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Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 15:33 | SYDNEY
Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 15:33 | SYDNEY

Women in the Arab Spring (part 3)

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24 October 2011 15:01

Co-authored by Grace Williams, an intern in the West Asia Programme Lowy Institute and student of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Sydney. Part 1 of this series; part 2.

Egypt's women have been a focus of media attention in the Arab Spring, but women have a long history of activism in Egypt. Women were active in the 1919 and 1952 struggles, but gained very little in terms of equality and justice. In the aftermath of the uprising in Tahrir Square earlier this year, it is worth asking whether there will be a repetition of history and patriarchal control, or if any radical social transformation will finally break gender barriers, giving women a stronger, more equal role in the new Egypt.

The relationship between feminism and nationalism has been central to Arab women's movements. The rise of the women's press in Cairo in the early twentieth century paralleled nationalist publications and social movements, but after 1919, tensions arose between the early feminists and male nationalists.

While women's nationalist action had been widely accepted by male reformers, pressures emerged when creating a new constitution for Egypt in 1920. Women's political rights were not mentioned and the equality of women not discussed. Women, particularly poor women, gained very little from the 1919 revolution, although the uprising did create a momentum and revolutionary spirit for the Egyptian women's struggle, with the Egyptian Feminist Union founded in 1924.

Despite taking a more militant role in 1951, when a thousand women demonstrated at the Egyptian parliament, and again in 1952 with demonstrations and strikes, this period again saw little change for women under Nasser's rule. Nasser included women as actors in the general scheme of redistribution, modernisation and national development, but he did nothing to politically empower women. For example, not one seat in his General Assembly was given to a woman.

Although it may have appeared that women had increased economic opportunity, their rights were within limits set by the government. Women's 'issues' such as marriage, divorce and child custody were settled by the state, while gender relations were ignored, which meant the continuation of patriarchal control.

The continued oppression of women's groups and unions led to a split in women's activism between those working against, and those within, the law. Since the start of Mubarak's rule in 1981, women have had little unity. The rebellion ousting Mubarak in 2011 has consequently allowed all strands of feminist movements to work together in the hope of a more united approach for equality under any future Egyptian government.

While both Western and Arab journalists described the demonstrations at Tahrir Square as full of chanting women making their views heard — an extraordinary feat when women normally play such a limited role in the public sphere — such actions may not be enough to radically change the system for women's rights. The National Committee formed to write the new Egyptian constitution is comprised only of men, and only one woman has been selected in the interim cabinet. It seems paternalism remains, regardless of who is in government.

During periods of revolution, Egyptian women have been able to achieve minor successes and gain some political or social advances. However these changes have never been radical; mainstream political power in Egypt remains monopolised by men. The experience of Egyptian women in public life is made more difficult by the absence of support and the persistence of traditional frameworks concerning women's roles and status. It will still be a challenge for women in Egypt to advance their rights in the face of these persistent cultural barriers.

However, the power and persistence of Egyptian women should not be underestimated. After the revolutions of 1919 and 1952, their participation alongside men in this year's uprising has given women the confidence to campaign for equal rights and for their role to be framed as a national issue of major concern in the new Egypt.

Egyptian women need to be accepted as active participants in the nation's politics and society. The spirit of 'The Magazine of Women's Awakening' is still as valid today, as when, in 1922 it called on the Arab world to 'Awaken your women and your nations will live'.

Photo by Flickr user nebedaay.

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