When will the Egyptian govt solve the gender paradox?

“Women only” metro compartments will never protect women from sexual violence in Egypt

Azzurra Meringolo

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“Do you really think that a poster of Nefertiti wearing a gas mask and surrounded by splatters of blood is a signal of women’s empowerment?” “Can graffiti presenting women as the face of the revolution be an engine of women’s empowerment?” And “Do you think that all the graffiti paying tribute to the brave women fighting for equality in post- revolutionary Egypt can really affect their everyday life?” These are the questions collected at the end of a half an hour presentation focused on the importance of women’s images on Cairo’s walls. It’s June 4, just a couple of hours after the approval of a law criminalizing sexual harassment, the first one of this kind in modern Egyptian history. Taharrush – a relatively new term that has replaced asmu’aksa (flirtation) to describe sexual harassment - is finally considered a crime and perpetrators might now face penalties, such as long jail terms and high fines. Even if I am aware that Egyptian feminists accuse legislators of failing to take account of all their advice, I have the answer in my pocket for my public: Egyptian women have won an important battle of their struggle for equality.

Nevertheless, it takes just four days to convince me that female emancipation is still an uphill road. As expected, amid fireworks and enthusiastic chanting during the celebration for the election of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, on June 8, at least nine cases of sexual violence were reported. Al-Azhar’s grand imam condemned the “incident” and President Sisi visited the victims, vowing that those responsible would be brought to justice. Thus, the hope is that the new law will not remain words on paper.

In Egypt, violence against women across historical, cultural and national divides continues to be a socially accepted practice

Azzurra Meringolo

However, law alone it’s not enough. Yasmin el-Baramawy, the victim of a two hour-long gang-rape near Tahrir Square who had the courage to speak out, filed a complaint at the police station, blaming the rapist and those who ignored the problem or didn’t believe her.

Violence against women

In fact, in Egypt, violence against women across historical, cultural and national divides continues to be a socially accepted practice, if not a norm. According to a survey conducted by the U.N. entity for gender equality and empowerment of women in 2013, more than 99 percent of Egyptian women are harassed on a daily basis. Some analysts agree that Egypt’s patriarchal society is the root of this problem and that this will go on until society detaches itself from dominating sexual illusions. But these illusions will be perceived as reality as long as marginalization and exclusion of women from the public and political sphere continue.

Observing what is going on inside Egyptian institutions and on Cairo’s walls, it seems that women’s empowerment is traveling at two different speeds. In the post-revolution artistic space, we can witness an increasing presence of combative and supportive female subjects. But in the institutional field, female emancipation proceeds in slow motion. What we are facing is a gender paradox that affects women all across Egyptian society.

Female members of the now banned Muslim Brotherhood made up almost 25 percent of the organization. These women have long been active in the role of mobilizing voters and working at street level. They were, however, forbidden from voting or running in the Brotherhood’s internal elections, and banned from taking part in the group’s two supreme decision-making bodies, the Shura Council (the legislative body) and the Guidance Bureau (the executive arm). The makeup of the last – non Islamist- Constituent assembly with 5 women in the 50 member committee was only a marginal improvement on the six women in the 100 member committee in 2012 Brotherhood Constituent assembly. It was a far cry from the 50 percent called for by some women activists. As a result, women’s rights in the constitution have taken a backseat to other controversial issues.

Egyptian women in elections

The increasing presence of Egyptian women in elections shows their willingness to be part of the political machine. In 1975, their participation was around 15 percent, a crumb compared to that seen in the last elections. Representation in parliament has not had a steady increase in female participation due to the on-again, off again approach with the use of gender quota introduced in 1979. Even if in the first ten years, the quota led to a modest jump of female seats, quota has also been considered an instrument used by Mubarak to occupy even more seats in the Parliament. The gender paradox can clearly be observed in the 2012 parliamentary elections. As showed by Nahla Samaha, women running on party list accounted for only 6.15 percent of the candidates for the two third seats. Women competing as individual candidates accounted for 30.6 percent, vying for only one third of the seats. With the numbers already stacked against them, out of 376 women who ran for seats, only 8 women representing 2 percent of the Parliament, were elected.

In order to eliminate this gender paradox, as recent Egyptian history shows, graffiti representing women is not enough. Enshrining women’s participation in politics could be an efficient antidote against the patriarchal traditions and behaviors. The marginalization from the public sphere will only make matters worse. If President Sisi –who in 2012 hit the headlines with a statement that appeared to defend “virginity tests” – is serious about promoting women’s security, he should insist on promoting women’s inclusion in the new political life of the country.

While waiting for the expected formation of Egypt’s new cabinet has been held up after several candidates turned down offers of ministerial positions from Prime Minister Ibrahim Melheb, the hope was that the new regime would not limit the promotion of women. But, upon reading the list of the new ministers the message is clear: Just 4 women out of 31 seats.

According to the National Women’s Council, this goes against President Sisi’s claims that more women should hold important posts.

“Women only” metro compartments will never protect women from sexual violence, neither will a male-dominated social and political system.


Azzurra Meringolo holds a PhD in International Relations, working as journalist and has traveled in the Middle East for years working for the Italian national Radio and Broadcasting Company, Rai,. Contributor to Italian and international newspapers, she is Editor-in-Chief of the IAI's webzine AffarInternazionali and scientific coordinator of the Arab Media Report. She is a researcher within IAI's Mediterranean and Middle East program. Author of I ragazzi di piazza Tahrir, in 2012 she won the Ivan Bonfanti Journalism Award. Her doctoral thesis on Egyptian anti-Americanism won the Maria Grazia Cutuli Prize. In 2013 she received the Indro Montanelli Journalistic Prize. You can follow her @ragazzitahri

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