Don’t forget Egypt’s women

Don’t forget Egypt’s women

They fueled the revolution, should shape future

By Rachel Newcomb

“I, a girl, am going down to Tahrir Square and I will stand alone.” With these words, Asmaa Mahfouz put out a call on YouTube that went viral, helping to ignite Egypt’s revolution. A 26-year-old business management graduate, Mahfouz helped rally Egyptians for the initial Jan. 25 protest, to “say no to corruption, no to this regime.” But Mahfouz’s activism had its roots in another protest led by another woman.

In April 2008, Esraa Abdel Fattah Ahmed Rashid helped start a Facebook group urging Egyptian support for striking textile workers in the town of Mahalla. She was subsequently imprisoned, but her actions planted the seeds for the events we just witnessed.

That’s right. Two women helped bring down Hosni Mubarak. Much of the U.S. media analysis of the daily demonstrations in Tahrir Square has not gone far beyond marveling that women were present at all. But coverage needs to move beyond the superficial to understanding the challenges Egyptian women face as the country begins the next phase in developing a post-Mubarak government.

Women have long played prominent roles in the Egyptian quest for self-governance, only to have their aspirations undercut by authoritarian rulers. The question today is: How can we keep this from happening again?

Egyptian women aren’t starting from scratch. In fact, they make up more than 30% of the workforce and, in some fields, such as medicine, women graduate from universities in equal numbers to men. Even so, 45% are illiterate. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report ranks Egypt 120 out of 128 countries in gender equality.

As the recipient of generous World Bank loans in the 1990s, Egypt agreed to privatize government enterprise and cut social services and expenditures. Wages fell dramatically, especially hurting women. Labor unions and many women’s organizations were banned. Female activists were often imprisoned. And the recent announcement that CBS correspondent Lara Logan was sexually assaulted and beaten on the day Mubarak stepped down brought to light another issue Egyptian women face every day: the prevalence of sexual harassment in the public sphere.

Even so, Egyptian women have a long history of activism. Sixty years ago, Doria Shafik led 1,500 women into parliament, demanding the right to vote, equal pay and marriage law reforms. Their protest gained international attention but also landed Shafik in court, where her female lawyer mounted a successful defense. Over the next several years, Shafik staged hunger strikes and led other high-profile protests. President Gamal Nasser placed her under permanent house arrest and banned her name from appearing in the press. Shafik committed suicide in 1975, her name effectively scrubbed from the histories of Egypt.

Shafik once wrote that “no one will deliver freedom to women, except (the) woman herself.”

What do Egyptian women want for their country? After Mubarak stepped down, President Obama said that America stands “ready to provide whatever assistance is necessary … to pursue a credible transition to a democracy.” As the U.S. considers its annual $1.5 billion aid package to Egypt, the administration should insist the funds be contingent upon a truly free civil society, one in which women are allowed to take full part in the remaking of the country.

This will be challenging given the entrenched hierarchies of the military and political elite. Yet models abound, not only in countries such as South Africa, whose post-apartheid transformation included new roles and rights for women, but also in majority-Muslim democracies where women have been elected, such as in Turkey or Bangladesh.

As the dust of discontent begins to settle, the world should not lose sight of the fact that a “credible transition to democracy” depends on Egyptian men � and women � determining an equitable vision for their society.

Rachel Newcomb is associate professor of anthropology at Rollins College and the author of Women of Fes: Ambiguities of Urban Life in Morocco.

original article on USA Today.

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