After the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak, a group of feminist activists stood at the heart of Tahrir Square and made several demands concerning women’s rights and freedoms.
They were met by insults and curses from passers-by and criticism from others, who maintained this was not the time for a conversation about women’s rights. Critics suggested the priority should be “more important” social issues, such as poverty and unemployment.
Advocates of women’s rights have been struggling to raise awareness of gender-based issues in this context since the January 25, 2011 revolution.
Passionate women’s rights advocate and researcher, Dalia Abdel Hameed, head of the gender program at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), talked to Mada Masr about this battle over priorities.
Mada Masr: The battle for women’s rights appears to involve conflict with both the state and society. How do you approach this?
Dalia Abdel Hameed: Personal rights are a major focus for EIPR. The founders of the initiative recognized how neglected personal rights were among broader rights work in Egypt, which largely centred on political rights — such as monitoring elections — and economic rights.
Those working on gender-based issues understand that bottom-up, societal change is necessary. Putting pressure on the state might result in some policy changes, but these changes remain meaningless if they are not accompanied by social change.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is the clearest example. It was criminalized a few years ago, but this was not accompanied by widespread social change. The practice has decreased, but it is still prevalent in Egypt, because societal views were not addressed, resulting in superficial changes to people’s perceptions of the practice. The law has also lost its value, as, in the first case of its kind to go to court, the judge did not find the defendants guilty [in the case of 13-year-old Soheir al-Batea, in which her father and physician were both acquitted].
Whether or not to focus on changes to policies and laws or societal change is a continuous debate among rights workers focussing on gender-based issues.
The conclusion is nearly always that we have to work on both simultaneously. Yet this work should also be accompanied by state recognition of existing problems.
Let’s consider the issue of gender-based violence, for example. Before the revolution, we worked on challenging articles in the penal code relating to gender-based violence, rape and sexual assault. The revolution made it possible for us to work on these issues in a very different manner, through supporting groups going to the square and raising awareness. This resulted in a significant change in the way citizens perceive gender-based violence. But it is important to also push for legal change. So far only one article was amended in the penal code, under the governance of former president Adly Mansour. We still have a long way to go in terms of introducing society to rights language for gender-based issues. Unfortunately, many still adhere to victim blaming, and in doing so, support the perpetrators of violence.
It’s very important to specify the target group of our campaigns, through continuous research about those who are most susceptible to change. From our perspective, approaching those on the extreme right is not a good idea, as getting them to change their stances is extremely difficult. It is easier to work with the critical masses that took part in the revolution, or those who have been socially and politically active at some point. For example, the debates raised after the Bab al-Bahr incident [in which television reporter Mona Iraqi led and helped organize the police raid on the Bab al-Bahr Bathhouse in downtown Cairo’s Ramses district, on December 1, to coincide with World AIDS Day] provoked discussions on LGBT issues we never would have thought possible before.
MM: How can you create a balance between challenging state policies and societal attitudes?
DAH: Creating this balance poses a constant challenge, as the decision is not always in our hands and is also dependent on the political climate. Right now the space for public mobilisation that opened up after 2011 has dramatically decreased and there is no “street” to speak of. Laws governing organization have heavily suppressed public protests.
There was a chance for public mobilization around gender-based issues to become the seed for a real feminist movement, but this momentum seems to have dissipated. We were able, however, to influence legal changes regarding harassment. Sometimes you win on one front and lose on others. This change appears to be largely cosmetic, as it wasn’t followed up with any support for implementation — for example with judges and lawyers. Instead, a state-led campaign followed the appointment of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. This put organizations that felt the need to challenge such state-led propaganda in a difficult position.
This dilemma is not new. The women’s rights movement has always been placed between the hammer and the anvil. When repression is widespread, the situation is much clearer. However, when the state shows preferential treatment towards a certain group, it becomes more difficult. This kind of “state feminism” was prevalent under Mubarak, whereby the state delivers selective benefits to certain groups, without effecting real change in the lives of women. This is a tactic to silence resistance and places us in a real bind, as we do not want to make a Faustian deal with the state and sell ourselves to the devil.
It is also important not to separate our fight from the rest of the leftist movements. We should situate ourselves within revolutionary struggle.
The paternalistic tone of the state is deeply problematic. For example, Sisi said, “Our men would never do this,” regarding sexual harassment, while in fact this happens all the time. Things like calls for the deletion of videos evidencing sexual harassment to protect “Egypt’s reputation” are the kinds of attitudes that encourage harassment and sexual violence in the first place.
Another crisis relates to the absence of political will. The state was not able to maintain this campaign or to build upon it, as it’s not one of its major concerns. This is partly due to the fact that the system itself commits sexual violence, including the military and police, both inside and outside of detention units. Sisi himself was among those who provided justifications for performing virginity tests, and there is a sense of denial among state actors regarding institutional violence. How can the state solve a problem that it does not even admit exists? On the rare occasions when it does admit to individual cases, there is no reform and restructuring of the Ministry of Interior, which is a core revolutionary demand.
MM: The feminist movement has been accused of being elitist. How do you respond to such accusations?
DAH: We don’t have a functional feminist movement. Before the revolution, all work on gender-based issues was carried out by human rights organizations. This was dangerous, as it led to criticisms of elitism.
However, if we look at the beginning of real change as being in 2011 and we understand that every movement is a product of its environment, we have to acknowledge that the revolution was largely urban, due to transportation and street movements. It is unfair to call this movement elitist based on its beginnings. Just because we focus on these issues in urban areas, it does not negate their existence in rural areas too.
When we support activists on certain cases, they can also expose instances elsewhere. This is how we came to know about Iman Mostafa Salama in Assiut, for example, who was murdered when she resisted the man who harassed her. Female students at Assiut University organized a demonstration to raise her case. There are also groups that started in Aswan, such as “Free Southerneress,” to deal with gender-based issues in a local context.
MM: What have been the general failures of the movement, in your opinion?
DAH: I don’t think there has been general failure. Regardless of what follows certain gains, we have to admit our achievements, especially in moments of defeat. The current state of regression is not specific to women’s rights. For example, the state did not adjust the penal code of its own free will. Imposing a certain level of correct political awareness when it comes to women’s issues, even if in the domain of social network websites or the media, is a big achievement.
For example, it was the people who managed to force the president of Cairo University, Gaber Nassar, to apologize for his inappropriate statement about the harassment of a female student on campus. The people also forced television presenters who made inappropriate comments about Syrian women to apologize, not feminist organizations or awareness groups.
The reactions of the public to the actions of Mona Iraqi in the case of Bab al-Bahr was also a major victory, and, in comparison to the Queen Boat incident, shows us how far we have come. People are now adopting more progressive attitudes. Even if they do not embrace the right to same sex partnerships, they are still talking about the right to privacy and dignity.
The strong public reaction following the release of two police officers accused of sexually assaulting a young woman led to their return to jail the very next day. There is progress taking place, even if it is slow and even if we cannot see it clearly due to the general state of regression and defeat.
MM: How important is a bottom-up movement for social change?
DAH: Policy change doesn’t have to be purely the imposition of laws from above.
Some people believe we need a progressive leadership that propels society to change. I’m not a proponent of this approach. Yes, women’s rights groups are often pioneering proponents of social change. But pioneers should not force people to change, but rather influence them to see and think differently.
For example, we have laws regulating children’s rights, human trafficking and FGM, and yet these practices still persist. Often, social critique is stronger than the law, and the problem of sexual violence, for example, is at its roots related to the nature of society, regardless of its legal criminalization.
If a woman on public transportation says that a man is harassing her, the rest of the passengers will not move to help her, because harassment is no longer socially abhorred. Whereas, if the same woman screams because of theft, people will most likely help her. If we want to see any real change, we have to work on societal change first. We have a great constitution, but what next? We are in a tragic situation. The people have to be personally convinced that certain rights and freedoms matter.