LEFT BEHIND

03.09.12

After the Arab Spring, Are Egypt’s Women Losing Ground?

Egypt’s women, who were central to the revolution, worry their glimpse at new freedoms is fading. At the Women in the World Summit, a debate over Cairo at a crossroads.

Women played a vital role in Egypt’s revolution, but a year later the effect of Hosni Mubarak’s fall on the lives of women is still uncertain. Women from across Egypt’s political spectrum are debating the role of Islam and the future of Egypt’s female citizens.

Women led the men into Tahrir Square a year ago, said Sondos Asem, editor of the Muslim Brotherhood’s English-language site. “On Jan. 25, me and my mother and sisters convinced my father and brothers to join us,” she told moderator Andrew Sullivan. “We women stood at the forefront of the security barriers so the men could pass behind us,” she said, explaining that Hosni Mubarak’s security forces wouldn’t attack them. “We broke the security barriers till we got to Tahrir Square.”

But Namees Arnous, who quit her job at a news agency to join the revolution and now works for Bokra for Media Production, is worried the women of Egypt are being marginalized by the religious groups that have come to the fore since the fall of Mubarak. She says she appreciates the Muslim Brotherhood’s efforts before the revolution, but has questions about their policies now that they’re in power. And she was always against the Salafists, the hardline Islamic party that came in second behind the Brotherhood in Egypt’s elections. They want to “put women inside a box inside the home,” she said.

Sondos said it was important to respect the freedom of the Salafists, who were oppressed by Mubarak. “I think after revolution we need to accept our diversity and accept fact that we are different,” she said. “I respect their right to wear hijab.”

To which Arnous shot back, “I don’t respect them to pollute my freedom. They have all right to wear hijab, but they have no right to tell me what to do.”

Dalia Ziada, Egypt director of the American Islamic Congress, was also concerned about extremism, but said, “The problem is not with Islam or Christianity or any religion, it’s with those who claim to speak in the name of God, those who want to play the role of God in people’s lives.”

Women, she said, were essential to Egypt’s revolution—and there’s more work to be done if they’re going to benefit from it. “We have a lot of work to do now on behalf of women in Egypt,” she said. “Tell people there is no spring without flowers, likewise there is no Arab Spring without women.”