Until the beginning of 2011, an external observer might have felt justified in claiming that the lot of Egyptian women is improving far beyond that of women in many other Arabic countries. In 2000, they had been granted the right to no fault (or ‘khula’) divorce,(2) efforts were made to give women greater custody of their children,(3) there were 3 female cabinet ministers (4) and women occupied nearly 25% of all top management positions.(5) This is not to say that Egyptian women had equal rights and status to Egyptian men but the general trend appeared to be a positive one.
On 25 January 2011, the wave of peaceful revolutions that started in Tunisia struck Egypt. This general call to a peaceful revolution has since been dubbed the ‘Jasmine Revolution.’(6) Mubarak’s Government was toppled, an interim military Government was instated and a new Constitution is being drafted. However, despite the very active participation of Egyptian women in the Revolution,(7) the interim Government shocked both Egyptian women and the rest world by not appointing a single woman to the committee for drafting a new Constitution, hence earning itself the name of the ‘Committee of Wise Men.’(8)
This CAI paper discusses the post-revolution contradiction between a progressive women’s rights agenda on the one hand, and the Salafist return to ultra-conservative gender relations on the other. It considers the role of the Internet in raising awareness and politicising Egyptian women amidst the general dissipation of previous advances made for women’s equal rights.
Salafism: An answer to Mubarak’s secularism
Mubarak served as Egypt’s President from 1981 to 2011 and was commonly seen as a dictator. His re-election in 2005 was widely disputed as neither free nor fair. One of the important reasons for this was the disqualification of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is seen by many as Egypt’s most popular party.(9) The general feeling was that Mubarak’s restrictions on media and Parliamentary Government were to curtail the spread of fundamentalist Islam. Mubarak’s regime was characterised by increasing secularisation of the legal and political system, for example the inclusion of women in Government and the programming limitations on Salafi religious television stations.(10) Even the Government-sanctioned Al Azhar mosque was seen as serving political, rather than religious, ends and thus widely held to be illegitimate.(11)
Ironically, while Mubarak tried very hard to exclude the Muslim Brotherhood from Government, his Government did very little to curtail the spread of fundamentalist Islamist sentiment among non-politicised Egyptians. The media restrictions mentioned above and attempts by the Al Azhar mosque to advocate moderate Islam, particularly with regards to women’s dress,(12) were too little too late.
Reports from Egypt indicate that Salafism, a form of Sunni Muslim fundamentalism that rejects all modern forms of government, is on the rise. It calls for a return to a traditional Muslim form of government and legislature and emphasise a ‘return’ to the lifestyle of the first three generations after the Prophet Mohammed. Women, or their families, insist on them wearing the niqab (full body and facial covering revealing only the eyes), while more and more men are seen growing their beards and adopting traditional Muslim dress. Universities report that female students refuse to shake hands with male lecturers, yet they used to only a few years ago, and there is a proliferation of Salafi television programmes and books, often through book festivals that used to be renowned for supporting liberal ideologies.(13)
Apart from being highly conservative with regards to women and puritanical in adherence to Muslim moral laws, Salafism disregards any form of politics as revisionist. They view democracy as an ‘infidel idea.’(14) By refusing to engage with Mubarak’s Government on a political level, Salafi organisations have had to be tolerated by the Egyptian Government. Their active engagement in education programmes and providing social services has won them the favour of the people. Two Salafi organisations, Gamey'ah Shar'iah and Ansar al Sunna, have been classified as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) by the Egyptian government.(15) On the other hand, Salafis are highly critical of the Muslim Brotherhood (16) – a factor which may have endeared them both to Mubarak’s regime and to ordinary people who have become disillusioned with the Muslim Brotherhood’s promise of change.
Tahrir Square: The first signs of backsliding
Although they do not appear to be directly in control of the current political proceedings, Salafi ideology is clearly affecting the post-revolution climate in Egypt. A good indicator of this is the sudden turnabout that Egyptian women are experiencing with regards to their position in politics. As noted, women enjoyed the privilege of standing side-by-side with men during the demonstrations at Tahrir Square and elsewhere in the country, without being discriminated against. This is especially remarkable when one considers that most Egyptian women admit to have been groped in public, both before and after the revolution.(17) Acting out of this climate of equal participation in politics, women took to the streets on 8 March to protest for maintaining the recent positive trend in legislature concerning women’s rights.(18) This protest was partly fuelled by the interim Government’s decision to exclude women in the committee tasked with drafting a new constitution.(19) Some men took part in the protest to support the women’s cause. Unfortunately, the demonstration encountered a large group of men in plain clothes who demanded that the women’s protest disperse.
These men claimed that women’s role was to “stay home and raise presidents, not to run for president.”(20) While heckling and groping the women, they claimed that the aims of the women’s protest were “against Islam.”(21) With the upsurge of Salafism in Egypt, there is a general return to the belief that women should be barred from the public domain. It appears that Salafi ideologies are surfacing in multiple facets of Egyptian life and that they play a major role in the suppression of women’s rights, including their right to education - women remain less literate (59%) than men than men (83%).(22)
Already, the new constitution shows signs of reinforcing women’s separation from the public domain. Article 75 states that “Egypt’s president is born to two Egyptian parents and cannot be married to a non-Egyptian woman. Neither he nor his parents shall have another nationality except the Egyptian one. He shall practice his own civil and political rights.”(23) The use of the masculine pronoun throughout the constitution indicates that masculinity is the preferred norm, not only for the Presidential individual but for governance in general.
Ironically, while Mubarak’s Government did much to recognise women’s rights, the post-revolution atmosphere threatens to stifle them. The lack of policing and control over religious media is allowing Salafi ideology to be propagated much faster and more efficiently than during Mubarak’s regime. Women are witnessing an implicit return to the medieval Muslim tradition which the Salafis esteem. This traditionalist worldview is forcing women out of the public sector and there is no external governmental force to curtail this development.
The Jasmine Revolution: The Internet for Egyptian women
The publicity that the revolution received has turned the world’s attention to the plight of women in Egypt. Mubarak’s government failed to stop the Jasmine Revolution, partly because it realised too late that internet chat rooms played a key role in spreading anti-Mubarak sentiment and facilitating revolution planning. “The revolution is the brainchild of the Internet”, said Egyptian opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei in March 2011.(24) The Jasmine Revolution encouraged women to be politically present, both physically and online. Women played an active role in the Revolution, not only in the streets but also as bloggers and propagators of revolutionary ideologies in chat rooms. Since the Egyptian revolution, blogs and online news reports about the daily experiences of women have multiplied.
Salafism, as a traditionalist worldview, does not recognise the potential role the Internet can play in promoting feminism in Egypt, because it is an ideology developed in, and geared towards, a world state as is was prior to the Internet. While Egyptian women may find themselves physically limited in the public domain, they have seen the potential freedom and power available to them through Internet use. For example, three women activists used the Internet to promote awareness about Egypt’s first democratic elections in 2005 with a film they made.(25) BBC News reported in 2009 that 30% of Egyptian women used the Internet and that middle and upper class women used the internet to “blog for their rights.”(26)
The stark juxtaposition of ultra-conservative Salafism with a progressive women’s agenda raises many more questions. What chances do the women have of advancing women’s rights in an increasingly conservative and unstable political climate? Given that some women support the Salafist return to fundamentalism, is it possible for liberal women to gain political ground? Are there class-based political divisions between women in Egypt that underpin their differential Internet use, or do the upper and middle class Internet users represent the working class women’s interests, too, and if so, to what extent?
Although the Jasmine Revolution brought some setbacks for the women’s rights advancement agenda, it has also increased the politicisation of Egyptian women by encouraging them to keep using an avenue of expression that Salafism is not yet capable of limiting. Hopefully, this consequence of the Jasmine Revolution can increase the drive for equal rights for Egyptian women.
(1) Contact Aidan Prinsloo through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Gender Issues Unit (
(2) ‘Egypt: Ensure women’s equal right to divorce’, Human Rights Watch, 28 November 2004, http://www.hrw.org.
(3) C. Linberg, ‘Gender Equality in Egypt’, Wikigender, 13 February 2008, http://www.wikigender.org.
(4) Karim Haggag, ‘Women’s Progress in Egypt’, The New York Times, 30 July 2010, http://www.nytimes.com.
(6) ‘Jasmine Revolution’, Wikipedia, last edited 11 March 2011, http://en.wikipedia.org.
(7) Nadya Khalife, ‘Only Half a Revolution?’, Ahram Online, 9 March 2011, http://english.ahram.org.
(9) ‘Egypt election campaigning begins’, BBC News, 17 August 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk.
(10) WikiLeaks, ‘Salafism on the rise in Egypt Cairo’, The Telegraph, 15 February 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk.
(17) Hadeel Al-Shalchi, ‘Egyptian women’s rights protest marred by hecklers’, Yahoo! News, 8 March 2011, http://news.yahoo.com.
(21) Kristen Chick, ‘In Egypt’s Tahrir Square, women attacked at rally on International Women’s Day’, Christian Science Monitor, 8 March 2011, http://www.csmonitor.com.
(22) CIA, World Factbook, https://www.cia.gov.
(23) Cf. ‘Women wary of new Egypt constitution’, Euronews, http://www.euronews.net.
(24) ‘There would have been no revolution without Internet: ElBaradei’, TwoCircles.net, 19 March 2011, http://www.twocircles.net.
(25) ‘Egypt: We are watching you. Three Egyptian women use the Internet to promote democracy’, International Museum of Women, http://www.imow.org.
(26) ‘Egypt women blog for their rights’, BBC News, 18 March 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk.