After the Spring: the regression of women’s rights in Egypt

Following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Continuing political instability in Egpyt has thrown women’s liberties into a state of limbo. Amy fleming investigates their mounting repression and the difficult road ahead.

Anti Sexual Harasment March to Tahrir

Women on an anti-sexual harrassment march to Tahrir Square in February 2013. (© Gigi Ibrahim/Creative Commons)

The initial optimism surrounding the Arab Spring has faded fast in Egypt, but nowhere more so than in the case of Egyptian women. Their situation has deteriorated to the extent that the country has won its self the title of “worst place for women in the Arab world”, according to research recently published by the Thomas Reuters Foundation.

The rate of sexual assaults and gender violence on the streets has rapidly increased since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime in 2011. On July 3rd 2013, when protesters were out it force in Cairo, over 80 cases of mob sexual harassment, assault and even rape, were reported in Tahrir Square alone. In some instances even foreign female journalists have been publically sexually assaulted, which put the issue in the spotlight internationally.

Sexual harassment itself is not a new phenomenon in Egypt, but it is likely to have risen partly due to the increased presence of women in public places since the revolution. According to a survey by the UN, 99.3% of Egyptian women have been victims of sexual harassment of some form. However, cases are widely underreported across the country as accusations are frequently not taken seriously by police, and in some cases women are subjected to abuse again by officers.

Egyptians Creating Their Future

A protestor in 2011 (© Ramy Raoof/Creative Commons)

When interviewed by DiA in 2011, a young Egyptian girl, Faissal Abdel Dayem, suggested that sexual harassment was declining and that there was growing respect for women throughout the protests. Unfortunately, today this seems little more than an illusion of optimism that engulfed the country at the very beginning of the Arab Spring. Were she available to talk to us today, I’m sure she would tell a different story.

Another direct consequence of the 2011 revolution is that female representation in government has plummeted. Under Mubarak there was a quota in place to ensure that 64 seats of out of a total of 454 in the People’s Assembly, Egypt’s lower house of parliament, were reserved for women. This was in contrast to the results of the country’s 2005 elections, in which only nine women were elected to parliament. However, the quota existed for only two years before being revoked when Mubarak was deposed.

Whatever the reasons for the recent erosion of women’s rights in the Egypt, the roots of the problem are in fact deeply entrenched in Egyptian society. Neither domestic violence nor marital rape are considered crimes punishable by law. Verbal harassment of woman in public goes unchallenged. Furthermore, female genital mutilation is commonplace despite having been outlawed in 2008, UNICEF estimates that over 90% of Egyptian women and girls have been subject to the horrendous practice. These attitudes illustrate the common view that women play a subordinate role in society, and are seen as second-class citizens to men. Such views cannot and will not be eradicated overnight, especially as many of them stem from cultural interpretations of the Islamic faith, which is of enormous influence in Egypt.

A movement towards liberalism and secularism could drastically help fight gender inequality in Egypt. Unfortunately the opposite seems to be happening. There has been a surge of conservative Islamist groups in the country, which have gained influence due to the newfound political freedoms caused by the uprisings.

The first election in the country after Mubarak was toppled was won by Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Due to this party’s strongly conservative views, women’s position in society decreased further when Morsi took power. After President Morsi was removed from power in June 2013 the military once again took over, and they remain the strongest institution in the country. This is increasingly worrying for women, as the military do not view improving women’s rights as a priority.

Overall, the prospects for women in Egypt appear a lot bleaker than they did back in 2011. The future depends entirely upon who takes power next and whether the country is able to stabilise itself politically. A more secular and modern government would be able to improve the situation of women by putting new laws into place to protect their rights, punishing men who commit crimes against women, and improving female standing in society. A greater female presence in parliament and politics would also help. However, modern liberal or ‘Western’ views cannot be forced upon the country: Egyptians would need to desire and push for such a change themselves.

Change seemed tangible back in 2011 when internet-savvy young people used social-media platforms to organise protests, fuelling the Arab Spring. This liberal generation does not seem as prominent now as they did then, however they are potentially the future of the country.

Overall the situation in Egypt is highly unstable and it is impossible to predict what is coming next. For the time being it seems that as protests continue so will violence, as brutal groups of men seize opportunities to attack vulnerable women knowing that they will go unpunished.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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