Interview with Amal Abdel Hadi, New Woman Foundation, Egypt: "Previous claims that women's voices should not be heard, all of this has been smashed during the revolution"
In what ways were women involved in the protests in Egypt?
Women were involved in every aspect of this revolution: in confrontations on the front line, in confrontations with the security forces, organising, writing slogans, shouting, sleeping in Tahrir Square during the sit-ins... Some women were there throughout the 18 days of the protests.
Women are also among the martyrs of this movement. Women were killed by the security forces. Some women were also arrested and detained.
The majority of the women involved were young women, but there were women of all ages and all walks of life. For example housewives who had never been involved in this type of action before, came to protest with their children, activists from all the political movements, from the Muslim brotherhood to communists, participated in the demonstrations.
Members of our organisation were active in the protests, as individuals, we didn’t go to the demonstrations as the “New Woman Foundation”. But when we spoke with people, they knew we were from NWF. I was in Tahrir Square every day and I slept in the square for several nights.
Women and men were comrades in the protests. This was an incredible, incredible time in Egypt. Millions of people were gathered in the same place. And women were not afraid. We witnessed no instances of sexual harassment for example. There was a sense of complete respect, complete support, and complete solidarity towards the women. Women, particularly the younger ones, slept for days in the square.
Were there any chants or demands specifically relating to women’s rights during the protests?
No, there was nothing specific to any group, there were only the demands of the revolution. Everybody was supporting the same cause: an end to the regime, the overthrow of Mubarak and the establishment of a civil government. This is important. When someone shouted a slogan which was too political or too religious for example, everyone would chant “one hand, one hand”, and people returned to chanting the general slogans on which everyone agreed.
Was there media coverage of women’s participation in the protests?
The media showed women, but they interviewed men more often than women. The majority of those who were invited on talk shows were men.
How are women participating in the political transition?
Women are being ignored! For example, the Constitutional Committee, which was created to revise some of the articles of the Constitution, doesn’t have a single woman member.
But we are mobilising. Several groups issued a statement denouncing the absence of women on the Committee. A Coalition of 12-14 feminist organisations has been formed, which has stressed that women must be represented in every aspect of the process and in all the decision making bodies that are being established.
There has been a call on Facebook for a demonstration of a million women and men on 8 March (International Women’s Day). Some other, newer associations of women have the feeling that they are being left out of the process. We are working with them and I hope that they will use this event as an opportunity to have their voices heard.
What are your main demands for the transition government?
A new government! A democratic government, that has integrity and independence, not the current transition government which is a “patchwork government”. We are calling for a civil presidential council to be established immediately, which should form a civil government and a constitutional committee, responsible for drafting a new constitution. We need a new constitution!
The constitutional committee should be composed of people from a wide range of backgrounds. Women and young people must be represented on the committee. Women and young people were the driving force behind this revolution.
We are calling for equal and fair representation of women and young people in all representative bodies, from the local committees and councils to the national parliament.
We are calling for freedom of expression, starting with the freedom to form political parties, independent syndicates, unions, NGOs, and civil society organisations.
We are calling for those involved in the repression of demonstrations and the killings to be tried. We want those responsible for terrorizing our citizens, for opening the prisons, and for all the crimes conducted during the first 18 days of the revolution to be tried. We want a transparent trial for all those involved in corruption in Egypt. We want all the symbols of the regime, not just Mubarak or his assistants, but all of those who have been involved in the corruption to be tried.
We are calling for the freezing of the assets of Mubarak and all other symbols of the regime. We are pushing the government to take action in this respect.
We are calling for the liberation of all protesters who have been arbitrarily arrested. Arrests by the military police are still taking place today and that needs to end.
We are calling for all those responsible for cutting off the internet, telephone and media communications to stand trial. We call for those, in particular in Egyptian television, who tried to distort and conceal information from the Egyptian people, to be held to account.
The military council (currently running the country) is calling for parliamentary and presidential elections and for the Constitution to be amended within 6 months. This is a real problem because we fear that those responsible for organising elections and reforming the constitution will be from the main existing parties: the National Democratic Party, which is the party of the previous regime, and the Muslim Brotherhood. We don’t want this. We want long term change.
We want a deeper reflection on the new Constitution and what we want for a new Egypt, and this will take a while. It is not to be rushed. Under the current laws, we cannot even form new political parties. We don’t want a new government that is an extension of the previous regime!
Are there groups other than women’s associations supporting demands for the protection of women’s rights ?
Actually, no other groups raise the issues of women’s rights on their own, but when we discuss them they agree with us. When we met, for example, with the military council, no one raised these demands, but no one actually raised any demands relating to any particular political group. Until now, everything has been focused on the transition, because we feel that nothing is moving.
Could you tell us what you think these recent developments will mean for women’s rights? What are your hopes and fears in this regard?
My hopes are that if we really work, if we can really use this opportunity, the situation of women in Egypt will generally get a better. I think there are possibilities, real possibilities, that we can achieve a modern civil government and a parliamentary democracy.
If we move towards this and we move towards greater respect for freedom of association, including for professional and workers unions and NGOs, then this should allow women to participate more effectively in all areas of public life and will provide them with the opportunity to give their perspectives on health, the economy, the environment, working conditions, etc. We feel this change of atmosphere will provide us with better forums for advocating our for our rights.
Previous claims that women’s voices should not be heard, all of this has been smashed during the revolution, smashed! Because women were there, with their beautiful voices, shouting against the regime. Women were there, sleeping on the ground in the streets, and this was appreciated by everyone.
But I think the desire to speed the process along and to rush things may be to the detriment of women. There is a risk we could end up with political parties or parliamentarians who are not really concerned about women and who might even be against women’s rights. That is why we are calling for the process to take time.
Finally, could you give us your perspective on the ongoing events in the rest of the region and their potential implications for women’s rights?
The Tunisians did a marvelous thing in starting this movement and Egyptians had in important impact in proving that it can happen. Most Arab countries are very autocratic and very oppressive. I think that this is a real beginning of a process of deconstruction and of rebuilding, particularly with the youth using the internet. It’s incredible, it is incredible! It is an era of change.
Nothing is going to go back... It is a marvelous feeling, that you are actually witnessing the making of history. And I am glad that I lived to experience that feeling.
And the young people are really determined, they are really mature! They are resisting their own “iconisation”, and they are trying to act, they may lack some experience but they will learn! They are fast learners and I am glad that they have learned actually out of the usual circles, outside of political parties. They have their creativity and their resilience and that is very important. I think that young people are generally more in favour of real democracy, more willing to change and have greater respect for women.