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Revolution signals new dawn for Egypt's women

By Catriona Davies for CNN
  • Many women feel energized by the visible role they played in the revolution
  • The Egyptian Center for Women's Rights has had a flood of new members
  • Women will no longer suffer sexual harassment in silence, say activists

(CNN) -- A couple of days after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, 24-year-old Nawara Belal was driving in Cairo when she was verbally abused by an army officer.

"I got out of my car, opened the door of his car and slapped him in the face," she said. "I realized he wouldn't do anything about it, and it gave me the power to do what I wanted to do to every harasser in my past.

"I would never have been able to do that before the revolution."

Belal and many women like her, energized by the visible part they played in the protests that led to Mubarak's fall, feel they no longer have to suffer in silence the sexual harassment that has been part of their lives for so long.

A survey in 2008 by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights claimed that 98% of foreign women and 83% of Egyptian women in the country had been sexually harassed.

In an oppressive society, people oppress each other. Under an open society, things can be discussed.
--Doaa Abdelaal, Women Living Under Muslim Laws

CBS reporter Lara Logan was attacked in Cairo's Tahrir Square after Mubarak stepped down, and other women reported incidents ranging from mild harassment to violent attacks.

But many women now feel a change in this culture is possible.

Nehad Abolkomsan, chair of the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, said: "I believe sexual harassment in Egypt had a political reason. Political frustration was a big reason.

"I believe now it can be eliminated. It won't just be like pushing a button, we have to continue to work on it, but women will not be silent anymore."

Doaa Abdelaal, a council member with the international solidarity movement Women Living Under Muslim Laws, agreed that a more open society would lead to less harassment of women in the streets.

"In an oppressive society, people oppress each other," she said. "It's a justification for everyone to be unjust. Under a more open society these things can be discussed, I think changes will happen."

Belal, a project coordinator for the feminist organization Nazra, said: "Under Mubarak, it was a police-led country and police had a heavy presence in our lives.

"If you were sexually harassed, you wouldn't have much faith that if you went to the police they would support you."

Although the attack on Logan might suggest otherwise, many women involved in the protests said they were struck by the lack of harassment.

Farida Makar, 24, an Egyptian student at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, traveled back home to take part in the protests.

"The sexual harassment that happened on the streets was a sign that society was unwell," she said.

"In Tahrir Square during the protests, although there were a lot of young men and women crowded together, and you would assume women would be harassed -- generally they weren't. I don't know why that was, maybe because of all the hope and optimism."

The wave of optimism is felt in many other areas of women's lives.

Five years ago, the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights closed its program helping young women get involved in local politics, because of lack of interest.

Today, the organization says it is inundated with young women wanting to get involved in its campaigns.

Women's groups feel their role in bringing about the revolution has given new momentum to their campaign for equality.

I am so happy and so proud about the role young women played in the revolution.
--Nehad Abolkomsan, Egyptian Center for Women's Rights

Abolkomsan said: "I am so happy and so proud about the role young women played in the revolution.

"Before the revolution they were depressed and disappointed and felt there was no value in their participation.

"Now we have hundreds of women coming to our organization wanting to get involved. They made a change by being in Tahrir Square and now they want to continue making a change."

Abdelaal, 35, said: "I was very happy to see all the generations of women's rights activists, poor, rich, middle class, all types of women, there every day and every night.

"We have been doing everything we can to make ourselves visible, writing, talking, sending out information, because we didn't want it to be called an Islamist revolution.

"We needed to be seen in blue jeans and T-shirts as well as in veils and scarves."

Despite the optimism, women are conscious that they still have a long way to go.

The Egyptian Center for Women's Rights led a petition signed by more than 60 organizations complaining that Egypt's new Constitutional Committee has no female members.

"They say this is not the time to talk about women's rights, but when you are building a new society is exactly when you should talk about it," Abolkomsan said. "I want to see women active in every level of society.

"We need to continue lobbying for better participation of women, to show that it's not acceptable to ignore us."

Abdelaal added: "We have walked a very long way and we are not going to stop now. We now have an open country where people have learned their rights and can protest peacefully.

"It's not going to be easy, it's going to be a difficult road, but I'm quite optimistic. There is now a new door open for women, and we are ready to use this opening."