The long term prospects for women’s liberation in Egypt

One year, ten years, one hundred years on, the path for Egypt’s women has not been linear.

Image credit Women on Walls photo project via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

In mid-August of this year, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi ratified amendments to the country’s sexual harassment law, increasing the maximum penalty for those engaging in online (or other electronic) harassment to imprisonment for two to four years. This was a notable improvement from the meager punishment of six months and 3000 Egyptian pounds (approximately 180 USD) that had previously been in place. After a year of highs and lows, these changes have been met with cautious optimism by women’s rights groups in the country.

In Egypt, like elsewhere in the world, progress on the status of women has had its ups and downs. In the last year or so, with a veritable tidal wave of cases and claims of sexual harassment, assault, and violence—and mixed results in terms of justice—many have expressed feeling pushed and pulled by waves of optimism, confusion, vindication, and despair. Indeed, it is hard to assess the degree of progress (or regression) given the constant barrage of stories, both promising and demoralizing, relating to the status of women. Alongside the high-profile stories that galvanized the country’s #MeToo moment, several less-publicized instances of social discourse and legal changes have emerged that may be hugely influential on the long-term prospects for women in the country.

It has been more than ten years since the 2011 uprising that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak. His deeply entrenched authoritarian leadership had lost its momentum many moons prior, characterized in large part by corruption, heightened levels of inequality, and crumbling infrastructure. Since January, the 10th anniversary of the uprising, many voices have explored the outcomes of the uprising and the events in the years that followed: the election of Mohammed Morsi in 2013, his quick spiral from leader to persona non grata, the massive protests that led to his removal, and the rise of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. Alongside this general discourse lies the question of both the role and treatment of women in Egyptian society; a question galvanized by a movement that emerged last year, sparked by high-profile cases of sexual assault, violence, intimidation, and harassment.

Despite, or perhaps in part because of, the re-energized women’s movement, the new year came with some unwelcome regression for the cause. In February 2021, a draft personal status law significantly curtailing the rights of women was introduced by the Egyptian cabinet. The proposed bill was quickly withdrawn after significant backlash. Still, the fact that the law was even put forward is deeply concerning. Among other archaic and profoundly patriarchal elements, the law would have required women to obtain permission from a male relative to travel, make women unable to sign their own marriage contracts, and significantly reduce the rights of mothers in decisions of custody and child-rearing.

While several high-level positions are held by women in the country, including a number of influential ministerial posts, insufficient female representation within the country’s legal system is likely part of the reason for stagnation and the risk of regressive policies.

Women make up only 0.3% of the judges in the country. In June, for the first time, the Supreme Council of Judicial Bodies approved the appointment of women to high-level positions within the Administrative Judiciary and the Public Prosecution Authority. Before this, women had only been appointed to these positions under “exceptional” circumstances. Indeed, in 2010, despite international pressure and a push by the Mubarak regime—which had appointed several women judges—the Administrative Judiciary voted 334 to 42 against the appointment of women judges. While things theoretically improved following the 2011 revolution, with nondiscrimination enshrined into the 2014 constitution, a culture of exclusion has continued, with women thus far only being appointed by presidential decree.

While the cases that jumpstarted the most recent movement were not clearly related to a broader social movement, this linkage has existed at several key points of the country’s modern feminist history. To understand where the women’s movement now stands, it is critical to examine the successes and failures of these pivotal historical events.

The contemporary women’s movement in Egypt has its origins in the 1800s with the development of the modern state under the rulership of Muhammad Ali. The British occupation had unified the country under a nationalist cause which encompassed many groups, including those espousing nationalist and feminist ideals.

By the end of the century, women’s literacy rates among the middle and upper classes had increased substantially, which ultimately led to the establishment of a women’s literary culture and press. In 1892, Al-Fatāh (The Young Woman)—the first entirely feminist publication, written by women for women—was founded by Hind Nawfal, a Syrian Christian author. “Despite the wide variety of literary and scientific journals available at the time, Nawfal said she had set up Al-Fatāh because none of those publications dealt specifically with the rights of women, nor articulated their problems in a satisfactory manner,” writes Nabila Ramdani in the Journal of International Women’s Studies.

As the nationalist movement against British occupation gathered steam approaching the 1919 revolution, the feminist movement found a home within the nationalist cause. In turn, calls for women’s education were backed up by arguments for the betterment of Egyptian society as a whole. Similar narratives can still be found in arguments for increased focus on the rights and wellbeing of Egyptian women, such as in the National Strategy for the Empowerment of Egyptian Women, part of the country’s long-term national agenda, “Egypt Vision 2030.”

“Without the true empowerment of women, in a manner that allows for their self-fulfillment, freeing and supporting their abilities, their smooth and safe participation,” the strategy’s introduction states, “no development efforts will be successful nor will intended objectives be achieved.” However, the nationalism of today does not have an occupying force to foster unification.

The 1919 revolution was perhaps the clearest example of collaboration between the feminist and nationalist movements. Egyptian feminist icon Huda Shaarawi, who led female protests against the British, collaborated closely with revolutionary-turned-statesman Saad Zaghlul, leader of the Wafd Party and later prime minister.

It is often noted that a defining characteristic of the feminist movement that developed around the 1919 revolution against the British was that it included women from all socioeconomic backgrounds. However, Ramdani also points out that while the efforts of those with fewer means have received little attention when compared to their wealthier counterparts, their sacrifices were often much greater. Similarly, those working to incite change today largely come from the wealthier class, while many have complained of disproportionate punishments doled out to women who are less economically advantaged and are therefore seen as acting against public morals.

On a personal level, it becomes complicated to reconcile anecdotal evidence of fierce female empowerment on the one hand, and systematic misogyny and underrepresentation  on the other. Ultimately, what appears most clearly when examining these changes—both historical and contemporary—is a complex picture, which can perhaps never be wholly accurately represented, especially by the media.

Further Reading