Egyptian Women & the Revolution: Self-, Representation, and Solidarity(Research Digest)




By Dalia Youssef

The Egyptian Revolution in Jan.25, 2011 has taken place amid many challenges that continued even throughout different transitional periods. Although the revolution path had witnessed different stages of progression and regression and despite all the challenges and even during the moments of failure, it is hard to believe that the influences of a major incident such as the Egyptian Revolution has vanished. It is important to analyze the snapshots of many overlapping events and changes that Egypt has witnessed during the last three years that followed the revolution.

 Any impressions of frustration or hope should not conceal the importance of discussing the opportunities, contradictions and transformations caused by or accompanied the revolution. In this context, it may be useful, for researchers on women issues and groups of interest, to examine whether the Egyptian Revolution has tackled women issues and concerns differently and whether it linked women issues to the larger question of democratic transition or not.

Consequently, this research paper aims at discussing roles of active women, who are members of social movements and initiatives launched during or after the Egyptian Revolution. The paper brings the general and procedural contexts into the discussion and considers the challenges of different transitional periods after the revolution.

The research therefore raises the following questions:

Has the Egyptian Revolution developed new discourses and modes of action regarding women issues and concerns? How?

The research paper adopts the Case Study methodology including conducting in-depth interviews, overt observation by attending some related events, reading and analyzing texts and documents including constitutional and legal articles, research papers, web pages and social networks.  

The research proposal was discussed internally (at MADA foundation) to engage with the Research Question through major outlines including  

– Discussing the concept of representing women through political representatives, elites, and major groups 

– Discussing the relation between women and different regimes (whether they are actors within those regimes, or as target audience mobilized by them)

– Discussing the impact of polarizations during periods of transition on women issues

– Discussing selective solidarity in opposing violations of women rights (according to their affiliations and loyalties) 

Based on the internal discussions, the research paper focused on tackling the above mentioned outlines through two parts: 

– The first one tackles views and experiences of female actors within social movements and within women- oriented community initiatives emerged after the revolution.

– The second one tackles views and the experiences of women within the Islamic groups and movements, in addition to review the related Islamic discourses and initiatives after the revolution   

The researcher has conducted ten in-depth interviews in the process of issuing the first part of the research paper. The respondents to these interviews are members of women oriented initiatives (such as Shoft Taharosh “In English I saw Harassment”, Fouada watch ) as well as general initiatives established and / or operated by women (such as No to Militarily Trials, Hanla’aihom “In English, we are going to find them”, or Harket Ta’aown “In English Cooperation movement”). The members of lobbying groups and campaigns are also represented (e.g. Tamaroud “In English, Rebellion” and Revolution Candidate Campaign). The respondents have diverse academic, research, and activism backgrounds. In addition, the experiences of political parties (emerged after the revolution) are represented to compare their views and positions to those of the members of social groups.      

Most of the respondents fall in the age group of 20 -30 years. 

Males are not represented among the respondents except through discussing their roles in a related initiative such as Shoft Taharosh.

Geographically, the majority of the respondents are from the centre / capital (Cairo), the peripheries are represented through only one respondent (from the Governorate of Al Wadi al Jadid).

In parallel to in-depth interviews, a number of documents, web pages and facebook pages were observed and categorized to analyze their content. Outputs of the analysis as well as of the in-depth interviews are merged to feed the discussion part of the research.

Concluding remarks are also demonstrated based on the experience of in-depth interviews and the discussion part.

The researcher demonstrated limitations and challenges as well as the recommendations that can be important in the context of working on the second part of the research paper.  

Readdressing the Conceptual Framework

The Research Question has included two major keywords:  women issues and revolution and in-depth interviews have represented an opportunity to examine theoretical and analytical challenges involved with the two elements.

The interviews highlighted how women are not a homogeneous mass and how they belong to different socio-economic, political and ideological backgrounds. 

In the same context, and based on interviewees’ contributions, certain controversies associated with the feminist perspective were identified including the following: 

– Internalizing Orientalism that could be shown through the exaggerated celebration of women participation (as if women are an exception in this respect)

– Isolating women issues by some feminist groups through ignoring different structural dimensions that could affect women positions in their societies 

– Underestimating the importance of women issues that can be relevant to the second controversy of isolating women issues and framing them as field of interest for the elites

Concerning the second keyword, and according to some interviewees, the revolution has not caused a break to previous experiences and struggles (including women struggle). On the contrary, the revolution has been inspired by experiences occurred in the precedent decade before the revolution. Those experiences were accumulated through the anti-globalization and anti- war movements, labor protests, and the expansion of social work to include developmental activities and modes of alternative media and art.

On the other hand, the revolution has been characterized by shedding light on certain issues and linking women issues with the disclosure of repression mechanisms in general as in the cases of  “virginity tests” by the military forces  in the campaigning against sexual –harassment.

Discourses and Actions 

Although the research paper aimed to engage with new discourses and modes of action concerning women issues, the discussions and the arguments derived from interviews revealed the heuristic nature of the Case Study methodology and led to further explorations.

Thus the concluding remarks of the research pointed out concepts and perceptions of citizenship adopted by young women from social and grassroots movements. Among these perceptions is the ability of linking self-concerns to women and national concerns. In addition, there is a tendency, among those young women, to expand the concept of feminist activism towards more practical and integrated methods related to their society and humanity and capable of developing role of women in the public space in a more spontaneous and effective way.

Some of the respondents explained how they adopted the feminist perspective (or defined themselves as feminists), but through adjusting and stretching the concept to disassociate it from being a narrow, conflict –based (with men) concept   rather a broader one characterized by practicality and working for the good of humanity. Hereby, we can refer to the impact of the revolution in strengthening these perceptions marked by a higher degree of confidence and flexibility compared to the previous old definitions and perceptions of feminism.  Some respondents attributed this change to the revolution that represented, for them, the key incident, not only on the political or even the social levels, but also on the personal level. Interestingly, those female respondents have been able to link between their participation in the revolution and their personal decisions and attitudes. Additionally, in some interviews, part of it turned into more relaxed casual threads, where the revolution was described as an “experience / emancipation / enchantment /spell  …”, and according to some respondents, the depth and the impact of this experience allowed them to formulate ideas and attitudes that might distinguish them from other groups, trends and /or generations.

Generational Differences & Rejecting the Hierarchy 

Through interviews and observations, generation gap became more obvious. We can see that young women activists are more aware of the challenges and modes of discrimination against women. Moreover, this awareness is combined by the desire to face these challenges without embracing furious reactions or practicing counter discrimination. 

According to the respondents, there might be increasing potential, among younger generations to merge women issues within other societal issues without reducing the importance of women cause. A relevant debate is the one about the overlapping slogans of the revolution: Bread, Freedom and Social Justice, younger female activists tend to reject the hierarchy of demands. This rejection can be found, politically, by opposing the hierarchy of saving the nation-state (or restoring the powerful state) first then seeking the rights and freedoms. The tendency of the younger generation can also be found in their relative flexible model of defending women cause as they criticize the patriarchal masculinity practices, but without deciding to work in isolated women entities.

Revealing the Contradictions of Dominant Discourses 

In its first part, the research paper explored if the revolution has developed new discourses concerning women issues and also examined this hypothesis among social and grassroots movements. Despite the features that distinguish the perception of feminism among the young women activists within these movements (including transcending the conflict, the practicality, the linkage with the national and human concerns…), it is hard to say that these features constitute a new comprehensive discourse encompassing innovative views. Most of the movements gain their characteristics from their actual on- the- ground experiences. They embrace mixture of thoughts that do not represent certain ideology. The experience of these movements might contribute to criticizing old dominant discourses and /or revealing their contradictions rather than developing an alternative discourse.

The results of the in-depth interviews might emphasize the above mentioned assumption of the origins and features of the social movements in the cases within the scope of the study. These results showed how most of the experiences of young female activists are established via the so called street politics in most cases. In the same context, these activists mentioned their personal narratives of how they started their engagement with the public sphere through two major fields of interest: 

– Participating in the protests and the activities opposing the aggression against Palestine and Iraq

– The awareness of the socio-economic divides within the Egyptian society and facing them through charity and development activities

According to the female activists, their involvement in the Egyptian scene and with its socio-political change has developed through these two fields of interest. 

The engagement with these fields is characterized by building up coalitions, inspired by national experiences, as well as anti-war and anti- globalization movements. These experiences brought into the context the concept of the so called “global citizen.” The global citizen can be defined through his tendency to support justice and show solidarity for many causes based on his capability.  According to the model of “global citizen,” solidarity can transcend geographical boundaries and utilize the information revolution.

Since the Egyptian Revolution and through different periods of transition, there have been many work fields including revolutionary work characterized by personal commitment, facing the cycle of hope and frustration according to the context. There is also the growing Human Rights (HR) field with its broad definition and which required, according to the respondents, commitment and the has institutional features. HR field is also described as being confusing as it can be considered as incubator of the revolutionary work sometimes, an as a form of sedation just to improve conditions imposed by the regimes at other times.

On the other side, the field of developmental work provides a sense of positivism and achievements during the tough transitions and shows double roles of the activists to monitor the State and deal with its withdrawal. The activists described the development work as being more common than Human Rights.  

The interviews showed how moving from one of these fields to another is determined by personal and public contexts. The activism through these fields required working according to the reformation perspective (rather than the revolutionary radical attitudes) in dealing with the regimes and the authorities especially in the cases of advocacy and solidarity with the oppressed (such as “No to Military Trials”, Hanla’ihom or “we are going to find them”).

In this context, many initiatives have emerged against sexual harassment of women, especially through transitional periods when there was growing exploitation of harassment against women during the protests as if women are the weakest chains and targeting them could weaken the resistance. The initiatives of opposing harassment revealed many conflicting conceptual and procedural frameworks as the phenomenon appears in the context of the violence of the State and / or the society. It also advanced many ethical and legal questions regarding the proper method of interfering to confront the overgrowing phenomenon in the public space. The research paper demonstrated some experiences of movements against harassment, initiatives that are characterized by using diversity of tools, utilizing the internet and social networks and linking them with actual activities, the significant participation of male activists in these initiatives.     

The confrontation of harassment reflects important concepts of raising awareness and modes of operating activism that could be developed by the revolution. Some of the respondents involved in the initiatives of opposing harassment put their own formula as follows: the negative part was that the phenomenon is on the rise in an unprecedented way after the revolution, but the positive side is the growing desire of resisting it. This formula can be used in assessing different incline and decline phases of the revolution and how analyzing the situation can be determined by the level of resistance against certain injustice and not only by the eliminating of the injustice.

Modes of Operating and Representation 

The in-depth interviews allowed the researcher to look into modes of operating of the initiatives within the study scope, in which it was obvious the considerable representation of women within the grassroots and social movements that could be turned sometimes to “overrepresentation”. These movements adopt participatory democratic methods in making decisions. These methods have contributed to create central roles of women and making use of their skills, and they also help in creating a more balanced interrelation (between male and female activists) and the power relations within these movements. 

On the other side, there is flexibility in dealing with social and structural difference (between men and women) imposed by social culture and contexts. For instance, they are making use of these differences in serving the detainees and their families in the military trials as the females are relatively more acceptable to interfere and handle the situation in these cases. 

There is also a kind of switching roles of protection.  Usually, the role of protection is associated with male activists who are defending females during protests and violence. This situation might be reversed, and female activists might protect males from being arrested. In such a situation, females make use of the fact that it might be more difficult to arrest a woman due to social sensitivities and pressures against detaining women.    

Nevertheless, overrepresentation of women and their significant roles within these movements do not operate in vacuum, and they might be influenced by authoritative and power relations. In this context, and based on the experience of Tamaroud, key female figures have been marginalized in the movement when sectors of male activists had special arrangements with the regime. 

The above mentioned participatory and functional characteristics of the social movements have not expanded after the revolution to change the situation within the traditional political representative participation in the parliament and municipal elections, as well as in ministerial positions. The old power relations continued to limit the quantitative representation of women in the traditional political life. 

The research also revealed the attempts by some political parties, emerged after the revolution and dominated by youth, to combine participatory characteristics with rules of the traditional political representation. 

On the other hand, there are structural obstacles that might hinder the role of the political parties, like the lack of financial and logistic support, security interference among other challenges. However, the respondents representing some youth parties insisted that political parties can still enrich the public sphere. They emphasized how they are not going to quit their work and achievements accomplished through long struggles.  

Between Authority and Solidarity 

Despite the vivid characteristics of the new movements and initiatives and their attempts to change perspectives and attitudes in dealing with women issues, as well as the national issues, the impact of their work, have not magnified and penetrated different social classes. These new initiatives have also been negatively affected by the “civil” / “religious” polarization. Supposedly, the revolution has emphasized human rights, citizenship values and justice. Accordingly, women issues should be tackled differently and effectively. The new visions were supposed to turn into action and developed to deal with many complications. But these inspirations have not been achieved, and women continued to be introduced as part of competitive political positions and identity controversies.  

In this context of conflict, some women elites have situated their stances based on their relation with the regimes. This attitude can be found among the “Islamist” as well as the” liberal” elites. Sided by the regimes can clearly be noticed in the cases of justifying violation of women rights or violence against them, especially if it is directed from security forces. These stances succeeded to deepen polarization on ideological and political levels, reaching to the human rights one. And this transformation can cause a kind of “selective solidarity” based on the affiliations of the victims. 

The researchers observed how this atmosphere of polarization has even influenced the social movements and initiatives. Most of the respondents condemned violations against members and supporters of Muslim Brotherhood after ousting them from ruling the country. On the other hand, these respondents criticized the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists in general of working as isolated entities and manipulating human rights in an inclusive way to support only their affiliates.

This criticism can open the door for more discussions in the second part of the research aiming to explore more concepts and actions of “Islamists” and religious trends.

  Features of the Model 

This research paper is considered an open-ended text developing in various ways. This consideration is reflected in expanding the discussion of the research paper in a workshop organized on May 18, 2014. The workshop aimed to improve the conclusions and the extracts of the paper towards a more integrated version. The attendants of the workshop were interested in examining the points of references of social movements used in the study and the characteristics of their discourse on the women issues. The attendants were also concerned with the institutionalization of the social movements and initiatives and the sustainability of their work.

Subsequently, one of the major outputs of this workshop is the attempt to describe and detect features of the model of the social movements and initiatives including its visions and actions towards women issues. The researcher suggested how there are features related to perceptions and discourses of this model. It is a model interested in the issues of social justice and public freedoms, and those two dimensions could determine its thoughts and activities in supporting women issues. On the other hand, we cannot assume that this model is capable of producing a discourse engaging with the old and new challenges. This model does not adopt a solid theoretical tradition, as it combines many thoughts that do not affiliate to a certain ideology. 

This model considers the generational differences in tackling women issues and concerns and in perceiving the concept of the State. It is selective in integrating or rejecting the discourses of older generations. It might attempt to transcend ideology, but it is forced to engage with controversies of identity on both theoretical and practical levels. 

The stance of this model towards the society culture (especially regarding women issues) is shaped by opposing discrimination, exploitation and marginalization. It tends to adopt a desire for radical change, but practically it shows tolerance towards the culture sensitivities to pass messages for change in the context of lobbying and campaigning.      It has no institutional power, but usually it depends on groups of interest, volunteers or human rights’ organizations to recruit activists. It also encompasses centrally foundational roles of women. 

Lacking the rigid institutional structure might contribute to its flexibility in making decisions. It does not depend on a certain hierarchy but more on prominent roles of the actors. It adopts participatory democratic attitudes which might make it less competitive, but rather influenced by the personal characteristics if its members. It can be easily distracted because of the multiple tasks and the lack of human and logistic recourses.The model’s mechanism of check and balance is not clearly identified, but it can easily adjust its stance as it is not associated with well-established groups of interest.The model of these social and grassroots movements attempts to break the cycle of elitism, but it might tend to create a new elite. It also attempts to overcome the divide between the centre and the periphery by organizing groups in various urban and rural areas, but it has not achieved a significant success in this regard.


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