Egypt is one of the most important countries in the Arab region in terms of geo-strategy. There has been a proliferation of citizens organising through collective action for various causes, but since the revolution in 2011, this has been accompanied by intense backlash against women’s rights.
- The exclusion of women from leading decision-making positions and processes, particularly in government.
- The drop of women’s representation in parliament from 13% in the 2010 parliament to 2% in 2011, despite the fact that women who had nominated themselves had doubled.
- The amplification of voices in politically influential positions demanding the revision of family law and child law in order to reverse the gains made in previous years; for example calling for the decriminalisation of female genital mutilation, the removal of women’s arbitrary right to divorce and the reduction of the minimum age of marriage.
- The diffusion of socially conservative discourses that demand women’s restricted presence in public space, and their abidance by a particular moral and social code of behaviour.
The most recent CEDAW Committee examination of Egypt was in 2010, where the country’s combined sixth and seventh periodic reports were considered. The Committee expressed its concerns around a sharp decline in the enrolment of girls at primary and secondary levels, and the high dropout rate of girls from secondary school and university. It pointed out that women experience high rates of unemployment, a wide gender pay gap, occupational segregation and discriminatory recruitment practices, and that the legislative framework for protection against discrimination in all aspects of employment is insufficient, especially for migrant and domestic workers. It was concerned that violence against women had increased in both the private and public spheres and that there was limited access to reproductive and sexual health services, especially in rural areas.
Women’s rights and the 2011 Egyptian revolution
The Egyptian Revolution instigated on the 25th January, 2011, saw the participation and leadership of women in the bid to oust Mubarak from power and demand “freedom, justice and dignity” for all. Accordingly, there were raised expectations that women’s agency would be recognised by the post-Mubarak state and society alike, through increased opportunities for leadership and more egalitarian attitudes towards citizenship rights for all, irrespective of gender.
At the heart of the backlash against women’s rights is the configuration of power that emerged when Mubarak was ousted. The Supreme Council for Armed Forces (SCAF) which took over rule did not actively seek to incorporate in government sections of the population that had previously been marginalised, such as women, youth and non-Muslims. SCAF’s evasion of accountability for its highly exclusionary policies was made possible by the weakness of the actors who were demanding their rights.
At the same time women’s organisations were too fragmented and weak to present any serious opposition to SCAF. Consequently, they had minimal bargaining power to influence the political settlement that was developed during the first phase of the transition. In the second phase of the transition, marked by the Islamists’ ascendency to power through the parliamentary and presidential elections, the backlash against women was maintained and deepened. For example, those in power failed to speak out against increasing assaults on women in public spaces, which ranged from sexual harassment to cutting young girls’ hair as a way to force them to wear the veil.
The backlash against women is taking place against a backdrop of a high level of political volatility and lax security. Rule of law is weak, and citizens continue to feel very vulnerable to assaults on the street from organised gangs, thugs and criminals.