in its platform that all citizens are equal but that women’s rights should be subject to shariah. Despite the large presence of women among the ranks of its activists, the Muslim Brotherhood (the FJP’s civil society affiliate) does not allow women to participate in internal voting, and neither the FJP nor the Muslim Brotherhood has women leaders. The Salafist al-Nour party, with 20% of the seats, states that men and women are equal with respect to human dignity, but underscores “the importance of maintaining differences in their human and social roles.” A spokesperson for Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya (the militant Islamist group reformulated into the Building and Development Party and part of the Islamic Bloc coalition with al-Nour) reporters “Islam guarantees women their appropriate and sufficient rights. [Former first lady] Suzanne Mubarak gave women [in Egypt] more than their lawful rights and that is not acceptable.” According to this party, women were granted “too many rights” under the previous regime, making it reasonable to expect an attempt to correct this “imbalance” in the future.
To be sure, there are important political differences between the more moderate, pragmatic FJP and the more extreme al-Nour. On the status of women, the FJP will be the decisive factor. Perhaps the FJP will become the bulwark defense against the most draconian proposals limiting women’s rights, in keeping with their desire to appeal to a wide range of voters and preserve their image as a moderate force in Egyptian politics, both domestically and internationally. Even the moderate FJP, however, might find that leaning toward the Salafists on “the woman question” allows them to preserve their Islamic credentials while they take other less popular, but more controversial decisions, such as preserving the peace treaty with Israel and turning to the IMF for economic help.
Third, in addition to their poor showing in the elections, most secular parties don’t appear to have defending women’s rights as a significant part of their agenda. The secular parties uniformly call for the separation of religion and state in their platforms, but only two parties expressly state that all Egyptians are equal before the law regardless of gender. (Notably, these same two parties, al-Adl and the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, are the only two parties to assert the equality of all citizens regardless of religion, race or class as well.) Only two secular parties (Tagammu and al-Adl) have a woman listed among their key figures.
The stakes are high. This parliament will appoint the 100-member council that will re-write the constitution. Now that the Egyptian people are finally in charge of their own destiny (as they should be), the big questions regarding the fundamental definition of Egyptian politics, economics and society will be on the table (as they should be after a revolution). Although the main battle now is over the role of the army, we should expect questions about women’s place in society to come to the fore. Given the composition of the parliament and the larger political landscape, it is unfortunate but reasonable to expect that women will face a push to limit their rights rather than preserve or expand them. Beyond December’s rally to protest the of “the girl in the blue bra,” it remains to be seen how Egyptian women themselves will respond to this challenge. Here’s hoping that the democratic opening gives women enough room to defend themselves.