Omar Ahmed has done a lot for a 21-year-old. Social media officer for Sony Ericsson in Cairo since he was a teenager, he studies foreign trade at Helwan University, participated in the Tahrir Square revolution in 2011, and is the only male staff member for the organization committee at the new Egyptian Union for Women (founded by Dr. El Saadawi). He believes he only has one life so he invests in it fully. His parents are liberal, although his mother wears higab, since she considers it her duty as a Muslim woman. Omar adds that most young women who also wear hagib couldn’t recite verses from the Koran that require veiling. His feminist beliefs started when he was a boy and his nanny read to him, as about Qasim Amin, a 19th century writer. Amin wrote, “The inferior position of Muslim women is the greatest obstacle that prevents us from advancing toward what is beneficial for us.” Amin opposed veils for women as a symbol of slavery.
Omar comments more on the ups and downs of women’s rights in Egyptian history, stating that under King Farouk women had the right to vote and go to school, but when he was overthrown by army officers in 1952, women lost ground. President Sadat’s rule in the 1970s brought Islamic fundamentalism to the fore, influenced by Saudi Arabian traditions. It lives on in the Muslim Brotherhood, whose older members view women as the gateway to hell because of Eve’s sin, not fully human. The younger Muslim Brotherhood members are talking about breaking away and forming their own organization advocating a secular government.
Omar believes these traditionalists have the majority support in the villages. The Egyptian education system teaches obedience to parents, teacher, and boss. Around six TV channels are Islamic. The Brotherhood had 88 members of Parliament under President Mubarak, officially labeled independents since religious parties were outlawed. Omar fears that Muslim Brotherhood majorities in the new Parliament would create a new constitution like Iran’s. However, he thinks that now as a legal party their hidden funding sources will be monitored and that will be helpful, like germs die in the sunlight. Although out of 80 million Egyptians, only 6 to 7 million are on Facebook, it’s expanding to the villages where Omar thinks it will gradually counter the influence of fundamentalists. Facebook members have doubled since the revolution.
The February revolution didn’t have a plan or a unified leadership, it’s main goal being to get Mubarak out. Omar participate because he felt it was his duty to be there with his friends to achieve freedom. He’d been to a few demonstrations before the revolution, but wasn’t a member of a political party or movement. Since the protests started on January 25 women were represented and sometimes the majority. They were the first to bring blankets to sleep in the square. They were attacked by the police and threw stones when the camel drivers entered the square to attack the protestors, just like the men. It was like one big family of 5 to 6 million. No one brought up religion, gender, or age as everyone had the same goal.
With no single movement or leadership, the ones who were outspoken in the media, were not the real leaders. When the former Vice-President Omar Suleiman asked to me with spokespersons, he met with over 100 groups. None of them claimed to be the head; “That’s the beauty of it,” says Omar. I asked Omar where the demonstrators’ focus on peace came from—Selam in Arabic. He wasn’t sure but heard Gandhi’s tactics mentioned. When I asked if his generation was more committed to peace, he pointed out that in May, on the anniversary of Israeli independence, 1 million MOSTLY YOUTH? called for war against Israel.
After the ouster of Mubarak, the Supreme Council of all male military generals over 70 and the all-male constitutional committee, women’s rights had another setback. The Council abolished reforms for women and children led by Suzanne Mubarak—who Omar refers to as a Queen of Egypt for 30 years. She got 25% of seats in parliament set aside for women, although they were mostly the wives of powerful men. The Supreme Council abolished the quota, because “Our society calls for equality between men and women. Therefore, we cannot allocate a quota for women alone…such a quota might also provide Parliament membership for feminist elements that are not suitable for the task.” (Also, before her leadership, illegitimate children didn’t have a last name and thus couldn’t enroll in school. Suzanne Mubarak got a law passed in 2006 that gave these children their mother’s last name. Currently new family legislation is being considered.
The military went so far as to force 18 young women protestors to undergo medical virginity tests on March 18, saying they had to check and see if they were prostitutes. This harkens back to an ancient tradition in Upper Egypt where a bloody sheet is hung out the window on the bride’s wedding night to prove she’s a virgin. The Supreme Council also didn’t punish the police who tortured and killed Khalel Saeid, despite demonstrations in cities across the country on the June 6 year anniversary of his death and 1.5 million fans on his Facebook page. Despite the power of fundamentalists, Omar is optimistic about the future of Egypt as he looks around the Middle East and sees dictators falling, Syria is going down, Hamas is going down, he said, freedom is asserting itself.