Both International Women’s Day and Egyptian Women’s Day take place in March. The latter commemorates the day in 1919 when women staged their first demonstration in the country’s history. That revolution saw women wave small flags as they called for freedom and independence, shouting slogans against the British occupation. Several of them were killed in the demonstration.
The struggle of Egyptian women dates back before 1919. When French troops arrived at Alexandria in July 1798, both male and female residents took arms against the invaders and gathered to defend the city.
After the withdrawal of the French in 1801, Egyptian women continued their struggle against tyranny as they took to the streets to protest against the financial policies of the Ottoman Empire. In 1806, the women from Damanhur in the Nile Delta took part in defending the city against the invasion of Mamluk leader Mohamed Bey al-Alfi. In Rosetta, women fought with men against the siege imposed on the city by British troops; in 1951 they launched an initiative calling for the boycott British goods; and in 1956 they courageously defended Suez Canal cities.
The struggle continues. Egyptian women played a major role in toppling the regime in the January 25, 2011 revolution in Egypt. But Egypt’s women could not have been aware at the time that the recent revolution was to be hijacked by people who would scorn and betray them. Yet they still persevere in their resistance.
Earlier this year, Muslim Brotherhood youths attacked male and female activists with cudgels and knives. During one protest, female activist Mervat Mousa was assaulted and slapped on the face.
The violent incident arose in the same month that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood sharply criticized an anticipated U.N. document on combatting violence against women.
The U.N. document was criticized by the Muslim Brotherhood even before its conclusion was agreed, with representatives saying it was “deceitful”, clashed with Islamic principles, and undermined family values.
The International Union for Muslim Scholars, headed by Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, on February 28 issued a statement condemning the U.N. document – which was not even up for discussion until March.
Critics of the document committed a grave mistake when they condemned the document before it was finalized. Objections raised focused on several points, including equality in marital rights, abolishing polygamy, and granting women the right to file rape and harassment complaints against their husbands.
The final U.N. code, however, skirted around such issues. And despite the fierce campaigns launched against the U.N. code, it was unanimously approved by all the countries represented in the commission’s meetings, including Egypt.
The U.N. code defines violence against women as any form of hostile act triggered by gender prejudice and which inflicts physical, sexual, or physiological damages on women. This includes threats to use violence and deprivation of freedom in both the public and private spheres.
It states that discrimination against women constitutes a violation of human rights and basic freedoms. According to the document, domestic violence is the most common form of violence to which women and girls are subjected. The document stresses the major roles played by education, especially in remote areas, and the elimination of adult illiteracy in the empowerment of women.
The U.N. Commission on the Status of Women called upon governments to denounce all forms of violence against women and girls, and not to justify violence by refering to religion or tradition. The commission also stressed the importance of the economic empowerment of women not only through equal distribution of resources, but also allowing women to take part in the economic decision-making process. The same, the commission noted, should apply to political participation.
On March 17, 2013, a leftist politician called Laura Boldrini was elected president of the Italian Chamber of Deputies with sweeping majority. This news makes revolutionary women, who are now being assaulted and humiliated, more hopeful about the future. Yet, with Arab and Muslim heads of state congratulating Italy in electing Ms Boldrini, the case also underscores a curious change of attitude among some of the people who attempt to hamper our women.
Dr. Azza Kamel is an Egyptian writer, feminist activist and director of the Appropriate Communication Techniques (ACT)