“I wish I had been born in my grandmother’s time.”
Those words continue to haunt me weeks after my visit to Egypt, where I participated in a U.S. State Department-sponsored professional exchange program for civil society groups working on women’s rights.
These 10 words were spoken to me by Mona, a 22-year-old woman living in Cairo (her name has been changed). She says that changing public attitudes towards women, and constricting opportunities for them to engage in various aspects of public life, have together resulted in very limited chances for young women like herself to learn, live and love on their own terms. In her view, her grandmother had more freedom and opportunity in her youth than she does in today’s Egypt.
Unfortunately, the sentiment expressed by Mona is not unique, and runs counter to the goal of future progress on both gender equality and overall social and economic stability in Egypt. These days, it seems that more women are seeing their rights restricted than their representation expanded.
Mona’s grandmother was the first woman in the family to be educated. Mona spoke to me about nights her grandmother spent dancing the waltz and tango as a young, middle-class woman in Cairo. She wore sleeveless dresses and enjoyed the best Cairo had to offer. Her daughter, Mona’s mother, would be the first female in the family not to undergo female genital cutting, a practice imposed on an estimated 91 percent of female Egyptians. She studied at a university and worked at a bank, where she met and married her future husband. Their marriage, unlike so many others in Egypt that are arranged or forced, was built on love. In Egypt, not every girl gets the opportunity to choose whom and when to marry: an estimated 17 percent of girls are married before they turn 18.
Mona, on the other hand, has spent her time as a young woman in Cairo constrained by conflict, curfews and coups. She was unable to leave the house at night when Cairo was under curfew during the 2011 revolution, and now feels at risk of sexual harassment and assault even during the daytime. Her sister cautioned me not to take taxis, for fear of the drivers. Uber, she told me, is the preferred transportation choice among young women now. Uber drivers are younger, readily identifiable on the recorded transaction of the fare and thus somewhat more accountable.
The risk of sexual harassment and assault in Cairo’s streets was widely acknowledged during my trip there. And yet, there is a sense that gender equality can be achieved, echoed loudly by young male and female activists taking a stand against inequality from university campuses to the streets surrounding Tahrir Square.
On the one hand, the 2011 revolution was a time of great hope for many Egyptians, and in the early days of the protests against injustice and inequality, women were at the forefront of fighting for a new society. Some estimated that 40 to 50 percent of those protesting in the streets were women. On the other hand, many of these large public gatherings led to violence, particularly violence against women. The rapes in Tahir Square were widely reported, but underlying the sexual violence was an overall culture of gender inequality. In a 2013 United Nations study, 99.3 percent of Egyptian women reported having experienced some form of sexual harassment, with unwelcome touching as the most common kind of abuse. In the wake of these reports of widespread harassment, many organizations developed strategies to protect women and prevent violence, or to map safe spaces as well as the frequency of harassment. Thanks in part to the efforts of these activists, sexual harassment was criminalized in 2013.
Recently, however, there have there been reports of crackdowns on many of those same organizations, along with other human rights groups. Mozn Hassan, for example, the founder of Nazra for Feminist Studies, released a paper that discussed the progress made in eliminating violence against women in the four years following the 2011 revolution, and the opportunities for implementing the 2015 National Strategy for the Elimination of Violence against Women in Egypt over the next five. In her paper, Hassan critiqued the strategy and offered suggestions for strengthening both the language and activities.
Hassan and two other members of Nazra were soon summoned for investigation. Although the judge delayed their interrogation, given the ongoing pressure on human rights organizations, Egyptian activists fear that Hassan will be detained and that the possible charges against her could amount to lifetime imprisonment, the freezing of all of her assets, or other penalties for her work to support survivors of sexual violence in Egypt—punishments doled out under the guise of fighting terrorism and ISIS.
At the same time, changes within the government, which many thought would lead to greater female representation and the amplification of women’s voices, did not yield the hoped-for results. In the end, only one additional woman was added to the president’s cabinet, leaving only four women’s voices among 31 men. The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights publicly denounced this move in a release on March 24. It asserted that this was not only a missed opportunity, but the move also failed to reflect the realities of Egypt, where an estimated 70 percent of the economy is in the informal sector and the work is done largely by women.
Where Egypt goes from here in order to address gender inequality, violence and violations of women’s and girls’ rights, such as child marriage and genital cutting, remains to be seen. What is clear is that human rights activists working on gender issues in Egypt have already had to fight long and hard for basic protections, and there is an opportunity for President Sisi to continue the progress of the new Constitution and recent laws protecting women and girls. We hope he takes this opportunity up, not just for Mona’s future, but for the futures of all of Egypt’s women and girls.
Photo of woman in Tahrir Square courtesy of Flickr user AK Rockefeller licensed under Creative Commons 2.0