Egypt’s 21st Century Revolution and the Woman Question

by Guest Blogger on February 10, 2011 · 1 comment

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by Najuan Daadleh

Guest Blogger

“We might be witnessing a historic change in the Arab world, in terms of its political and social structure and in the form of a major transformation of women`s status and rights within Egyptian society.

Egypt`s protest movement is 15 days old, and already it seems 100 times bigger than that in terms of its dynamics—never mind the amount of analysis exhausting media outlets and their consumers, and the endless articles, Facebook postings, and tweets.

I sense a lot of excitement and passion among my Arab and Muslim friends. It seems that even beyond the question of what is to come in Egypt, this young, passionate, and persistent national movement represents a return of some of the lost national Arab pride. According to Arab perception, this national pride was undermined/sabotaged by the peace treaty that was signed in 1979 and by the 1996 agreement between Jordan and Israel. To many, the 30 years following these two events have been marked by the continuous decline of Arab pride.

Women of Egypt

Another major part of the excitement seems to be related to the active role Egyptian women are playing in the protest movement. Pictures of women marching the streets of Cairo, filling “Meedan el Tahreer,” and confronting the Egyptian police are being published and posted everywhere.

Nawal El Saadawi, one of Egypt`s prominent feminists—who has been advocating for women`s rights in Egypt since the late 1960s and was held as a political prisoner, and later exiled from Egypt, for her women’s rights activism—is back and taking part in the protests. In an interview with Democracy Now, she said “Women and girls are beside the boys in the streets. We are calling for justice, freedom and equality, and real democracy, and a new constitution where there is no discrimination between men and women, no discrimination between Muslims and Christians. We are calling to change the system and to have real democracy.”

This is quite exciting. We might be witnessing a historic change in the Arab world, in terms of its political and social structure and in the form of a major transformation of women`s status and rights within Egyptian society.

However, I can’t help but be a little skeptical.

In order to elaborate, I would like to look back at Egyptian history. As you may know, between 1919 and 1922 the Egyptian people initiated a revolution against the British colonial power. Starting in March 1919, Egypt was convulsed with political protests and violence. Students, civil servants, merchants, unions, Egyptian Copts as well as Muslims, and Egyptian women organized daily demonstrations. Upper class women—mobilized by feminist and nationalist leaders—left the seclusion of their harems to demonstrate, while poor women also filled the streets in more spontaneous protests. Women from all classes and backgrounds played a critical role in Egypt’s historic struggle for independence.

Women in the Cairo Demonstrations 1919

Yet, it took Egyptian women nearly 40 years after the struggle for independence to win the right to vote. And at the same time as they were fighting for their own rights, women were playing an active part in the national struggle against the invasion of Britain, France and Israel under Gamal Abed Al-Nasser’s leadership. Although women were actively involved in political struggles at the time, Abdel-Nasser’s socialist regime banned any type of activism organized by women’s associations. It wasn’t until 1956 that women were finally granted the right to vote.

From 1956 until now, Egyptian women have witnessed a great deal of changes in their social status and their civic rights.

My skepticism about the current excitement is rooted in this history: In many ways, there is nothing new about Egyptian women being involved in political resistance and struggle. And according to history, women’s involvement hasn’t resulted in significantly better outcomes for women’s status in the general society.

In saying this, my aim is not to undermine women`s continuous activism and the on-going formation of women’s associations and organizations, especially the development of Islamic feminism. These developments represent important progress.

I think that if women’s status does meaningfully evolve after the current protests it will be because of the structured system of women`s associations and organizations that developed after 1919. As everyone is talking about and analyzing the current revolution in Egypt, I think it’s important to remember that what is happening today is rooted in the past.

It is too early to judge the current movement in Egypt or to be too excited about its outcome. However, I can say this: I hope that in the end we see women’s calls for freedom and equality being heeded even after the protesting ends.


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Rich Rubenstein February 22, 2011 at 10:30 pm

Thank you, Najuan, for this thoughtful and interesting guest blog. It’s good to read something that raises important questions and doesn’t pretend to have all the answers.
What will now happen to women asserting their power and rights in Egypt and in the region? As you say, there is cause for both hope and fear. My own hope is that Egyptian women will make common cause with the workers and students whose strikes and other activities contributed so much to the overthrow of Mubarak. Real socialism (not the Nasserite version) means workers’ control AND gender equality.

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