Egyptian Women of the Arab Spring: A Social Media Revolution (Part 2)

Women and Leadership

Brief history of women’s movements in modern Egypt

The crystallization of the January events and the flow of action during the Egypt revolution create a neatly bookended movement when viewed through the lens of 21st century media; it happened quickly, forcefully and with adept use of propaganda and activist tactics that solicited international attention and support throughout. But people’s movements are not new in Egypt, however, in particular those of which women were at the forefront. In the 1919 revolution against colonial British rule, Egyptian women and men – across class, party and religious lines -joined together in a common cause that was the dawn of Arab nationalism.  Women even held their own demonstrations for the first time in modern history during that time (Egypt State Information Service, 2011). Through acts of civil disobedience and protesting, rural and urban workers opposed to colonial hegemony achieved independence and sovereignty from Britain three years after the first protests began (El-Shakry, 2011). The 1919 revolution was not quick like that of 2011 (it took over three years, compared to three weeks) but was galvanized by a strong women-backed labor force, with little use of technology other than the telegraph (El-Shakry, 2011).

As a result of the 1919 revolution, Egyptians saw the creation of a new government, replete with parliament and constitution, and yet few gains for women in regards to rights outside of polygamy and education (Arab Human Development Report, 2006, p. 124). The grounds were laid for fomenting women’s rights, however, as women pushed forth to create positions in government and leadership as a result of their role in the 1919 movement.  In a defining moment of the times, a leading feminist and founder of the first women’s organization, Hoda Shaawari, threw off her veil in public as an act of rebellion against patriarchal constitutional laws (Rubin, 2011). She went on to spearhead and lead women’s organizations until her death in 1947. Officially in 1942, the Egypt Women’s Party was founded and focused on bringing equal voting rights to women and a greater presence in politics (Egypt State Information Service, 2011).

Post World War II, CEDAW and 2011

Post World War II in Egypt brought larger gains for women in political and private spheres, including the rise of women professionals in law, medicine and education, and the increased awareness of women’s issues in the region (Arab Human Development Report, 2006, p. 126).  However, after the 1952 military revolution that deposed King Farouq, the new regime called for the dissolution of women’s organizations; they converted the previous organizations to charitable associations which were subservient to the ruling party’s agenda (Arab Human Development Report, 2006, p. 126).

The new constitution of 1956 granted women the right to vote, and what followed were similar laws that allowed equal positions for men and women in the public sector as well as greater guarantees to working women (Arab Human Development Report, 2006, p. 138).  Continued military rule, the rise of nationalism, as well as a strong Islamic culture, kept women’s organizations from really flourishing in the following two decades; however, The United Nations Decade of Women that began in 1975 presumably injected a new energy into women’s movements (Geunena & Wassef, 2003, p. 29).

In 1981, Egypt officially ratified, with reservations, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW); the reservations covered family and children issues pertinent to Sharia and nationality laws existing in Egypt.  On paper, Egyptian women’s rights portray a secular society with advancements for women that are unlike those in other Middle Eastern countries; however, this is not the case in actuality.  Despite CEDAW, laws for women’s protection for cases around domestic violence, harassment and divorce have not been instituted at a state-wide level, primarily due to conflicts with culturally-accepted Islamic Sharia laws (Geunena & Wassef, 2003, p. 37).

After the dawn of a new century, women continued to exercise civil disobedience in response to abuses of power, and it appeared the government was helping shape new laws to enforce equity. In 2006 and 2008 respectively, women held labor strikes against structural adjustment programs and neoliberal policies sanctioned by the World Bank (Cornish, 2011). In 2008, the government officially criminalized Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a longstanding “tradition” within Egyptain culture that is practiced on upwards of 91% of all women between the ages of 15 and 49 (Clifton & Feldman-Jacobs, 2010).  And in 2010, the People’s Assembly (Parliament) created a new quota that mandates 64 new house seats to be filled by women, a jump in 1,500% in representation from previous years (Hill, 2010).

With the rise and fall of Mubarak, there is an even greater demand for women’s rights to be equated with human rights. With educated, tech-savvy young women and men as the groundswell of the Tahrir Square movement, there is an opportunity for a new paradigm to be created outside of the long-held, state-controlled system. And yet, despite multiple revolutions and incremental gains for women’s rights over the last century, the institutionalized and culturally-sanctioned Islamic perceptions of women’s roles in society still reign strong over women’s progress in Egypt (Geunena & Wassef, 2003, p. 41).


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