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Despite new limitations, Egyptian women are still active

- May 5, 2017
People hold posters of detainees as they protest a law restricting demonstrations as well as the crackdown on activists, in front of the Press Syndicate building in Cairo in 2014. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

In March, the Egyptian regime celebrated Mother’s Day, honoring a number of “role models par excellence,” including actresses, academics, athletes, professionals, and mothers of army and police martyrs. However, the celebration conspicuously failed to include any independent feminist figure or vocal women’s rights advocates.

As a single event, this might seem like a simple oversight. But situated within the current landscape of women’s rights in Egypt, the message is clear. The ideal mother and woman is utterly apolitical in her pursuit of success and rights. And while the state declared 2017 the “year of the Egyptian woman,” this extends to only a certain kind of woman. A number of independent women’s rights advocates face travel bans and ongoing interrogations. Among those facing litigation are Mozn Hassan, the director of Nazra for Feminist Studies, Azza Soliman, the director of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA) and Aida Seif al-Dawla, the co-founder of the Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence.

For some, this shift might mark the beginning of a“politics of disappointment” among women’s groups, especially after the political openings that seemed possible in the euphoric wake of the 2011 Arab uprisings. However, my research suggests that the politics of hope has not yet disappeared. Activists continue to maintain hope amid disappointment by increasingly focusing their work toward the present possibilities rather than a vague utopian past.

How the regime uses women to support its agenda

During fieldwork this year, I spoke with activists, scholars and members of women’s organizations in Egypt. Most interviewees brought up the Mother’s Day celebration to illustrate how the state has co-opted the movement. Though definitely a function of my timing, it is also a telling example of how the regime uses the agenda of women’s rights as a political proxy to entrench its power. While seemingly advocating for women’s rights, the regime continues to curtail freedoms.

The regime is focused on polishing its image, though changes remain surface level. The Cabinet includes a number of high-profile female ministers, and 89 women sit in parliament. Despite these much celebrated and publicized developments, women’s rights organizations have languished under the current political climate.

Passed late last year, the controversial NGO law proves this point. The law threatens not only advocacy but also the charitable work carried out by women’s rights organizations along with other civil society groups. Placing organizations under a new national authority, the law imposed new restrictions on their work and funding and stipulated harsh penalties for working with foreign entities or conducting advocacy or field research without prior approval. A number of women’s rights organizations have been subject to asset freezes, and their staff and leaders face travel bans and interrogations.

How women are continuing their advocacy

However, even with these limiting developments, women have maintained hope and sustained their activism. With more traditional avenues blocked, women are participating in creative social and artistic initiatives and engaging in debates over long-standing taboos, such as marital rape, domestic violence and child abuse.

HarrasMap is one example of how women’s rights groups formulated a new language to make their claims heard. Founded in 2010, the organization tracks and maps cases of sexual harassment in Egypt. Amid a tense political climate and increasingly curtailed freedoms, their performance rests on negotiating the proper role and image to make their claims heard. In response to this climate, they claim the image of experts, rather than activists, reproducing evidence and expert knowledge to inform corporate strategies and state policies.

Another markedly hopeful project is BuSSY, a performing art and storytelling initiative. The initiative documents and shares women’s stories and experiences.

Members of such artistic and social initiatives are often viewed above the fray of the messy political life in Egypt and are uniquely able to introduce subtle social change. Politics, as one of my interviewees astutely described, has been given “a bad name.”

How the uprising changed women’s lives

Despite some loss of momentum, interviewees repeatedly described how their experience in the uprising has changed them. The effect of women’s experience during collective action in Egypt can be seen not only on their activism and engagement in women’s rights initiatives but also on their life and career choices. The experience, several participants attest, gave them a sense of purpose and hope. This sense may wax and wane, but it is never completely gone. Borrowing Karl Mannheim’s influential concept, the experience created a “political generation,” giving participants a sense of potency as a political and social force.

This has influenced participants across a wide range of life choices. For instance, a number of participants attribute the change in their career and their focus on self-advancement and development to their experience during the uprising. This focus on individual rather than community salvation, while not selfless, is not completely selfish, many of my interviewees were quick to point out. As one interviewee described, it is a way to “keep the memory of resistance alive.”

Using the rhetoric of neoliberalism to keep a movement alive

This vocabulary of the self and individual rather than the collective and community is often, though not always, tolerated by the Egyptian regime and its neoliberal agenda.

Focusing on these forms of participation complicates our understanding of action and activism under the politics of disappointment. It encourages a view of activism not only in multiple sites but also at multiple scales of action and as a result of multiple emotions and meanings. The politics of disappointment, I believe in line with social movement theorists, is a “complex political” and affective form in its own right. Contrary to the grim picture of quiescence, women’s groups continue to carve a space for action despite their disappointment in the political process and the closing of more traditional political and public spaces.

Nermin Allam is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada postdoctoral fellow and visiting scholar at Princeton University.

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