Egypt: 100 years of emancipation, women still fighting for change

By Mourad R. Kamel

Posted on Friday, 18 December 2020 20:01, updated on Monday, 22 March 2021 18:28
Doria Shafiq with women protesting for their political rights. (Free Press Journal via Egyptian Chronicles)

Egypt's women's movement has made headlines in recent months, following posted testimonies from women who were abused at a scandal at the the Fairmont Nile hotel, and the death of a 24 year-old girl on her way home in an upscale suburb of Cairo. Although Egypt was once the regional leader in pushing barriers for women's rights, today its movement is a shadow of its former self. The times, however, are changing.

Huda al-Sha’arawi: British occupation and the Women’s Renaissance

Huda Shaarawi, around 1900 (wikimedia commons)

When the British government of David Lloyd George denied any chance to the party of politician and fervent separatist Saad Zaghloul, the Wafd, to discuss an independent Egyptian republic, citizens all over Egypt mobilised to protest.

It was a sunny day on 16 March 1919, when women from all social classes “poured out of their harems, clad in veils, on to the streets to demonstrate” for the first time, as Huda al-Sha’arawi writes in her autobiography, Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian feminist. 

With Britain’s Winston Churchill as Secretary of State for War and Air, there was a firm belief that with the losses suffered in the Great War, it was important that the British Empire keep its colonies calm and carry on.

But on that morning of 16 March, Huda al-Sha’arawi sent placards to the house of Ahmad Bey Abu Usbaa, a prominent nationalist who lived in central Cairo and helped plan the demonstration, with slogans reading “Down with Occupation” and “Long Live The Supporters of justice and Freedom”.

Around 300 women joined the protests that day, after having been refused the right to demonstrate by British authorities.

The women gathered in front of the Garden city Park, near the US and Italian legations that are still based there today. The women were heading towards the historic Qasr el Nil street, Cairo’s pulse, extending from Abdeen Palace passing through Tahrir Square and the Egyptian Museum.

This was the beginning of the Nahda nissaeya (Female Renaissance).

When the group of protesters arrived in front of Beit Al Umma (House of the People), Saad Zaghloul’s house, a cordon made of armed British officers surrounded the women. “I was determined the demonstration should resume”, writes al-Sha’arawi.

Huda Shaarawi, leader of Egypt’s feminist movement in the 1920s (wikimedia commons)

“When I advanced a British soldier stepped toward me pointing his gun. As one of the women tried to pull me back, I shouted in a loud voice: “Let me die so Egypt shall have an Edith Cavell”, an English nurse shot and killed by the Germans during the First World War.

After hours of standing in defiance of British troops joined by Egyptian police, the British commandant of the Cairo Police, Russell Pacha asked the protesters to return home. This was the beginning of the Nahda nissaeya (Female Renaissance).

Awakening of women’s roles

In traditional Egyptian society, the norm was to confine women in the homes while public spaces remained male-dominated. Only poverty would justify women’s access to public spaces to support themselves. These confined spaces were called harems, which is also also a derogatory term used today in arabic to describe women (حريم).

The protest organised by the women of the harem marked a turning point in Egyptian society.

Just ahead of that moment, the country had undergone a period of profound change under Mohammed Ali. Towards the end of the 19th century, he had launched secular schools, started sending missionaries to Europe, and developed the press which initiated political, social and economic reforms.

But of course, the socio-cultural inequalities meant more freedom only for some women in particular environments. Women in cities enjoyed greater freedom than those in rural areas which were stuck with traditional roles.

This culminated in 1919, the year that women’s mobilisation became more visible. Though it is important to stress that most feminists were from the elite.

Huda al-Sha’arawi’s was and still remains an icon of Egyptian feminism:

  • She co-founded the Egyptian Feminist Union (EFU) in 1923
  • Presided over the Wafd committee for women, becoming a symbol of anti-colonialism and feminism
  • She fought against illiteracy, poverty and diseases affecting women.
  • Created two newspapers in French: l’Egyptienne in 1925 and al Massriya in 1937

She admits in her book that the nationalist movement “brought husbands and wives, who normally led more separate existences in the divided harem world, into closer contact”. This was a politically tumultuous time when people were constantly arrested or deported. Men thus turned to women for help. “My husband kept me informed of events so that I could fill the vacuum if he were imprisoned or exiled” explains al-Sha’arawi.

But her work along with the other women at the time, showed to a closed and conservative society what other roles were open to them, outside the harem and in clear view of the public. This opened up doors for generations to come who never had to spend a lifetime confined to the harem walls.

Mid-century feminism grows and stagnates

Doria Shafiq (Wikimedia commons / Al-Ahram Weekly)

Although there was an awakening among women across Egypt, they remained cutoff from formal political rights. To circumvent this, many resorted to “informal networks of activism” as was the case with Sha’rawi through founding the Egyptian Feminist Union in 1923, followed by the Muslim Women’s Society in 1936 by Zaynab al-Ghazali, and the Daughters of the Nile Union in 1948 by Doria Shafiq, writes Rana Magdy, a researcher on sexualized violence in demonstrations in Egypt.

When President Abdel Gamal Nasser took power in 1954, legislation was passed to include all civil society organisations under state control. Under Nasser, often seen as the ‘golden age’ for women’s rights, the 1956 Constitution and the new electoral law ensured women could both vote and run for public office. That alone made Egyptian women stand out from its regional neighbours and even European ones (Portugal granted women the right to vote in 1968).

This “state-feminism” carried on under President Anwar Sadat who opened the country economically. Under him, women’s demands for economic rights were mostly granted. Despite the advances, the theme of patriarchy overruled any major cultural progression. Women’s roles may have evolved in the public, but not in the private sphere.

But one woman in particular, proved a force too strong for Sadat. Nawal al-Saadawi, is often considered the voice on women’s identity and role in society in modern Egypt and across the region.

Nawal Saadawi on 2 July 1985 (AP Photo/Paola Crociani)

After becoming the director of public health for the Egyptian government, she was soon dismissed from her role in 1972 after publishing her non-fiction book Women and Sex, in which she fought against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)and the sexual oppression of women.

The magazine she had founded called Health, was also shut down in 1973. But despite those obstacles, she continued to speak out and write, publishing in 1975 a novel called Woman at Point Zero, followed by Hidden Fact of Eve, in which she documented her experience as a village doctor having witnessed sexual abuse, honour killings and prostitutes. Finally in 1981, she was arrested along with other ‘dissidents’ under President Sadat. During her three months in prison, she wrote her memoire on toilet paper.

Following Sadat’s assassination, Saadawi was released, but her work was censored and her books banned.

With Hosni Mubarak, more women’s rights organisations did begin to emerge, but with a focus on economic growth. And as Magdy notes, many of these organisations remained closely linked to state officials. Saadawi continued her fight under Mubarak, openly speaking out against the human rights violations committed by his regime.

Women at the forefront of today’s battles

When asked who is her favourite feminist, Human Rights lawyer Yasmin Omar says: “I consider all Egyptian women who go through simple fights such as reporting sexual harassment, filing a case to demand equality, or speaking up for the Tiktok girls or Fairmont victims, as feminists. And I always feel that their struggle shouldn’t be overlooked”.

Women shout slogans against the government and members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists during a protest against the absence of a women parliamentary quota in the constitution and to demand more women rights in front of the Shura Council in Cairo November 13, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany

Egypt’s second revolution on 25 January 2011 clearly resurfaced the issue of women’s lack of rights and the bigger problem of sexual harassment and violence in general.

READ MORE Egyptians stand up against sexual violence, again

As was the case in the 1920’s, social class today still determines a woman’s freedom.

“In Egypt we see women who belong to the high class exercise their freedom by wearing what they want or choosing to act a certain way without being blamed or prosecuted. Whereas women from lower classes face social restrictions and state scrutiny, leading to prosecution. In the Tiktok cases, many women who were from middle to low classes were prosecuted and imprisoned for simply singing and dancing. But other women didn’t face the same fate because of their background,” says Omar.

Constitutional right

The Egyptian constitution states in article 11 that the state is committed to achieving equality between women and men in all “civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights”. It grants women the right to hold public and high management posts in the state and be appointed to judicial bodies and entities without discrimination. It also vows to  protect women against all forms of violence.

READ MORE Egyptian women struggle with constitutional freedom

Yet things are different in practice according says Omar: “Matters like divorce, inheritance, and appointing women to the judiciary, contain a significant amount of discrimination against women”.

When women choose to get a divorce, judges, attorneys and arbitrators for both parties are involved in the process. Public prosecutors are also often present in divorce cases, and will “exercise considerable influence on these proceedings and the outcome of the case” says Omar. These same prosecutors will provide the judge with an advisory opinion on whether the divorce should be granted.

That is not the same for men under Islamic law. They just need to “repudiate their wives, saying “you are divorced” three times, making the divorce irrevocable”, adds Omar.

“Personal affairs are not treated equally between men and women, because we usually link women’s right to children’s rights,” says Azza Soliman, a prominent lawyer, defender of women’s rights and founder of the Center for Legal Assistance (CEWLA). “Women are also considered to be deficient intellectually and religiously. In the eyes of the justice, women are not conscious enough nor are they ‘adult enough’ to make a choice. It is the legislator who makes the decision for us, often under the pretext of protecting the women”.

Men getting away with rape

Soliman who briefly represented the survivor of the gang rape that occurred in the Fairmont Nile Hotel in 2014 as well as a witness to the crime, who, in the sordid and twisted fate of the Egyptian justice system, is behind bars. The accused men are all from rich and powerful families, and only four of the men have been arrested. Amr el-Komy, Youssef Korra, and Amr el-Sedawy are still on the run.

But the details or even knowledge of this crime didn’t surface until one woman, Sabah Khodir, and then shortly after Naddeen Ashraf, created an online movement on Instagram called ‘Assault Police’. The movement was prompted by growing allegations against Ahmed Bassam Zaki (ABZ): a young university student accused of harassing, assaulting and raping countless women.

What surprises me the most is the abuse that women go through in the public sphere and the lack of justice that is applied to male aggressors, whether it is in marriages, rape cases, [and] murder cases.

Soon, the online platform was being used to recount other tales of abuse and harassment Egyptian women suffered, but due to cultural values, never sought help or were told by families to keep it private.

Details soon emerged about a group of seven men who drugged a girl in 2014 during a party who was then taken back to their hotel rooms, where she was allegedly raped by each one. Each man then wrote his name on her body. The whole incident was captured on video. That’s how the Fairmont Nile Hotel rape became public.

READ MORE Egypt: Online ‘Assault Police’ account unleash new women’s movement

Since that initial revelation, dozens of anonymous testimonies followed suite, in addition to people sharing how they had seen videos of this alleged rape, or even others committed by the same individuals.

“What surprises me the most is the abuse that women go through in the public sphere and the lack of justice that is applied to male aggressors, whether it is in marriages, rape cases, [and] murder cases”, says Soliman.

“The philosophy of Egyptian law stays the same in all cases. Whether it be the ABZ case, the Fairmont gang rape, or the murder of the woman in Maadi [upscale Cairo suburb] the woman is always blamed, even if she is clearly the victim. Instead, there is a fatherly view towards women; there is revenge, and anyone who dares to speak up or complain is disciplined ”, but there will be no justice. “When you say the word fight, it’s as if we are asking for something that does not belong to us”, adds the lawyer.

‘You are not the only girl, while he is the only boy’

When a young al-Sha’arawi asked an adult why her brother was given more attention than her, she was told: “Haven’t you understood yet? You are a girl and he is a boy. And you are not the only girl, while he is the only boy. One day the support of the family will fall upon him, while when you get married you will leave the house and honour your husband’s name but he will perpetuate the name of his father and take over his house.”

More than a century later, this school of thought has not changed much. Men’s lives are more meaningful than their female counterparts. Their lives have more meaning, because they have more power. But more importantly, in practice, men and women are not seen as equals by the law or by society.

In 2019, Egyptian football player Amr Warda who plays for Navos, a Greek football club and the National Team made sexual advances to Merhan Keller on Instagram. When she showed no signs of interest and refused to respond, Warda reacted violently and tried to pressure her through his messages.

“This shows us one thing, when the person is famous, rich and most importantly a man, he does not fear the consequences of his acts”, says Keller who is graduating from a masters in psychology in the US. Merhan had the courage to defy cultural norms and publish the conversations between Warda and herself. In doing so, she opened the door for other women who came forward. It turns out that Keller was not Warda’s only victim of abuse.

Merhan, an Egyptian citizen, lived most of her childhood outside the country. “When this story happened to me, it was like a wake up call to me that life is not peaceful for women living in Egypt. The fact that I didn’t face society’s patriarchal pressure – even though I was cyber attacked very viciously, I did not have to confront these people everyday – helps, but Egyptian women do, they are confronted with this everyday”, she says.

“Whether we speak of Amr Warda, Ahmed Bassam Zaki, or any of the gang rapists of the Fairmont Hotel, who is sane to do something like this without expecting consequences ? Are they not worried? Are these men stupid ? Of course they are not. They know they are protected, they know they will not face backlash and worse than that, it is the woman who will be demonised” says Merhan Keller, who uses her platforms on Instagram (half a million followers) to discuss and engage on the state of women in Egypt today.

‘Moment of change’ for Egypt’s women

Yasmin Omar believes that we are living in a moment of change: “Egypt’s repressive political climate has impacted our right to free expression.” But despite that, “women have successfully organised themselves to draw attention to their struggles, which in turn has forced the government to lay down some national strategies to fight assault and make legal amendments to criminalise [the ancient tradition] of Female Genital Mutilation,” she adds.

READ MORE Egypt: Sisi’s power reinforced after passing of new law

The emancipation of Egyptian women is not over. It is an ongoing struggle that each generation since al-Sha’arawi has taken on.

But it is not a fight.

“When you say the word fight, it’s as if we are asking for something that does not belong to us. It is our integral basic right to live in a world free of violence and that is why it is important for us to claim back these rights and pave the way for a more equal society for the next generation,” says Molk Said, founder of Eed Wa7da (One Hand), an NGO that works with survivors of abuse.

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