A civil society without feminist movement
Dina Kabil - 10/07/2012
The reference to Tunisia becomes necessary in the Egyptian context. How have the Tunisian feminist movements manage to establish themselves in unison against the Nahdha Islamist Party while in Egypt, where the feminist movement dates back to the 19th Century no such thing happened?
Mona Izzet leaves easy answers out. She neither puts forwards the idea that Egypt is more infiltrated by Islamists than Tunisia nor she mentions the higher education level in Tunisia: “Egyptian women participated in the revolution and they played an active role just as men did. Even before the revolution, they participated in the protests that took place since 2005, she says. There are only initiatives in Egypt but no feminist movement. There are only associations among which only a few are active. We cannot talk of an organised feminist movement with a clear agenda and represented within the parties. In this sense, there is no movement capable of mobilising the population.”
For Fatma Khafagi, compared to Tunisia, the decline of Egyptian feminist movement is due to the absence of effective laws under Mubarak’s corrupt regime despite the existence of a deep-rooted civil society in the country. On the other hand, Tunisia enjoyed a legislation worthy of a modern state despite the absence of civil society. “The history of the feminist movements of the two countries is different, she says. The Tunisian feminist movement is structured and flourishing since the reign of Habib Bourguiba, who, though tyrannical, wanted to give the West the image of a civilised government. This is why he gave women the most advanced legislation in the Arab world with the prohibition of polygamy, repudiation, customary marriage, not to mention the adoption legislation. After Bourguiba, Ben Ali has maintained these achievements. Despite the existence of an avant-garde movement that emerged in the 1920s thanks to Hoda Shaarawi and Siza Nabraoui, a movement that combines political progress and women's rights, this was not the case in Egypt. However, with the advent of the 1952 revolution, the idea that the government could control everything prevailed. The political parties, the strongest civil society organisations and the feminist movement have been dissolved or fought as illustrated by the war against the charismatic Doria Chafiq. It is true that the right to vote and to be elected was given to the Egyptian woman, even before it was given to women many European countries, but bringing up the issues of personal status was enough to raise a large reluctance in parliament that was opposed to any ban on polygamy or khul.”
From the feminist model provided by the State to post-revolutionary coalitions
Also an active member of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, Khafagi relates that after the Nasser era, in the 1970s there was a progress in the personal status code. Two important amendments were then introduced: first, the requirement to obtain the acquiescence of the first wife in order to marry a second wife and then the right of women to the matrimonial home after divorce. At the time of Suzanne Mubarak, many regressions such as the khul were recorded and this was the advent of the so-called state feminism. Nevertheless, associations calling for the amendment of the law on nationality, the law on khul, and claiming the right of women to work as judges emerged. During the past 30 years, these associations have fiercely lobbied in this perspective.
Now that the revolution has taken place, after so many violations of women's rights, activists understand that good governance, leadership and access to information are the best ways to promote the feminist movement. It is in this vein that a coalition of feminist organisations was founded. It includes more than sixteen associations that have come together to organise themselves for the Egyptian Woman’s Day. Moreover, they have joined other associations to issue a statement denouncing the dismissal obtained by the medical officer boldly unveiled by Samira Brahim in the virginity tests scandal.
Today, the challenge of the feminist movement is to expand its audience in the provinces and to integrate the issue of women in the general questions that arise in the country. With great pride, Fatma Khafagi lists the groups now working in the feminist field. She enumerates sixty movements, coalitions, associations and committees that were not as many on the 8th March of last year. 25 popular committees, the 6 April Movement[i], the Egyptian Women's Movement for Change, the Union of Lawyers, the International Union of Women should be added to these groups.
Today’s challenge is to work for consensus in drafting the Constitution. Thanks to lobbying specialists, it is important to insist that mention of women's rights is made. Moreover, female lawyers could participate in the contestation of the Constituent Assembly’s legitimacy. According to feminists, there is no alternative but to literally impose - the participation of women. In order to do this, there is no other way but to ally - despite their great diversity – in order to address the looming fundamentalist assault.