Arab Women's Spring


Written by admin - 27 august 2013 -

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Tensions had been building during 2010, following the renewal of the state of emergency and widespread election fraud. In January 2011, inspired by the Tunisian revolution, massive protests broke out, calling for social and political reforms, including an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

Although women participated alongside men in the revolution leading to Mubarak's resignation, they have been excluded from the political transition: there were no women in the constitutional reform committees; a government reshuffle reduced the number of women ministers from 3 to 2; and a quota for women’s representation in parliament was abolished. Following the 2011 elections, the proportion of women in the lower house diminished from 12% to 2%.

Women's participation in demonstrations

Time-line of key events


18 Jan: Asmaa Mahfouz and other activists call for protests on 25 January (National Police Day) to denounce police brutality and demand the resignation of Habib El Adly, Minister of Interior. 

25 Jan: Tens of thousands participate in demonstrations across Egypt. 

28 Jan: Demonstrations meet with unprecedented police violence. Hundreds of protesters are killed and thousands injured. Mobile phone networks and the internet are shut down. Police are withdrawn and the army is deployed. 

1 Feb: President Mubarak annouces that he will not run in upcoming presidential elections and promises political reforms. The following day, pro-Mubarak thugs attack peaceful protesters in Tahrir square, leaving many dead and hundreds injured. 

11 Feb: Vice-President Omar Suleiman, announces Mubarak's resignation and the transfer of power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), headed by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. 

13 Feb: SCAF announces the dissolution of parliament, suspends the constitution, appoints an all-male committee to draft a new constitution and declares it will remain in power for 6 months until elections are held. 

8 Mar: Women gather in Tahrir Square to mark International Women's Day. They are attacked and harassed by a mostly male counter-protest group. 

9 Mar: The army storms Tahrir Square and arrests protesters. 18 women protesters are detained and 7 of them are forced by the army to undergo “virginity tests”. 

19 Mar: In a referendum on the constitution 77.2% vote in favour of proposed amendments.

1 Apr – 1 Aug: Protesters return to Tahrir Square, calling on the government and SCAF to enforce the demands of the revolution. Protests are violently repressed by the security forces. 

9 Oct: Army and security forces brutally attack a peaceful demonstration of Coptic Christians in front of Maspero, the State television building, killing at least 27. 

18-23 Nov: Army and security forces attack protesters in Tahrir square resulting in more than 40 deaths. 

28 Nov: The first round of parliamentary elections begins, with high voter turnout. 

16 Dec: Army forces attack peaceful protests at the Cabinet of Ministers and in Tahrir square, resulting in 17 deaths. They use unprecedented violence against women protesters. 

20 Dec: 10,000 women march in down-town Cairo, denouncing army violence against protesters. The following day, women march in Alexandria. 

27 Dec: Samira Ibrahim, who was forced by the army to undergo a “virginity test”, wins a lawsuit against the military. The court rules that “virginity tests” are unlawful. 


21 Jan: The final results of elections to the 508-seat People’s Assembly (lower house) are announced. The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), led by the Muslim Brotherhood, wins the largest number of seats. 

26 Feb: The final results of elections to the Shura Council (upper house) are announced. The FJP wins 105 of180 elected seats. Women win 4 seats. 

Protests leading to the fall of Mubarak

On 18 January 2011, Asmaa Mahfouz, 26 year old blogger and member of the 6 April Youth Movement, launched an online appeal to Egyptian men and women to join her in demonstrations in Tahrir Square on 25 January to call for democratic rule.

“If we have honour and want to live in dignity in this country, we must all go down to Tahrir Square on 25 January... We must demand our fundamental human rights as human beings...I will go to Tahrir Square. I will say no to corruption! I will say no to this system!”
Asmaa Mahfouz, 18 January 2011, video blog

In protests that followed, culminating in President Mubarak's resignation on 11 February, women participated alongside men, calling for an end to the regime and the establishment of a civilian government.

“Women all ages and all walks of life were involved in every aspect of this revolution: in confrontations on the front line with security forces, organising, writing slogans, shouting and sleeping in Tahrir Square. . Housewives came to protest with their children. Activists from all political movements participated in demonstrations. Women and men were comrades in the protests. Women were not afraid. We witnessed no instances of sexual harassment. There was a sense of complete respect, support and solidarity towards women”.
Amal Abdel Hadi, New Woman Foundation, Coalition for equality without reservation, Interview FIDH-Egalité, 8 March 2011

Violence targeting women in subsequent demonstrations

Following Mubarak's departure and the transfer of power to the military, protests continued across the country, criticizing the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) for not following through on demands for reform.

During demonstrations, women protesters and observers, have been threatened, harassed and sexually assaulted. On the night of Mubarak's resignation, journalist Lara Logan was sexually assaulted by a mob of 40 men in Tahrir Square. On 23 November 2011, journalist Caroline Sinz was covering events in Tahrir when she was sexually assaulted by a group of boys.

Women have also been victims of violence perpetrated by the police and military. On 9 March 2011, 18 women protesters were arrested by the army in Tahrir Square. They were taken to the Egyptian Museum where they were severely beaten, tortured and verbally abused. They were later transferred to the military Hykestep detention centre, where 7 of them, including Samira Ibrahim, were threatened with prosecution, stripped and forced to submit to “virginity tests” administered by male army doctors. Several members of the military, including Major General Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, head of Egypt’s military intelligence, subsequently admitted the practice, claiming that the tests were conducted so that women could not later allege they had been raped. Samira filed a complaint against the army and released her testimony in a video posted on the internet. On 27 December 2011, Cairo's administrative court ruled in favour of Samira's claim. The court declared “virginity tests” illegal. Several army doctors, accused of conducting the tests, have been charged with “acts in breach of public decency” and are to be tried before a military court.

“I didn't go to court as Samira Ibrahim. The violations that occurred are against all the women of Egypt. If everyone remains silent, then nothing will change. I urge all the women who were subjected to violence and had their rights violated by the army to file legal complaint”.
Samira Ibrahim, FIDH Interview, January 2012

On 23 November 2011, Central Security Forces arrested journalist Mona El Tahawy near Tahrir Square. She was transferred to the Ministry of Interior, where she was detained and repeatedly beaten and sexually assaulted. On 16 December 2011, military forces attacked a demonstration in front of the Cabinet of Ministers, beating and arresting many protesters, including women. Ghada Kamal was among those detained. She reported being severely beaten by the military and receiving death threats. On the same day, a veiled woman was stripped of her clothes, dragged across the ground in Tahrir Square and stamped on by the military. Photographs of the incident went viral. On 20 December 2011, thousands participated in an all-women march in down-town Cairo, denouncing military violence, in particular against women. Women marched together, holding banners with the photograph of the veiled woman protester. SCAF later issued a statement apologising to the women of Egypt, claiming that “all legal measures have been taken to hold officials accountable for transgressions”.

Women's participation in the political transition

"We want women to participate in building their country on an equal footing with men and to be able to enjoy the rights and future that they helped to secure. We need to build an environment that is conducive to women's full participation in decision-making positions, without any reservations".
Amal Abdel Hadi, NWF, FIDH-Egalité Interview, June 2011

As Egyptians start the transition from Mubarak's 30-year rule, women are struggling to take their place in political processes.

In the immediate aftermath of Mubarak's resignation, SCAF announced the formation of a constitutional review committee to propose amendments to the constitution. The committee included 8 members, all men. On 8 March 2011, women gathered in Tahrir Square to mark International Women's Day. They denounced their exclusion from the decision-making process. Groups of men shouted abuse at the protesters and several women were sexually harassed.

Millions of women voted in parliamentary elections at the end of 2011, which resulted in the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), an Islamist party led by the Muslim Brotherhood, winning the largest majority (46%) and the Salafi Al Nour Party in second place (24%). Women are hardly represented in the new parliament (see further below).

A further obstacle to promoting women's rights in post-Mubarak Egypt is a public perception linking women's rights with the propaganda of the former regime. Mubarak established the National Council for Women in 2000 headed by Suzanne Mubarak. Following Hosni Mubarak's resignation, civil society organisations called for the dissolution of the council. SCAF subsequently nominated 30 new members, including prominent women's rights activists, but the existence of the council is contested by the Freedom and Justice Party.

Representation in government

Under Mubarak: At the start of 2011, there were 3 women ministers (Ministry of International Cooperation, Ministry of Immigration and Ministry of the State for the Family and Population).

Post Mubarak: As of January 2012, out of a total of 31 ministries, only 2 are headed by women (Fayza Abu El Naga, Minister of International Cooperation and Nagwa Khalil, Minister of Solidarity and Social Affairs).

Representation in parliament

People's Assembly (lower house)

In 1956, women gained the right to vote and to stand for election. In 1957, Egypt was the first country in the Arab region to elect women to parliament. In 1979 a quota of a minimum of 30 seats for women was introduced by presidential decree. 35 women were elected to the 382-seat Chamber, representing 9%.

Under Mubarak: In 2009, a law was passed requiring 64 seats to be reserved for women out of a total of 518 seats. In the 2010 elections, 380 women stood for election, 62 were elected to the reserved seats and one was appointed by the president, representing 12%.

Post Mubarak: In May 2011, SCAF issued a decree abolishing the 64 seat quota. Instead, the decree required all electoral lists to include at least one woman. In practice, few women candidates were nominated and most of them were placed at the bottom of electoral lists. Women candidates won only 9 seats in the 508-seat People's Assembly and another 2 were appointed by SCAF, representing only 2%.

“Political groups do not make women's rights a priority. This includes both liberal and Islamist parties. None of the political parties challenged the fact that no quota was imposed for women. Women's rights were compromised by all political groups”.
Dr. Hoda Elsadda, Founding member of the Women and Memory Forum (WMF), FIDH Interview, January 2012

Shura Council (upper house)

The Shura Council acts in an advisory capacity. It is composed of a combination of directly elected members and members nominated by the president.

Under Mubarak: In 2004, 11 women were appointed by the president. In 2007, 10 women stood for election out of a total of 609 candidates, one woman was elected and 9 women were appointed to the 264-member Council, representing 4%.

Post Mubarak: In the 2012 elections, women won 4 of the 180 elected seats. A further 90 seats are to be appointed by the next elected president.

Representation in local councils

There has been a slight increase in the representation of women in local councils from 1.6% in 2002 to 4% in 2008. In 2008, Eva Kyrolos became the first woman mayor in Egypt (Komboha, Upper Egypt). In June 2011, the Minister of Local Development stated that he would not appoint any women as mayors “due to the difficult times in the country”, declaring “I don't want to burden them with more responsibilities that they could handle”.

Representation in the judiciary

In 2003, Tahany El Gibaly was the first woman judge to be appointed to the Supreme Constitutional Court, but she was not allowed to hold hearings. In 2007, a long-standing ban on women judges was lifted and 30 women judges were appointed to the civil courts. However, women have not been appointed to criminal courts, nor to the Office of the General Prosecutor, and the State Council (administrative court) has refused to appoint women judges on religious grounds.

A discriminatory legal framework

A series of legislative reforms passed between 2000-2009 provided some increased protection for women's rights. In 2008, a new Child Law was adopted (No. 126 of 2008), raising the minimum legal age for marriage from 16 to 18 years for both men and women and criminalising female genital mutilation. Other reforms concerned divorce and child custody. Some of these reforms were strongly criticised by opposition secular and Islamist parties.

Representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood have long criticized existing laws on women's and children's rights. Since Mubarak's resignation, Salafi groups have denounced the reforms, deeming them “illegitimate” and incompatible with Sharia, and have called for the repeal of laws granting mothers parental authority and custody of children. In July 2011, the president of the Family Court of Appeal submitted a draft bill providing for the abolition of the khula divorce procedure and reinstating a practice allowing husbands to forcibly return “disobedient” wives to their family homes. In January 2012, a woman parliamentary candidate for the FJP called for the repeal all laws contradicting Sharia.

“Since the revolution, some groups have been attacking the existing family laws. They are trying to take us back to square one. So right now instead of trying to move forward with reform we are just trying to save what we have”.
Nehad Abu El-Komsan, Chair, ECWR, FIDH Interview, June 2011

Women's rights and human rights activists who denounce discrimination have been the targets of attacks. In May 2011, Mrs. Nehad Abo El-Komsan, Chair of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, received death threats after she called on Egyptian authorities to resist attempts to reverse reforms to the Personal Status Law.

Reservations to CEDAW

Egypt ratified CEDAW in 1981 but entered reservations to several key provisions. Article 2 (on measures to eliminate discrimination against women); article 9(2) (on the transfer of nationality to children); and article 16 (on equal rights in marriage and divorce)apply only in so far as they are compatible with Sharia.

The reservation to article 9(2) was withdrawn in 2008. In 2010 the Egyptian government stated its intention to remove the reservation to article 2 “within a short time-frame”, but as of February 2012 reservations to articles 2 and 16 remain in force. The CEDAW Committee underlined that these reservations are “incompatible with the object and purpose of the Convention”.

The Constitution

Under Mubarak: The Constitution of 1971 provided; “All citizens are equal before the law. They have equal public rights and duties without discrimination on grounds of race, ethnic origin, language, religion or creed” (art. 40). There was no mention of sex as a prohibited ground of discrimination. It also stated that the state will “guarantee harmonization between the duties of woman towards the family and her work in the society, ensuring her equal status with man in fields of political, social, cultural and economic life, without violation of the rules of Islamic jurisprudence” (art. 11). Under article 2, “Principles of Islamic law (Shari’a) are the principal source of legislation”.

The constitution was suspended by SCAF on 13 February 2011.

Post Mubarak: Constitutional reforms were approved by referendum on 19 March 2011 (the “Constitutional Declaration”). The Constitutional Declaration provides, “the Law applies equally to all citizens, and they are equal in rights and general duties” (art. 7). The same provision prohibits discrimination based on race, language, ethnicity and religion but there is no mention of sex. Under article 2, “The principles of Islamic law are the chief source of legislation”.

A constitutional committee is to be appointed by parliament to draft a new constitution.

Other discriminatory laws

  • Family law

The Personal Status Law (PSL, No. 25 of 1925, as amended in 1979, 1985, 2000, and 2004) applies only to the Muslim majority. Most other faiths apply their own community's religious standards to family matters. However, the personal status law for Muslims automatically applies in marriages between Muslim husbands and non-Muslim wives. A draft personal status law for non-Muslims was submitted to the Ministry of Justice in 1998 but was never adopted. In 2010, the CEDAW Committee called for the adoption of a unified family law covering both Muslims and Christians.

Despite reforms to the PSL, many discriminatory provisions remain in force. Egyptian women's rights and human rights NGOs have called for its immediate and holistic revision. This call was reiterated by the CEDAW Committee in 2010.

Marriage: The approval of a woman's male guardian can be required to conclude a marriage contract (PSL, as amended in 2000, art. 9(7)). Customary “urfi” marriages are not prohibited, yet provide women with no rights: husbands have no obligations to financially support wives or children; if the husband destroys the marriage document women can be accused of sexual relations outside of marriage; and father often refuse to recognise the children of such marriages. Partly due to the financial costs of marriage, customary marriages have dramatically increased over recent years.

Divorce: Men can divorce their wives (talaq) by saying “I repudiate you” 3 times and registering the announcement at a religious notary office within 30 days (PSL, amended in 1985). Women are required to go before a court and prove one of the following grounds: the husband's illness, including mental illness or impotence; failure to provide maintenance or financial support; absence or imprisonment; or harmful behaviour, such as mental or physical abuse (art. 7-11). Since 2000, women can also seek a no-fault divorce under the khula procedure, on the condition that they return the dowry and renounce all financial support (PSL, as amended in 2000).

According to the 2008 by-law on Coptic Christian marriages, divorce is allowed for men as well as women, on the 10 stated grounds set out in the Law of 1938. In 2011, Egyptian Pope Shenouda announced that a new draft law is being discussed which will amend the 1938 law to limit the grounds of divorce to adultery only.

Custody of children: Women can be granted custody until a child reaches 15 years or the woman remarries (PSL as amended in 2005, art. 20).

Inheritance:According to the Inheritance Law (No. 77 of 1943), which applies to all citizens regardless of their faith, women are entitled to half the inheritance granted to men. Under common law, non-Muslim women married to Muslim men have no inheritance rights.

  • Legal capacity

The testimony of 2 women is equivalent to that of one man in the family courts. 2 female witnesses are the equivalent of one male witness for the purposes of a marriage contract.

  • Freedom of movement

According to a decision of the Constitutional Court in 2000, women can travel freely without permission from their fathers or husbands. Yet this freedom can be limited by court order at the request of a male member of the family (PSL as amended in 2000, art. 1(5)).

  • Nationality

The Nationality Law was reformed in 2004 (No. 154) to enable Egyptian women married to foreign men to transfer their nationality to their children. However, there have been cases of women married to Palestinians who have been refused this right. The new law does not allow Egyptian women to pass their nationality to their foreign husbands. Egyptian men can transfer nationality to foreign wives after 2 years of marriage. In 2010, the CEDAW Committee called for urgent reform of this law.

  • Criminal law

The Penal Code of 1937 provides for reduced sentences for men convicted of “honour killings” (art. 237). The crime of adultery is defined differently depending on the sex of the perpetrator: a man is guilty only if he commits the act in the marital home, punishable with imprisonment up to 6 months (art. 277); a woman is guilty regardless of where the act takes place, punishable with imprisonment up to 2 years (art. 274). There are no specific laws criminalising sexual harassment or domestic violence.

Further reading

Coalition of Egyptian Feminist Organisations, Press Statement, Ignoring Women Is Unacceptable , September 2011

FIDH, Report, The Price of Hope: Human Rights Abuses During the Egyptian Revolution, June 2011

Coalition of Egyptian Feminist Organisations, Statement on Proposed Constitutional Amendments,13 March 2011

Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, Press Statement, Egypt: Women excluded from Constitutional Committee, 17 February 2011

CEDAW Committee, Concluding Observations: Egypt, 5 February 2010

Tadros, M., Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa 2010: Egypt, Freedom House, 2010

Egyptian NGO CEDAW Coalition, Critical issues identified and presented to the CEDAW Committee pre-session on Egypt, November 2008

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