Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Women in Egypt’s Front Line


By Mahnaz Afkhami

A new day has dawned in Egypt. The dictator has been brought down. Euphoria is in the air. How will women fare as euphoria yields to reality?

During the past several days, I have kept in touch with our partners in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries. They all agree that Egypt forecasts their destiny. They are enthusiastic and their exuberance is contagious.

Having lived through Iran’s 1979 revolution that dashed the hopes of millions, I was skeptical about Egypt’s prospects for a peaceful transition to participatory democracy. And I know revolutions are heady experiences, especially for the young, and especially for young women in repressive Middle Eastern countries. The Cairo air now shimmers with possibility, just as the air of Tehran once did.

Iran’s new regime proved far worse than the old regime, especially for women. What now in Egypt? Enas El Shafei, who leads our partner organization in Egypt, was optimistic, proud that the world hears voices of the Egyptian people for the first time in a generation. She was encouraged by people forming groups to clean and police their communities, to help each other and to provide services. Women, she said, are everywhere in the front ranks of protesters.

"This is about the Egyptian people -- not Christians, Muslims, men or women," she said. And she’s right. This is a popular revolution against autocracy and a desire for justice and dignity.

Other factors also suggest a better outcome. Egypt's opposition is not led by a charismatic and despotic personality with an unshakeable belief that he has a mandate from the Almighty. Second, Iran’s example is a caution to many Egyptians pressing for change. And finally, Egyptian women are fully engaged. “They are the police, they are the doctors -- they do everything,” Enas said. “Tahrir Square might be the media center, but transformation is occurring everywhere.”

Now that the transition is underway, the challenge ahead is to keep women’s rights on the reformers’ agenda. We must keep reminding the negotiators that democracy requires it.

Our Egyptian partner organization, Forum for Women in Development, has been working for a decade to introduce a culture of democracy at the grass-roots level. Democracy is both process and mindset, so our partners have tried quietly to lay the foundation for a culture of tolerance and consensus-building. They press for legislative change because new laws in one Muslim country can bolster arguments for change in others. They show, for example, that laws limiting women’s role in
decisions that govern their lives are in conflict with constitutions that give lip service to equality, as they are with the provisions of the international treaty on women’s rights known as CEDAW, which all area governments except Sudan and Iran have ratified. They have pointed out discrepancies among schools of Islam on the role of women, showing that it is not God's will but society that dictates how women are treated.

They’ve made considerable headway. Tunisia was prodded into eliminating the “reservations” it had placed on its terms for CEDAW ratification. Moroccans have reformed land ownership and family laws that govern women's right to marriage, divorce, work, travel, and child custody. Jordan now requires that 20 percent of political candidates be women. Lebanese women just gained rights for women citizens married to non-Lebanese men, and most countries now have women in cabinets and parliaments, albeit in low percentages.

But today in Cairo, the danger is that reformers will repeat Iran’s mistake and postpone women’s rights issues until “things settle down.” Although women have often participated in demonstrations, faced danger and given full support to opposition movements, they’ve held back on voicing their own aspirations and needs, convinced by movement leaders that somehow their demands were impractical at the moment, or of secondary importance. They accepted assurances that once success was achieved, their rights would be honored.

In Iran and elsewhere, that didn’t happen. Unless women are involved at every step – not just in organizing demonstrations but in shaping opposition demands and strategies, and especially in negotiations that determine the politics of the future – the result will bear no resemblance to the moderate, democratic society that everyone wants. Egyptian women must insist on being part of the political process. They must insist that the issue of women’s rights be on the agenda of every transition discussion.

Like drops of water, if we are persistent, we can bore into rock, uniting into rivulets and then rivers of change on behalf of women and everyone else.

Afkhami is founding president of Women's Learning Partnership (WLP), a coalition of 20 organizations, mostly in Muslim-majority countries, that focuses on empowerment of women and democratic leadership. She was also the former Minister of Women’s Affairs in Iran.