Women’s Human Rights in Egypt: Cautious Optimism and the Way Forward

For a few brief days during the Egyptian uprising, women felt relatively safe on the streets of Egypt where sexual street harassment has, for many years, been a problem of epidemic proportions.  As The Daily Beast reports, “A survey released in 2008 by the Center for Women’s Rights found that 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women had experienced harassment.” But unlike past demonstrations where sexual harassment was rampant and women were discouraged from attending, this time, women were emboldened to take to the streets.  It was a heartwarming image.  And then CBS reporter Lara Logan was brutally attacked and sexually assaulted*.

People everywhere (including in Egypt) were horrified and her attack serves as a reminder that while the participation of women in the uprising has certainly fueled much optimism, improved rights for women in Egypt is anything but assured. As I pointed out recently on the Feminist Peace Network blog, “there is no real evidence at this point that indicates that violations of women’s human rights will be substantively addressed or ended by a new government”.

While we should be tempered in our optimism, there is certainly a real opportunity to advocate for substantive change.  One of the best tools for achieving that change and assuring women’s human rights is United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325), which among other things stresses that, “the importance of women’s equal and full participation as active agents in peace and security.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton clearly stated the importance of this resolution in her remarks on the 10th Anniversary of UNSCR 1325,

“The only way to achieve our goals – to reduce the number of conflicts around the world, to eliminate rape as a weapon of war, to combat the culture of impunity for sexual violence, to build sustainable peace – is to draw on the full contributions of both women and men in every aspect of peacemaking, peacekeeping, and peace building

Now, women’s participation in these activities is not a “nice thing to do.” It’s not as though we are doing a favor for them and ourselves by including women in the work of peace. This is a necessary global security imperative. Including women in the work of peace advances our national security interests, promotes political stability, economic growth, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. Just as in the economic sphere, we cannot exclude the talents of half the population, neither when it comes to matters of life and death can we afford to ignore, marginalize, and dismiss the very direct contributions that women can and have made.”

It is paramount that we adhere to Clinton’s well-spoken words and not allow them to become empty rhetoric.  Last week Clinton,

“dispatched a team of diplomats to help in the hunt for Egyptian protesters who sexually assaulted CBS news reader Lara Logan.

According to the State Department, Mrs. Clinton has turned up the heat on Egyptian authorities searching for the attackers, and is said to be taking a personal interest in the case.

The Secretary of State has made violence against women a top priority since she took office, and the latest incident is said to be of ‘paramount’ importance to her.”

Unfortunately, Clinton missed a golden opportunity to point out that sexual assault in Egypt is a major problem, and that women in Egypt are assaulted and harassed with impunity every day.   Instead she chose to focus only on the attack on Logan because she is a reporter working for American media. It is certainly important that the attack on Ms. Logan be investigated, but what happened to her is only a part of the much larger problem of blatant disregard of women’s safety and rights in Egypt.

Women’s human rights in Egypt need to be addressed and women need to participate fully in the formation of a new government.  The Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights reminds us that women participated fully in the uprising and, “They have every right to participate in building the Egyptian nation.” As the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) U.S. Section’s Human Rights Committee pointed out in a statement released during the uprising,

“Egyptian women are playing a fundamental part in the revolution, and they have long mobilized movements based on gender equality and human rights. As Egypt turns its present corner, women must be included, in equal numbers with men, at all negotiating tables with a full voice on the direction of their country. In line with obligations under UN Security Resolution 1325, the U.S. government should ensure that women are represented in any and all talks to which our country is a party, and Egyptian women’s and girls’ specific needs accounted for in the future governmental, political, and social structures determined by the Egyptian people as they reconstitute their country.”  

As WILPF notes, the inclusion of women in decision-making going forward is essential.  However, as I write this, it seems highly questionable that this will happen. Reuters ominously reports that so far there is a lack of women on the committee that is working to amend Egypt’s constitution. 

Egyptian feminist Nawla Darwiche described beautifully the reality of the harassment of women during the uprising telling the Associated Press, “All the men were very respectful during the revolution. Sexual harassment didn’t occur during the revolt. It occurred during that night.” 

The question going forward is whether the human rights of women in Egypt will continue to see the light of day.  The most critical element in achieving this is to ensure the full participation of women in the process of forming a new government and there is little if any evidence at this time that this will happen. 

There are however a number of useful tools that can be utilized to advocate for women’s human rights in Egypt. In addition to UNSCR 1325 there is also CEDAW, The Convention On All Forms Of Discrimination Against Women.  While the U.S. is one of only a handful of nations that has not ratified CEDAW, Egypt ratified this critical human rights declaration for women in 1981. 

Unfortunately, it is probably not realistic, given our lack of support for  CEDAW to advocate for the U.S. to insist on it being upheld in Egypt.  However we should heed Clinton’s very public support of 1325 and let her know that we heard her and that we, and more importantly, the women of Egypt, need her to show that she is concerned about Egyptian women and that those words are not empty rhetoric.

Despite much lip service, women’s human rights have never been a significant part of U.S. foreign policy. Let  Sec. Clinton know that it is time for that to change and that she can and should be a strong advocate for women’s human rights in Egypt.


*In a mostly overlooked part of this story as reported on The Huffington Post, Logan and her crew were detained by the Egyptian military prior to this story and harassed for, in Logan’s own words, for being journalists, as were a number of other members of the non-Egyptian press. While one can’t draw conclusions from this, the possibility that the attack on Logan was instigated if not carried out by the Egyptian military should be investigated. 

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  • rebellious-grrl

    Great article! Thank you for spotlighting the issue of sexual street harassment in Egypt.

    It was heartwarming to see women in the streets of Cairo protesting along side of the men. Women are often on the front lines of protests but often overlooked.

    I just want to share a few links;

    EGYPT: Egyptian Women On The Front Lines, Arms And Voices Raised


    I adore Nawal El Saadawi. There is a great article and video interview with her at http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/apr/15/nawal-el-saadawi-egyptian-feminist.

    ‘I am becoming more radical with age” – Nawal El Saadawi

    The Feminism of Violent Protest: Egypt Edition

    Behind Every Great Revolution.. is a GREAT WOMAN!‏

  • freetobe

    and might want to add how brave and couragous those Egyptian women who helped Lara logan and ended the violent assault were!

    Women are stronger than they look in every way I think many of them just don’t know it yet.

  • rebellious-grrl

    An interesting article about women’s role in the protests in Egypt. Egypt Women Clash Over Sharia Law After Tahrir Shows Equality. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-02-16/egypt-women-clash-over-sharia-law-after-tahrir-shows-equality-in-uprising.html

    From the article,

    Fatma Emam’s mother accused her of wanting to be a man and threatened to disown her if the 28-year- old joined the protests in Tahrir Square. She went anyway.
    ‘There are so many women who like me defied their families,” Emam said after spending five days and four nights in downtown Cairo. “The revolution is not only taking place in Tahrir, it is taking place in every Egyptian house. It is the revolution of fighting the patriarch.’
    …………….In Tahrir Square, the site of 18 days of rebellion that ousted Mubarak, women were from disparate groups, veiled and not, Christian and Muslim, Westernized and traditional. They were as outspoken as men, leading chants and banging iron rods on power poles to sound the alert of approaching pro-regime marchers………………….
    For Nawal El Saadawi, a 79-year-old former political prisoner whose 1969 book “Women and Sex” was banned in Egypt, what was notable was how she was treated with esteem by young men in the Muslim Brotherhood.
    ‘They said, ‘We read your books and we differ on some points but we respect you, we love you and we believe in equality,’ she (El Saadawi) said. ‘This revolution is making a new social contract. It is creating a new value system.’

    The women in Egypt have inspired me to continue to fight for the civil and human rights for women and all who are oppressed.

  • rebellious-grrl

    I agree. The mass participation of women in the Egyptian revolution has forever changed their lives. It’s inspiring to see their strength.

  • cmarie

    Seems to me if you want to make Egypt a safer nation for women the place to start is in the schools and the courts.  If private organizations can advocate for women through scholarships, legal assistance, microloans etc then certainly international controbutions would be very valuable.   But, I would encourage any doner to carefully consider where exactly her donation in going.  Find an organization that you have reason to trust, one that doesn’t keep its financial records hidden.  You might have the best intentions in the world but any contribution you make through the U.N is going to be pretty well depleted by the time it gets to the people for whom its intended, (when you take into consideration everything that’s going to be “lost”, stolen and otherwise skimmed off the top).  Its like trying to help the starving people of North Korea by sending money to Kim Jong Il.  So look into ways to contribute privatly .  I’ve heard great things about “Doctors without Borders”  http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/

  • rebellious-grrl

    Doctors without Borders is an excellent organization. I would highly encourage donating to them.

    Or donate to the Egypt based The Center for Women’s Rights.