By Sarah Mikhail
CAIRO: Feminists dismayed that Egypt’s revolution is failing to advance their cause are trying to rally disparate women’s groups to defend women’s rights from perceived threats from Islamists and other conservatives.
“The revolution [has been] stolen by the military, the government, professionally organized groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and traditional political parties headed by opportunists,” veteran feminist Nawal al-Saadawi told Reuters in an interview.
Campaigners say Egyptian women face some of the harshest treatment in the world: domestic violence, harassment and discrimination in the law.
Female genital mutilation practiced on children is rife. Its advocates assert, wrongly, that it is called for in Islam’s holy texts. Forced marriage of young girls is still common outside big cities.
According to the World Economic Forum’s 2010 Global Gender Gap Index, which evaluates progress toward women’s equality, Egypt ranks 125th out of 134 countries.
Feminists say there is no better time to unite because the main thing that split the women’s movement – its domination by Egypt’s former first lady, Suzanne Mubarak – was removed following the revolution.
But with the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood targeting a big score in a parliamentary election later this year, Saadawi says women must move fast to secure their rights.
Last month, activists published a Women’s Charter signed by half a million Egyptians demanding a new constitution that entrenches gender equality, an end to sexual harassment and a minimum quota for women in parliament and the Cabinet.
For now, only one woman is a fully fledged minister in the interim administration, fewer than under Mubarak.
“We are run by a patriarchal class system. The army is part of it and the government is part of it … so women are excluded,” said Saadawi.
She wants to revive the defunct Egyptian Women’s Union, a project she said was scuppered by the wives of former presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak.
“We’ve constantly tried to form it since the 1970’s. Jehan Sadat and Suzanne Mubarak stood against the feminist movement because they wanted feminine power to be under government control, not that of women,” said Saadawi.
Alarmed that Mubarak’s overthrow has left Islamists free to vie for power, women are forming new advocacy networks and feminists such as Hoda Badran, Mervat Telawi and Saadawi are trying to unite women to defend their rights.
Almost two-thirds of Egyptian men admit to harassing women, according to a 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights. More than four-fifths of women complained of harassment that can go from staring and catcalls, indecent exposure and groping to more serious assault.
Women played their part in the 18-day popular uprising, occupying Cairo’s central Tahrir Square day and night and treating the wounded when police fired on protesters. Many complained of being sexually molested by pro-Mubarak thugs.
Thousands took to the streets again on International Women’s Day in March. Amnesty International said women detained by the military after the march complained of forced virginity tests, beatings, electric shocks and strip searches.
The army denied any virginity tests or other mistreatment.
Saadawi, 79, has been fighting for women’s rights for decades. Jailed for her views in the 1970s, she was once threatened with assassination by religious fundamentalists. Age has not mellowed her forthright opinions.
“Shariah is a lie,” she said, referring to Islamic law. “It is not written by God but by men. Tunisia banned polygamy, yet Tunisia follows Shariah. This is one of our goals now: to prohibit polygamy and introduce a secular family code.”
She said Mubarak ensured women were held back by appointing religious leaders who promoted a patriarchal society and the practice of polygamy.
Now Salafists, followers of a literal interpretation of Islamic texts, are demanding the government reverse a reform passed in 2000 that grants women a divorce if their families return the dowry, give up property rights and provide eyewitness proof of physical abuse by the husband.
The women’s union aims to push far beyond the 2000 law by eliminating the conditions for divorce and bringing Egyptian women’s divorce rights in line with those in the West.
“[Salafists] use Islam to justify all oppression of women,” said Saadawi, a three-time divorcee herself. She said the divorce law was “already unfair since a woman has to give up all her economic rights to leave her husband.”
“What have we heard of any political parties speaking about women’s rights?” she added.