What Do Women Get? Measuring Outcomes in a Post-Revolutionary Society (Part 1)


Egyptian Society February 10, 2011 was not a typical Friday for most Egyptians. Not only did it mark the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, but it was also a milestone for the women who had fought for greater freedom in a country that has not afforded them equal rights.

Early on in the “the Arab Spring,” women and men stood side by side in Tahrir Square to protest Mubarak’s oppressive rule. Women took to the digital sphere as well, mobilizing citizens through social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Not only were women utilizing online groups as virtual movement headquarters, they were working alongside and leading men in media advocacy.

Single mother and schoolteacher Amal Sharaf became one of the revolution’s noted leaders, overseeing a large crew of men and maintaining online forums such as the Facebook group Women of Egypt, which posted photos of women at protest demonstrations, thus increasing women’s visibility in the movement.

Surprisingly, only a month after the revolution had ended, men openly physically and verbally abused women during an International Women’s Day celebration in the same square, denouncing their activism as anti-Islamic. These women took to the streets to remind all Egyptians of their important contributions to the revolution, but were met with increasing hostility.

The Egyptian military rounded up many participants and subjected them to virginity tests as an intimidation tactic. These two gatherings in Tahrir Square – before and after the fall of Mubarak – represent how differently a society can view and treat women in times of revolution, and highlight the drastic shift in women’s status in post-Mubarak Egypt.

Despite women’s surprisingly central role in the Egyptian Revolution, women in the post-revolutionary era have not experienced the outcomes for which they were fighting. That begs the question: What are the revolutionary impacts on women in post-Mubarak Egypt, and do loss of rights and leadership positions after transition these outcomes confirm or disconfirm past theories on the role of women during and after revolutions?

To answer this question, it is helpful to examine the literature on the role of women before and after other political revolutions. I utilize women’s experiences in Cuba (1959), Nicaragua (1979), and Iran (1979) to preview the possible revolutionary outcomes for women and as a way to begin evaluating women’s role in Egypt.

Although Cuba and Nicaragua were socialist revolutions, and Iran’s revolution eventually established a theocratic republic, all displayed high rates of female participation and mobilization during the uprising and transition to a new government. Iran most closely mirrors the situation in Egypt today, and therefore will be examined the most thoroughly. Both the Iranian and Egyptian revolutions were spurred by the need to overthrow an autocratic leader. But after the overthrow of these leaders, both societies became increasingly theocratic even though many revolutionaries had not fought for a religiously based state.

To clarify the basic concepts,

I define a revolution as “the successful overthrow of the prevailing elite(s) by a new elite(s) who after having taken over power fundamentally change the social structure and therewith also the structure of authority”.

Mobilization and protests from many different tiers or classes of society are typically present in a revolution. The reconstructing and reforming of society after a revolution is an interactive process that involves both the new elite (i.e. the leaders of the new regime) and the masses.

I focus on how this interactive process has affected Egyptian women. Although the revolution ended only two years ago, it is crucial to examine women’s current position in Egypt in order to understand the implications of the Arab Spring. Female participation in these three revolutions was noteworthy, surprising for the time period, and clearly led to a discussion and examination of women’s roles in society.

Before examining theory, a brief overview of women’s position in Egypt since the 20th century is helpful. In the early 1900’s, Egyptian women created the first services NGO, the Intellectual League of Egyptian Women. Through this new group they became more involved in social and volunteer efforts, and in 1919 started their own movement to protest the British occupation.

However, the 1923 constitution completely ignored women’s rights, and the women’s movement lost power until the end of World War II. By the 1940’s, the movement was re-vitalized, the first women’s political party was established, and an increasing number of women attended universities. Under Gamal Abdel Nasser, the 1956 constitution gave women the right to vote and clearer social and economic rights, but discriminatory familial laws against women remained.

The Anwar Sadat regime (1970-1981) changed the personal status law, giving women more freedom in the familial sphere, such as the right to divorce. Later, Mubarak and his wife prioritized an increase in state intervention in organizations, especially women’s groups. This drastically decreased the freedom that organizations in civil society had even though Mubarak was trying to support them through government involvement. Instead of just backing women’s organizations, the government could and did dissolve groups they deemed inappropriate.

The number of women’s groups increased, but a unified feminist movement did not appear partly because of the spectrum of views that women held. Mubarak established the National Council for Women (2000) and a quota system (2009), which guaranteed women seats in parliament.

Throughout the 1990’s, women’s level of education increased, yet this did not translate to a large increase in economic or social opportunities.

On paper, women were given more flexibility and options in civil society, but it did not translate into real change in the everyday lives of the female population. In part, this led to the dissatisfaction that spurred the revolution.

The Arab Spring started in January 2011 when protests broke out in Cairo. After 18 days of protest, Mubarak stepped down on February 11, 2011. The Egyptian military took over until the people elected a new government in 2012. According to many human rights groups, around 300 people were killed, and 1,500 protesters and 750 policemen were injured.

Time Period and Theory I analyze my research question based on a two-year time frame. I define post-revolution as the day Mubarak resigned to two years after, through February 2013. This allows for an adequate amount of time to examine the initial impacts of the revolution (how the economy, civil society, government action has changed) and how the new leaders are addressing the grievances that spurred the Arab Spring.

Society in Egypt

In the first two years after Mubarak’s reign, the public elected the Muslim Brotherhood to power and passed a new constitution. However, because news pertaining to the new constitution, including protests and public opinion, changes daily I do not focus my analysis on this document. Instead, I concentrate on the initial direction the country has taken to gauge the status of women in this new Egypt. To be clear, this two-year period is not a period of normalcy, but one of post-revolution marked by instability and uncertainty.

Before examining how to measure large-scale revolutionary outcomes, I address related theories that focus on women during a social transition. The literature highlights two important distinctions regarding women’s interests in revolutions. First, women hold and fight for different interests depending on the social and economic context from which the revolutions emerge. Second, the literature categorizes revolutionary outcomes for women by two distinct social transformation models, the patriarchal and modernizing models.

What Do Women Want? Women’s interests can vary and scholars classify them in different ways. In her work on Nicaragua, Maxine Molyneux (1986) distinguishes three types of gender interests: women’s interests, practical gender interests, and strategic gender interests. Women’s interests address the differences in thought between different groups of women, usually distinguished by class, ethnic, or age groups within a state.

It is a common mistake to categorize the interests of one group of women as the interests of the entire population within a society.  For example, Islamist feminists in Egypt have a very different set of interests than secularized women, but some Westerners believe that all Egyptian women want the same things.

Practical gender interests do not challenge the division of labor or gender inequality on the national level, but are inductive and formed by those already in power.

No radical change is made in the pre-existing structure; instead citizens work within the system to have their interests met. For example, a woman may fight for better employment benefits so that she can ensure her family’s wellbeing.

Finally, strategic gender interests “are derived...deductively...from an analysis of women’s subordination and from the formulation of an alternative, more satisfactory set of arrangements”. These interests question and critique the structure of gender inequality in place and search for broad-based legal and institutional change.

A woman with strategic gender interests may fight to change national laws so that women are treated and viewed differently within a state. But in revolutions, many women focus more closely on practical interests, such as family survival and increased income, as opposed to pursuing strategic gender interests. Indeed, Molyneux found that the Nicaraguan revolution was centered on practical interests more than gender empowerment issues.

For example, women fought more readily for welfare programs that benefited mothers, something that would affect their families’ economic health and improve living conditions, as opposed to altering the discourse on feminism and sexism on a national level, which would signal an attempt to change the status quo gender structure. To truly transform gender relations in a society, both practical and strategic interests must be addressed.

Historically, revolutionary movements have altered women’s interests to fit with the movement’s overall interests, subordinating women’s views. This is a rallying tactic, making “a veritable indictment of all revolutions and liberation movements as essentially inimical to women's interests”.

In order to capture the support and manpower of women, many revolutionary leaders propagate the idea that their interests and the interests of women are one in the same. This means that definitions of women’s emancipation are routinely “conceived in terms of how functional it is for achieving the wider goals of the state”.

In post-revolutionary Nicaragua, women did not question established agendas and structures created by the regime that hindered the women’s rights movement, and many women re-produced and furthered these structures themselves because it was so routine to put the regime’s welfare above their own. It is crucial to separate women’s interests from those of the regime as a whole.


Please note: This is a portion of Ms. Sarah Houston's thesis introduction, which she is kindly allowing the Middle East Collective to republish in two parts. If you would like further information regarding Sarah's thesis and academic research, please feel free to get in touch.