In the eight months since the revolution, Egypt's women have learned that the fight for their rights is only beginning. In the immediate aftermath of this spring’s revolution, something new and unfamiliar happened in Egypt: women and men participated equally in political events.
Thousands of women slept in the streets, lived in Tahrir Square and stood side by side with men to fight for democracy. It seemed as though the country’s stereotypical gender roles had disappeared, but just months after the revolution ended and the dust settled, they began to re-emerge.
“Men and women in Tahrir Square were just there chanting and helping each other and supporting each other. And then at the end we see women are put on the side and marginalized,” said Zainab al-Zuwaij of the American Islamic Congress.
Egyptian women began organizing on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, campaigning for equal access to public life. Their demands remain the same today: better implementation of the laws that are already supposed to give them equal access in society.
“Egypt has passed a lot of progressive laws in relationship to women’s rights but we also know that for many women in Egypt they are on paper only and don’t really impact their day to day lives,” said Mary Hope Schwoebel of the United States Institute of Peace.
Labor laws in Egypt provide equal rates for men and women in the public sector, though this does not always happen in practice. In 2010 the average income for a woman in Egypt was $2,003 while for a man it was $5,227. Egyptian women are successfully earning a living in the media, education and banking industries, but they are still unable to break into the political sphere in a significant way. Not a single woman was included in the official body that proposed amendments to the constitution in March.
“I think that women right now would like to push the envelope, to be in charge of key ministries, to have top positions in government,” said Diane Singerman, a political scientist at the American University in Washington.
In 2009, Mubarak confirmed that election law amendments would guarantee women compromise at least 11 percent of the new parliament for the 2010 elections—not far off from the U.S. where women make up 17 percent of Congress. Many Egyptian women feared that while the quota system allowed for female leadership in government, it did not distinguish women as qualified candidates, rather, it acted as compensation for barriers that prevent the equitable participation of women in politics.
Last month authorities canceled the quota system, citing improper implementation. The new election laws for the upcoming parliamentary vote, which is set to begin Nov. 28, mandate that each party include at least one woman on their list, but it does not guarantee a woman’s election.
Women’s Rights: Rural vs. Urban
May Kosba, originally from Cairo, thanks her parents for getting her where she is today.
“Education was the most important thing growing up,” she said.
Kosba, 23, is currently completing a civic health fellowship at the National Conference for Citizenship in Washington. She has become something of an Egyptian cultural ambassador by interacting with activists on social media forums and speaking about Egyptian political events on local TV talk shows.
Before moving to the U.S. she earned a degree in accounting at Ain Shams University in Cairo and later studied at the American University in Cairo.
Her experience as a woman from an educated urban family is far different from the experience of women living in Egypt’s rural areas. When describing the difference between life for rural women and urban women in Cairo, Kosba said, “it’s like night and day.”
According to World Bank data, the rate of women attending school has increased in recent years, but there is still an urban/rural divide. In 2008 in the rural areas of Upper Egypt, 42.9 percent of women had no schooling while only 20 percent of women in the region’s urban areas had none.