A women's demonstration has been planned for Thursday to coincide with International Women’s Day, which will set out at 4pm from Egypt's Press Syndicate in downtown Cairo to the nearby parliament building. Organisers of the planned rally are expected to provide parliamentary leaders with 100 suggested names of prominent female Egyptian figures for inclusion in a constituent assembly that will be mandated with drawing up a new constitution.
Despite the notable female role in last year's revolution, women have hardly been represented politically – a problem that has been noted by many women's rights groups. They fear that the constituent assembly, members of which will be chosen by 24 March, will lack adequate female representation.
After Mubarak's ouster, a quota for female MPs was cancelled by Egypt's ruling military council and replaced with a law obliging competing political parties to include at least one woman per electoral party list. This led to most parties including women at the very bottom of their electoral lists, however, which badly hurt their electoral prospects. Egypt's first post-Mubarak Parliament, therefore, which will ultimately choose constituent assembly members, only includes 14 elected female MPs (all of whom won their seats through electoral lists), along with two appointed by the ruling military council.
During recent parliamentary elections, controversial statements by some parties about women's role in politics served to further raise concerns about the future of women's rights in Egypt. The Salafist Nour Party, the runner-up in the elections, refused to show the faces of their female candidates on their campaign posters, arguing that Islam forbade political participation by women. The fact that Islamist parties together ended up capturing some three fourths of the People's Assembly (the lower house of Egypt's parliament) also alarmed some critics, especially given that the Nour Party’s statements were not the first to be seen as unacceptably sexist.
Notably, a women’s march last year, also timed to coincide with International Women's Day, was met at the time with considerable hostility. The demonstration was confronted by a group of men, who chanted slogans against women's right to voice their opinions. The situation eventually became explosive, with the army firing shots in the air to pre-empt a potential clash.
Female activists, meanwhile, have not only been active in recent street demonstrations but have also paid a high price for their political participation. In addition to receiving beatings alongside their male counterparts at the hands of security forces, some have also been seen being stripped naked, while others were allegedly subject to “virginity tests” while in military detention.
Activist Samira Ibrahim became a revolutionary icon after she openly accused the military of subjecting her to such a test during her brief detention. Ibrahim, 25, was among seven female protesters who claimed to have been subjected to such tests. Yet she was the only one who publicly gave an account of the abuse that she suffered. Ibrahim was then able to win a lawsuit demanding that such tests at military facilities be outlawed. An Administrative Court ruled in her favour, and the practice was subsequently criminalised.
Months after Ibrahim’s testimony was made public, footage emerged showing three soldiers stripping a female protester to her underclothes and violently assaulting her. The footage triggered one of the biggest women's marches in Egypt's history. Around 10,000 women rallied in protest, carrying banners aloft reading "Egyptian women are a red line!" and demanding an immediate end to military rule. The ruling military council was consequently forced to issue an official apology for the incident.
Despite mounting concerns about their paltry representation in Egypt's post-revolution political arena, Ibrahim’s testimony – in tandem with the women's march against military violations – could be a sign that Egyptian women are readier than ever to speak out. The large female role in recent political activism has also been reflected in much of the graffiti art that now covers the walls of downtown Cairo, one example of which shows a woman wearing a gasmask with the accompanying comment: "The best of all women."
Organisers of the upcoming women’s march on Thursday hope that protest participants will have a say in Egypt’s political future. The 100 names that will be handed to parliamentary leaders – in hopes that some will be included in the future constituent assembly – have all in recent years been active members of Egypt’s political life. They include academics, trade unionists, rights activists, artists and many, many more.
By Salma Shukrallah