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Arabs Rise for Rights

Women Look for a Place in New Egypt

CAIRO, Jun 2 2012 (IPS) - “It was so frustrating but so exciting at the same time,” recalls 15-year-old Mariam Assam, a year-10 student in Cairo. Assam was recalling the days she tried to join protestors during the Egyptian revolution in January 2011 but was intially prevented by her parents who said street protests were no place for a girl to be.

“I wanted to be part of the revolution, to help Egyptians gain their freedom and women gain their rights, but unlike my brother I had to argue with my parents long and hard before they eventually allowed me out for a few hours,” Assam told IPS.

Assam who wants to be a journalist one day, is from a new generation of Egyptian women better educated than their mothers and grandmothers, and who believe unequivocally in equality for women despite the restrictions many families impose.

She struggles with such cultural constraints but believes, like several other Egyptian women from varying backgrounds IPS spoke to, that the revolution will ultimately be good for women.

Rina El Masry, 40, is an immaculately groomed businesswoman. She is the daughter of a Coptic Christian mother and Muslim father. Like Assam she doesn’t wear the hijab.

“I believe the ceding of power to Egypt’s interim military government was a step in the right direction for womens’ rights despite the number of female parliamentarians dropping to the current two percent under the military as opposed to the 12 percent under deposed former president Hosni Mubarak,” El Masry told IPS. “All democracies evolve.”

Under Mubarak special quotas were reserved in parliament for women. And women were given particular rights. Egyptian women, unlike many women in the rest of the Arab world, can sue for divorce without having to prove maltreatment.

Egyptian women married to foreigners can pass their citizenship on to their children, which is not the case in more socially liberal Lebanon. Egypt’s females are not subject to the Sharia dress code. Divorced Egyptian women are awarded custody of their children until they are 15, as opposed to age seven for boys and nine for girls regionally.

When the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took over, the female parliamentary 64-seat quota was overturned, and constitutional amendments were formulated without the imput of women.

SCAF also subjected a number of female protestors to beatings and virginity tests, while refusing to allow women to head governates and municipalities throughout the country. The right of women to sue for divorce without having to prove maltreatment is also under review.

Mariam Kirollos, 22, is a Coptic Christian, and member of the Egyptian Feminists Union. The group has been conducting brainstorming meetings to strategise a way forward for womens’rights under the new government. Kirollos agrees with El Masry that revolutionary change will ultimately benefit women.

“Despite the setbacks after SCAF took over the revolution is still ongoing. Womens’voices are now being heard. We are no longer silent. Issues that have been swept under the carpet for too long are now in the public domain and being discussed by civil society,” Kirollos told IPS.

While the three women from disparate backgrounds all voice hope towards equality for women becoming a reality in Egypt, all are also united in their fear of the Muslim Brotherhood and other conservative elements sweeping to power. They acknowledge that the fight ahead will not be easy.

At a mass protest by Egyptian women in Cairo shortly after Mubarak’s overthrow, women were booed, shoved and told to go back home by groups of men. During parliamentary elections earlier in the year, conservative Islamists took a lion’s share of the seats.

Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Muhammad Mursi opposes women being allowed to serve in the presidency. He has called for implementation of Islamic law and, at campaign rallies, referred to Islam’s holy book, the Quran, as the constitution.

But Egyptian feminists are up against more than Islamist politicians. A large portion of Egypt’s population is politically and socially conservative. That includes many women: 30 percent of women are unable to read or write.

Egyptian feminists have argued that these women were coerced into voting for conservative elements, and were unable to understand the implications of what they were supporting. Against this background was the excellent social services provided by the Muslim Brotherhood for the poor and illiterate, where a good portion of the Brotherhood’s support comes from.

But is it not just poor and illiterate women who lean towards religiously conservative views. And not all men do. “My father gives me far more understanding and freedom than my mother does,” Assam told IPS.

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