Women In The Egyptian Revolution: An Evolution Of Rights

During Egypt's 2011 revolution, activist Dalia Ziada assumed all of the male protesters around her were fighting for her rights, too. But the following years told a different story. NPR's Host Jacki Lyden talks with Ziada about the evolution of women's rights in Egypt from the 2011 uprising to the current upheaval. We also hear from Rebecca Chiao, who discovered a tool for Egyptians to report sexual harassments.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

In Egypt, the nation's caretaker, Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi, is rushing to put together a cabinet following the military ouster of the elected president nearly two weeks ago. But this political maneuvering is happening in a nation which is deeply polarized. And Egyptians have been voicing their opinions in the streets. The last two weeks have seen many rallies from both sides: those who want the now deposed president, Mohammed Morsi, reinstated and those who supported his removal.

NPR's Leila Fadel joins us now from Cairo. Thank you for being with us Lela.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Thank you.

LYDEN: Leila, Mohammed Morsi is still being detained as we know. Has he been charged with anything yet?

FADEL: Well, at this point, he's been in detention for almost two weeks with no charges. And now we're seeing that investigations are being opened trying to find a charge, it seems, to charge him with - things that vary from espionage to sharing state secrets with foreign governments to inciting violence. A lot of human rights groups say some of these charges actually seem to be a way to just keep him in detention.

LYDEN: What about his party, the Muslim Brotherhood? Have they given any indication that they're willing to negotiate with this interim caretaker government?

FADEL: No. At this point, they say they feel this is a usurper government, that this was an elected president that was ousted by the military. They are saying that they will continue in the streets. What we saw last night was them spreading their sit-in that was centered around one mosque in Cairo to different parts of Cairo.

LYDEN: Leila, President Morsi was only in office for a year, and I understand that there is talk of a conspiracy behind his ouster.

FADEL: Well, in Egypt, things are always very unclear. When you talk to Muslim Brotherhood leaders today, they say they feel that this bureaucracy that belonged to the old regime seven million strong sabotaged the president at every moment. They point to things like the fact that there are no longer power cuts suddenly and shorter gas lines after a diesel shortage for months. They say they feel that this is an evidence that actually this was a state that was against them and would never allow him to rule, and that the military had planned this. Others say that really, this was the military answering to the people's demands after millions of people went to the street on June 30th.

LYDEN: Yeah. And, Leila, finally, the street protests, they've been going on for nearly two weeks. You've been on them. Bring us up to date. Is there any sign of them diminishing?

FADEL: Well, we have seen that on the side of the people who are in support of the military ouster. Those protests have been smaller in the later days. I think it's very clear that this military coup is going to stay in place while the Muslim Brotherhood leadership is really trying to mobilize all its people on the street, bussing them into Cairo, trying to show that they have support among people, that they will not leave the streets. Some say it's a way to really disrupt the capital as the caretaker prime minister is trying to put together a cabinet as quickly as possible and move Egypt forward during a deeply polarized time.

LYDEN: NPR's Leila Fadel in Cairo. Thank you, Leila.

FADEL: Thank you.

LYDEN: As Egyptians struggle over the future of their country, the issue of how women will participate has once again come to the fore. Even as women have been hugely visible as protesters, their rights have been less visible and, in some ways, regressed. Violence against women has also been a feature of the recent protests. To gain perspective on what's happened since 2011, we spoke to a young activist who's been at the front line for women and civil rights.

DALIA ZIADA: My name is Dalia Ziada. I'm 31 years old. I work as executive director of Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies. I believe that Egypt deserves to be a democratic state, and this is my main fight.

LYDEN: Dalia Ziada came by those attitudes through her personal experience.

ZIADA: I was raised to very traditional family. My mother is a teacher, and my father is an army officer. So he was absent most of the time. He died in a young age, so mostly I was brought up by my mother.

LYDEN: Ziada says her first protest was at age 8 against her family on the issue of genital mutilation. Her activism later gained momentum in 2006 when she was introduced to the legacy of Martin Luther King. By 2011, she was among the millions of Egyptians calling for the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak. I asked her to remind us of the involvement of women during that time.

ZIADA: 2011 was just another scene of glory for the Egyptian women. We did not only participate in the protests but even in the making for the protest. I remember in so many days during the revolution, especially in the last days when people started to give up. The women were the ones who were motivating them to remain in the street.

LYDEN: After Hosni Mubarak was deposed, what did you think would happen in terms of women's rights? What were your hopes?

ZIADA: During the 18 days of the revolution, we got the impression that the world will be perfect. Because during those 18 days, we were side by side with men. We were sharing everything with them. No one harassed us, no one told us you are a man or a woman. They were just working with us as Egyptians, fellow Egyptians. Then we saw that things will continue this way. But soon after that, while women went out to the streets making a march - a million-woman march saying that we are equal. Please consider us in the process of democracy, and we need to be decision makers with you.

They were faced by other men - actually the same men in the same square, in the same place, just telling them, go back to your home. It's not your time now. It was shocking to everyone.

LYDEN: In what specific ways have we seen the dialing back, would you say, of women's rights?

ZIADA: What happened later on is that first, we had the military rule. It remained for about a year and a half. And the people who were in the regime then, they actually did not know that women should be involved with - as an essential part of it. They asked to hold elections. They made several decision-making committees and so on, but women were not involved with at all.

Even in the elections when they said we will give a quota for women, they said they will give a quota only on the list but not in the parliament itself. So actually, we were faced by a big problem. I ran for parliament in 2011. I was running for a political party that I co-founded with other revolutionaries after the 2011 revolution. And because of the bad perception of women in our society, I couldn't win. I didn't win.

LYDEN: You know, when you ran for parliament, you put out a survey asking people about whether or not it would be good for Egypt to have a female president. And the answer was 100 percent no. Do you think it would still be like that if you were to do that survey again?

ZIADA: Actually, I think we will still have a very high percentage that would say, no, we don't want a woman president. We want a male president first. But it would not be 100 percent again because the experience we had with fellow men within those two years, going through all these challenges together and actually insisting to fight back any oppressions that may be bought on women. I think this has showed that we are very determined to continue our fight till the very end.

LYDEN: With Morsi no longer in power, what can we hope and expect, do you think, for women's rights in Egypt in the future?

ZIADA: There is a lot of promising steps that has been taken by the interim President Adly Mansour so far that actually tells me that the upcoming days are going to be good days for women. One of them is that in the constitutional declaration that was announced two days ago, there is a specific quota for women participation in every decision-making step that should be taking place.

On another level, now one of the two big blocks that were in our way has gone away, which is political Islam. The big job that we should be focusing on right now is working on changing the mentalities of the grassroots people so we get rid of the patriarchal perception of women rights in Egypt. And thus, from there, the reform will start.

LYDEN: That's Dalia Ziada, women's rights activist and executive director of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies.

From the start of the Egyptian protests in 2011, women rallied alongside men in Cairo's Tahrir Square. But the energy and confusion of the crowds have masked a significant danger for those female protesters - sexual harassment and assault.

A growing number of organizations are responding to the dangers. One of those is HarassMap, a website which documents reports of harassment and assault submitted by victims via mobile phones and social media. Founder Rebecca Chiao started the site, and she's been paying close attention to the growing numbers of assaults.

REBECCA CHIAO: In this last week received about 186 reports. The first day was nine. And then on the 30th, I think it was 46, and then 25, and then it changed day by day. But the bigger the crowds, the more assaults.

LYDEN: In April of this year, the United Nations released a study showing that over 99 percent of Egyptian women reported being the victim of some form of sexual harassment. But women's rights activist Soraya Bahgat says attacks during protests are different.

SORAYA BAHGAT: It's sometimes really not clear to people, so a distinction needs to be made between the everyday sexual harassments that Egyptian women go through and the sexual assaults in Tahrir. What we've seen in Tahrir is like an animal that you knew gone rogue, gone vicious and, you know, starting to bite. It's a far more vicious thing than regular sexual harassment. It's assault. It's rape. It's violence.

LYDEN: And Chiao says the attacks in Tahrir Square aren't just acts of random violence. There's a political motivation to them.

CHIAO: Our of every mob attack, you know, there's maybe 100 or more men attacking one woman. And maybe five or 10 of these people are paid thugs who are organized and are paid to, you know, generate these attacks.

LYDEN: Though attacks continue to happen, Chiao says the organization's efforts have meant that at least talking about sexual assault is no longer taboo.

CHIAO: When I started working on the issue of sexual harassment, it was 2005 and you couldn't even say the words. People didn't know what it meant. And even if they knew what it meant, they wouldn't admit that it happens or happened to them or anyone that they know.

LYDEN: But now with public awareness increasing, both Chiao and Bahgat are optimistic that things could change.

BAHGAT: The battle against sexual harassment and assault in Egypt is also a mental battle. It starts with trying to change perceptions of society at large. And luckily, there are many groups that are working to really fight this and alter the perception and end the social acceptability of any form of harassment or violation of women. So that personally gives me hope.

LYDEN: As Egypt struggles with what a new government will look like, it is vital, Bahgat says, that it remain committed to ending violence against its women. This is NPR News.

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