After revolution in Egypt, women’s taste of equality fades


Bothaina Kamel is a novelty and a provocation in a single breath. The only woman running for Egypt’s presidency, she travels without an entourage, wears a bracelet that says “Make poverty history,” can outlast the most exasperating heckler in the crowd, and has no chance of winning.

“I want to create culture shock. Yes, a woman is running for president,” says Kamel, a television presenter and ex-wife of a former cultural minister. “Some people have come up to me and asked, ‘Is it even legal for a woman to run?’ I hope to set a trend, to open a door. A girl sent me a Twitter: ‘You have given us a chance to dream.’”

Kamel campaigns often in Tahrir Square. It represents, she says, the spirit of what Egypt could be. But the farther one travels from Tahrir Square, the more the revolutionary fervor that overthrew Hosni Mubarak fades. Much of the country is tired. People want to fold away the epic of last year and get on with the business of life, no matter how imperfect, with soldiers in the streets and women far from the chambers of power.

Once at the vanguard of the protest movement, women have yet to gain any significant influence in the new Egypt, revealing the complexities of defining gender rights in a nation colored by Islam, inundated by Western media permissiveness and ruled by military men operating in a cloistered realm of gold stars and salutes.

The army council that replaced Mubarak’s corrupt regime has been harsh, subjecting female dissidents to “virginity tests” to intimidate them, and in December beating and ripping the clothes off female demonstrators, including one stripped to her blue bra, an image that became an icon for an unfinished rebellion.

Political power has shifted to the hands of Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafis control more than 70% of the seats in the parliament, a prospect that worries women seeking equality on social matters such as education and divorce. Only five women have seats among the assembly’s 508 elected and appointed members. In 2010, a year after Mubarak enacted a quota system to expand the female presence, 68 women won parliament seats.

The military later abolished the quota, another sign the feminist agenda was stalled against more powerful and patriarchal designs.

Nawal Saadawi, 80, silver hair in pigtails, has fought for women over a lifetime. One of Egypt’s leading writers and its most eloquent feminist, she’s been at her desk for years, immortalizing women in her dozens of books about fictitious women and women very real. Her titles can sting with indictment: “She Has No Place in Paradise.” Women, she says, have been betrayed in today’s Egypt of mullahs and generals.

“We don’t hear the voice of women,” she says. “We’re not allowed to speak. I’ve written 47 books that paved the way for women, so why am I not allowed to speak?”

There are other restive women, young and defiant as she was when her father’s scorn for the British occupation of Egypt drew out the feminist rebel in her, and passages such as, “Men were in control of both our worlds, the one on earth, and the one in heaven.”

Nearly six decades separate Saadawi from Gihan Ibrahim, a blogger and Revolutionary Socialist who was shot in the back with a rubber bullet during last year’s uprising. Ibrahim, like Saadawi, believes the fate of women is entwined with the rights of minorities and laborers in a revolution yet to fulfill its promise.

“The revolution itself has not come to power,” says Ibrahim. “The military is leading a counterrevolution.... It doesn’t take much to see the true face of the military after that [blue bra] picture. It makes you know who the enemy is.”

The image became a Twitter fascination, searing shorthand for how women have become symbols of revolt but not its beneficiaries. Genital excision, which Sadaawi underwent as a child and later described as burning “like an abscess in my flesh,” has long been prevalent, especially in the provinces. Sexual harassment is common despite tougher measures by the courts against offenders.

“Women want their rights respected on divorce, maternity issues and custody of children,” says Ibrahim, a daughter of means who has taken up a video camera to record her country’s poverty and social injustices. Ibrahim, who is known as Gigi, is unveiled and unblinkingly brash; she relishes the clamor of street rallies. “I believe in the right to abortion. Women must be able to have that choice. We want a civil, secular state.”

About 3,000 women marched in solidarity after the blue bra incident, a remarkable gathering that focused enormous international pressure on the generals. But it had no momentum, and revealed the disparate interests and beliefs that have long stifled Egypt’s feminist movement.

Female members of the Muslim Brotherhood, known as sisters, denounced the protest, portraying the women who marched as agents of foreign manipulation, a description used often by the military and the Brotherhood to disparage dissent. The sisters, conjuring a cross between a Victorian-era novel and a page from the Koran, said a woman’s place is not on the front lines of change.

“It is disrespectful for a woman’s dignity when she has to take to the streets to defend her rights,” says Manal Aboul Hassan, head of the women’s committee for the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. “Does not she have a husband, a brother or a son to defend her?”

Publicly the Brotherhood espouses equality. However, it doesn’t grant women seats on its leadership council, and many of its members oppose the idea of a woman, or a Christian, ever serving as Egypt’s president. A new book, “The Memoirs of a Former Sister: My Story With the Muslim Brotherhood,” attacks what its author, Intissar Abdel Moneim, calls the subservient role the organization forces on female members.

Abdel Moneim criticizes the teachings of the Brotherhood’s founder, Hassan Banna, as relegating women to “catering to their husbands’ desires and to reproduction.”

Women were leading forces in labor strikes that began in 2006 and became the seeds for the uprising that toppled Mubarak. They have choked on tear gas and died in the streets with men. The problem, women say, is extending the equality between the sexes that was so pointed in Tahrir Square to everyday public life, where the passions of revolution give way to the restrictions of culture and tradition.

“Violence, harassment, isolation, poverty: Women face all these,” says Kamel, once the host of the TV show “Please Understand Me,” which was abruptly canceled last year when her Saudi backers did not want her investigating the illicit riches of the Mubarak family. “A lot of women today wear the niqab [face veil] not out of piety but to protect themselves from harassment and for a bit of respect.”

Kamel, 49, can appear in Tahrir at any hour. A crowd of men usually surrounds her; they are at once curious and perturbed. She speaks to them not like a woman, but like a ward leader intimate with the foibles, yearnings and whispers of the alleys. She tells them corruption has kept them oppressed and scrimping. Her supporters refer her to as “one woman worth 100 men.” Her detractors, including many in the army, have other phrases.

“The military doesn’t want to leave power,” she says. “They’ve stood in the way of economic and political reform. They want to protect their business interests. They don’t want the revolution to succeed.”

Kamel’s visions are grand; her policies, like those of many Egyptian politicians, are still in development.

“What’s her program?” says Saadawi, who briefly ran for president in 2005 but withdrew after pressure and threats against her supporters from the Mubarak regime.

“Of course I encourage women, but not any woman. I say, where is her program? What is her history? She sounds like other political parties to me. Forty-five percent of Egyptians live in poverty. Poverty hits women much harder than men. We need economic, social and education reform. We need to liberate the masses who are starving.”

Poor neighborhoods stretch beneath Saadawi’s balcony at the northern edge of Cairo, where the Nile begins its swing through the fields of the delta. She has seen and written much from up here, life passing, the clatter of its voices rising and then quieting beyond her windows. She says that in many ways the new Egypt looks like the old Egypt. She likes the phrase “The head is gone, the body remains.”

“The problem facing women is very grave,” she says. “Politics is controlled by male muscles.”

A former official in the Health Ministry, Saadawi was jailed by the government in 1981 for her writing and activism. She was forced into self-exile years later after death threats from radical Islamists. Her persistent voice for equality has echoed through a nation in which women’s fashion — the barometer of religious influence — has gone from short skirts in the 1970s to today’s ubiquitous hijabs.

She camped in Tahrir Square for the 18 days last year that brought down the president. She talks about that time with the fervor of a novelist who feels a new book rising. Men and women side by side, ducking bullets, living in tents. Who would have imagined? But the unity of rebellion vanished and women were suddenly looking in from the outside.

“Our power,” she says, “was temporary.”

Amro Hassan of The Times’ Cairo bureau contributed to this report.