A group of men gathered around Amira El Bakry in Tahrir Square as she brandished a newspaper photo that shocked many Egyptians. It showed troops dragging a female protester along the street, her robe ripped open to reveal a blue bra and bare midriff.
“Is this OK by you?” the 25-year-old El Bakry, her voice shaking with anger, asked the men, as they squinted at the picture and one suggested the protester was trying to cause a scene. Later, El Bakry marched through Tahrir with thousands of women to condemn the brutality and demand that Egypt’s military rulers step down. Some at the Dec. 20 rally wore tight jeans tucked in boots, others were in flowing robes and full-face veils. “The women of Egypt are a red line,” they chanted.
The scene recalled the mass protests of a year ago, also joined by women of all ages and backgrounds. El Bakry supported those efforts to topple Hosni Mubarak, yet she’s worried about the new political order too. Mubarak-era army chiefs are running the country, and Islamist parties with traditional notions of women and their rights are poised to win elections that end this week. “That could be a lose-lose situation for us,” she said. “But we have a role to play, and we’ll have to keep fighting for it.”
Arab women took the fight onto squares and streets across the region last year. From Tunisia, where revolts began, to Egypt and Libya, women rallied alongside men to bring down autocratic rulers. Now, they’re fighting not to be pushed aside by the change they helped create, as elections revive the fortunes of Islamic political groups that were suppressed under the old regimes.
‘Seize the Square’
“So many people created coalitions, in the ‘seize-the- square’ moment,” said Margot Badran, author of “Feminism in Islam: Secular and Religious Convergences” and a senior scholar at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center. “Now, with the Islamists’ vast parliamentary victories, many fear the old division between secularism and religion may reassert itself. I do not see this as a foregone conclusion.”
The rebellions of Arab women have challenged social barriers and patriarchal cultures as well as dictators. In Saudi Arabia, largely spared public protests, women stepped up a campaign to take to the streets in their cars -- an act of civil disobedience in the only country in the world that bars women from driving. Saudi women didn’t overturn the ban, or gain the right to vote in this year’s municipal elections, though King Abdullah said they can participate in 2015.
Nobel Peace Prize
Yemen’s Tawakkul Karman, who won the Nobel peace prize last year, spent most nights for eight months camped out with protesters demanding the departure of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who agreed in November to step down as president. Now, she’s leading opposition to a plan granting him immunity from prosecution.
Expanding the role of women can boost the region’s economy as well as strengthening emergent democracies, according to the World Bank. It says that that 26.8 percent of women in the Middle East and North Africa were in the labor force in 2009, about half the global average. Per-capita incomes could have grown substantially more if the region’s women had more economic opportunity, the bank said.
For women’s groups in Egypt, the initial target has been the military rulers who took over from Mubarak and are accused by activists of using similarly violent tactics -- as in the Tahrir beating that enraged El Bakry. Hillary Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state, called that incident “a disgrace.”
Women say they also face abuse and sexual harassment from the public and other protesters when they join rallies. Fatma Emam, a 29-year-old research associate at the non-government group Nazra for Feminist Studies, joined a celebration of international women’s day in March last year and recalls a volley of insults. “I felt that day how little the street cares for women’s issues,” she said.
No Female Faces
Some women perceive another threat from the first elections since Mubarak’s ouster. Seven weeks of voting end today and results are due in the next two days. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is set to win about 45 percent of seats, according to its latest estimates. In second place is a bloc of Salafi Muslims, followers of an austere interpretation of Islam. While all parties were required by law to have women on their candidate lists, there may be fewer than 10 women among the 498 elected members, according to provisional results.
The main Salafi alliance kept the faces of its female candidates off most of its publicity material. Salafi candidate Abdel Monem el-Shahat, who failed to win a seat in parliament, told a private television channel that he would like Egypt’s women to wear the niqab, or full-face veil -- though he added that it shouldn’t be mandatory.
“We’re faced with difficult choices, caught between the military council and the Islamists,” said Nehad Abul Komsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights in Cairo. “I am worried about the future of freedom of expression. I worry about the Iranian model.”
Islamists also won Tunisia’s first election after the overthrow of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The Ennahdha party took more than 40 percent of seats in the October vote, and heads a coalition with two of the biggest secular parties. Women took three ministries and 49 of 217 seats in parliament.
Under Ben Ali, Tunisia ranked highest among Arab countries in rights for women, according to the Washington-based Freedom House. Ennahdha says it will keep the family code dating from the 1950s which put women on equal footing with men in divorce, work and education.
In its election campaign, the party vowed to get rid of a ban on the niqab at universities and state offices. That would end discrimination and mark an expansion of women’s rights, said Ali Laarayedh, head of the party’s constitutional committee. Ennahdha’s leader, Rashid Ghannouchi, said women have the right to choose how they dress and the niqab is “not an obligation.”
‘Suburb of Afghanistan’
Islamists students blocked classes at the Manouba University of Arts in Tunis for more than a month, according to professors there, staging a sit-in to demand the right to wear the veil during exams. Slogans hung on doors calling for the implementation of an “Islamic Caliphate” and sexual segregation in classrooms.
The episode felt “as if we were in a suburb of Afghanistan,” said Abdel Kader Jedidi, a professor at the Institute of Press and Information Sciences. Still, he said, “bad things can be good things” because such demands will unite most Tunisians in opposition, and “civil society will not let these people toy with the values of the revolution.”
Libya, the third North African country to overthrow a longtime leader in 2011, is behind most of the others in terms of women’s rights. Under Muammar Qaddafi, forced from office in August and killed by rebels in October, the country ranked near the bottom of the Freedom House survey.
Libyan women were part of the protests against Qaddafi and the armed revolt that followed, nursing wounded rebels and helping raise cash for weapons. After the fighting eased, women such as Laila and Salwa Bugaighis said they noticed a change.
Salwa, a lawyer from the eastern city of Benghazi, quit her position on the National Transitional Council saying women were being sidelined. The issues she raised were the same as those being debated across the region: electoral representation and the place of religion in family law.
When he declared the country liberated after Qaddafi’s death, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the head of the transitional government until elections scheduled for June, said a Qaddafi law that limited polygamy was un-Islamic and would be revoked. He backtracked a week later, saying the Libyan people would decide such matters and Libya would be a moderate Muslim nation.
‘Increase the Volume’
A draft election law announced this month guarantees women 20 of 200 parliament seats, less than the 40 percent quota they had sought. Unless compelled by law, “no tribe will nominate a woman,” Salwa Bugaighis said.
Her cousin Laila is a gynecologist in Benghazi and head of a committee to care for survivors of the violence. She says it’s hard for women in Libya to make their demands heard, citing the country’s social conservatism and lack of traditions of activism and democracy.
“We plan to increase the volume gradually and steadily, until it reaches the ears,” Laila Bugaighis said in an e-mail. “The fact that our voices as women activists are being heard for the first time, that we are talking about politics, gender equality, elections, health-care reform, violence and democracy, is a breakthrough.”
Egyptian women engaged in the protests before and after Mubarak’s fall cite a similar sense of new horizons.
‘In Their Faces’
El Bakry says that forcing people to confront the image of the battered woman protester in Tahrir helps push the argument forward. “The photo is very painful to see,” she said. “When you go and put it in their faces, and tell them, ‘see what has happened to your women,’ that makes them see how wrong this is. It shows that new lines are being crossed every day.”
Last month, Samira Ibrahim, a young woman from conservative southern Egypt, successfully sued military authorities who she said subjected her to a virginity test. A court last month ordered that such tests should be halted.
Key to the prospect of expanding such victories will be the line taken by Islamist parties.
The Brotherhood, like Ennahdha, promises consensus. The Nour party, the main Salafi bloc, is less accommodating in public. The difference was on display when Egypt’s Christian minority celebrated Coptic Christmas this month. The Brotherhood issued a statement congratulating the community, and sent top officials to attend Christmas Eve mass at Cairo’s Orthodox Cathedral. Nour officials said it’s not permitted for Muslims to share in Christian religious celebrations.
‘Stay at Home’
When Azza el-Garf, who won a parliament seat for the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, discusses the prejudice she has encountered on the campaign trail, her language recalls the secular activists.
“As I got up on stage, I sometimes saw sarcastic looks in the eyes of some of the men,” she said. “It was as if they were saying: ‘What could this woman possibly have to tell us?’” She said it was worse under Mubarak, when the Brotherhood was banned and she was blocked from registering as a candidate in the 2010 election. She said a security official told her: “People like you should stay at home and peel onions.”
In other areas, their views conflict. El-Garf attacks “Suzan’s laws,” a reference to Suzan Mubarak, wife of the ousted president, who many Egyptians say was an influence on legislation raising the marriage age and making it easier for women to get divorced. “Too easy,” El-Garf said.
Islamist politicians may moderate their views as they move into positions of responsibility, said el-Ashry, the women’s rights activist.
“If not, we then tell them, ‘Thank you, we’ll try someone else’,” she said. “Whether in the name of religion or in the name of the military council, I am betting that Egyptians will not let go of their freedom.”