Despite their noticeable participation in pro-democracy protests that toppled the former regime and paved the way for a new era in Egypt, Egyptian women are still finding themselves relatively excluded from the current political scene.
The current cabinet includes only one female, while both the fact-finding committee responsible for investigating police violations that took place during Egypt's uprising and the committee that drafted the constitutional amendments up for referendum next Saturday are comprised only of men.
Many Egyptian women complain that society limits their roles to stereotypical domestic responsibilities, deeming them incapable of holding high office. They also complain of traditions that restrict their ability to participate effectively in politics.
“The higher you go in the political hierarchy and into the decision making levels, the fewer females you’ll find,” says Nehad Aboul Komsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights.
Aboul Komsan says that even though women are very active as organizers in civil society and in public service in general, they are barred from higher positions for many reasons–some no longer existing after the uprising–but others still apparent.
Komsan says women were omitted from political parties’ nominations before the uprising because success in politics depended on corruption–and women, she says, are not amenable to corrupt behavior. “Women usually have a strong position that is built on principles and doesn’t take other considerations into account, which can be inconvenient for the corrupt,” she says.
The recent uprising might solve this problem, as politics is expected to become cleaner, but another still persists. Egypt’s culture is still wary of female leadership. Women are often regarded as unworthy of trust, Aboul Komsan says.
She blames education for creating a culture that rejects female leadership. Women are depicted in Egyptian educational curriculums as weak, and it's expected that their responsibilities should be limited to cooking and cleaning, says Komsan.
Egyptians regard women as unfit for political leadership because of these domestic roles and their need to take maternity leave after giving birth, according to Komsan: “As if Egyptian women were different from women all over the world who are presidents.”
The culture that prohibits female political participation starts at home in many cases. Girls are not allowed to stay out late, though many protests, party meetings and other political events take place late in the day. Many girls complained during the revolution that they were prohibited from taking part in protests by their parents, because of the culture which holds that girls must be protected and kept away from harm.
Komsan says that females in many Egyptian houses are brought up with numerous constraints that hinder their development in a manner that leaves them unprepared for political participation. She says that traditions often leave girls stuck at home, denying them the exposure needed to develop, and many important experiences needed to develop political awareness.
Karima al-Hefnawy, who has been an activist for 40 years, says women have to constantly struggle for their place in politics–but this, she adds, can motivate them even further.
“When society keeps telling women they can’t be judges or presidents, they try to prove the opposite and this gives them more motivation to excel,” she says.
Even though she is a respected public figure, al-Hefnawy says she still faces daily problems as a female activist, for example being given the floor last after all the men have spoken. “As a female, you have to snatch your rights one after the other, you have to defy traditions and be in the frontlines,” she says.
Al-Hefnawy believes that the uprising started a change that will eventually give women full rights to political participation, but she believes that changing the current culture of underestimating female roles will take some time. “Things started to change, but all the residues of the old regime that was turned upside down after 30 years can’t be expected to change overnight,” she says.
Despite the ongoing problems, Komsan agrees that women’s position in politics is bound to improve after the revolution. “The women who broke the barrier of fear and participated in protests will not go back, they are now stronger and braver and they are waiting for the fruits of their efforts,” she says.
A demonstration was staged last Tuesday, dubbed “the million woman march,” in which women asked for their rights to be included in decision making. Ironically, the number of women "marching" was in the tens. The small protest was met by hundreds of other protesters aggressively opposing their targets.
But Komsan rejects the popular dismissal of the demands of women for equal participation as minority demands, saying they are democratic demands that are essential for the success of the revolution.
“A revolution that doesn’t liberate the whole society is an incomplete one,” she says.