Nathan Brown, a professor at George Washington University who has studied the Arab world for decades, wrote this shortly after Egypt’s popular uprising succeeded in ending Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule: “Whatever differences may exist, for the first time in a generation, Arab societies look to Egypt for hope and inspiration.”
Egypt has a historical opportunity to build on the momentum of its revolution and lead the region in social progress. This means that the country’s courageous women will have a seat at the table in Egypt’s decision-making circles just as they stood steadfast in its Tahrir square.
The largest Arab country’s unique style of peaceful protest inspired on lookers because of the Cultural revolution it ignited, well before the political one. From America to India, people marveled in awe at the Muslims and Christians protecting each other’s prayer, and the volunteer doctors, dentists, barbers and cooks who contributed whatever they could to make Egypt’s awakening succeed. Outside the square, ordinary Egyptians earned the respect of the world when they organized to protect and clean up their neighborhoods, turning to civic engagement, not conflict, in a time of crisis.
The role of women in this historical reinvention of Egyptian society cannot be overstated. They were doctors and dissidents, artists and organizers. In fact, many credit the revolution’s beginnings to Asmaa Mahfouz, a 26-year-old Egyptian woman who started the April 6th youth movement that organized the protests. In the on line video that began a revolution, she implored other Egyptians to come out on January 25th to stand up for their dignity. Mahfouz appealed to her male counterpart’s chivalry. If it was dangerous for a young woman to go out and protest, she passionately argued, then they should come out and protect her.
Before the revolution, Egypt had a mixed record on gender justice. On one hand, women attend the best universities and competed in all fields of study. And this is how the vast majority of Egyptians wanted it. According to Gallup surveys, 90% of Egyptian men and women believe that girls and boys should have equal access to education. The well-known norm in Cairo University’s medical school is a female valedictorian.
Over the past 5 years Egypt also became known for severe levels of sexual harassment. The tragic sexual assault of CBS news reporter Lara Logan in Tahrir square the night Mubarak resigned focused global attention on this issue.
However, many women say this incident was a terrible exception to the norm during Egypt’s transformative 18 days.
“Those men and women in Tahrir were like family,” said Sahar El-Nadi, a photographer who chronicled the protest with her camera. “We were all together and we were not afraid.”
Despite their valor in the square and beyond, women are nowhere to be seen in Egypt’s transitional authority. Men alone made up the “wise men’s council”, the constitutional reform panel, and the current cabinet.
Many in the West and the East alike will blame religiosity for the deficit in women’s participation. However, empirical evidence tells a different story. Gallup found that religious practice actually correlates with more not less support for women’s equality. According to national polls, 43% of men who attended a religious service said women should be allowed to serve in a political leadership position, while only 30% of men who did not attend a religious service said the same. The same pattern emerged when Gallup asked Egyptians if men and women should have the same legal rights. The majority of men who attended a religious service (52%) supported gender equality, while only a minority of men who did not attend one (39%) agreed.
Moreover, it was Egypt’s Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa who issued an official fatwa declaring that women could be judges even as secular members of Egypt’s judiciary rejected the notion, The Mufti went even further to say that nothing in Islam prohibiting women from serving their nations as president.
Fortunately, it appears that progress is already well underway. In 2005, just 51% of men said women and men should have equal legal rights. This number jumped to 79% in late 2010, only months before a young woman would help ignite an uprising to stand up for the legal rights of all Egyptians.
As Egypt prepares for its first free presidential election and works to build the kind of society its people dream of, let it not forget that it is also inspiring the dreams of others. Historians may someday look back on Egypt’s revolution of January 25th as the catalyst of a social transformation which takes the region from the object of global pity to a leader of global progress. This forward leap requires every hand.