When the grassroots feminist movement takes hold, Egypt moves to further restrict women’s rights

While on the one hand the Egyptian feminist movement seems to be taking great strides forward, especially at the grassroots level, with young women inventing new forms of activism to draw attention to endemic sexual violence that plagues them both in their homes and on their streets, the government is further restrict women’s autonomy.

In January, the Egyptian cabinet approved a bill on personal status that requires women to obtain consent from a male guardian to marry, register the birth of a child or travel abroad. The bill also gives fathers priority in custody issues (mothers are currently prioritized) and enables fathers to prevent mothers from traveling with their children.

In the case of marriage, a male guardian such as a father or a brother would sign the marriage contract, not the wife, and he would have the right to file for annulment of the marriage within one year.

Nehad Abu El Kosman, director of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, called the bill “oppressive” and “patriarchal” in a video clip. “We completely reject this shocking bill,” she said. “It takes us 200 years.”

El Kosman said the bill does not reflect the reality in Egypt today, where 18.1 percent of women are heads of their households.

Entisar Elsaeed, founder and director of the Cairo Foundation for Development and Law, said all new personal status laws should treat men and women equally. Custody chair cases should be decided in accordance with international law, education guardians should be divided and women should be allowed to move freely without having to get their husband’s permission. They should have self-determination over their bodies, both in terms of health and marriage. The system of female obedience must be abolished, she said. “It is inconceivable that women will be treated in this humiliating way in the 21st century,” she wrote in an email.

The bill is currently under review and has not yet been formally submitted to Parliament for ratification. It has not been presented to community groups for feedback.

In response to the proposed changes, women turned to a proven outlet and launched a Twitter hashtag in opposition to the measure, #Guardianshipism copyright. They flooded the social media platform with stories of occasions when current laws and social customs have already prevented them from making decisions for their children or for themselves, even in matters of their own reproductive health. Further restrictions would make matters worse.

A recent lawsuit highlights one of the problems with the proposed law. A woman named Amal Abdel Hameed, who says she was raped, is currently in the final stages of appealing to have the name of her two-year-old daughter’s father – her alleged rapist – on the girl’s birth certificate. The father’s identity has been confirmed by a DNA test. Current law does not prescribe paternity registration for children who have been out of wedlock, so under Egyptian law it is important to obtain a rape conviction in order to have the father’s name listed in the register. Without a male guardian to register the child, she will not be able to get an official birth certificate, which will lead to bureaucratic problems throughout her life, says Elsaeed.

Women’s rights activists have also spoken out too late against discriminatory practices in the judiciary, where women are in fact banned from applying for entry positions. As of last year, only 66 women out of more than 12,000 judges were in Egypt.

After suffering gender discrimination, Omnia Gadalla, a young lawyer, sought to address the imbalance by raising two lawsuits – which she both lost – and founded the Her Honor Setting the Bar initiative, which works to combat the discriminatory ban on women in sentencing. .

Following a March presidential decree requiring greater representation of women in the judiciary, women were given a two-week window under which they could apply for 40 to 50 middle-level positions in the government, but only those employed by the State Attorney’s Office and the administrative prosecution were eligible.

Young women become active

The government may go to restrict women’s freedoms, but at the grassroots level, women, especially young women, are becoming increasingly vocal in their demands. Above all, they have taken to social media to try to get justice for themselves in a nation where sexual harassment and sexual violence are rampant and little is being done about it. Via Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, they force the issue of consent into the mainstream and challenge the prevailing and generally internalized view that sexual harassment and rape are the fault of women in the receiving end.

Historically, women in Egypt have been reluctant to report rape or harassment because they were considered to have invited the attacks. After being subjected to such abuse, the women created shame, and the police sometimes further abused them and considered them “damaged goods”, says Mona Eltahawy, author of the Feminist Giant newsletter.

“When this wave of movement happened, it made me so proud,” said Mozn Hassan, founder of Nazra for feminist studies. “But what is it after speaking? Speaking up is a tool. “The key is to create an environment where women are safe,” she said.

Eltahawy sees these young women’s efforts as a continuation of the incomplete revolution of 2011. During the uprising that toppled longtime President Hosni Mubarak, women were told that it was not time for them to come forward with their concerns, that there were more pressing issues to address with. Because of this, the revolution was only partial, Eltahawy said, with women left out. “The state oppresses everyone, men and women,” she said. “I think this is finally the feminist revolution.”

Significant progress will require structural change, Hassan argued, and for this to happen, there must be a free civic sphere, which cannot exist in a country with Egypt’s repressiveness. “If you want a structured, long-term, versatile [feminist] movement, you need a public sphere, she said. “You do not understand that if you are not sure … someone who speaks can be imprisoned tomorrow.”

Still, Eltahawy finds encouragement in the new openness when it comes to discussing sexual pleasure and lust – topics that in a country where more than 87 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 59 have been sexually abused, depriving women of vaginal feelings, hardly warranted a mention earlier.

The conversations are now about consent and freedom of action, and it goes beyond the freedom not to be attacked. “The consent and authority and ownership of my body means that I have the right to have sex whenever and wherever I choose,” as long as anyone is also an adult who consents, says Eltahawy. “We have the right to be free from sexual violence. We have the right to desire and pleasure. ”

Activism is an early step in a long journey, Eltahawy said, and measures such as personal status bills can be expected, as the trifle of power over women – the state, the street and the home – feels it is losing its grip. . “They realize they’re in an abyss,” she said. “The freer women demand to become, the more regressive Egyptian laws will become.”

In the end, she said, “the feminist revolution will break out and it will be unstoppable, no matter what laws they adopt.”