Shortly after the results of the first stage of the Egyptian parliament elections, everyone started to freak out. After the majority win of Islamist parties Al-Nahda party in Tunisia and the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in Egypt, memories from Sudan in 1989, Gaza in 2006, and, most importantly, Iran in 1979 came to mind.
Iranian women’s rights activists have been sending warning messages to women from both countries, including seminars dedicated to the topic. Dr. Susan Rakhsh, an Iranian feminist anthropologist at the University of Oslo was invited to a seminar titled Iranian Women Before and After the religious Dictatorship in Iran’ in Tahrir Lounge, Cairo, Egypt last week. Dr. Rakhsh has previously warned that
“Egyptian women must be ready when the risks present themselves, the risk of renunciation of their current rights and the risk of their submission to changes that constrain their personal freedoms, their legal rights, and their participation in public life.”
The resemblance between Iranian and Egyptian experiences is obvious, according to Dr. Rakhsh, yet there are some promising hints of a difference:
“The similarities between our revolution and yours are many and they are striking but there are also differences. Every social experience is unique however the uniqueness of the Egyptian experience does not make it immune to mistakes and blunders which it can avoid if it reads and understands our history.”
Raghida Dergham, in her column “Rise up and be heard, Arab sisters” in The Independent, says:
“The male Arab youths, who are waging the battle for change in their respective countries, have not yet risen to recognizing the rights of young women to freedom, liberalism and self-expression. Most of them fell between chivalry and tradition, as they watched the Islamists in Tahrir Square in Egypt expelling young women by “pushing” them and pulling their hair, to punish them for violating tradition. Some of them have overlooked harassment, and even rape. As long as they keep this mentality, they will not rise to the level of being able to cause the required radical change in Arab societies, not just because this is a fundamental part of freedom and liberalism, but also because it will not be possible to develop Arab societies without women.”
Although sexual harassment was present, I have not heard any reports of rape in Tahrir. For that matter, it was men who stood up against harassment in the square in many incidents, especially with the general speculation that the recent attacks against women in Tahrir represent one more military tactic against the revolution.
In other words, not all young Arab men share the perspective that Dergham describes here. A small example is the big men-made cordon that surrounded women in the last women’s march. Yes, it is challenging, but not “women vs. men” challenging, it’s “revolutionaries vs. dark-ages” challenging. You can see men and women in both sides.
One big difference between the situations in Iran and Egypt is education. Male illiteracy in Egypt is around 15%, while it is almost 40% in females.
How is education important? Anushay Hossain explains;
“Iranian women, who make up 65% of university students in the country, are also amongst the most educated in the Middle East. They have been organizing underground for years under a regime that specifically targets their rights. In fact at the end of last summer’s bloody protests, it was the face of a woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, brutally shot to death by an Iranian government sniper, who became the defining symbol for the ‘Green Revolution.’”
Education is clearly a major factor. Last March, when Egyptians went to vote for the referendum, many people didn’t know what they were voting for. How do you expect someone who doesn’t care to know anything about his country’s constitution to grasp the importance of female representation in the parliament?
Raghida Dergham offers a suggestion on how to deal with such an opportunity wisely, arguing that feminist political parties are the solution:
“To engineer change they need to form feminist political parties – not unions or associations – with clear programs and goals, and a clear focus on the roles played by women in decision-making. They need parties that are bold and courageous in calling themselves feminist, then run in elections and demand a 30 per cent quota of posts for women, as adopted by the United Nations 35 years ago!”
Other groups concerned about women’s issues have tried a different tactic, attempting to create an alliance for Egyptian women of all ideologies and backgrounds to work towards education and awareness with regards to the place of women in Egypt. Still, this union has not been so widely accepted by everyone as it should be.
Fears about Egypt following the Iran/Sudan/Gaza pattern are already there. Signs of the invasion have been rising clearly. But there are also reasons to believe it is not going to be an easy job for the Islamists in Egypt. Women have been fighting for decades to get what is still not enough, and should not leave a chance for those who want to take it.
Continuous work that is dedicated for that cause focusing on grabbing on to what we have and asking for more prominent women representation is now needed more than ever. I truly believe there’s hope, but only if we –Egyptian women – work really hard to keep it and to make it real.