The National Council for Women: state feminism seeking to contain revolutionary feminism

2 October 2013

Feminist solidarity is not absolute; we must choose our allies with care

As representatives of civil society, in 2010 we were invited to a meeting with Farkhonda Hassan, then the chair of the National Council for Women (NCW), to discuss the implementation of the recommendations issued to the Egyptian government by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in its 45th session, aimed at improving the status of women in Egypt and alleviating discrimination. The UN meeting had been a huge success for civil society, after most of the recommendations we had pushed for in shadow reports were adopted and issued.

From the first moment, we realized that the meeting was purely for show. The NCW chair sat alone on a platform while we sat lined up below her as if we were in a lecture hall. Hassan’s discussion divided the CEDAW recommendations into two parts. She went on at length about the first set, dealing with the government’s achievements, after which she discussed the second set concerning criticisms and proposals with severe disdain. I remember her commenting on one recommendation related to domestic workers in Egypt and the importance of legal protections for them in the labor law. “I don’t get it,” Dr. Farkhonda Hassan said. “As foreigners, why do they complain about this? When they come to Egypt they find servants so easily. I mean, this is a benefit for them.”

It was crystal clear that this woman and the institution she represented did not speak for women or care a whit about their actual hardships. Her priority was the preservation of her class interests and improving the government’s international image by portraying it as a supporter of women’s rights.

The crisis of the feminist movement became apparent in the first few months after January 2011. As feminist groups attempted to push for guarantees that would allow a woman to run for president or monitor women’s shares of gubernatorial or ministerial posts, our isolation as feminists from the masses came to the fore. Even worse, the rhetoric of the NCW was used against us and overnight we found ourselves labeled Suzanne’s pets or Farkhonda’s gang. Suddenly, all the laws and policies that so many feminists had fought for were under threat, from the child law to personal status laws. The absence of popular backing for the feminist movement was a cause to reconsider and assess the feminist movement’s involvement in policymaking over the last two decades, and what this had brought to women or the movement. Maybe Islah Jad’s comments about the institutionalization of the feminist movement were right. Still, there seemed to be no cause for frustration, for at the same time, dozens of feminist initiatives were growing out of the revolution in numerous governorates. It became normal to see dozens of young men and women join public campaigns and initiatives against harassment and violence against women, while scenes of women battling daily in the street, on public transport and at the workplace became the norm. Everyday feminism is how Asef Bayat describes these routine struggles, seeing them as the beginnings of a non-traditional feminist movement specific to this region and its economic and political conditions.

The decision of many feminists to decline membership in the NCW reconstituted under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in February 2012 was perhaps a wise one. In past years, the NCW has only been a reflection of the ruling authority or, at best, a battleground for the fight between the Mubarak dictatorship and the Muslim Brotherhood authoritarian order.

In 2012, the NCW refused to condemn the SCAF for the Egyptian army’s conduct during the dispersal of the Abbasiya sit-in. Not content with mere silence, once NCW member stated publicly, “The council does not involve itself in defending women arrested during the break up of the sit-in. They are not Egyptians because they belong to international and Islamic groups.” Events during the meeting of the UN Committee on the Status of Women, held in April 2013, was the most pointed expression of the crisis felt by feminist and advocacy groups. During the meeting, conflicting statements were made by Mervat al-Tallawi and Pakinam al-Sharqawi, the former president’s aide on political affairs, on Egypt’s stance on the committee’s document on violence against women. Yet, whether Egypt agreed or refused to sign, ultimately it would have no impact on these institutions or parties’ stance on violence against women. Meanwhile, in the Shura Council, the leadership of the Freedom and Justice Party went so far as to blame women demonstrators for the mass sexual assaults in Tahrir in early 2013, during demonstrations against the policies of former president Mohamed Morsy.

Those following statements issued by the NCW after 30 June will have observed the vigorous attempt to reconstitute state feminism—that is, the attempt to portray the state as a supporter of women’s rights to spruce up its image and conceal other state crimes, such as torture and extrajudicial killing. Ambassador Mervat al-Tallawi has been unceasing in her praise of the role of the Interior Ministry in preserving security and establishing an anti-sexual violence unit; she holds press conferences in which, speaking on behalf of Egyptian women, she declares her rejection of terrorism, while studiously ignoring one of the most pressing demands of the revolution—the restructuring of the Interior Ministry—and disregarding the role of the security forces as perpetrators of sexual violence.

This is the classic trap for feminist movements in Third World countries, where authoritarian governments attempt to contain the feminist movement without offering any genuine gains. Even after relatively progressive laws and policies criminalizing FGM or human trafficking have been instituted in Egypt, poor working and rural women continue to pay the heaviest price for disease and sexual violence, even as we are still forced to debate women’s right to education and work—as if decades have not passed in which women have served as government ministers and parliamentarians.

This is not intended to diminish the importance of policy work or the gains made by the feminist movement over the decades. Legal reforms and better policies for women are vital. But our priority now should be investing in mass politics and exploiting the widespread popular desire to reconsider conventional wisdom and ideas, to use this moment to build a feminist movement with a strong base that can change the negative ways people interact with women and also promote changes in laws and policies that bring more gender-based justice and equality between the sexes.

Feminist solidarity is not absolute; we must choose our allies with care. A remark on official or state feminism in Latin America, cited by Mary Garcia Castro, aptly summarizes this stance:

“One cannot negotiate with those who go against the basic principles of feminism, even when they happen to be other women. I will not collaborate politically with racist or homophobic women, with those who fail to defend a woman’s body and her right to abortion, or with those who support the neoliberal model, because the political aim of such women destroys and negotiates away any chance for us of a civilized change. For this reason, I call for, as our priority, a pact among all women who are sustained by a system of ideals and ethical proposals and who, above all, have as their political aim the deconstruction of patriarchy.”

It is not in the interest of the feminist movement to be part of the clique of Suzanne, Pakinam, Mervat or anyone else. The correct choice at this point is to stand with Iman Mustafa Salama, who was killed after being harassed in Assyout, or to be part of the clique of Samira Ibrahim or Ghada Kamel, survivors of sexual assaults by the police and army, or to line up behind Maryam Abd al-Ghaffour, a worker who was run over when a sit-it at the Mansoura-Spain Company was broken up.