I attended a day-long meeting in Cairo yesterday, facilitated by the NGO Safer World, addressing women’s safety and political participation in Egypt, Yemen and Libya. The meeting was attended by activists as well as a few government representatives.
Although the situation varies quite a bit from one country to the other -- in Yemen the context is much more rural, for example, than in Egypt, and geographic isolation plays a big part in women’s security and participation -- there were many similarities. In all three countries, women are the victims of violence -- and of an ideological discourse that blames them for that very violence -- that intimidates them away from the public and political sphere. Also in all three countries, women’s groups are extremely frustrated and angry with the Islamist groups and parties that have come to power since the uprisings, who they describe as “dictatorial” and accuse of wanting to undo progress on women’s rights.
In Egypt, as the New York Times recently reported, Islamist members of parliament and preachers have been saying grotesque things about women who were victims of gang rapes in Tahrir. The FJP has condemned some of the recent statements -- but only at the prodding of journalists, and even as some of its members have also expressed similar sentiments.
President Morsi’s office sent a young female advisor on human rights and women’s rights to the meeting. She responded to the indignant questions of the activists with platitudes about the Freedom and Justice Party’s desire to listen before acting and the need not to demonize each other and to work together. In response to a question about the FJP’s position on lowering the age of marriage for girls, she said that the party had never advocated doing so and that there were “extreme” positions on all sides -- while some Islamists call for lowering the marriage age (to as low as 9), non-Islamists call for defending homosexuality. The claim prompted one activist to ask: “Why are you always bringing up homosexuality when we’re discussing women’s rights?”