Sarah el Battouty
There are images that remain vivid in my mind from throughout the Egyptian revolution, which express the character of the women of Egypt. There is the image of Khaled Said&’s mother protesting after her son&’s death at the hands of the police, which triggered the events of 25 January 2011 – the start of the popular uprising against the rule of Hosni Mubarak. There are the images of Set El Banat, a woman being beaten by security forces in Tahrir Square; images of women standing in lines waiting to vote in the June 2012 presidential election, some of whom spoke on television saying they would vote for the “Islamic” candidate so God can bless Egypt, and some of whom (43 per cent of the female population, to be exact) could not read or write. And then there are the images of women taking part and being vocal once again after a long period of silence in which apathy, poverty and comfort took precedence over their freedoms.
Following the Arab Spring uprising, in which women became active participants, there was new hope for rights for women to be expanded under the subsequent rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. To optimists this was a good opportunity to seek to define the role of women, and celebrate how pivotal they are in the workforce and family. Instead, the role of women in society once again became the subject of much tension. In 2012, 25 per cent of Egyptian household incomes were provided by women. This has since increased, but the acceptance of women playing a greater role in society has not. An astonishing 99.3 per cent of women and girls in Egypt are subjected to sexual harassment – a shocking sign of how little respect women are shown.
Women earn less than men. They have fewer rights (for example, as the Thomson Reuters report highlights, a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim man without risking being convicted for “turning her back on her father”. And women are represented less in government, to the extent that only nine of the 987 women who ran for political office in 2012 were elected, according to the US State Department.
It is ironic that the role of women in toppling Mubarak was recognised and celebrated but that the post-revolution parliament was more than 91 per cent male, even if a woman did run for the presidency. The Muslim Brotherhood had a key role in subduing what had promised to be the renaissance of the Egyptian woman&’s voice.
On 30 June, there was another prominent case of a woman who fought for her rights. I am not focusing on the role of feminists, I’m highlighting the role of women who are single, mothers, employees, business owners, farmers with no affiliations. Once again they took to the street to oppose the sidelining of their grievances and lack of rights under President Morsi. He lasted just one more month in power.
Whether women were protesting for the Muslim Brotherhood or against it, it is undeniable how powerful and pivotal their role has been. Are women being used to mobilise numbers and sympathies? I ask because when it comes to protecting and supporting womens’ rights, how many would truly support them?
The army and government, which took power after the overthrow of Mursi, cannot deny the role that women are playing, despite the hardships and discrimination they face. Some have said they could deliver the expansion of women&’s rights that was swept under the carpet by the Muslim Brotherhood. But we are cautious. We have learnt from our previous experiences.
The role of the media and awareness is to encourage the positive contributions of women to promote their successes in all fields. Also the stigma that women are solely “caregivers” to children needs to be challenged as more women are being employed and play a key role in management positions, security, law, medicine and the civil service.
My own experience as an architect in Egypt has provided me with hope. I feel I cannot really complain; my great grandmothers were among the first to enter the education system and reached high posts in law, education and broadcasting.
My struggle didn’t begin in earnest until I chose a predominantly male sector to forge my career. The main challenge was to work on construction sites with labourers, men who don’t understand why I would subject myself to the heat and dust and long hours just to work. It puzzles them. But once the initial pride is set aside, there is no difference or obstacle to be on site. Everyone gets on with the work.
I see hope because Egyptian women are defining their role daily. We should remain focused throughout the political turmoil.
The writer is the CEO of Sarah El Battouty Design