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What will the role of women be in the new Egypt?


What will the role of women be in the new Egypt?

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From January to November, Egypt’s revolution has brought the many faces of the country together on the famed Tahrir square.

And women, of all ages and backgrounds, came in their droves determined to play their part in the building of the new Egypt.

Will the country’s still very conservative society’s live up to their expectations ?

Far from Cairo’s turmoil, we head for the village of Werdan, about 50 miles from the capital, in the Giza constituency.

This is where the first union for women farmers in Egypt was allegedly formed just a few weeks ago, it would have been illegal before the revolution.

But in Werdan, nobody has heard about it.

The village would really need something like that, says Ftouh Mahmoud Ktob, whose family works on state-owned land. Tools, fertilisers, seeds, social services, schools, healthcare, everything is missing here she says. And the revolution has changed nothing for her.

“Women have benefited from nothing, they are victims. There are women with two or three kids, who get allowances that are worth nothing. A widow for instance gets 90 Egyptian pounds, that is around 11 euros, it’s nothing. What can a single woman do with that? Buy herself a cake? What can she do on her land? Nothing.

‘We are suffocating, I’m suffering because I don’t have enough money to buy fertiliser, or anything else to live decently. Farmers are exhausted. I do not even have a proper dress to wear for the Eid celebrations.”

Bureaucracy, corruption, unemployment, poor health care and educational systems, the legacy of the former regime continues to plague the population.

Among those most active to bring about change in the rural parts of the country is the Justice and Freedom party, representing the Muslim Brotherhood movement at the parliamentary elections.

Azza el Garf is one of its candidates in the Giza constituency. A few days before the polls, many have come to attend a women only meeting.

Access to jobs and education, are some of her priorities, as long as it doesn’t affect family values she says.

Women’s rights though, should in her eyes not be gained through positive discrimination. Some laws, like the one allowing women to divorce too easily she says, should be reversed.

“It wouldn’t be fair for women just to take part in the election, and then go back home and stay there. They must participate fully and play an active role in society.

‘Also, there are laws from the previous regime, that crudely discriminate against women, and go against the Sharia – Islamic law, like the law which gives women responsibility over education, and not to men, or the law giving them child custody.

‘There are many things concerning the family on which these people have interfered, and all those laws are against the Sharia. I believe that in order to have a balanced society, there should be no discrimination in favour of men or women,” she explains.

Supporters of the Freedom and Justice party aspire to modernity, and do not share the views of the more radical islamists, like the salafis they say. They want to change the bad image they were given under the years of repression of the Mubarak regime.

“Before, the whole regime was corrupt. But now, with freedom and change, we will show the real Egypt. We will show that the Egyptian people are civilised, and open-minded. And that our veils don’t prevent us from taking part in political life! It won’t prevent us from going out of our houses, and taking part in the reconstruction of our country,” explains Om Ayman a science teacher.

“We were liberated on Tahrir square. Our model of women was there. The Islamists were there, alongside the women who do not wear headscarves. What happened there allowed us to speak out. Thank God, we met these women, we talked to them. And we also found that they were different from the image we had had of them all our lives,” said librarian Amal Ibrahim.

Free on Tahrir square, Egyptian women’s voices, veiled or unveiled, still have to come to terms with a huge wall of discrimination.

If you look at gender equality on a world and a regional basis, Egypt is one of the least advanced, according to international human rights organisations.

Known for her opposition to the Mubarak regime, famed journalist Bothaina Kamel is at the forefront of the fight against military rulers.

Equality for all is her priority, even before women’s rights. She is Egypt’s first and only female presidential candidate.

“We must take the first step. We must tell Egyptian people about equality. Day by day. At first, they took me as crazy. Now, it’s a reality, it’s a fact! And we will work, always,” she points out.

Challenges are numerous for women, not least widespread violence. The country’s rates of sexual harassment are very high more than 80 percent of women have been subjected to some form of sexual harassment.

The police and the military are often accused of carrying out the abuses. Among the most recent allegations are that protesters arrested in January were subjected to virginity tests. Only one lodged a complaint.

In the turmoil of November’s demonstrations, several of the activists we had arranged to talk to on the subject of women’s role in the new Egypt called off the interviews.

We finally found a few of them late at night, in Tahrir square. Gameela Ismail was unsuccessful in her bid to win a seat in the new Parliament as an independent candidate.

That night, she had come to enquire about the casualties in the last clashes at this makeshift hospital in a mosque on the square. Egyptian society has more urgent priorities than women’s rights she says.

“When I go down to my constituency, women do not stop me and say “we need our women’s rights!”, I never heard this. They say “I want a better education for my children, I need a house, I need medicine, proper health care.

‘Women and men have lived underground. They have been beaten up and assaulted and detained.They have been deprived of their rights, both women and men in the past 60 years, they were shut up. Today, women and men feel their freedom, they know they can change something, they have a desire and a will. And they are still struggling together to bring better living conditions.”

Many fear that once the revolutionary passion subsides, women’s rights will be violated again, and aside from the current abuses, worry about the influence of islamist parties.

A young woman who received death threats for posing nude on her blog cancelled our appointment, for fear of reprisals. Still, many stereotypes were broken in Tahrir says Sally Sami, a human rights activist and blogger.

Her generation is set to change mentalities, but there are higher and more urgent priorities.

“If I was given a choice between having to fight for women’s rights, or for putting an end to military trials, I would go for the ending of military trials. It affects both of us, men and women, it’s something that’s should be fought, it’s really a priority because we’re talking about thousands of people in prison unfairly.”

Yet for others, women must not wait to demand their place in the country’s new structures, and make sure their rights are not violated.

Hugely under-represented in all spheres of political, economic and judicial power, this is where they need to be to really make things change, says the Human Rights Watch’s representative in Egypt, Heba Morayef.

“The January protests were a time when for the first time hundreds and thousands of women came out into the streets and felt safe. And felt they could participate into protests and could participate in the country’s future. But subsequently women were not included in key decision making process in a number of occasions.

‘Concretely, what you need is participation of women in decision making positions. The cabinet to start with, and not just the usual kind of social solidarity or women’s affairs posts that women tend to get stuck with. But also a nation wide agenda to really work on improving women’s political participation.”

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