During the 18 days of the uprising against Husni Mubarak’s autocratic rule, the streets were filled with women from across the Egyptian social spectrum. Young and old, veiled and unveiled, poor and affluent — women came out in force to support the movement for a democratic revolution. Yet the gender politics of post-Mubarak Egypt look startlingly familiar, with women’s participation in rebuilding the Egyptian state tightly controlled by the transitional government. No women were appointed to the committee convened by the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) to propose amendments to the constitution in the wake of Mubarak’s forced resignation. The various cabinets interim Prime Minister ‘Isam Sharaf has convened in the last eight months have included only one female minister, Fayza Abu al-Naga, a holdover from Mubarak’s regime.

Neither the Islamic nor the Christian establishment has engaged with the public debate about the role of women in Egyptian civil society. Still on the defensive for their early opposition to the protest movements, both institutions have been cautious about anything controversial. As the government, the SCAF, al-Azhar and the Coptic Church work to maintain the gender order associated with the old regime, activist women are using their numerical predominance and high profile in the media and the universities to push for institutional reform as a key step forward in the struggle for democracy.

“Suzanne’s Laws”

Public campaigns to discredit the old regime have targeted the state-sponsored feminism that has defined women’s civic and social roles since the formation of the Egyptian republic in 1952. The constitution of 1956 guaranteed women the right to vote and run for public office, in exchange for controlling the content and scope of women’s political agendas. State policies and resources explicitly shaped the role that women were to play in the development of society. During the 1950s and 1960s, the state emphasized the productive roles of women outside the home by expanding educational and employment opportunities and encouraging birth control. With the onset of economic crisis in the 1970s and 1980s, the state encouraged women’s return to the home through the availability of unpaid maternity leave for women in the state sector and attractive early retirement packages.

The Egyptian state consolidated control over the women’s rights agenda in 2000 with the creation (by presidential decree) of the National Council for Women. Led by Mubarak’s wife Suzanne and headquartered in the National Democratic Party (NDP) offices in Cairo, the National Council collected data on illiteracy among women, disseminated information about health services and disease prevention, partnered with international and aid organizations to provide training and microcredit for women, facilitated the acquisition of ID cards that granted access to existing resources and recruited women interested in running for local and national office to the ruling NDP. Important legislation regarding personal status was proposed by the NDP through the People’s Assembly. These incrementally progressive gender policies sought both to legitimize the Mubarak regime as a supporter of women’s rights and to promote the National Council as the official representative of Egyptian women in international fora. As a result, the National Council drew international donor money away from non-governmental organizations, many of which provide women with the social services abandoned by the state, such as birth control, employment training, income-generating activities and professional work. The state has also used the Ministry of Social Affairs — which must approve domestic and international funding for NGOs — to rein in civil society institutions that oppose the state’s policies on women, human rights and other issues.

The National Council’s close association with Mubarak’s regime fueled attacks on state-sponsored changes to the personal status code, which critics termed “Suzanne’s laws.” This label refers to four specific reforms: the right to a “no-fault” divorce (khul‘), in which a woman forfeits financial claims on her spouse in exchange for divorce; mothers’ right to retain custody of sons until they are 15 years old and daughters until they are married, as well as to make important decisions regarding their children’s education; the right of Egyptian women married to foreign nationals to pass Egyptian nationality to their children; and electoral quotas for women.

Discrediting gender laws by ascribing them to the undue influence of the president’s wife is, of course, not new. Expansions of the personal status law and a parliamentary quota for women enacted under Anwar al-Sadat in 1979 were similarly ridiculed as “Jihan’s laws” before they were repealed by the High Constitutional Court in 1985. Both the personal status law and the electoral quotas were struck down: the former for being passed by a presidential decree when a sitting parliament was in session and the latter for violating Article 7 of the constitution, which grants all Egyptian citizens equality before the law and prohibits discrimination due to race, origin, language or religion. In 2011, positive discrimination in favor of women’s rights in the family and political representation continues to be viewed as a sign of unchecked or illegal executive power. Quotas granting 50 percent representation to workers and peasants, however, have been debated frequently since 1961, but remain unchallenged as a corrective for historical political exclusion.

Popular debate about the proper role of a president’s wife has surged in 2011 with the publication of Tahiyya Abdel Nasser’s memoirs, which were also serialized in the daily newspaper al-Shurouq. In Memories with Him, Abdel Nasser defines herself as the wife of the president and the mother of their children and evinces the belief that maintaining a limited formal role earned her the respect of many Egyptians. [1] (Indeed, using Him in the title seems to relegate Abdel Nasser to the background of her husband Gamal’s public life.) In contrast, Jihan al-Sadat and Suzanne Mubarak staked out powerful public roles by claiming to advance policy goals for women and children. Their reliance on executive authority has made these women — as well as the programs and laws they championed — symbols of political corruption and the abuse of power.

Rejecting the “Femocrats”

Since Mubarak’s departure, women’s groups have vigorously opposed the revival of the National Council, half of whose board members resigned after the mass demonstrations of January 25. In March, a leading coalition of feminist women’s organizations, the Alliance of Women’s Organizations, sent statements to Sharaf and the SCAF demanding the replacement of the National Council with a democratic, transparent body of representatives from civil society groups rather than party-appointed bureaucrats. A second statement in June asked international donors to stop their support of the National Council until it is restructured. Activist critiques of the National Council gained momentum from sympathetic coverage by official media outlets trying to dissociate themselves from the corruption of the old regime; news reports in May 2011 revealed that the National Council failed to provide proper accounting for some $800 million of international aid. [2]

In response to bad publicity and activist pressure, Sharaf has proposed the creation of a Commission for Women, though its functions and policies remain undefined. Dramatic reform of the National Council will be hampered, however, by government policies that seek further to restrict the independence of NGOs and limit criticism of the military and civilian leadership. Minister of Planning and International Cooperation Abu al-Naga, a career diplomat whom Sharaf reappointed from Mubarak’s cabinet, has moved to cut off the flow of international funding for civic organizations not approved by the Egyptian state in the interest of “national sovereignty.” This policy continues the Mubarak-era project to limit the activities of civil society groups — and to rely on female spokespersons to do so. Law 153, sponsored by Minister of Insurance and Social Affairs Mervat al-Tallawi in the late 1990s, initiated the “government’s micromanagement of all aspects of NGO operations.” [3] Her successor, Amina al-Gindi, replaced Law 153 with the even more restrictive Law 84, which allowed the government to unilaterally dissolve NGOs for any violation of its terms.

While some women’s organizations have been supportive of plans for a restructured Commission, others are skeptical of the state’s involvement in formulating a women’s rights agenda. A June 2011 conference organized by the Alliance of Arab Women, a member of the new coalition of feminist NGOs, along with the Association of Former United Nations Employees and other members, drew 3,000 men and women activists from across Egypt under the banner, “Women Are Partners in the Revolution.” The discussion ranged from traditional women’s issues like family law to broad questions about the constitution, civil liberties and economic and social justice. Some activists within this coalition, including Muna Zulfiqar (a former member of the National Council) and Iqbal Baraka, who have previously been sympathetic to state feminism, have gone further by proposing an independent union for Egyptian women to determine their own agendas outside of state control. This push to explore new forms of organization indicates that the state’s institutional relationship to women — one that has allowed the former to dominate the latter in exchange for some concessions — has been significantly challenged.

Personal Status Laws in Crisis

The religious establishment has responded to the push for new approaches to women’s rights and family issues in a limited fashion. While there has been some reshuffling of interests around certain reformed family laws, deep tensions remain about the role of Muslim and Christian institutions in either shaping or adhering to laws about marriage, divorce and the family.

According to critics, the advent of no-fault divorce precipitated a crisis of the Egyptian family. No group has been more vocal, however, than the ranks of unwillingly divorced men. Though no formal studies have traced the social effects of khul‘, critics claim it has accelerated overall rates of divorce, destabilized the family and created a mental health crisis for abandoned husbands, who now face social humiliation and attachment disorders. [4] The anger felt by some of these divorcés has inspired groups such as the “Revolt of the Men of Egypt” and the “Movement to Save the Egyptian Family,” both of which have created popular Facebook pages and staged protests at al-Azhar, the Ministry of Justice and the Press Syndicate. Associations of divorced women have also organized and held their own demonstrations in front of the Ministry of Justice. While women’s concerns about their vulnerability to divorce and the effects of divorce on their children have been largely ignored, these issues seem to be taken seriously now that they are being raised by men.

Divorce has remained a contentious issue since the late 1990s, and the political opportunity created by Mubarak’s departure has revitalized the debate. Yet the partisan character of these discussions has been coupled with the rise of new alliances among secular and religious men and women to defend existing family laws. Some voices at al-Azhar — including the widely respected and conservative Islamic Research Complex — have defended their involvement in and the revisions to family law as necessary to accommodate changing demands on parents. Professor of Islamic law ‘Abdallah al-Naggar has argued that extending the age for maternal custody to 15 is compatible with shari‘a conventions about children’s welfare in light of the fact that fathers are spending more time outside the home. Despite reservations about the social effects of higher divorce rates, Islamic philosopher Amena Nusayr has criticized attacks on family law as misplaced anger at Mubarak’s regime. She supports the alliance of men and women activists to defend these reforms. [5] More conservative university figures like Su‘ad Salih, however, condemn these laws as threatening the primacy of the father in child rearing and unfairly tipping the scale of justice in favor of women.

The Coptic Church, which represents most of the 8 million Christians in Egypt, holds firm that adultery is the only grounds for divorce. In the minority of cases in which divorce is granted, a cumbersome system exists for securing Church permission to remarry. In May 2010, two Christian men who had received divorces won a legal case challenging the Church in the Supreme Administrative Court for violating their constitutional right to remarry. The court agreed. In response, the Church used the decision to mobilize the community to defend the Church against this state attack on its autonomy, its power and its right to legislate personal behavior for its members. The ensuing publicity, including a formal appeal by Pope Shenouda, forced the state to back off from implementing the decision. Activism around the right to divorce has reappeared since Mubarak’s departure in the shape of demonstrations by divorced Christian men in front of the main Cairo cathedral of the Coptic Church. They have demanded reform of the Ecclesiastical Council, a body that sets marriage policy and decides individual cases of divorce and remarriage, and called for the formation of provincial councils to take on these roles.

Two recent high-profile cases of Christian women in troubled marriages have highlighted the increasingly tense relations between the Church’s position regarding divorce and the personal needs of its members under conditions of intensified sectarian conflict. Given the Church’s restrictive laws governing divorce and remarriage, conversion to Islam has sometimes been used as a desperate and difficult solution. In 2010, the story of Camillia Shehata Zakhir, a teacher in Minya in Upper Egypt, stoked sectarian tension and captured national media attention for weeks. Rumors surrounding Camillia’s disappearance from her home following a dispute with her husband, a Coptic priest, led her family to report her missing. State security located Camillia several days later and placed her in the care of her father and brother. Because she refused to return to her marital home, rumors circulated by Christians suggested she was being pressured to convert to Islam, provoking opposite rumors that she had converted to Islam but that she was being coerced by her husband and the church to leave her new faith. These stories provoked public clashes between Muslims and Christians, with each group claiming Camillia as their co-religionist. Camillia finally appeared on TV to declare that she never abandoned her Christian faith and that the whole matter was the result of a marital rift.

In April 2011, ‘Abir Tal‘at left her Christian husband and daughter in Asyout in Upper Egypt, and entered into an‘urfi (informal Muslim marriage) with Yasin Thabit. Her subsequent disappearance led Yasin to claim ‘Abir had been kidnapped and locked up against her will in the Mar Mina church in the Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba. Muslim demonstrators attempting to liberate ‘Abir set the church alight. ‘Abir, who was not in the church, eventually gave herself up to the military police and was charged with inflaming public opinion and disturbing the peace. Almost 200 others were arrested and tried in military courts.

These incidents expose the traditional treatment of both Muslim and Christian women as the collective property of the community, not as individuals who confront personal and legal problems in families hampered by restrictive personal status laws. The hollow displays of sheikhs and priests meeting to kiss and make up fail to address the underlying conflicts over citizenship and personal status. While both al-Azhar and the Coptic Church have consolidated power from their control over personal status laws, their social authority faces growing pressure from men and women who see these institutions as insensitive or indifferent to their interests.

Democracy in Action

Resistance to change in the political and religious spheres contrasts with the successful push by women for democratization in other arenas. Popular support for women activists targeted by the SCAF, and for democratic reforms in the media and in the universities, shows dramatic changes in women’s consciousness and public attitudes. Continued protests over stalled reforms and the military’s obstruction of democratic process have led to a crackdown on public dissent. Since March, the SCAF has arrested and tried 20,000 people in military courts, most of them young men and women. Military police have attempted to intimidate and delegitimize female protesters in particular. After arresting a large group of women in Tahrir Square on March 9, military police subjected them to so-called virginity tests. After repeated military denials of the use of this practice, a senior general eventually admitted to CNN that conducting the tests was a preemptive measure against potential charges of sexual assault. He claimed none of the women who were subjected to the tests were virgins. In the coded language of the military police, this charge implied the women were prostitutes not entitled to any rights. While the state and satellite media outlets did not report this abuse, outrage over the incident led women’s groups and human rights organizations to file a lawsuit against the head of the armed forces and the minister of defense for violating the constitutional rights of women to express their opinions and participate in politics without fear of bodily harm.

Broad public support for women activists has caused the SCAF to back off from several campaigns against media figures. Reem Maged, the well-respected host of a popular talk show “Our Country in Dialect,” along with blogger Hossam al-Hamalawy and author Nabil Sharaf al-Din (two recent guests on her show), was summoned to the Military Prosecution Office on May 26 to explain her critical views of the military police and the SCAF. Before the meeting, a large crowd of youth and representatives of human rights organizations showed up to support the three dissenters. Demonstrators carried signs reading, “The SCAF does not represent a red line in any discussion; the people are the only red line” and “Freedom of expression is a basic right.” Faced with this public backlash, the military retreated, claiming they only invited Maged and her guests to chat over coffee. When the military detained and charged prominent activist and blogger Asma’ Mahfouz with inciting violence against the armed forces, a broad coalition of activist groups rallied around her. Leftist law professor Husam ‘Isa represented her in court and the Egyptian Mainstream, an Islamic party she had recently joined, paid for her bail. The military ultimately dropped the charges.

Maged used her brush with the SCAF to host an episode with colleague Yusri Fouda of “The Last Word,” discussing freedom of speech, the role played by professional reporters, the use of sources and the need to cover different perspectives so that viewers are able to get a better understanding of important issues and events. Muna al-Shazli, another popular television personality, conducted a forceful interview with ‘Abboud al-Zumur of the Gama‘a Islamiyya. In what became a media event, al-Shazli asked al-Zumur about his role in supporting the 1981 assassination of Anwar al-Sadat, and grilled him about the salafi group’s religious interpretations of the relationship between rulers and the ruled, the role that religion should play in society and why Egyptians should view him and the Gama‘a as legitimate partners in a new democratic Egypt. For supporters of the Gama‘a, al-Shazli’s antagonistic questions were made more outrageous by the fact that she was unveiled. For other viewers, her professionalism was a bold statement in the wake of the spectacular failure of state television in reporting and analyzing the initial 18 days of protests. (Telecasters Suha al-Naqqash and Shahira Amin protested this failure in public ways during the revolution, with the former taking an open-ended leave of absence and the latter resigning her post.)

In the universities, women have pushed for institutional democratization, academic freedom and an end to corruption since 2004 through the March 9 movement for university independence. Since February 2011, women academics have expanded their role in this movement. At Cairo University, they took the lead in the campaign to replace the dean of the Faculty of Arts, a position that has been appointed by the state since 1993. Hala Kamal, Randa Abu Bakr, Madiha Duss, ‘Abir ‘Abd al-Hafiz and Sayyid Bahrawi initiated the discussion of electoral alternatives in general faculty meetings, conducted a survey to test faculty support and drafted provisions for a new, free electoral process. Abu Bakr was elected dean of the Faculty of Arts in June 2011, though her appointment was blocked by the Ministry of Higher Education due to her affiliation with the March 9 movement. [6] When 4,000 university professors went on strike in September 2011, supported by thousands of student demonstrators, the Ministry was forced to organize its own elections, which Abu Bakr boycotted. Twelve of the 17 faculties at Cairo University elected new deans.

Moving Forward

Unlike in Tunisia, where feminist activists have been less eager to dismantle the structures of state-directed gender policies (with the family code as its cornerstone), activist Egyptian women have expressed a clear desire to distance themselves from the institutional and political legacies of state feminism. This decision is partly motivated by their success in the establishment of NGOs that articulate the multiplicity of voices and approaches to women’s interests and concerns. Feminist organizations seek to solidify their institutional accomplishments, the result of many struggles against an aggressive authoritarian state, through coalition politics that allow different groups to work together without undermining the diversity of views, expertise, interests and agendas.

While the Sharaf government has attempted to reassert state control over the discussion of women’s rights, these independent organizations advocate a more transparent and balanced relationship between the state and society. The flow of foreign aid to support Egypt’s transition to democracy, especially aid earmarked for women, has provided incentives for the state’s continued involvement in the affairs of these civil society groups. By complicating the funding of independent organizations, the government may hope that international donors will eventually funnel some of the money through the state.

Despite distancing themselves from the negative legacy of state feminism, the advocates of women’s rights have mostly defended the modest changes it introduced in divorce, custody and nationality laws as gains made by Egyptian women reflecting the changing needs of society. The visible roles that these women are playing in the call for the reform of important institutions of society suggest the development of a new consciousness in which some segments of the middle classes reject the state’s restriction of women’s voices to gender questions. While most women activists acknowledge the work that remains to be done to advance women’s education, employment and the integration of the rural, Upper Egyptian and Bedouin women into society, many no longer see themselves as dependents of the state in this process.

Author’s Note: I wish to acknowledge the helpful feedback of two professors, Vickie Langohr of the College of Holy Cross and Hala Kamal of Cairo University.


[1] Tahiyya Gamal Abdel Nasser, Dhikrayat Ma‘ahu (Cairo: Dar al-Shurouq, 2011).
[2] Sabah al-Khayr, May 17, 2011.
[3] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2000 (New York, 1999), p. 347.
[4] Al-Ahram, August 9, 2011; and al-Ahram, June 25, 2010.
[5] Al-Misri al-Yawm, May 31, 2011.
[6] E-mail communication from Hala Kamal, October 15, 2011.

How to cite this article:

Mervat Hatem "Gender and Revolution in Egypt," Middle East Report 261 (Winter 2011).

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