Sunday, February 13, 2011

What will the Egyptian uprising mean for women's rights?

As Michelle wrote in the comments on the previous post, our discussion last night turned up some surprising facts: Liza pointed out that over 90% of Egyptian women are "circumcised" (or rather, have experienced female genital mutilation)*. This seemed very strange to me, because I had the impression that there had been strong women's movements in Egypt, and I assumed that FGM would be the kind of thing that women's movements would oppose.

Having looked around a little, it turns out that Egypt does have a history of important activism by women, including opposition to FGM. Nadje S. Al-Ali's The Women's Movement in Egypt, with Selected References to Turkey and Nadia Wassef and Nemat Guenena's Unfulfilled Promises: Women's Rights in Egypt both give good overviews of women's activism and key issues.

It's also important to note that this history of women's activism has had some significant results. For example, women's representation in parliament is guaranteed throughthe provision of a minimum number of seats, and women have a significant presence in Egyptian higher education.

At first media coverage of the recent Egyptian protests included very few images of women (Opinioness of the World gives a good overview of this, with plenty of useful links, and a number of news sources have noted that women have been present in significant numbers at the protests (see, for example, Lindsey's article on PRI and Topol's article on Slate).

I'm curious to see what happens over the next few months in Egypt. After last night's discussion, I'll be paying special attention to whether women's concerns are addressed (or even raised) at any stage during the elections and negotiations.

* Nadia Wassef, an activist against FGM, discusses why she uses the term "female circumcision" rather than FGM in this article. It's worth a read.


  1. On the topic of FGM, it is worth reading the Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID) article this week on Female Genital Mutilation and Cosmetic Genital Surgery: Do they have anything in common? here:

  2. Thanks, Shae. I sometimes feel a bit uncomfortable with the way that FGM and other issues with women's rights in other cultures are discussed, because there's often a dichotomy set up between some barbarous other and our civilized enlightened selves. I think the article that you posted does a good job of pointing out that we should also be critiquing worrying trends within our own societies.

  3. I've always felt a bit conflicted by issues like this. eg When I protest against FGM, am I promoting someone's human right or am I denigrating someone's culture?
    I guess in circumstances like this, it's best to add your weight to the protests of people within the cultural group- and do a bit of research so you know what the debates are really about.
    This is an issue I need to do a bit more research on myself...

  4. I share this concern. This essay by Shashi Tharoor creates a compelling argument as to why human rights should be conceived of as universal and how to work towards their 'indigenization'- namely, "their assertion within each country's tradition and history":
    Tharoor argues that to throw out human rights because of the perceived impossibilty of universalism would be like throwing out the baby with the bath water, and argues that we should instead find common denominators. He contends that ultimately, "coercion, not culture, is the test" in identifying whether or not a person's human rights have been violated.