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Opinion

Women must be at the heart of the new Egypt

As Egyptians celebrate the first anniversary of the uprising that removed Hosni Mubarak from power, Mary Robinson argues that it is time to challenge the patriarchal norms that continue to restrict women's political participation – and that Egypt's future as a just, democratic and prosperous nation depends on it.

This week we celebrate the anniversary of Egypt’s revolution. It is exactly one year since we watched, amazed, as men and women, Muslims and Christians, seasoned activists and first-time demonstrators filled Tahrir Square and converged all across Egypt to demand an end to authoritarian rule.

Revolutionary women

I know that Egyptian women have a long and proud history of activism and protest, not least in the country’s 1919 revolution, almost a century ago. But Egypt remains a fundamentally patriarchal society – there is a wide gap between state law, which doesn’t restrict women’s political participation, and the customs and traditions that in reality often limit it.

Last year’s revolution was an opportunity for women as well as men to be more than passive observers in their country’s fate. I was inspired to see how many brave and determined women – from journalists to students to housewives – were at the forefront of these peaceful demonstrations.

In the months following the revolution too, women have refused to be intimidated into submission. Soldiers and security police have used violent tactics to target women protesters, including sexual harassment, public beatings and the horrific so-called ‘virginity tests’. Yet it was one notorious such attack on the anonymous ‘blue bra girl’ that provoked the biggest women’s demonstration in modern Egyptian history, provoking thousands of women to take to the streets.

But not a revolution for women

I had hoped Egypt’s revolution would open up greater political participation across the full spectrum of Egyptian society. Yet the recent elections in Egypt, declared largely free and fair by international observers, nonetheless delivered a striking setback to one group: women.

While 376 women ran for parliament, only 8 women succeeded in winning seats. This means that in the new parliament, which held its first session this week, women hold less than 2 per cent of the seats. This is all the more astonishing when you consider that the average in the Arab world is 13 per cent, and rises to 19 per cent globally.

After Mubarak’s downfall, the military actually repealed a quota that his government had introduced which guaranteed women at least 64 parliamentary seats. Tainted by its association with the corrupt and discredited elections of 2010, this form of positive discrimination seems to have fallen out of favour. The challenge now is to find a new way to secure women’s participation in politics.

Women should be at the heart of the new Egypt

The transition to democracy cannot be accomplished in one night, or even over the course of one year. This week, Egyptians are reflecting on the achievements many never imagined they would see, like the first genuinely free elections in Egypt’s history. But while their revolution enabled millions of Egyptians to challenge decades of autocracy, it was not a revolution for gender equality.

This struggle is the responsibility of women and men alike – and it has only just started. We cannot assume that Egypt’s new leadership will automatically prioritise justice and human rights for women. When it comes to the constitutional drafting process and involvement in decision-making and public affairs, conscious, planned efforts are needed to ensure that women have a seat at the table.

If Egypt is to grow into the society its citizens have yearned and struggled for, its women cannot be excluded from the process. I doubt the revolution could have succeeded without the participation of Egyptian women. I am certain that building a just, democratic and prosperous Egypt will depend on it.