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As Egypt chooses a president, rights advocates target ruling military and rise of Islamism.
Women taking action
Shortly after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011, a few hundred women marched on International Women’s Day hoping to protest against sexual harassment, a social epidemic in the Arab world’s most populous country for years.
But the women were attacked and harassed by small groups of men in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the country’s uprising. The men yelled “now is not the time” for trivial demands.
Later in December 2011, images of soldiers slapping elderly women on the face, stripping young female protesters, and dragging women by their hair quickly circulated.
Despite evidence of violence, many people brought blame on the women, criticizing their presence in the streets and in some cases their “provocative” clothing.
This time, thousands of determined women of all ages and social backgrounds marched in unprecedented numbers to protest the Egyptian army’s excessive use of force and sexual harassment against pro-democracy protesters. As the women marched, male protesters made a human cordon around them, fearing that the women might be attacked again.
Meanwhile, the SCAF defended the soldiers’ actions, stating that they were acting “according to the circumstances.”
In March 2012, a court ruled against Samira Ibrahim, who accused a military doctor of forcefully administering a virginity test after she was detained by the military while protesting against the SCAF’s prolonged rule on March 9, 2011.
Although military generals had publicly admitted that the military conducts virginity tests as a safeguard against allegations of sexual assault or rape in military confinement, the court stopped short of assigning specific blame.
Many advocates see it as their role to denounce the autocratic regime, which is still “very much in place” without much female representation.
Just 10 women won seats in Egypt’s parliamentary elections earlier this year. Women’s representation in the constituent assembly, which will be tasked with drafting Egypt’s new constitution, remains a contested issue.
“We have drafted a list of amendments in the constitution that need to be adjusted immediately, said Emam.
“The Egyptian Young Feminist Movement has also provided the speaker of parliament with a list of women who are eligible serve on the constituent assembly who can help draft a constitution, but all of these efforts have been overlooked,” she added.
The struggle with legal reform
With Islamists making up as much as 70 percent of the people’s assembly, Hassan fears that women’s voices will continue to be stifled.
“Till this day, the parliament has not passed a single progressive decision regarding the past incidents of violence,” she said. “There is also no law till now that would protect women from domestic violence.”
As the country’s ruling powers fail to hold those responsible for such violence accountable, society follows suit.
“The Nadim Center [for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence] recently drafted a petition hoping to include a law that would support victims of domestic violence, but only 2,000 citizens actually signed the petition,” Emam said.
Parallel to legal reform, Emam strongly believes there must be societal and governmental restructuring so that women can successfully work to achieve their rights.
“I hoped they would discuss these issues in parliament, but instead they discuss our age of marriage,” Hassan said, referring to parliament’s controversial debates regarding a bill that would lower a woman’s legal age of marriage from 16 to 14.
However, Hassan believes that while the current people’s assembly ignores women’s concerns, the military institution does not even hear them.
“Even if Islamists are aggressive in their decisions regarding women’s rights, the military does not even see us,” she said.
Despite these obstacles, however, Egyptian women are proving that they are doers, not victims.
“I’m against the idea of victimizing women,” Hassan stressed. “You are in a patriarchal society, they already see you as victims, but if we are subjected to violence, we are not looking to be consoled, we are aiming to empower ourselves and to to be in positions that would allow us to put an end to these problems.”
Although they both work independently, Ziada from Ibn Khaldun shares Hassan’s sentiment when it came to the threat of rising extremism.
“The rising Islamism gave a justification for the patriarchal mentality,” said Ziada. “Everything in the past was inappropriate for women to do, now it is not only inappropriate, it is haram or a sin; before it was not right before to challenge society, but now you can’t challenge God, according to Islamists."
Taking matters into her own hands, Ziada is currently working with Ibn Khaldun on a program that aims to empower women from Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia.
Still in the works, the program will choose women activists from the region and provide them with the tools that would allow them to compete for positions of power.
“We are going to start this initiative in two or three months, it will take about a year and we hope to recruit women who have potential to lead in legal, religious, economic or political fields,” said Ziada.
By starting from the grassroots level and equipping Arab women with the skills of communication, international relations, the project aims to give them the opportunity to be part of the decision making process.
“Our aim is to empower young women, this is what will achieve real change,” she added.