A women-only voting station on the west bank of the River Nile is an obvious place to gauge the state of female empowerment in post-revolutionary Egypt. Thousands of determined voters trooped in and out of the converted school in the Aguza district of Cairo yesterday in what looked like an inspiring symbol of a truly democratic, enlightened republic choosing its own president for the first time in its history. The truth is far less inspiring, unfortunately.
As I chatted to women of all ages, classes and professions, it soon became obvious that most have no faith whatsoever in the post-Arab Spring order. Not only do women make up less than 2 per cent of the new Egyptian parliament, but all of the 12 candidates standing to become head of state are men.
Bothaina Kamel, originally the only woman candidate, failed to win enough support to make the first round. She now feels as disillusioned and sidelined as the women who famously massed in Tahrir Square, wrote blogs and played a crucial role in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak during 18 tumultuous days in February 2011.
Since then, the patriarchal nature of Egyptian society has won through. Islamists and two men who were ministers in Mubarak’s government are on course to win through to the second round of voting. The military, meanwhile, continues to receive complaints about sexual harassment and worse, as it uses attacks on women to reinforce its authority. Incidents such as forced “virginity tests” and savage beatings are known to have taken place over the past year.
“Women’s rights have been reversed since Mubarak was deposed,” said Amal Mattar, 19, a mother of two who was voting for the first time. “We vote with hope because women have so much to offer, but the Islamic parties believe men are far better placed to run society. Plans have already been put forward to reduce the age at which women can marry to 14, while everything is being done to keep them in the kitchen.”
Saida Abul Haq, a 22-year-old housewife, said the progressive liberals who led the revolution “seem to have disappeared”.
“This election is all about traditionalism, about giving women humble roles in society, and leaving the important ones to men.”