Women in the Revolution: A Look At Feminist Progress in Egypt

Feb_4_women_protesters-3arabawy  Women in Egypt face a myriad of problems when it comes to women’s rights, political participation, and gender role rigidity. Egypt in the last century has become a hotbed of movements – the nationalist movement, the Islamist movement, the resistance movement, et cetera. But despite the important role that women play in society and the revolutions of the last century or so, the feminist movement continues to exist, especially in the media, to a great extent under the radar. There are women on the streets protesting in Tahrir Square. There are feminist movements lobbying for greater political representation. But in the 2011 revolution, the contribution of feminism to the revolt was not brought out sufficiently . The media overlooks it, perhaps because rather than being its own movement, it is merely included under the umbrella of freedom, justice, democracy and equality that make up the revolutionist agenda touted by men, women, Muslims and Christians alike.

        It is important that women maintain their influence and participation in Egypt’s political and social change. Much progress has been made in terms of women’s rights over the past century. Qasim Amin (1863-1908) contributed greatly to this this progress, advocating women’s independence, less stringent policies on veiling and seclusion, and linking women’s educational progress with better education for children, thus showing that the women’s movement can benefit society as a whole [1]. As a movement, women’s rights began around the 1919 revolution shortly after Qasim Amin’s era. After Saad Zaghlul was exiled and nationalist sentiment was expressed through protests, hundreds of women took to the streets to protest along with men – the largest women’s protest being organized by prominent feminist figure Huda Sha’arawi. In sync with the nationalists, they demanded women’s rights as well. Some steps that have been achieved include:

1923 – Founding of the Egyptian Feminist Movement

1924 – Elementary education free and obligatory for both sexes

1954 – Women obtain the right to vote and run for office [2]

        However, much of the movement’s momentum in 1919, and even in the following years, has been attributed to the fact that it coincided with the massive rise of nationalism and the emergence of the new state. Revolution and public unrest seem to lend space for women’s voices to be heard, but what happens to the movement after that? Feminism in Egypt has been periodically sidelined throughout the 20th century, especially after Egypt’s nominal independence after which the nationalists lost interest in it. Women did not quite achieve the status that they aspired to, by the end of the 1919 revolution, or even the 1952 revolution. Despite Nasser’s state feminism policies that provided better education and labor allowances for women, cultural barriers proved to be an extremely powerful force against the feminist movement as it attempted to find its own voice and maintain its own strength independent of other agendas. Fighting these cultural forces has been successful only to an extent. If we jump ahead to the 2011 revolution, we can see that there was a strong female component to it as thousands of women occupied Tahrir Square, waving their signs and shouting their slogans and making their voices heard. However, a closer look tells us that, as in 1919, the coincidence of the feminist agenda and the progressive/nationalist/resistance movement has resulted in somewhat contradictory results. Numerous allegations and cases of sexual violence and harassment during the 2011-2012 protests paint a strange picture, especially after what was supposed to be such a unifying movement against dictatorships and political exclusion. As described by feminist activist Dalia Ziada in 2011:

 I was running for a political party that I co-founded with other revolutionaries after the 2011 revolution. And because of the bad perception of women in our society, I couldn’t win. I didn’t win. [3]

        And so, despite the progress in women’s rights over the last century, it is worth asking whether the current revolution will look like the one in 1919, and whether feminism will stagnate yet again. Based on what seems to happen during Egyptian revolutions such as that of 1919, based on cultural barriers and hundreds of years of the political marginalization of women, based on the numerous allegations of sexual harassment and violence during the protests, there is still much progress to be made. An additional problem is that in light of the devastating effects of imperialism, women’s movements can be perceived in Egypt as simply another form of it. Feminists also worry that Islamism, whose form of feminism is markedly different than that of Huda Sha’arawi’s, and whose hostility towards Western encroachment is pronounced, may also contribute to setbacks in feminist progress. is worth considering the solutions to this problem; we can consider the words of Abu Lughod:

Cultures cannot simply displace or undermine each other . . . the complex process of borrowing, translating, and creating new mixtures – what some theorists prefer to call cultural hybrids – cannot be subsumed under [a] dichotomous image. [4]

If women’s progress in the Arab world were seen as a movement within its own right instead of a product of Western imperialism, it would be be easier to demonstrate it as an aspect of society that would be beneficial for everybody.


[1]  Malek Abisaab and Rula Jurdi Abisaab, “A Century After Qasim Amin,” Al Jadid vol. 6, no.32, http://www.aljadid.com/content/century-after-qasim-amin-fictive-kinship-and-historical-uses-tahrir-al-mara

[2] “Global Connnections: Timeline: Events Related to the Roles of Women,,” PBS, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/globalconnections/mideast/timeline/text/qwomen.html

[3] “Women In The Egyptian Revolution: An Evolution Of Rights,” NPR, 13 July 2013, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=201851115

[4] Abu Lughod, “Feminism and Islamism in Egypt,” 263-264.