11-15-2011By Quinn O’Keefe
Human Rights Defenders Program
Nearly a year after the masses took to Tahrir Square, the future of the Egyptian revolution still lies in the balance. Conversations with human rights defenders reveal that concerns over a complicated parliamentary election, a hurting economy, the continued prosecution of activists through military tribunals and rising sectarian violence have tempered the hopes of the revolution, but not its spirit. Even during the holiday week, people are still nervously excited about the future of an improved Egypt. Well, nearly everyone.
Unfortunately, for the thousands of women who rallied in Tahrir, the revolutionary spirit faded after everyone went home. Most who joined the protests were so-called first time activists – those who had not been openly politically active before but were inspired to act with the thousands of Egyptians who clamored for political change. The key now has been to harness that energy, that urge for change, into real actions and commitment. But discrimination in the familial, political, and social spheres has kept many women from participating in the revolution’s next steps or in ensuring that women have a space in influencing Egypt’s future.
Last week, we were in Egypt meeting with some of the human rights defenders who are working with women to help them get elected to parliament and carve out their role in civil society. During our trip, we found that deep-rooted discrimination and blatant harassment must end before women will really break through in Egypt.
Take my friend Dalia. She went home from Tahrir wanting to run for parliament. Her male relatives, including her father, laughed her out of her decision. Now, when she sees the campaign posters of all the “tired men,” she says she feels like she missed out on the ideals of the revolution.
Getting women to run for parliament in Egypt is one thing. Providing them with the tools and backing to win is another. Women must be listed on each party’s ballots, but quotas for how many women must be represented in parliament have been removed by the interim government. Whether or not that was a good move has been hotly debated, and the focus has now turned to getting those women candidates currently on the ballots elected. Activists in Cairo explain that the socially conservative parties are better at promoting women candidates than the liberal ones, largely because liberal parties have not made enough effort to encourage women to run and provide them with the backing to win. Simply put, revolutionary ideals have been focused elsewhere.
Pervasive street harassment also keeps women home. A very real problem in Egypt, women are discriminated against on the streets through name calling, grabbing and worse. One human rights group, Harassmap.org, is trying to empower women against their harassers by encouraging women to send in details via SMS that is then tracked on the group’s site and online map. The group also provides community outreach to explain the perils of street harassment and how it’s more than a nuisance. This widespread intimidation of women prevents many from joining the public sphere.
Significant institutional and cultural reforms are needed to fight this discrimination and harassment to ensure that women get real political space. For now, mindsets are beginning to change. I was with Dalia in front of the Sphinx when a teenage boy came up and groped her. She turned on him and dragged him to a nearby guard, explaining what had happened. She confided that the guard would likely do nothing, but at least in the new Egypt she has the right to speak up.