More than a year later, in Egypt’s first free presidential election, the famously feisty women of the Arab Spring have vanished from the political horizon. Although millions turned out to vote, none were on the ballot. And in the parliamentary election in January, only 2 per cent of seats were won by female candidates after a quota system was dropped.
Where are the women? And why are they falling behind so dramatically after a promising start?
“The omission of equal participation for women brings us back to square one,” the Cairo-basedEgyptian Center for Women’s Rights, which monitors women’s political progress, said in a report earlier this year. “The low presence of women representatives is inconsistent with the principles of citizenship and equality.”
In the parliamentary election, more than 200 women were nominated on party lists — but political parties put them at the bottom, so candidates had less chance of being elected in a proportional vote. A misinformation campaign also claimed that some active female candidates had withdrawn.
In this week’s election — called the most significant in Egypt’s modern history — only one woman, former TV personality Bothaina Kamel, came close to registering as a candidate, and she failed to get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. Her foiled run infuriated some Islamist MPs, and she reportedly received death threats.
Thirteen men, though, made it to the first round, many of them holdovers from the Hosni Mubarak regime or long-repressed Islamists who believe their time has come.
The invisibility of women in the political arena is misleading, women’s advocates say: the strong female presence of Tahrir Square hasn’t vanished, but fanned out to civil society groups that are working diligently to build a new and more equal Egypt.
“Women are very much part of the revolutionary movement,” says Eileen Alma, program officer with the Ottawa-based International Development Research Centre, which works with Middle Eastern women’s groups. “It would be wrong to think they’ve disappeared. There is some disappointment that it hasn’t translated into meaningful gains, but they are active and engaged in many struggles at once.”
What holds women back most is the environment they are struggling against — the equivalent of political quicksand.
“Even if the Islamists are aggressive in their decisions regarding women’s rights, the military does not even see us,” feminist scholar Mozn Hassan told GlobalPost.
The powerful military establishment’s tone-deafness to women’s equality isn’t surprising, says Andrew McGregor of the Jamestown Foundation, author of A Military History of Modern Egypt.
“I don’t think they are under any pressure to change, because Egypt is still a very conservative society. Their attitude is not so different from the general attitude to women,” he said. “I think we spend too much time looking at what happens in the urban centres, where there is more turmoil. But 60 per cent of the population is living in a rural environment where the local sheikh is running the show.”
In spite of vocal protests, only six women were chosen by the Islamist-dominated parliament to join the 100-person assembly formed to draft the new constitution. And advocates fear that without constitutional guarantees, religion-based laws could be introduced to roll back women’s rights — such as lowering the marriage age to 13, and preventing women from suing for divorce.
Not all women shun the Islamist parties — in fact, most of the 10 female members of Parliament belong to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. But some activists see the growing influence of religion as a threat, in a country where women have enjoyed more rights and freedoms than many of Egypt’s Arab neighbours.
In the months ahead, much will also depend on the outcome of the presidential poll. Amr Moussa, one of the most liberal candidates, has promised to appoint a female vice-president if elected.
But those who try to impose traditional constraints on Egyptian women will face strong resistance, Alma says.
“There is a new generation coming up who might not be so willing to accept those conditions. We have got to this state in Egypt because of dissatisfied youth. There is huge potential for these young women — and huge risks.”