Egypt’s Fortunes Tied to the Fate of Women

By Roosevelt Institute |

Today, protesters gather in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand democratic reforms from military rulers. What will this ‘Second Revolution” mean for women?

“Strong women will burn in afterlife!”

Mohammad, my tour guide on an April trip to Egypt, said it with  a jovial smile. A college-educated guy in his late 30s, Mohammad sported stylish Western clothing and liked to hold forth on his religious tolerance and enthusiasm for a new era prosperity and freedom in his native land. He was kidding about women and the afterlife. Kind of.

The problem was his wife. She refused to do all of the cooking and cleaning. Somewhere along the way she had picked up ‘crazy feminist ideas’. They mostly lived apart now. Mohammad felt cheated out of the kind of wife that was rightfully his. “Um, would you consider sharing some of the household duties?” I ventured. “Treating it like a partnership?”

He turned puzzled eyes to me. “I don’t want a partner!” he insisted. “I want a wife.”

In Egypt, attitudes toward women are historically complex and culturally loaded — some represent a reaction to past domination of the country by Western imperial powers. Recent events, such as the sectarian violence between Coptic Christians and Muslims, have highlighted issues of women, sexuality, and marriage, while the forced “virginity checks” on female protesters by authorities who stripped, photographed, and groped Egyptian women have turned attention to issues of pervasive violence and harassment.

There have been hopeful signs that the status of women may improve in a new era. But there are also ominous indications that the path to equality will be long and rocky. The army in charge of the country since the Revolution has appointed just one woman to the new cabinet and zero female governors. Not a single female jurist has been named to be part of a committee formed to amend the constitution. The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) reports that a proposal is under consideration that would jettison the quota for women in the Egyptian parliament for the election that will decide the first post-Mubarak government. This quota, which has changed several times since its beginnings in 1983, was updated in 2010 to mandate that roughly 13 % of parliament seats go to women. Without it, female representation in government is likely to plummet. Contrast this state of affairs with Tunisia, where the transitional government has declared that for new elections in July, every political party must present equal numbers of male and female candidates.

As a tourist in Egypt traveling up the Nile, I was naturally immersed in Egypt’s ancient history — a world in which women enjoyed high status compared to the rest of the ancient world. They could manage property, resolve legal settlements, and marry and divorce as they pleased.  Herodotus, the world’s first historian, traveled to Egypt and was astonished by the status of women in Egyptian society, remarking, perhaps with a bit of hyperbole, that “amongst them the women attend markets and traffic, but the men stay at home and weave”. Fast-forward to the 21st century: As of 2005, the literacy rate for women in Egypt was 59.4 percent%, whereas men enjoyed an 83% rate. Women have unequal access to divorce and face restrictions on travel. Unless they are accompanied by a male relative, they may be refused service in a shop or a restaurant.

As we moved from Cairo to some of the smaller cities and villages along the Nile, Mohammad pointed out the women in voluminous black robes, some wearing the niqab, a veil which covers the face but for a tiny eye slit. “That’s too much,” he said, shaking his head. Mohammad had two daughters and did not require them to wear the more conservative veils.  He also had no intention of subjecting them to the genital mutilation that is still extremely common. As we discussed this practice — which ranges from the excision of the clitoris to the removal of the outer labia and the sewing up of nearly the entire vaginal region — I asked him how many of the women in Cairo had had some form of the procedure done. “About 75%,” he said. And what about the rest of Egypt? “100%,” he said. Statistics bear him out. The incidence is officially 78–97%, and though Egypt’s Ministry of Health and Population banned the practice in 2007, it will be extremely difficult to eradicate.

The practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) is one of the more dramatic examples of the challenges Egyptian women face. It distorts their sexual sexual lives, impacts their psychology, and makes them vulnerable to a host of medical complications, some of them fatal. The economics are complex. In poorer regions, marriagability is a key consideration for families whose daughters may be rejected as potential wives without it.  Those who perform the rite, often women, may have few other options for supporting themselves. Beyond that, women facing the common and often chronic health complications can’t perform the work that sustains their families and communities, particularly in agricultural regions. The entire economy suffers.

In his recent speech on the Middle East, President Obama drew a link between a country’s prospects and its treatment of women:

History shows that countries are more prosperous and peaceful when women are  empowered. That is why we will continue to insist that universal rights apply to women as well as men – by focusing assistance on child and maternal health; by helping women to teach, or start a business; by standing up for the right of women to have their voices heard, and to run for office. For the region will never reach its potential when more than half its population is prevented from achieving their potential.

The Egyptian Revolution captured the world’s imagination by toppling a corrupt dictator. But the military regime has shown little interest in having women in leadership positions or in changing laws that negatively impact their lives. An Egyptian democratic structure and economy which fully empowers women is critical to progress in the entire region, where Egypt’s influence is immense.

“Egypt is a very good place for men,” observed Mohammad, lighting a cigarette as he described to me how Egyptian women are taught not argue with men and to defer to their authority.

Maybe so. But until Egypt is a good place for women, too, the country will never truly prosper.

Lynn Parramore is the editor of New Deal 2.0, Media Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, co-founder of Recessionwire, and the author of Reading the Sphinx.

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