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As Egypt chooses a president, rights advocates target ruling military and rise of Islamism.
CAIRO — It was the middle of the night in Cairo when Ragia Omran, one of the country’s most prominent human rights lawyers, rushed to C-28, Egypt’s notorious military court, where almost 300 civilian detainees were being held without lawyers.
Omran, a self-described feminist and human rights activist was there attempting to legally represent the protesters which included 26 female detainees — one as young as 14-years old — all accused by the military prosecution of attacking military personnel.
But she was barred from entry, an insult added to injury by the military, a powerful and patriarchal institution that has been accused of many violations including the sexual assault of its own female prisoners and aggressive indifference to the rights of women on a wide scale.
“They were denying me entry because it was 2 a.m., with the excuse that I am a female so it is ‘too late’ for me to enter the premises,” she told GlobalPost. “I stood there regardless and continued to demand to enter because each detainee has the right to a lawyer.”
Fifteen months after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians head to the polls Wednesday and Thursday to choose the country’s first-ever civilian president. This election and the constitution to be framed in its aftermath will set a course for Egypt's fledgling democracy, and there is almost no one who has more at stake than the country's women.
“A huge part of the idea of militarization in society involves targeting women.”~Mozn Hassan, head of Nazra for Feminist Studies
As the debate continues about how much power the new president will have relative to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and how much influence the majority Islamist parliament will exert on society, women like Omran who were on the forefront of the revolution say they're now being pushed out of public and political life, at best an afterthought to two rival and very male camps — Mubarak's "old guard" and the Islamists.
None of the presidential candidates — all men after former television presenter Bothaina Kamel failed to qualify for the ballot — have demonstrated significant interest in women’s issues, advocates say, while many women have been targeted for violence and intimidation by the ruling military. But many women are pushing back against this campaign of marginalization, fighting to secure a role in Egyptian society at a pivotal time in the country's history.
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“Not a single candidate made efforts to sit down with the female coalition's movement during his campaign, except for Amr Moussa,” said Fatma Emam, who is currently a researcher a Nazra for Feminist Studies and an activist blogger.
Emam, an outspoken 29-year-old woman from Nubia in Southern Egypt, said she is disappointed by the current front-runners which include Moussa, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, Abdel Moniem Aboul Fotouh and the Nasserite candidate Hamdeen Sabahy.
“What’s happening now in the elections shows that women’s rights are not a concern,” she said.
Emam believes economic and security concerns have trumped social issues including women’s rights, fair laws and educational reform in voters’ minds. Recent Pew Research Center polling confirms that 81 percent of Egyptians consider economic improvement to be “very important” in the election — more than any other issue.
However, according to Egypt’s National Council for Women, 33 percent of Egyptian households are headed by women.
“Up until recently, five years or so ago, women were not given tax cuts by the tax authority because they were not considered heads of households, even though now at least 33 percent of women are breadwinners,” Emam said.
More from GlobalPost: Egypt election: It's the economy, stupid
Though women are currently a crucial part of the Egyptian economy, society still lacks a fair legal system that would guarantee the rights of all citizens, according to Mozn Hassan, a self-described women rights defender and head of Nazra for Feminist Studies.
From “virginity tests” allegedly administered by the army upon Samira Ibrahim and dozens of other women to excessive violence strategically targeting female protesters like the “girl in the blue bra” — the women’s struggle has been closely tied to a larger movement against military rule in Egypt.
“A huge part of the idea of militarization in society involves targeting women,” said Hassan. “All of these events, including the virginity tests are a part of it all, this won’t end with presidential elections.”
The women’s vote
While many Egyptians hope that significant change will come with a newly elected president, Egyptian women say they must retrieve their rights themselves.
Dalia Ziada, one of the country’s most active women’s rights advocates, is currently leading a study at the Ibn Khaldun Center for Democratic Studies which focuses on the situation of women after the Arab Spring.
Ziada, director for the Ibn Khaldun in Egypt, will be working closely with the center’s researchers to monitor this week’s elections in 22 governorates across the country including Cairo, Alexandria and Upper Egypt.
As an Egyptian woman, Ziada believes that many of today’s candidates have failed to address female voters, which make up 52 percent of society.
“Although he is associated with remnants of the old regime and he may easily prolong military rule behind the scenes, [Amr] Moussa as a liberal is the only candidate who has reasserted that women’s rights would be a priority,” she said.
But Ziada believes even Moussa exhibits a chauvinism that is pervasive in Egyptian politics.
“When asked about the role of the first lady, all of the candidates said they do not want their wives to be involved in politics,” said Ziada.
“If a president does not respect his wife and does not see that she can play a role in politics, then how will he respect the average Egyptian woman?”