Fighting for Egypt’s women's rights – now is time to act!
- Follow the political developments in Egypt at jadaliyya.com and at ahram.org
- See an overview of the number of women in the world’s parliaments from the Women in Parliament 2011 report. Rwanda holds 1st place, Denmark holds 13th place, and Egypt (based upon the now-dissolved parliament) 138th place.
- Taking the situation for women as its angle, Nazra for Feminist Studies analyses, comments upon and documents the political development in Egypt
Millions of Egyptians have their own unique, personal and fascinating tales to tell about the Egyptian revolution as over the past few months they have experienced both a historical presidential election and what many have called an outright ‘contra’ or military coup.
This is certainly true for the 40-year-old activist and social-democrat candidate of the now-dissolved Egyptian parliament, Maguie Mahrouds. When the revolution was just beginning, she had just completed a marathon of selection interviews and signed a three-year dream-contract in Afghanistan.
“I celebrated with my friends a few evenings after getting the contract, but the atmosphere at that time was already tense. I followed the news on the TV closely. What was happening in Tahrir Square? And how were things going to turn out?” tells Maguie Mahrouds, who possesses two Master’s degrees (one in political science and one in social development), and who, prior to the revolution, had worked for a number of NGOs in Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Darfur.
When the signal to the mobile phone network was suddenly cut off across the town, the seriousness of the situation suddenly became clear to Maguie Mahrouds and her friends.
And they knew they were going to become involved.
Left the dream-job as a dream-job
From the very next day, Maguie Mahrouds’s history was to become one with the history of Egypt. Every day, she walked from her home suburb of Maadi – or sailed up the Nile – to get to the massive protests at Tahrir Square, just as millions of other Egyptians did.
With her gallows humour, she compares the preparations for this participation with the preparations people make before an underwater diving trip: ‘Never set off alone!’, ‘Always carry a flag, so others can find you!’ – and ‘Remember your masks!’.
"I was in no doubt whatsoever that I should stay in Egypt and get involved in party politics(...)"
She experienced the overwhelming joy of the new-found solidarity between men and women, Copts and Muslims, and the liberating relief when Mubarak finally stood down.
After this, the decision was easy; she let her dream-job in Afghanistan stay as a dream-job and instead became involved in party politics in her homeland. And started fighting for the cause of women:
“I was in no doubt whatsoever that I should stay in Egypt and get involved in party politics. And after a while scouting around all the newly established parties, I was in no doubt that the new Social Democrat party was the party for me”, tells Maguie Mahrouds.
Yet it was the relentless insistence of her friends, as well as a particular offer from the NGO Nazra, that convinced her to go all the way and stand for election in Egypt’s first parliamentary election.
That was back in the early days of the Egyptian revolution.
We have learnt that we need to become organised
Mahrouds was not one of the eight women who was eventually elected at January’s parliamentary election to join the company of the 500 elected men.
However, this parliament was dissolved by the military following an earlier judgement by the constitutional court, thereby ushering in once more a national state of emergency. Most recently, the choice given to Egyptians for electing the country’s first democratically elected president has fallen between Ahmed Shafiq, a former protagonist within the old dictatorship, or Mohammed Morsi, a representative from the Muslim Brotherhood.
"Of course, of course the development we’re witnessing now is deplorable. We’ve been knocked right back to square one. The practicing, legislative and judicial power is again all in the hands of the military. We’re going in circles. But we need to remember that we’re in a transition period. The last few years have not been a waste of time(...)"
In no way was this the scenario for which Maguie Mahrouds and her friends had risked their lives fighting 18 months earlier.
Nevertheless, Mahrouds remains level-headed about the situation. On the basis of the past two years’ experience, she has neither lost her will to fight nor lost her hope for the women of Egypt.
“Of course, of course the development we’re witnessing now is deplorable. We’ve been knocked right back to square one. The practicing, legislative and judicial power is again all in the hands of the military. We’re going in circles. But we need to remember that we’re in a transition period. The last few years have not been a waste of time; on the contrary, they have provided us with the experience of how to act in a democracy. And not least, the experience has taught us how important it is for us to find a way to organise ourselves and work together”, explains Maguie Mahrouds.
And the point is illustrated by her own story.
Courage was the one thing we all had in common
The reason behind Maguie Mahrouds’s decision to even dare to stand in the parliamentary elections was the firm support she received from the NGO Nazra.
With the support of KVINFO, Nazra offered mentoring programmes for 16 of the women parliamentary candidates. One of these, the social-democrat candidate Sanaa el-Said, went on to be elected.
The candidates came from a range of different parties and received both group and individual training in areas such as democracy, parliamentarianism, election procedures, dissemination of political messages, voter meetings, and recruiting and managing volunteers.
"These joint meetings were like a sort of group therapy. The only thing we had in common, apart from all being women, was the fact that we had the courage to stand at the election. We were very different – both in terms of educational and economic background, and in terms of our political convictions and reasons for standing."
According to Maguie Mahrouds, this support from Nazra was a determining factor in several ways. Firstly, she received tangible knowledge that she previously had lacked. Secondly, she never felt alone – “there was always someone I could call.” And in addition, the weekly networking meetings with other candidates proved to be an eye-opener for cross-political collaboration.
“These joint meetings were like a sort of group therapy. The only thing we had in common, apart from all being women, was the fact that we had the courage to stand at the election. We were very different – both in terms of educational and economic background, and in terms of our political convictions and reasons for standing. But none of us knew other women political candidates. In the mentor network, I became convinced of the enormous strength that exists among Egyptian women – also when we work together”, tells Maguie Mahrouds, insisting that neither her gender nor the fact that she belongs to the Coptic minority played any significant role.
Not ‘special treatment’ – but ‘fair treatment’
Both before, during and now, a long time after the election campaigns, Maguie Mahrouds has argued – in a completely new context – for the introduction of quotas to ensure that women can gain access to Egyptian politics.
“When I argue the case for women’s quotas, it’s not because I want any kind of special treatment. That’s not something I need. To be honest, the obstacles that men put in the way of women is not something I’ve ever take personally. But I demand that we get fair treatment – something we aren’t getting today”, explains Maguie Mahrouds, who refuses to be put off by the fact that Egypt currently has no parliament. What she does still insist on, however, is that 30% of the seats in any future government should be reserved for women through a system of quotas.
Women have become “somebody’s”
“Since the revolution, many of people have said that now isn’t the time to talk about women’s rights. At the same time, the public discourse has been counter-productive like never before. Women have consistently been talked about as being “somebody’s”: somebody’s sister, somebody’s mother, somebody’s wife – a person that is the possession of the family.”
“As women, we need to put a stop to this nonsense. Women are first and foremost women, with equal rights – including the equal right to take part in decision making. The revolution has set Egypt back, but we have to keep on arguing for women’s rights. It’s the men’s decisions that have got us into the situation we’re in now, and things aren’t looking good”, tells Maguie Mahrouds.
Both legislation and attitudes need to be changed
Maguie Mahrouds points to the fact that even at a global level, women are underrepresented at the top level of decision-taking bodies – a fact documented most recently in the joint UN and Inter-Parliamentary Union report entitled Women in Parliament 2011.
"The low level of women’s participation is of course a result of a lacking political will. We women have to fight for this on many levels(...)"
The report shows that less than one in five of the world’s parliamentarians is currently a woman. The publishers of the report call for a real political will to address the underrepresentation of women in politics – something the report highlights as one of the world’s greatest gender disparities. In addition, the report highlights the low levels of political representation of women in the Middle East as being a particularly substantial challenge.
“The low level of women’s participation is of course a result of a lacking political will. We women have to fight for this on many levels. We need to campaign politically for quotas and new laws that ensure equal rights for both girls and women, and we need to be vigilant to ensure that these laws are upheld. Of vital importance is working with people’s attitudes and meeting Egyptians in the places they’re at”, explains Maguie Mahrouds, who, for example, uses the Koran as her basis when deeply religious men claim that their daughters do not require the same level of schooling as their sons, thereby initiating a debate about gender.
We need to work together and become organised
In the wake of the recent political chaos, Maguie Mahrouds is making no predictions as to where she sees the Egyptian revolution moving in the time ahead. Nevertheless, she is personally in no doubt that she will continue her work – on the basis of the hard-earned experience she has gained from the revolution.
“Women are suffering more than men. Poverty has primarily affected women children, just as the increase in sexual harassment, such as that we witnessed at Tahrir Square, is something that affects women. And this in turn leads to women being put off from becoming politically active and put off from fighting for their rights”, explains Maguie Mahrouds.
"We Egyptians aren’t good at organising ourselves, networking or working together. The first round has taught us that these are the things we need to focus on. We need to become organised and work together – as politicians, as revolutionaries… and as women."
But after all that the women of Egypt have been through, Maguie Mahrouds does not believe that they will be put off. On the contrary, she believes that the women in Egypt are becoming more tenacious and are currently undergoing an inner revolution, realising that they as citizens have both rights and obligations – and realising that these need to be fought for.
“Were in a period of transition and we’ve been set back. But we’ve learned something from the first round: we need to work together – just as the other women and I did when we stood at the election. There’s a lot that separates us, but there’s even more that unites us. Take the liberal parliamentary candidates for example – together, in the first presidential round of elections, they got more votes than both the number one and the number two candidates”, emphasises Maguie Mahrouds.
“We Egyptians aren’t good at organising ourselves, networking or working together. The first round has taught us that these are the things we need to focus on. We need to become organised and work together – as politicians, as revolutionaries… and as women.”