If you were to read a first draft of last year’s Egyptian revolution, it would probably have been written by a woman. The uprisings that spread across the country from late January were originally chronicled by prolific female writers such as Nawara Negm, who used everything from Internet blogs to appearances on al-Jazeera to spread information to the outside world. “Freedom is only for those who are ready to die” was her mantra, although the protesters’ tactics proved less extreme. Civil disobedience, marches and strikes were preferred to violence, with the number of women in Cairo’s Tahrir (“Liberation”) Square peaking at around 50 percent.
How dispiriting, then, a year-and-a-half on, to see a highly politicized female population relegated to near-onlookers during Egypt’s first bona fide presidential election race.
In Cairo today, there is no longer a sense of a traditionally patriarchal society yielding to the democratic spirit of the Arab Spring. Instead, the hundreds of thousands of women who contributed so much to the downfall of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak find themselves marginalized, if not ignored.
Commentators have made much of the 40 percent of seats won by the Freedom and Justice party of the Muslim Brotherhood in parliamentary elections earlier this year. Some have suggested that Egypt has replaced a Western-backed, secular dictatorship with an Islamic version, but for others the true headline figure was the paltry 12 seats for women out of a total of 498.
This translates into female representation of 2.4 percent compared with an already low UN world average of 19 percent. The 13 starting candidates in the presidential race — the run-off takes place on June 16 and 17 — were all men.
“The truth is that women were doing better under Mubarak,” said Dina Shobra, a 20-year-old law student at Al-Azhar University who is out shopping in downtown Cairo. Dina, who wears a headscarf and still lives at home with her parents and four younger siblings, thinks that a combination of complacency and fear has reversed the successes of the 18-day revolution.
“The complacency comes from conservative Egyptians who believe that a woman’s place is in the home,” she says. “The fear is of the army and its oppression.”
The scale of the challenge for women such as Dina becomes clear the moment Manal Abul Hassan speaks. She is a spokeswoman for the Muslim Brotherhood, and thinks there is “no problem whatsoever” in having only a handful of women in parliament.
“Social justice will be delivered anyway,” she said over the telephone. She condemns the women demonstrating against the excesses of the military: Allegations against the soldiers include forcing virginity tests on the unmarried and physically attacking women who have protested or written blogs. Hassan, arguably the most powerful female politician in Egypt, believes it is up to “fathers, brothers and husbands to march and protest on behalf” of women.
The notion of male “guardianship” prevails everywhere — from the cafes and restaurants dominated by pontificating men, to the huddles of teenage girls making do with cracked civic benches for a social life as burly male police officers keep an eye on them. One veiled Salafi woman, one of around 300 female candidates in the parliamentary elections, put her husband’s photograph on her campaign poster.