Egypt moves to restrict women's rights even further.
In January, the Egyptian cabinet approved a personal status bill that would require women to get the consent of a male guardian to get married, to register a child’s birth or to travel abroad. The draft law also gives fathers priority in child custody matters (currently mothers are given priority) and allows fathers to prevent mothers from traveling with their children. In matters of marriage, a male guardian such as a father or a brother would sign the marriage contract, not the wife, and he would have the right to file to annul the marriage within a year. The bill has not yet been formally presented to parliament for ratification nor has not been presented to any civic groups for feedback.
Nehad Abu El Kosman, head of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, called the bill “repressive” and “patriarchal” in a video statement. “We completely reject this shocking draft law,” she said. “It takes us back 200 years.”
Entisar Elsaeed, the founder and director of the Cairo Foundation for Development and Law, said that any new personal status laws should treat men and women equally. Custody cases should be decided in accordance with international law, educational guardianship should be shared, and women should be allowed to move freely without needing their husband’s permission. They should have self-determination over their bodies, both in terms of health and in marriage. The system of female obedience must be abolished, she said. “It is inconceivable that women will be treated in this humiliating manner in the 21st century,” she wrote.
Women have flooded social media platforms with stories about instances in which current laws and social mores have already prevented them from making decisions for their children or for themselves, even on matters of their own reproductive health. Further restrictions would make matters even worse.
The government may be moving to curtail women’s freedoms, but on a grassroots level, women, particularly young women, are becoming increasingly vocal in their demands to try to get justice for themselves in a nation where sexual harassment and sexual violence are rampant and little is done about it. They are forcing the issue of consent into the mainstream and challenging the prevailing and widely internalised view that sexual harassment and rape are the fault of the women on the receiving end.
Historically, women in Egypt have been reluctant to report rape or harassment because they were seen as having invited the attacks. Having been subject to such abuse brought shame on the women, and police would sometimes further abuse them, seeing them as “damaged goods”, said Mona Eltahawy, author of the Feminist Giant newsletter. Eltahawy sees these young women’s efforts as the continuation of the incomplete 2011 revolution. During the uprisings that overthrew longtime president Hosni Mubarak, women were told that it was not the time for them to come forward with their concerns, that there were more pressing issues to be addressed. Because of that, the revolution was only a partial one, Eltahawy said, with women being left out. “The state oppresses everyone, men and women,” she said. “I consider this to be the feminist revolution, at last.” She said. “The freer women demand to be, the more regressive Egyptian laws will become.”
“When this wave of the movement happened, it made me so proud,” said Mozn Hassan, founder of Nazra for Feminist Studies. “But what’s after speaking up? Speaking up is a tool.” The key is creating an environment in which women are safe, she said. Substantive progress will require structural change, Hassan argued, and for that to happen there needs to be a free civic sphere, which can’t exist in a country with the repressiveness of Egypt. “If you want a structured, long-term, diverse feminist movement, you need a public sphere,” she said. “You don’t get that if you’re not secure… anyone speaking up can be jailed tomorrow.”
Eltahawy explains, that ultimately, “the feminist revolution will erupt and it will be unstoppable, no matter what laws they pass.”