Women in Egypt at a crucial crossroads post-Mursi

Monday, 8 July 2013 17:10 GMT

Female protesters who are against ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi shout slogans as they hold Egyptian flags at Tahrir Square in Cairo July 7, 2013. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Where will a “second chance” at equality and social justice lead for Egypt’s women?

“There is a real sense of jubilation in the streets of Egypt and by no means violence.”

 This was a cry constantly reiterated and genuinely felt by millions of protestors who took to the streets during the week of June 30 calling for the ouster of President Mohamed Mursi.

Unfortunately, the reality was very different.  The streets of Egypt weren’t safe for the 101 women who were subjected to various types of sexual violence during the protests between June 28 and July 3.

Neither were they safe for 45 victims of mob sexual assaults on July 4 or another 33 victims on July 5.  And they remain a dangerous place for women.

The figures of assault cases were compiled and issued jointly by seven women’s rights organizations, including the movements Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment and Tahrir Bodyguard, which work to protect women and girls in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

These cases included rape and violent sexual assaults, in particular the kind of gang rapes and mob assaults which started taking place during demonstrations last November, although authorities denied it at the time.  

The news of these most recent and numerous sexual attacks on female demonstrators more than likely will be lost amid the current celebration and euphoria surrounding Mursi’s ouster.  

History repeated itself on June 30 when Egyptian women once again took to the streets standing side-by-side with men and calling for freedom.  Will it also continue to repeat itself in more violence against women and their marginalization in political and civic life?

For the past two years and a half, the exclusion of women in Egypt has turned into a systematic policy. Despite their equal participation in the events leading up to  the January 25th Revolution, at least 19 women were sexually assaulted on that day and all women found themselves increasingly sidelined in political and civil life after that.

The legitimate and democratically elected Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood party members swiftly adopted a patriarchal, oppressive and discriminatory rhetoric against women, along with such minorities as Christians and members of the Shiite sect of Islam.

Through the democratically elected legislative bodies dominated by Mursi supporters, women have been the targets of proposed new laws and policies, including the lowering of the legal age of marriage, which is set at 18, removing the article criminalising female genital mutilation and a general denial of the right to make charges against sexual harassment.

Reflecting the Brotherhood’s monopolisation of all functions of the state, of the 100-member Constituent Assembly only seven women have been appointed, five of whom belong to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.

And finally, in his last address, on July 3, Mursi publicly relegated the role of girls and women into one thing: motherhood.  “Young girls, you will grow up to be mothers,” he said.

The situation steadily has deteriorated for Egyptian women since the revolution in terms of rights and safety. On the ground, the number of sexual harassment and sexual assault cases has been increasing exponentially. The streets have been atrocious towards women.  Sexual violence against women has been increasing, with massive numbers of sexual assaults reported, especially among females taking part in demonstrations. This has been faced with inaction on part of the authorities and the failure of leaders  to address the epidemic.

In civic life, women have been sidelined in government, legislative elections (by both the liberal and Islamist parties) or within political parties. As the democratically elected president allowed the continued abuse and discrimination against marginalised groups as women and minorities such as Christians and Shiites, he created a rhetoric of hate.

By overthrowing Mursi through a popular uprising supported by the military, judiciary, political parties, state institutions--but more importantly more than 33 million demonstrators--Egyptians once again find themselves at a new beginning.

But where will it lead?

Will we see more virginity tests, such as those performed by authorities on female protesters, or more cases (as known by the media based on a famous photo) of the girl with the blue bra viciously beaten by soldiers during the Cabinet Clashes of December 2011?

Will we see other systematic sexual assaults and rapes of female demonstrators by the police, thugs and others aiming to break their spirit and make them stay at home and not take part in their country’s emancipation?

Will we see female candidates placed on the bottom of electoral lists to result in a two percent of seats in parliament?

Will we continue to see a meager female representation in government and the Constituent Assembly?

Unlike February 11, 2011, today we see the promise of inclusion and representation.

When Army General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi read his statement on  July 3, he was surrounded by  Muslim and  Christian, liberal and ultra-conservative Islamist, young and old-- and a woman.

This is the new Egypt where there is the potential of true cooperation and equality.
I believe that we’ve been given a second chance and we must use it wisely. But if we start ignoring the revolution’s core values of bread, freedom and social justice then once again we’ll be taking off on the wrong path.

We have to be honest with ourselves and address the problems facing our society.  It’s well about time we get rid of the philosophy of “if its hidden, it’s not there.” One lesson we have learned from the Mursi-Brotherhood experience is that collapse and failure are the result of shutting people out.

So if women, their rights and their problems are once again cast aside this time around we will ultimately fail.

--Safaa Abdoun, 27, is a freelance journalist based in Cairo and an MA Candidate at the American University in Cairo