Egyptian women fighting for rights

Intisar Sayed Mahmoud wants more women in Parliament.
Intisar Sayed Mahmoud wants more women in Parliament.
Posted: June 11, 2012

Intisar Sayed Mahmoud, a large woman in a head scarf and flowing orange robe, jumped up and bellowed from the front row of the balcony of an auditorium filled with 2,000 women from all over Egypt: "We want a Parliament that is 50 percent women!"

The scene was a conference of Egypt's National Council for Women (NCW) in Cairo titled "She and the President." It was held just before last month's presidential ballot to allow women to press their demands on the 13 (male) candidates. The participants, dressed in everything from tights and caftans to full-body robes with face veils, reflected the large sector of educated and talented women in Egypt who have been galvanized to action by the Arab Spring.

Yet these same women fear the Egyptian revolution has already betrayed them, though they once flocked by the thousands to demonstrations in Tahrir Square.

After those heady days in January 2011, the ruling military council abolished the 64-seat quota for women in Parliament, which gave them around 12 percent of the total. The quota-less elections last fall gave women only around 2 percent of the seats; nearly all parties put female candidates low on their lists.

The military has also brutalized peaceful female demonstrators. And the Muslim Brotherhood, which now dominates Parliament, is trying to eliminate women's right to divorce, lower the marriage age to 12, and rescind a law that bans female genital mutilation.

"We will not permit ourselves to be pressured by religion!" NCW president Mervat Tallawy shouted from the stage of the conference, to fervent clapping. Yet, said Samar Gamal, 22, a student from Port Said in a blue head scarf and blue spangled T-shirt: "We know the Muslim Brotherhood will diminish women's rights for sure."

During a 10-day trip to Egypt last month, I repeatedly heard such concerns about the attitude of both the military and Islamists toward women. That's especially disturbing since the two candidates in the final round of presidential elections this week are the army-backed Ahmed Shafik and the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi.

"The revolution hasn't done anything for women," the well-known female television personality Bothaina Kamel said as she served me sweet tea in her comfortable Cairo apartment. "It opened the doors for them, but now they are paying the price."

Kamel should know. She put herself forward as the first Egyptian female candidate for president, but was blocked at every turn by bureaucrats and security officials. They prevented her from collecting the 30,000 signatures required to run and from getting TV coverage.

"The military mentality is no different than the radical Muslim mentality," Kamel said. "If half of society participated in change, that would make change happen — and they [the military and Islamists] hate change."

What struck me forcefully was the courage of Egyptian female activists, both secular and devout, in challenging that mentality. Example: In March 2011, 18 women were arrested by army officers following a Tahrir Square protest and subjected to forced "virginity tests"; one of the young women, Samira Ibrahim, brought charges against the military. Her bravery led to a court order banning the practice, but she paid a heavy personal price. [See sidebar to the left.]

And many other women are fighting back against what they see as their most severe challenge: the domination of Parliament by the Muslim Brotherhood and ultraconservative Salafi Muslims. In her busy office, NCW president Tallawy described how her staff, along with activist lawyers, many of them female, contested Brotherhood efforts in Parliament to roll back women's rights.

In one infamous case, Brotherhood MPs, led by a conservative female, Azza al-Jarf, tried to reverse a 2011 law granting women the right to seek a divorce. The NCW turned to scholars from al-Azhar, the Cairo-based center of Islamic learning, who demonstrated that this right, known as khula, is enshrined in Islamic religious texts.

But NCW activists went further to counter false Islamist claims that khula breaks up families: They collected statistics that show only 3 percent of divorces are the result of khula; the vast bulk are unilaterally instigated by men.

Similarly, the activists enlisted al-Azhar experts to counter the Muslim Brotherhood's efforts to lower the age for marriage to 12. They also waged a battle to block Brotherhood attempts to reverse a ban on genital mutilation of young girls, a popular Egyptian tradition that grows out of African culture, not Islam.

"We have to keep monitoring the Parliament," Tallawy said, to push back further attempts to revoke rights for women. "We won't let them do what they want."

But she is deeply worried about what will happen if Morsi wins the presidency. Both the Brotherhood and Salafi groups would like to gain control of al-Azhar. And, she says, if Morsi wins the presidency, he will likely try to shut down her organization.

"They want to take us back 50 years," she said. "Women and Egyptian society won't let them do that."

These brave Egyptians deserve the attention and support of women all over the world.

Trudy Rubin can be reached at trubin@phillynews.com.

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