by Paul Gadalla
Rai Insights Contributor
Beirut: Another International Women’s Day has gone and passed fraught with different hashtags and other social media campaigns. But unfortunately rights for women in Egypt continue to languish and so far have only gotten worse since the January 25 Revolution.
According to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Egypt ranks as the worst Arab country when it comes to rights for women due to a plethora of reasons. It’s hard to image that Egypt was at the forefront of women’s rights in the region. Feminist writers like Hoda Shaarawi opened up the debate on veiling and activists like Nawal al-Saadawi who openly tackled such taboos as female genital mutilation. Even first Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser championed women’s rights and jokingly told the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood that if he could not get his own daughter to veil how could he make all Egyptian women veil?!
Egyptian women have made important gains such as being able to pass their nationality to their children. And many Egypt women have been constantly been at the forefront of protest movements. But over the last decade women’s rights have taken a turn for the worse in Egypt and there is still much work to be done. Under Mubarak, women were barely present in the political sphere. Women only made it to parliament as part of the president’s quota.
Since the downfall of Mubarak, many pinned hopes that a more democratic government would pave the way to better rights for women in Egypt. Unfortunately Morsi’s government, made up of conservative Islamists, did little to improve the rights of women. Morsi’s prime minister even went as far as accusing women’s “dirty breasts” of being behind a diarrhea epidemic-affecting children. Sisi, has fared no better although he has vowed to tackle sexual harassment and female genital mutilation.
One of the largest perils women continue to face is the horrific tradition of female genital mutilation (FGM), where young girls have parts of their genitalia cut off. The practice has been around for centuries in Egypt and is a remnant of its pharaonic past. According to statistics, over %91 of married women still undergo this horrific process. Each year dozens of young Egyptian girls die at the hands of doctors and untrained midwives who perform the act with razors or shards of glass. Although Mubarak passed laws banning this horrible practice his regime did little to enforce it. The Morsi regime did little to quell the practice and was accused of not condemning it. Islamists in Egypt have claimed it’s a religious honor and even a Salafist MP demanded it be made legal. The Sisi regime has not been any better. Although they have not called for its legalization or condoned it, the regime has done little to stem the terrible practice, especially in more rural areas where FGM is rampant. Instead the monumental task still falls on the shoulders of NGO’s and activists who still face immense local pressure when protesting FGM.
Another startling development in Egypt is sexual harassment and sexual violence. With Egyptian society growing ever conservative and little condemnation of such acts, sexual molestation in Egypt has become rampant. Over %90 of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed on the street at least once. With such things a taboo, sexual harassment went unchecked until 2006 when a large group of men on Eid al-Fitr had went on a harassment rampage. The despicable event finally pushed the issue to the forefront. Although men were arrested, little was done to curtail such incidents from happening again. With no legislation and little traction from authorities such incidents in Egypt have continued in unabated. Matters took a turn for the worse after the revolution in 2011. A number of women have been assaulted or molested in broad daylight near Cairo’s famous Tahrir Square. There were also Islamists and Salafists who became emboldened with their new found freedom and an Islamist MP went as far as blaming women for being harassed during protests since they were mixing with men.
Under Sisi, only a number of cosmetic steps have been taken with guarantees for women in the constitution and that women can continue to pass their citizenship to their children. Yet problems of lack of representation, sexual harassment, and female genital mutilation continue. Days dedicated to women are not enough if the authorities are not willing to uphold laws that would potentially keep women safe from such practices like FGM. If the authorities do not take proper steps to ensure laws protecting women are enforced, little will change.
*Paul Gadalla is a New York native communication specialist and aspiring political analyst based in Beirut, Lebanon