When the demonstrations of the Arab Spring ended the thirty-year rule of Hosni Mubarak, women stood at the forefront in protests at the Tahrir Square. The press often highlighted the role of young educated women in carrying the message forward on Facebook and Twitter but more importantly, the women were in the streets calling for change as equal actors in the revolution.
Since then, Egypt has taken big steps towards democracy, although several major questions remain unanswered. However, the reform has been carried out almost exclusively by men. Neither decision-making bodies or the military council have had room for women. Worryingly, it seems that the change in society has turned against women. Politically active women have been subjected to violence and sexual harassment. Women participating in the demonstrations have even been forced to undergo virginity tests.
Egyptian women do not want to move back to the traditional patriarchal customs of society. Thus they have started to demand political rights and have strongly criticized the military regime. An example of the emergence of a women’s movement were the demonstrations in last December in which thousands of women, regardless of their political orientation and religion, united and marched again into the spotlight of Tahrir Square.
From the forefront of the revolution to the shadow of the Parliament
The elections held in the past winter were an extreme indication of Egypt’s male-dominated culture. Women won only 12 seats in the 498-member parliament. Being by far the largest Arab country, Egypt’s example is crucial influence in the development of the whole region. Even though women are now seriously under-represented in politics, the shift towards democracy gives a glimpse of hope for the future. If Egypt chooses to implement a moderate administration and judiciary, women will have the opportunity to participate equally in social and political activities and at the same time prepare for the elections in the forthcoming years.
The women have a key role in bringing about change. Nevertheless, equal development can be supported, which is a task Finland is strongly committed to. The Finnish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Erkki Tuomioja, visited North Africa late last year and stressed the importance of women in building peace and democracy. According to Tuomioja, “The inclusion of women in society is the only way to develop democracy effectively, and on the other hand, to accelerate the growth of economy”. Another sign of Finland’s commitment is the new Development Policy Programme which strongly emphasizes democracy and gender equality.
Peer support and empowerment for women
Demo Finland is also involved in strengthening the role of women in Egypt. Demo has launched a dialogue project for Egyptian women politicians in co-operation with a local organisation, Resources for Develoment Center (RDC). The dialogue program is a part of a year-long project Egyptian Women Engage Actively for Democracy & Reform, funded by the local co-operation funds of the Finnish Embassy in Cairo. The goal of the project is to strengthen the role of young women in the country’s democratisation process.
The program focuses on education and training. At first, a group of 60 key actors chosen by an open application process will be trained in political knowhow and democracy issues. This core group, consisting of both political actors and civil society activists, will continue to spread what they have learned in their own peer groups in Cairo, Alexandria and Sharqia’s poorest regions, bringing local women together. Gender equality in politics concerns men as well. Thus, discussion forums for both men and women on gender issues will be held at the local level.
Demo’s role in the program is to facilitate international exchange of experience between Egyptian and Finnish women politicians. This is going to be implemented by organising “Dialogue cafés” online. The dialogue will concentrate on the challenges and possibilities of women’s movements and gender equality work in both Egypt and Finland. Demo’s Gender Working Group will play a key role in planning and facilitating the dialogue. Demo will also provide peer support in planning training materials and implementing a study of women’s political participation in Egypt.
“Women’s political empowerment in Egypt and in all Arab countries is an important pillar in our work. We see this pillar as a vital component in building the democratic society we seek. We are very happy to closely collaborate with Demo and Finnish political parties to reinforce these efforts. We hope to have exchange programs that enable Egyptian women leaders to be exposed to the Finnish experience and learn from it”, stated RDC’s director, Hany Ibrahim.