Page last updated at 14:16 GMT, Monday, 13 February 2012

Has the revolution betrayed the women of Egypt?

Watch Sue Lloyd-Roberts' full Newsnight film

By Sue Lloyd-Roberts
BBC Newsnight, Egypt

Hoda Ghaneya, the new Muslim Brotherhood MP for the district of Al-Qalyubiya in the Egyptian Delta, is being mobbed like a pop star.

"Well done, Hoda. We know you'll look after us," says a woman passing with her shopping.

"Hey look this way," yells the driver of a rickshaw, sounding his horn. "Let me give you a nice joint of meat," calls the butcher.

Hoda Ghaneya
Hoda Ghaneya is one of only nine female MPs in the new parliament

I am on a constituency walkabout with the MP and the scene unfolding in front of us is one I never thought I would see in Egypt, because Hoda Ghaneya is a woman.

Egypt is a country where only men are accepted as natural born leaders. At the height of the Tahrir Square drama when women bravely defied the national stereotype and joined the demonstrations, some men yelled at them "Go back home and feed your babies!"

But Mrs Ghaneya, a doctor and mother of four, is accepted and acclaimed.

How come you voted for a woman? I ask the butcher. "She has ability and skills and I hope she will work to make us happier and make this country better," he answers.

The noise and the commotion is too much for a sensible conversation so Mrs Ghaneya takes me to her home, a modest house in a street just off the main shopping street.

"You see," her cousin says to me as we walk, "she actually lives here. The MP who Mubarak sent to represent us only came to visit us twice a year."

'Virginity tests'

Others told me how the Muslim Brotherhood looked after them during Hosni Mubarak's 30 years as Egypt's leader. They built hospitals, orphanages and even gave food parcels to the poor - no wonder the party swept parliament in the recent elections.

But the Muslim Brotherhood also has a reputation for wanting to keep women at home and for requiring them to wear headscarves.

To ask Mrs Ghaneya about making headscarves compulsory appears irrelevant in the Egyptian Delta. Everyone is wearing one. She herself wears a voluminous blue garment that covers everything except her face and hands.

Women shouting in Tahrir Square
At the height of last year's protests women flocked to Tahrir Square

But will she champion women's rights? "People now have equal rights regardless of their colour, sex, race or religion," she replies. "There will be complete rights for all citizens and we will all feel the existence of these rights in the coming period. This is why people voted for us and this is what we promise to deliver, God willing. Inshallah!"

She speaks with such genuine sincerity that you want to believe her. But many women in Egypt today are worried.

I meet Samira Ibrahim as she leaves the Military Court on the outskirts of Cairo. It was the fifth time she had taken the eight hour bus journey from her home in Upper Egypt to attend a hearing of the case which she has initiated.

She is taking the army officer to court who subjected her to a "virginity test" in March 2011 after she was apprehended for joining the protests in Tahrir Square.

"Every time I go to court they humiliate me" she says as she leaves the courtroom in tears. "But I won't let them beat me. I'll keep going for as long as it takes until I get justice."

No-go zone

In the car we share back to the centre of town she tells me her story.

She was among a group of women arrested on March 9 2011 and taken to a military prison, beaten and tortured. She says that some of the women died. Those who survived were given a virginity test by a woman military doctor in front of a group of laughing, clapping soldiers.

Samira Ibrahim
Samira Ibrahim is taking the officer who sexually assaulted her to court

When the ordeal was over the male military officer in charge made her strip again and carried out a similar assault himself. Samira says she felt "utterly defeated".

What message were they trying to give you, I ask? "It was quite simple", Samira replies. "If you take to the streets in the name of the revolution or call for freedom or social justice, we will violate your honour."

It appears that the message has got through. When I visited Tahrir Square, there were very few women there.

Samira is the only one of some 20 women involved in the incident who has taken the matter to court. None of the other women has returned to the square.

Female quota

Ironically being an Egyptian woman involved in politics was in many ways easier under the old regime.

The former president's wife, Susanne Mubarak, is now reviled, but she was a champion of women's rights.

She pushed for reform in the divorce and family laws which were heavily weighted in the man's favour. These reforms are now known as "Susanne's Law" and the fear is that, because it is associated with the old regime, women might lose their recent legal gains.

Hosni and Susanne Mubarak
Hosni Mubarak's wife Susanne championed women's rights

And while Hoda Ghaneya's party hold a majority in the new parliament, she is a part of a very small minority. There are only nine women MPs in the new parliament, seven elected and two appointed, out of some 508 seats.

Under Hosni Mubarak, there was a quota of 64 women MPs, 12% of the old parliament. But that positive discrimination initiative was also promoted by Susanne Mubarak and has been scrapped.

Mrs Mubarak did not dare meddle with the presidency and under the old laws a woman could not be president.

Now that the constitution which banned women has been suspended, Bothaina Kamel has snuck in her bid as Egypt's first female presidential candidate.

Ms Kamel could not be a greater contrast to Mrs Ghaneya. The former TV presenter is elegantly clad in a knee-length, figure hugging dress and has a lot of exposed red hair.

She is also in a huge hurry. I sit in the back seat of her car as she dashes from a visit to Tahrir Square, via a debate on the future of Egypt's judicial system at Cairo University, to a meeting with political allies on drawing up the next Egyptian constitution.

She emphasises the word next. "A committee for constitutional reforms has been created without the participation of a single woman," she says, adding, "I fear the worst for women's rights".

Tourism collapse

As she fields two iPhones at once in the front of the car, she explains that she is encouraging other women to participate in politics by standing in the presidential elections, which are due to be held later in the year.

Bothaina Kamel
TV star Bothaina Kamel is challenging for the Egyptian presidency

A non-headscarf wearing woman does not stand a chance. And I challenge her on whether last year's parliamentary election results suggest that Egyptian women simply do not vote for women.

"The problem is that 30% of women are illiterate in Egypt today," she explains. "They did not understand the process and many were told who to vote for. Besides, all the political alliances have an Islamic bias which is detrimental to the status of women."

In the rural areas, women appear content to be represented by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian economy is in a dire state.

Tourism has slumped, local authorities cannot pay for rubbish collection and the country is in a mess, literally. Dumps of garbage are left along the sides of the roads and, in one Cairo suburb, piled up into 10 metre (32 feet) high mountains of filth.

If the new MPs can introduce a semblance of order to the country, the majority of people will be happy, regardless of the sex of their elected representatives.

'Parallel parliament'

In Egypt's second city, Alexandria, a sophisticated city of elegant 19th Century Italianate mansions with a stylish corniche, women do worry about their status in post revolutionary Egypt.

The reason why women and female revolutionaries were not elected and were even punished for their stand is because the revolution has not run its full course yet. The revolution is still ongoing
Samira Ibrahim

Aida Noureldin, a lawyer and human rights activist, is doing something about it. She invites me to the first meeting of a working party she has called together to form an alternative parliament. She calls it the "Parallel Parliament".

"Women were just used as voting blocs in these last elections and we do not have any women MPs from Alexandria in the new parliament and so we decided to create a parallel parliament which will be made up of a majority of women with a few men and young people.

"We'll share the responsibility of decision making with the official parliament and we'll monitor what goes on there," she says.

At the meeting it was a lady in full niqab who dared ask the obvious: "Who is going to listen to us?" She has a point.

Ms Noureldin looks flustered and replies that at least it will be good practice for the future. "We shall be in a better position to fight the elections next time round," she says.

"Next time", "It will take time" and "Inshallah" were words I heard a lot from the women of Egypt.

So many had hope vested in the revolution, but they are prepared to wait. Even Samira Ibrahim who was brutally beaten, tortured and sexually abused after she was dragged from Tahrir Square by soldiers says the battle is not lost.

"The reason why women and female revolutionaries were not elected and were even punished for their stand," she says "is because the revolution has not run its full course yet. The revolution is still ongoing."

Sue Lloyd-Roberts film on women's rights in the new Egypt, the first in a week of films examining the Arab Spring one year on, is on Newsnight on Monday 13 February 2012 at 10.30pm on BBC Two, and will be available to watch online afterwards on the BBC iPlayer and Newsnight website.



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