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Women Press For A Voice In The New Egypt

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Women Press For A Voice In The New Egypt

Women Press For A Voice In The New Egypt

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For the first time in Egyptian history, a woman is running for president in elections expected later this year. As an opposition figure, she would have been allowed to run before the uprising that ended the rule of Hosni Mubarak. Still, as new government emerges in Egypt, many women say they feel shut out. They fear they will end up with even less political clout.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has the story.

Ms. BUTHAYNA KAMEL (President Candidate): (Arabic language spoken)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: In her flowing black robe, Buthayna Kamel looks like a traditional Egyptian woman. In reality, she is anything but. The 49-year-old talk show host turned presidential candidate is on the campaign trail. She held this recent town hall gathering outside the main library in Egypt's famous southern city of Luxor.

Not long ago, a gathering for people to vent their frustrations at the government, let alone discuss Kamel's presidential aspirations, would have been impossible. No one could run without Mubarak's approval and Egyptians were convinced he was grooming his son Gamal to take over once he retired.

But today, Kamel and other Egyptians are looking forward to what they hope will be a real presidential race with grassroots campaigns.

Ms. KAMEL: (Arabic language spoken)

NELSON: Still, the candidate says she fears that at some point, Egyptians will tell her and other women who want a say - thanks for working with us to overthrow the regime but now it's time for you to go home.

There is cause for her concern. Participants in last month's International Women's Day march to Tahrir Square in Cairo were attacked by men on the street. And some activists complain the emerging leaders in post-revolutionary Egypt are ignoring women's issues because they associate the topic with the old regime and its Western allies.

During his tenure, Mubarak introduced quotas that filled scores of parliament seats with women, while his wife headed a powerful women's council. The international community also poured money into programs aimed at improving the status of women. But critics say that was little more than window dressing aimed at shoring up Western support and ensuring Egyptian obedience to his regime.

Martina Rieker is an associate dean at American University in Cairo, who heads the Institute for Gender and Women's Studies.

Professor MARTINA RIEKER (Director, Institute for Gender and Women's Studies): You've had relatively powerful women's national councils. You've had relatively vibrant NGO development scene with an awful lot of women's representation. And so the question really becomes: What has that meant for questions of social and economic justice, in particular, and who are actually these actors?

NELSON: Nawal El Saadawi has similar concerns. She is one of Egypt's best-known feminists. The 80-year-old author and psychiatrist adds that Egypt's current military rulers were part of Mubarak's regime.

Dr. NAWAL EL SAADAWI (Psychiatrist): When the revolution succeeded and we came back home, we opened newspaper, we find women excluded by the military and by the new temporary government. They appointed the people in charge of the provinces, the muhafezeen - not a single woman. There was not a single woman in the committee for changing the constitution. Every day we found women are not there.

NELSON: But Saadawi says the solution isn't necessarily fielding female candidates in the upcoming elections. Instead, she wants women's groups to unite and do exactly what the youth did in the uprising that toppled Mubarak.

Dr. EL SAADAWI: Women should be in the street in millions. If women are millions or just one million and make a march with all their demands, this is the pressure.

NELSON: Activist Mozn Hassan says also key is defining the women's rights agenda in Egyptian terms. She says she learned that on March 8th, when she took part in the International Women's Day march that came under attack.

Ms. MOZN HASSAN (Director, Nazra for Feminist Studies): No one is excusing sexual harassment. But at the same time, at this day, people were protesting for sectarian rights and students were striking in the universities asking for their rights. And some of the people thought that it was more important for the society and for the political movement to see women with them.

NELSON: Hassan heads a NGO called Nazra for Feminist Studies, which is helping more than a dozen young women who are known in their communities to run for office later this year. She says even if they win, it won't break Egypt's formidable gender barriers. But she hopes to lay a foundation for a strong women's rights movement that can have a say in the new Egypt.

Ms. HASSAN: I don't know. Maybe I'm crazy, but I still have hope.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo.

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