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After revolution in Egypt, women's taste of equality fades

COLUMN ONE

Women were at the vanguard in the protests that ousted Hosni Mubarak. But long-held sexism has reasserted itself at the hands of the military and the Islamists.

February 14, 2012|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
  • Bothaina Kamel, a candidate for Egyptian president, campaigns in Cairo last summer. “Some people have come up to me and asked, ‘Is it even legal for a woman to run?’ I hope to set a trend, to open a door," she says.
Bothaina Kamel, a candidate for Egyptian president, campaigns in Cairo… (Filippo Baciocchi / Rex…)

Reporting from Cairo — Bothaina Kamel is a novelty and a provocation in a single breath. The only woman running for Egypt's presidency, she travels without an entourage, wears a bracelet that says "Make poverty history," can outlast the most exasperating heckler in the crowd, and has no chance of winning.

"I want to create culture shock. Yes, a woman is running for president," says Kamel, a television presenter and ex-wife of a former cultural minister. "Some people have come up to me and asked, 'Is it even legal for a woman to run?' I hope to set a trend, to open a door. A girl sent me a Twitter: 'You have given us a chance to dream.'"

Kamel campaigns often in Tahrir Square. It represents, she says, the spirit of what Egypt could be. But the farther one travels from Tahrir Square, the more the revolutionary fervor that overthrew Hosni Mubarak fades. Much of the country is tired. People want to fold away the epic of last year and get on with the business of life, no matter how imperfect, with soldiers in the streets and women far from the chambers of power.

Once at the vanguard of the protest movement, women have yet to gain any significant influence in the new Egypt, revealing the complexities of defining gender rights in a nation colored by Islam, inundated by Western media permissiveness and ruled by military men operating in a cloistered realm of gold stars and salutes.

The army council that replaced Mubarak's corrupt regime has been harsh, subjecting female dissidents to "virginity tests" to intimidate them, and in December beating and ripping the clothes off female demonstrators, including one stripped to her blue bra, an image that became an icon for an unfinished rebellion.

Political power has shifted to the hands of Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafis control more than 70% of the seats in the parliament, a prospect that worries women seeking equality on social matters such as education and divorce. Only five women have seats among the assembly's 508 elected and appointed members. In 2010, a year after Mubarak enacted a quota system to expand the female presence, 68 women won parliament seats.

The military later abolished the quota, another sign the feminist agenda was stalled against more powerful and patriarchal designs.

Nawal Saadawi, 80, silver hair in pigtails, has fought for women over a lifetime. One of Egypt's leading writers and its most eloquent feminist, she's been at her desk for years, immortalizing women in her dozens of books about fictitious women and women very real. Her titles can sting with indictment: "She Has No Place in Paradise." Women, she says, have been betrayed in today's Egypt of mullahs and generals.

"We don't hear the voice of women," she says. "We're not allowed to speak. I've written 47 books that paved the way for women, so why am I not allowed to speak?"

There are other restive women, young and defiant as she was when her father's scorn for the British occupation of Egypt drew out the feminist rebel in her, and passages such as, "Men were in control of both our worlds, the one on earth, and the one in heaven."

Nearly six decades separate Saadawi from Gihan Ibrahim, a blogger and Revolutionary Socialist who was shot in the back with a rubber bullet during last year's uprising. Ibrahim, like Saadawi, believes the fate of women is entwined with the rights of minorities and laborers in a revolution yet to fulfill its promise.

"The revolution itself has not come to power," says Ibrahim. "The military is leading a counterrevolution.... It doesn't take much to see the true face of the military after that [blue bra] picture. It makes you know who the enemy is."

The image became a Twitter fascination, searing shorthand for how women have become symbols of revolt but not its beneficiaries. Genital excision, which Sadaawi underwent as a child and later described as burning "like an abscess in my flesh," has long been prevalent, especially in the provinces. Sexual harassment is common despite tougher measures by the courts against offenders.

"Women want their rights respected on divorce, maternity issues and custody of children," says Ibrahim, a daughter of means who has taken up a video camera to record her country's poverty and social injustices. Ibrahim, who is known as Gigi, is unveiled and unblinkingly brash; she relishes the clamor of street rallies. "I believe in the right to abortion. Women must be able to have that choice. We want a civil, secular state."

About 3,000 women marched in solidarity after the blue bra incident, a remarkable gathering that focused enormous international pressure on the generals. But it had no momentum, and revealed the disparate interests and beliefs that have long stifled Egypt's feminist movement.

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