Calling in from Cairo via Skype, a panel of three women activists discussed the role of women before, during, and after Egypt's January 25th revolution. The panelists drew upon their perspectives on recent events.
On June 15, the Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a discussion, "Revolution and Women's Rights: The Case of Egypt," with three panelists: Dalia Ziada, blogger and Egypt office Director, American Islamic Congress; Manar Mohsen, human rights activist; and Amany El-Tunsy, publisher, author and women's rights activist. Zainab Al- Suwaij, Executive Director, American Islamic Congress, based in Washington, and Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the event from Washington.
Al-Suwaij provided introductory remarks, noting that both men and women have been equal in their demands for democratic change. She outlined the issues the panelists will address, including the roles women are playing now and the challenges women will face in the future.
El-Tunsy explained that in 2007 she noticed that there was no real media reflecting the needs of Middle Eastern women. So, she founded Banat wi Bas (Girls Only) Radio, which discusses only women's issues and continues to be the first of its kind in the Arab world. In the first weeks, she had 15,000 subscribers, a number which has now reached 5 million. She said although she does not identify with a particular political party or group, when the demonstrations started she went out into Tahrir Square to find out what women wanted. During the revolution, she used her web site to instruct people to come out into Tahrir Square, a move which prompted security services to interrogate her.
Mohsen, a 20-year-old journalist and political activist who was arrested during the revolution, described the events in Tahrir Square as phenomenal. She stated that for the first time there was a sense of equality and that this was the Egypt that everyone wanted. The revolution, Mohsen said, ushered a sense of change and activists have begun to organize and speak out for women's rights. For example, on June 20, a Twitter campaign on women's harassment will take place which was organized by the youth movement. Asked about the future of women's rights in Egypt, Mohsen commented that education will need to be the foundation upon which change is realized; she noted that women need help not in educating themselves but in making the transition from education to the work force, since the unemployment rate is so high. Mohsen was, however, optimistic about the future of Egyptian women.
Ziada, an award-winning blogger and human rights activist, discussed her activities and recalled an experience administering a survey asking a single question, should the president of Egypt be a woman, during the March 19 referendum to amend Egypt's constitution. To her disappointment, 100 percent of those surveyed said no, underscoring the cultural sense in Egypt that a woman's role is at home. Although the revolution opened up a window for change, Ziada admitted to being pessimistic about women's role in Egyptian society. She commented on how the situation has progressively gotten worse and that women are increasingly being marginalized.
The panelists agreed that during the revolution everyone, regardless of gender, was just an Egyptian. Today, however, a lot of women activists are disappointed to realize that women's rights and participation are being excluded in the democracy movement. When asked about the support for women's rights in Egypt, the panelists agreed that there are many NGOs, women's organizations, and social media networks but that these groups lack cohesion, organization, and experience, a difficulty that will be overcome in time.
By Rachel Peterson, Middle East Program