Egypt and the global fight for women’s rights

March 12, 2011
Protest in Tahrir Square, Janaury 28. Photo: Alyssachoiniere.blogspot

The March 8 demonstrations commemorating 100 years of International Women’s Day in Cairo, Egypt — flowing on from the inspirational revolution that toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak on February 11 — have highlighted the ongoing struggle for women’s rights around the world.

One hundred years ago, more than one million people in four European countries attended the first IWD protest. It was organised in support of the right to vote and equal pay for women.

Through protests and relentless campaigning, women have won many gains over the last century, including the right to vote, work outside the home, and many formal rights against discrimination. But there is still a long way to go.

And once rights are won they aren't won forever — if we become complacent and they're not defended, these gains can be lost.

Influential conservative and religious organisations are always campaigning to roll back women’s rights. An example of this is the campaign to stop the decriminalisation of abortion in Victoria in 2008.

It's useful to be reminded of the appalling statistics that still face women everywhere.

This was shown in a video clip released on March 8 featuring actor Daniel Craig in character as James Bond, being told by M that “the world has changed, but the numbers remain stacked against us”.

“Women are responsible for two thirds of work done worldwide, yet earn only 10% of the total income and own 1% of the property.”

Bond then appears dressed as a woman, as he listens to M ask, “Are we equals? Until the answer is yes we should never stop asking.” The video was part of a campaign by to celebrate IWD and discuss the inequalities that still exist.

In Australia, for every woman who is cynical about feminism and wants to just live her life without worrying about politics, there is a woman who looks around in anger at the limited choices she faces and the old-fashioned expectations placed on her.

Many women ask: Why does the pay gap still exist? Why are women still expected to do most of the housework and child care and still work full time? When the conventional wisdom is that protests don't work anymore, how do we fight for equal rights?

In Egypt, the protests of millions of people that lead to the overthrow of Mubarak opened up new democratic space.

The revolution called for democracy, equality and freedom. But importantly, it also advanced the position of women, because it allowed women, and other excluded groups in society, to take part in a movement that was redefining society.

Women not only led many of the protests, but were leaders in the movement which organised them. The huge continuous demonstrations in Tahrir Square became known as a place where women were free of the sexual harassment that they were usually subjected to.

Side by side with men, Egyptian women faced the teargas and repression meted out by the regime.

Organisations fighting for women’s rights have existed in Egypt since the 1920s and women have been elected MPs since the ’50s, but even after the fall of Mubarak there is a long way to go to gain equal rights for women.

After Mubarak was overthrown, a 10-person committee was authorised to create a new constitution — not a single woman was included on this committee.

In response, women called for a “Million Woman March” on International Women’s Day, in the same way in which protesters had called for a million person march to overthrow Mubarak weeks earlier.

The march called for an end to all forms of discrimination against women and for the active participation of women to create a new constitution, measures to combat violence against women as well as requesting that women have the right to run in presidential elections.

Unfortunately the turnout was small, and the women were met by a hostile group of men who yelled insults and physically assaulted them.

Nevertheless, the women are not deterred and are now pushing for 30% representation on the general committees that will advise changes to the constitution in the coming weeks. Another rally is planned for March 16 — Egyptian Women’s Day.

Egyptian women have the right to an equal position in the new society, and through their role in the revolution they have learned the most important lesson, which is that through ongoing mass protest and determination they will eventually win their demands.

This should inspire all fighters for women’s rights around the world. Through building a mass movement for change we can win full equality for women.


After military conquests, Mohammad would dole out captured women as war prizes to his men. In at least one case, he advocated that they be raped in front of their husbands. Captured women were made into sex slaves by the very men who killed their husbands and brothers. There are four Koran verses in which "Allah" makes clear that a Muslim master has full sexual access to his female slaves, yet there is not one that prohibits rape. The Koran gives Muslim men permission to beat their wives for disobedience, but no where does it command love in marriage. It plainly says that husbands are a degree above wives. The Hadith says that women are intellectually inferior, and that they comprise the majority of Hell's occupants. Under Islamic law, a man is free to marry who he pleases and he may divorce his wife at his choosing, but Muslim women do not have those choices. Their husband may also bring other wives (and slaves) into the marriage bed. And she must be sexually available to him at any time. Muslim women do not inherit property in equal portion to males. Their testimony in court is considered to be worth only half that of a man’s. Unlike a man, she must cover her head - and often her face. If a woman wants to prove that she was raped, there must be four male witnesses to corroborate her account, otherwise she can be jailed or stoned to death for confessing to adultery.
"The huge continuous demonstrations in Tahrir Square became known as a place where women were free of the sexual harassment that they were usually subjected to." Oh really? Tell that to Lara Logan. I wonder how many nameless others were also assaulted during the course of the revolution. Unfortunately sexist attitudes are pervasive throughout the Middle East region, they are often deeply ingrained and won't be changed in a revolutionary instant. One major impediment to changing these attitudes in the longer term is Islam. Though the theory and practice of Islam varies, one thing that is certain is that women will never be regarded as equals. Only a strong secular state can overcome this obstacle, lets hope Egypt develops one. "The Muslim Brotherhood has a notorious reputation for its misogynistic views, in part inspired by its strict adherence to Islam. Makarem El Deiry, the only female candidate representing the Brotherhood in 2005, claimed, “We [the Muslim Brotherhood] oppose battling against men’s superiority to women.” She also asserted that women in the West suffered from violence because they “have forgotten over there that men are superior to women."
In response to "Islam is the problem", the article points out the contradictions in Egyptian society when it comes to attitudes towards women and didn't claim that sexism would be wiped out in 'a revolutionary instant'. Sexist attitudes are pervasive throughout the Middle East and throughout the world, including Australia. The point of the article was to report how women were involved in leading and organising this protests, and through this struggle for freedom women won increased respect. Obviously the struggle for equality has a long way to go. There is not much point in scouring the Koran for quotes to try and prove that Islam is the basis of sexism. Sexism exists in every country, not just ones which are dominated by Muslims. Islam is not a fundamentally more sexist or violent religion than any others. You need to look at how Islam is *actually* practiced, and in many countries it bears little resemblance to what is written above. In any case, it will be through campaigns for women's rights that this will be changed, not by demonising Muslims as a whole.
I'm not demonizing Muslims, I'm blaming the ideology itself. How else are we to perceive it other than what it prescribes in theory (as is written in the Koran), or how it is practiced? Everything else is just fantasy. There are many historical examples of women active in politics in Muslim nations, and some have even risen to lead them (e.g. Benazir Bhutto). That hasn't led to an improvement in the status of women in these countries - in Pakistan there is still the occasional stoning for adultery and minor displays of sexuality. In the same way, Muslim women appearing at protests is nothing new. In the west they have even been in the forefront of protests against attempts to ban the burqa. I wish the best of luck to all women protesting in Egypt, especially those who came out on IWD. Don't let religious fanatics usurp a progressive revolution, and lets hope the supposedly progressive left in the west learns to stop supporting Islam, simply because it opposes the US. An earlier generation made a similar mistake with Stalin.
Writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali: "For years I met Muslim women in very difficult circumstances, victims of terrible domestic violence, forced into miserable marriages, but I sought to avoid connecting the dots, blinding myself to the link between the indoctrination of the religion and the oppression of women and lack of individual, free choice. My five years at the University of Leiden [in the Netherlands], enjoying a democratic culture, walking around in a society where men and women are equal, started to change my perspective. The events of September 11 cemented it. I later became the face of Muslim women who had sought freedom in Holland. Unlike white commentators, hamstrung by the fear of being labelled racists, I could voice my criticisms of the feudal and religious mechanisms that were holding Muslim women back. "
Don't you understand, it's the people way of understanding woman. Majority of men don't treat woman with respect. This includes all the people, it's not the Islam, its men's way of thinking over for how many years, they always think woman as a low people. If you read Qur'an, you'll find that woman and men are equals, the problem are the mens. And you who always accused Islam as the problem, you have no right whatsoever. You just don't know what Islam really is. People does stupid things because of understanding it the wrong way.IT'S NOT THE ISLAM ,IT'S THE PEOPLE. Not every muslims in this world are all true muslims. It's the same thing as any other religion, not everyone are true believers.You cannot say Islam is wrong because of a guy known as muslim does something wrong, its him you have to blame. In Qur'an it teaches you to treat all as equal and respect.
You don't have to look too hard at the Qur'an to see that. Here are ten misogynistic Quranic quotes discovered with a ten second google search. Tabari IX:113 "Allah permits you to shut them in separate rooms and to beat them, but not severely. If they abstain, they have the right to food and clothing. Treat women well for they are like domestic animals and they possess nothing themselves. Allah has made the enjoyment of their bodies lawful in his Qur'an." Spend another minute and you will find 500 more. Then try looking for forgiving quotes on homosexuals if you are truly brave.
This kind of sexism exists everywhere there is Islam.... and ONLY where there is Islam. "Sexist attitudes are pervasive throughout the Middle East and throughout the world, including Australia" That's not even close to being true. There has never been that level of sexism in Australia at any time in the last 40,000 years, except from Muslims and their defenders. "Islam is not a fundamentally more sexist or violent religion than any others." Yes it is. Open your eyes and have a look. No other religion forces all women to cover themselves in a sack except for their hands and part of their face. No other religion cuts off the heads of people who leave the religion. Islam is an extremely reactionary ideology in every possible way, and the West trying to steal their oil doesn't change that. Read the Quran and a book of Fiqh (Islamic law) and see for yourself.
You can find similar shit in the Old and New Testaments. All the monotheistic texts were written in mid to late antiquity, a period in which slavery was universal and all relationships regulated according to strict hierarchies. Nonetheless, Marx and Engels began their lives as did most nineteenth and some twentieth century thinkers venerating Judeo-Christian texts only to cast them away via Hegelian Idealism in maturity before breaking through to a scientific understanding of history and society. Most religious people are implicitly Kantian despite the strange ideological brew to be found in their sacred texts and not a few are also socialists or have gone on to become socialists and atheists; the rational effort to develop a consistent ethics in religion lends itself to this essentially dialectical process. I do not see why this cannot also be the case in Islam.
"No other religion forces all women to cover themselves in a sack except for their hands and part of their face. No other religion cuts off the heads of people who leave the religion." Indonesia is a country that has a majority of Muslims living in it, and no-one there wears a sack or gets their heads cut off. So no, Islam is not the problem. You might want to open your eyes at the sexism that does exist in Australia, which tells women how to dress (make-up and high-heels are different to a veil, but no less compulsory), how to look (go on a diet and shave your legs), and how to act (if you don't have kids then you are 'deliberately barren' and 'aren't capable of love'). Undoubtedly Islam can be a reactionary ideology, but so too can Christianity and Judaism and Hinduism and Buddhism, and any other religion.
"Indonesia is a country that has a majority of Muslims living in it, and no-one there wears a sack or gets their heads cut off. So no, Islam is not the problem. " Indonesia is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation founded on a secular tradition which has held at bay those who would introduce a strict Sharia interpretation into law. That said people DO get killed and persecuted in Indonesia and increasingly for their (non-Islamic) religious beliefs - e.g. Christians in Aceh, the Ahmadiyah sect in Java. Throughout the Islamic world there is a battle raging between secular forces (which often have unpleasant militarist/nationalist/autocratic leadership) and religious hardliners (who are far worse). Don't make the mistake of thinking this is about US imperialism, Israel or anything else, its about the role and influence of Islam in everyone's daily lives - Muslim or not. To take a position on this you need to do some basic research on the religion. Too many talk about it who don't have the most basic understanding of it - including its own adherents. There's more to it than Burqas and stonings. You could start here:

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