A-Z of progress and setbacks for Egyptian women between two international women’s days
On International Women’s Day, an A-Z of the past year in Egypt
Courtesy: دعاء العدل

On International Women’s Day, here is Mada Masr’s A-Z of the experiences and challenges Egyptian women have faced this year.

A — Cairo film festival opened in winter 2016 with Kamla Abu Zekry’s Yom Setat (A Day for Women), one of two Egyptian films that made it into the competition’s line-up. Nahed El Sebai won the award for “best actress” at CIFF for her role as Azza, a woman with a reputation as the village fool. When the lifeguard at a recently opened pool at the local community center announces that Sundays will be reserved exclusively for women, Azza is the first to partake. The film was praised for its portrayal of a space where women can be together away from society’s expectations.

In terms of cinema, March 2017 marked the 10-year anniversary of the Cairo International Women’s Festival, which seeks to show that women’s artistic perspectives extend across a wide range of issues and are not limited to gender. Initially started as a festival showcasing the work of women filmmakers from the Arab world and Latin America, Cairo International Women’s Festival became international in scope in 2013.

B — The agency behind billboard advertisements on Cairo’s highways playing on Egyptian proverbs considered by many people to be demeaning of women and normalizing gender-based violence came up against significant backlash. Although the agency behind the campaign, cooking oil company Sunny, suggested that the aim had been to counter negative stereotypes of women, it was widely criticized for reinforcing them. The Consumer Protection Authority (CPA) suspended the advertising campaign in February following a complaint filed by the National Council for Women.

Earlier in the year, the CPA also suspended Ramadan advertising campaigns that were judged to be insulting to women due to sexual innuendo and disrespect of social norms.

Courtesy: The HUB

C — A contentious draft law on custody rights, proposed by MP Sohair al-Hady, met with such a backlash that Hady was compelled to make comments to the press welcoming suggestions to legislation. The National Council for Women said it was working on its own draft in turn. According to the current law, a divorced mother in Egypt has the right to custody of her children until the age of 15, but only so long as she remains unmarried. If she does remarry, custody passes to her female relatives. The drafted legislation proposed that, if a mother remarries, custody would go to the father as long as he can provide a female caretaker. While Women’s rights activists have long called for reform of the law, the changes would not have addressed their concerns. Over 90 percent of divorced women surveyed by the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women (ADEW) reported they had chosen not to remarry in order not to lose custody of their children.

DAt the start of 2017, Parliament’s religious committee was preparing a draft law on divorce. Comments made by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi indicated that the new law would put an end to verbal divorce as a means of reducing burgeoning divorce rates, which he described as a threat to social stability. According to the state statistics agency, there was a 10.8 percent increase in the number of divorces in 2015.

When it comes to issues of marriage and divorce, Egypt follows Islamic Sharia law, which is primarily weighted in favor of men. Verbal divorce refers to undocumented divorce, which is often used by men in an attempt to pressure women to give up alimony rights. While Al-Azhar issued a statement rejecting Sisi’s call to end the practice, the National Council for Women called on Parliament to put an end to the practice in order to protect women.

E — Independent MP Elhamy Agina made international headlines in September for his comments suggesting that women should undergo female circumcision to reduce their sexual desires to match that of Egypt’s “sexually weak” men. A referral to Parliament’s ethics committee, following complaints from several MPs, did not appear to discourage Agina, as he made comments the same month calling for mandatory “virginity tests” for women applying to universities in Egypt.

FFemale circumcision was made a felony in August 2016, with the penalty increased from the previous maximum of two-year prison term to five to seven years, with an additional maximum of up to 15 years if the operation leads to death or permanent injury. Anyone accompanying women and girls to be circumcised may also be sentenced to one to three years under the new stipulations. Since the law on female circumcision was first passed in 2008, only one case has been taken to the courts.  

In May 2016, a teenage girl died as a result of a female circumcision operation in a private hospital in Suez. Mayar Mohamed Moussa underwent the operation under full anesthesia at the same time as her twin sister, who survived. Despite the official ban, female circumcision remains a widespread practice. The United Nations has reported that 74 percent of female circumcision operations are performed in Egypt by doctors and 8 percent by nurses and other medical personnel.

G —  Nadia Abdo was the first woman to be appointed to the post of governor in February of this year. She was sworn in as governor of Beheira, where she has served as deputy governor since 2013. Previously a chemical engineer she spent 10 years as chief of the Alexandria Drinking Water Company — the first woman to do so — presiding over water utilities projects in the governorate. She was also a member of the National Council for Women’s Rights and first won a seat in Parliament with the former ruling National Democratic Party, headed by ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

H — The first team to compete from Egypt in the Olympics volleyball competition, Doaa El-Ghobashy and Nada Meawad drew international attention at Rio because of the contrast of their dress covering their arms and legs with the bikini-style uniforms of their German competitors. Photos of Ghobashy with her hijab facing off against Kira Walkenhorst were widely circulated, with many commentators and media outlets suggesting that they represented the unifying power of sport. Although, a minority suggested the images pointed to insurmountable difference.

The pair was able to compete in long sleeves and long trousers as a result of a change in the regulations leading up to the London 2012 Olympics aiming at being more inclusive. Elghobashy’s hijab was allowed after a last-minute decision following a request from the African Volleyball Confederation.

I — A group of feminist organizations launched the It Happens campaign to bring attention to rape, asserting that “rape ‘happens’ in the street, homes, work, ‘happens’ from husbands, fathers, uncles, brothers, “happens” from neighbors, friends, strangers, ‘happens’ at any time, any hour be it day or night, ‘happens’ to all women of different ages and ‘happens’ in all societal classes. Nazra for Feminist Studies, Al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA) and the New Woman Foundation (NWF) launched the campaign within the context of 16 Days of Activism in International Campaign to Combat Violence against Women, November 25 to December 10, 2016. The subject of rape was chosen because it remains socially taboo and legal definitions remain limited.

J — Journalist Mona Yousry challenged the taboo on the little reported world of harassment in journalism in August 2016 when she submitted a complaint to the prosecution against Ibrahim Khalil, the editor-in-chief of the prestigious state-run Rose al-Youssef magazine.

Female journalists are subject to sexual harassment from editors, colleagues and technicians in the newsroom, as well as sources and members of the public. Many are reluctant to speak out fearing it may endanger their future careers, as most Egyptian journalists need to be hired on fixed contracts to join the Journalists Syndicate, which is the only way to secure financial security for many of them.

The head of the Safe Areas unit at Harassmap, Ahmed Hegab, describes working with media and journalism institutions as some of the most difficult to deal with.

K — With the aim of being a knowledge hub on sexuality and gender, Ikhytar’s latest publication is a collection of texts including translations on bad feelings, asserting the importance of understanding feelings rather than ignoring them to better grapple with social and political life. A collective of feminist women and men, Ikhtyar “Choice” for Gender studies and Research hopes that by developing resources and discussions in Arabic, it can help the Egyptian feminist movement narrate its experience in its own language and develop its own theories that take account of local context.

L — Nazra for Feminist Studies Executive Director Mozn Hassan was named as one of the laureates of the 2016 Right Livelihood Award, widely referred to as the Alternative Nobel Prize. The Swedish Right Livelihood Award Foundation praised Hassan “for asserting the equality and rights of women in circumstances where they are subject to ongoing violence, abuse and discrimination.” Hassan was unable to accept the award in person because she has been banned from travel due to an ongoing investigation into civil society organizations.

M — In the days leading up to International Women’s Day this year, the National Council for Women released a statement announcing its support for a popular campaign launched in 2011 calling on the military to open its doors to female conscripts. The head of the council, May Morsi, called for the establishment of military colleges for women to make women’s participation in the military a reality. She said the campaign is evidence of a new generation of girls aware of the crisis facing Egypt and who have a genuine desire to defend the homeland.

N — Buses of women teachers were stopped in Rafah in North Sinai by armed men demanding that they wear the niqab in February. Men proclaiming themselves members of the Province of Sinai, the local Islamic State affiliate, intercepted two buses, one of them twice. The second time, they threatened the teachers that this was the last warning from the Province of Sinai’s “committee for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice” and that, if they did not wear niqab and travel in the company of a male relative, they would be punished with whipping and acid. Top governorate officials did not believe the teachers’ account until one of the drivers confirmed it. February also saw the forced relocation of hundreds of Coptic families from Arish, in the face of violence and targeted attack launched by Islamic militants in North Sinai.

O — Cairo University President Gaber Nassar led an on-campus march against sexual harassment and violence against women in December 2016 within the framework of the UN’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign from the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women that culminated on 10 December, Human Rights Day. Cairo University’s inauguration of an on-campus unit to combat violence against women in 2015 signaled an important social shift in recognizing that harassment also takes place on-campus. In comments he made at the march, Nassar pledged harsh punishments for those accused of harassment.

P — When a young Egyptian woman took to Facebook posting a picture of herself with her baby from an unofficial “customary” marriage and a defense of her decision to keep him, social media became ablaze. Hadeeer Mekawy’s case reopened debate about the thorny issue of paternity.

In Egypt, if a mother does not have an official marriage document, she cannot register her child who will then struggle to access state services. Mekawy is launching a legal case to establish her son’s paternity, which is necessary for a birth certificate to be issued, and this can take years. Most paternity cases involve customary marriages, which, because they are not documented in court, leave fathers with more room to maneuver. These laws have left thousands of Egyptian women with no proof of marriage contracts struggling for years to prove the paternity of their children.

Q — Egypt’s Foreign Ministry condemned the fatal mass shooting in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which left 50 people dead in July 2016, in a statement published on its Facebook page. The move attracted local ridicule given how the Egyptian state has increasingly targeted the queer community since 2013.

On his Twitter account, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zeid offered his “heartfelt condolences to the families of Orlando’s horrific terrorist attack victims.” “We stand united in this moment of grief,” he stated.

While homosexuality is not technically criminalized in the Egyptian Penal Code, LGBT individuals are often targeted using laws concerning “debauchery,” along with other vague indictments such as “indecent behavior” and “violating public morals.” Authorities are known for using dating apps, such as Grindr, to entrap people.

Taekwondo olympic winner Hedaya Malak billboard at Nady al-Seid

R — Two of the three bronze medals awarded to Egypt at the Rio Olympics were won by women, despite 83 male athletes having participated, compared to just 37 female athletes. Hedaya Malak clinched the bronze medal for taekwondo, while Sara Ahmed and Mohamed Ehab secured medals competing in weightlifting. Also, five of the 11 medals Egypt won at the Rio Paralympics were won by women, all in powerlifting.

Olympic athletes complain of negligence that leaves them without proper resources and state support. Samir, who at 18 years old is the first Egyptian female athlete to medal at the games, was unable to postpone her high school exams until after the Olympics and received failing grades in all subjects.

S — A number of residents from Karm village in Minya assaulted and stripped an elderly Coptic Christian woman, dragging her through the street. The violence, sparked by a rumor of a romance between her son and a Muslim woman, also featured an attack on seven Coptic families, severe damage and financial losses. The attack on Soad Thabet garnered international headlines and prompted angry reactions nationwide, with Sisi issuing a public apology to Thabet and pledging to ascertain those responsible for the attack.

Three men implicated in the assault were indicted in February of this year in an about-face after the Minya prosecutor responsible for the case had decided to close investigations without issuing an indictment. The prosecutor cited a lack of evidence necessary to proceed after Thabet recanted her testimony due to external pressure.

T— Civil society was at the forefront of the confrontation with government authorities over the past year, with the reopening in 2016 of a case against a number of NGOs and human rights defenders. The case so far has seen the imposition of travel bans and asset freezes, as well as the interrogation of NGO staff, some of whom face charges that carry life sentences. The screw was further tightened with the drafting of a new NGO law late in the year that threatens the work of all civil society organizations, whether political, more charitable or arts-based. Travel bans against leading defenders of women’s rights include Mozn Hassan, the director of Nazra for Feminist Studies, Azza Soliman, the director of Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA) and Aida Seif al-Dawla, the cofounder of the Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence.

U — Egypt decided to use its position in the UN Security Council to abstain on a resolution to combat sexual assault by US peacekeepers in March 2016. The resolution was passed by 14 out of 15 member-states, with only Egypt abstaining. Egypt’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson lashed out at former US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, who had posted a picture of nations “voting (but failing) to undermine a UNSC resolution combating sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers,” on her Twitter account, with the caption “sad.”

V — In May, Nazra for Feminist Studies issued a paper taking stock of the year after the launch of the National Strategy For Combating Violence Against WomenThe paper — which focuses on the question of monitoring mechanisms — notes some positive steps that have been taken within the framework of the strategy, in particular the development of training and a medical protocol for dealing with survivors of sexual violence.   

Apart from ambiguous and generic monitoring mechanisms for follow-up and monitoring, Nazra points to a key contradiction in that the Ministry of Interior is both a central partner in the strategy’s implementation and monitoring while it is a major perpetrator of violence against women.

In terms of evaluation, which Nazra believes is key to the strategy’s success, their outlook is bleak: Civil society should be a key partner in the implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the strategy, but the security crackdown on human rights and feminist organizations leaves this in the hands of state agencies. Also, it hampers the work already being done to combat violence against women, and “these are hardly tasks that the state can handle on its own.”

W — Toward the end of 2016, several Egyptian magazines featured images from UN Women in Egypt’s ad campaign, titled Finding Her, drawing attention to the low proportion of women in the country’s workforce, which is only 23 percent female. Modeled on children’s book Where’s Wally? (Where’s Waldo? to US readers), the campaign features images from three male-dominated industries — politics, science and technology — with few women scattered among the multitude of male workers. Created by illustrators IC4Design and marketing agency DDB, the messaging on each illustration reads, “It shouldn’t be that hard to find women in the workplace.”

X — X is for the red wax sealing the headquarter doors of the Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence’s headquarters. A sizable police force converged on Al-Nadeem Center in downtown Cairo in February, forcibly closing the building. The Health Ministry had issued a closure order the previous February, whose legality has been criticized by human rights lawyers. One of the center’s cofounders Aida Seif al-Dawla found out she had been banned from international travel in November. Al-Nadeem was established in 1993 and has been tasked with providing legal and psychological support for victims of torture and violence, and, since 2000, Al-Nadeem has run a program offering psychological, social and rehabilitative support to victims of domestic violence and rape.

Y — The UN’s 2016 Arab Human Development Report (AHDR), released six years after the start of the Arab uprisings, is the first to be devoted to youth (15-29 year-olds) since it began in 2002. The report notes that values supporting gender equality are highest in Algeria, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia and lowest in Egypt, Jordan and Yemen. Egypt is, however, named as a country that saw a particularly high jump in pro-gender views after the uprisings, albeit from a low base.

Z — Actor Zeina successfully sued fellow actor Ahmed Ezz for defamation after he repeatedly denied that her twin boys were his children, despite a court ruling to the contrary in 2015. Ezz and Zeina were reportedly wed in a customary (urfi) marriage before she gave birth to the twins. In June 2016, Ezz was convicted of defamation in absentia and sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay a LE15,000 fine and LE20,000 in compensation.

During 2016’s Ramadan, Zeina starred in a Ramadan show also dealing with themes of paternity. In Azmit Nasab (Crisis of Lineage), she played a maid who is pregnant with the child of a married businessman who denies the child is his.


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