It was 25 January 2011. Although, Shaimaa Abdel Rahman was spending her summer vacation in the coastal city of Alexandria, she decided to join the protests that were planned in almost every Egyptian city that day.
She didn’t know it then but she would participate in Egypt’s most important event in decades: the 25 January Revolution.
The 31-year-old teacher is one of millions of Egyptian women who played an active role during the revolution and the events that followed.
“I had never been politically active before the revolution, but I was always in the forefront of all the movements demanding the improvement of our
working conditions in my work place,” she says.
According to Mona Ezzat, an activist and leading figure of the Socialist Alliance Party, Egyptian women had participated in the protests and events that led to the revolution.
Ezzat says: “From 2006 on, Egypt witnessed a massive wave of social protests".
Women, along with men, actively participated in different protests demanding not only improved working conditions, but also putting an end to the process of privatisation and rampant corruption in state-owned companies and factories.
This rising labour movement was one of the factors that radicalised Egyptians ahead of the 25 January Revolution.
During the 18-day sit-in in Tahir Square, Abdel Rahman met with activists from the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions.
“I met with Kamal Abu Eita whom I knew before as a political and labour activist. It was the first time to meet him face-to-face. I also got to know a number of teachers who were active as trade unionists in the Independent Teachers’ Union.”
From that day on, Abdel Rahman started her career as a trade unionist, participating in all activities aimed at improving working conditions for teachers.
According to Ezzat, the rise of the independent trade union movement is one of the revolution’s most significant achievements.
“Unfortunately women’s issues are not among the movement’s priorities,” she laments.
“Men and women join forces to meet general objectives, though they never address women-related problems. Although women constitute a large proportion of the independent unions’ membership, their representation in leading positions is limited,” she explains.
The board of directors of the Independent Federation of Trade Unions is made up of 21 elected members, five of which are women (as rules state that 30 per cent of the board should be female).
Unfortunately, women did not achieve such positive results in the first parliamentary elections after the revolution, held in June. “Only 10 females succeeded in obtaining seats in the parliament out of 508 members,”Abdel Rahman says.
The parliamentary election on 16 and 17 June was one of the first indicators that the influential role played by women during the revolution is not being reflected in Egypt’s political scene.
Feminist activist Zizi Kheir suggests that both what we might call Islamic and civil parties undermined the participation of women in the elections.
“The elections law stated that each electoral list should have a woman on it, but it didn’t specify in which position,” she remarks.
“So women were always at the bottom of the lists, meaning there was very little room for them to enter the parliament, since the number of successful candidates from each list is determined by the percentage of votes each list gets, and they are chosen from [the] top down.”
Participating in the events of the revolution and the demonstrations that followed was not easy for Abdel Rahman.
“Coming from a conservative family made it difficult for me to take part in political activities. Sometimes I had to hide what I am doing, especially from my father,”
Almost one month after the former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, the armed forces brutally broke up a peaceful sit-in in Tahrir square.
A number of female protestors were detained and subjected to virginity tests. For Abdel Rahman this was an attempt by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), to reinforce the traditionally-held idea (that a woman is little more than a body) to the revolutionaries.
“SCAF used humiliating virginity tests to intimidate revolutionaries. Sexual harassment during protests was also used for the same purpose,” she adds.
Fortunately, SCAF’s actions bore little fruit.
The protests continued – as did female participation in them.
Kheir considers this to be a clear indicator that the presence of women in the public sphere is strong enough to endure all attempts to end it, especially with the rise of conservative Islamist political parties.
“On 20 December 2011, Egypt witnessed what was described as ‘the biggest women’s demonstration’ since the 1919 revolution [against British occupation]. Thousands of women, joined by men, took to the streets condemning the assault and undressing of a female protester by military police. Women from different ages and social backgrounds participated in the demonstration under the slogan: ‘the military stole our revolution and women will restore it,’” Kheir says.
Waiting for change
“On 25 January, Egyptians took to the streets chanting ‘Bread, freedom, dignity’. And now, after the passage of a year and a half, they are still waiting for the fulfillment of their demands,” Ezzat says.
“Over the past few weeks in Egypt, several demonstrations were organised against the social and economic policies, along with a wave of workers strikes and sit-ins. There is the potential to integrate womens issues in these social and political movements, provided a women’s movement is developed.”
For Abdel Rahman having a female strong presence in various organisations and trade unions is the first step towards integrating women’s issues into wider social and political movements.
“Our presence in different organisations is the best way to make us a real force on the ground, and enable us to stand in front of the government and fight for our demands.”
Ezzat proposes that NGOs working in the field of women’s rights should take the initiative for developing such movement, cooperating with political parties and movements.
“NGOs and [political] parties usually coordinate on specific issues, but they need to develop a comprehensive program addressing women’s issues in order to start building a women’s movement,”she says.
Abdel Rahman believes that women took a huge step forward during the revolution.
“It’s now very evident that we are equal partners in the revolutionary process. Egyptians could have not overthrown the old regime without the contribution of millions of women, and Egyptians won’t achieve the rest of their demands without them. It’s now time for us to acknowledge our power and to start pursuing our special demands,” she says.