Is Egypt Witnessing the Dawn of the Women's Spring?

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Egyptian women during Ramadan. In Tv shows, it's not just about sex appeal. Credit: Reuters

Moshira is at her wits end. In the course of one episode of the television series “Al-Kabus” (“The Nightmare”), she is searching for the killers of her son, a young man who loved parties and made a lot of enemies for himself. She daydreams, remembering when she was pregnant with him and also the first time her husband showed her the garbage-processing equipment he had bought — a first investment in a major plant that Moshira would run after he died of a heart attack (in the first episode of the show), following a bitter argument with her.

But the important story of this series is the serious, respectable and clearly non-gender-laden role that actress Ghada Abdel Razek plays as Moshira. Hers is not a typical female role, which is a refreshing innovation in the television industry, most of which is dominated by private production firms that compete for the viewer’s attention during the current holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast during the daytime and are awake until the wee hours.

According to the Aswat Masriya (Voices of Egypt) website, in 14 of the 29 series produced this year in Egypt, women are in leading roles rather than simply being figures who will help augment public viewership. The website noted that this is the second year in a row in which women star in real roles rather than simply appearing because of their sex appeal.

And it appears that it’s not just how women are being featured in films and TV dramas that has changed in recent years. The tendency in the past of directors and screenwriters to include provocative scenes of a sexual nature has also undergone a shift.

Research conducted by a Saudi Arabian media center three years ago revealed that in about 11 TV series broadcast during Ramadan, there were 1,536 scenes involving partial female nudity or where women wore sheer clothing. In 111 scenes, the male actors drank alcohol; in 46, they were shown hitting or cursing their on-screen parents.

One of the conclusions of the study was that the Arab satellite television networks were at the time “portraying family-related, moral and religious disputes as if they were natural and ordinary matters in Arab societies.”

Political and sexual revolutions

Although similar research was not carried out last year, Egyptian television critics believe there has been a sharp drop in the prevalence of such scenes, and that the new approach is being dictated by self-censorship and consideration of the public’s response.

In the absence of authoritative data, the accepted thinking now is that one reason for the shift is the Arab Spring revolutions against autocratic rulers – events in which women played an important role, both at demonstrations and in recruitment efforts on the social media. Incidents of harassment of women in Egypt and the public furor over them also has had an influence.

But reality in the government, on the street and in the workplace is still far from what women would like. Laws passed after the recent political upheavals in Egypt call for a year in prison or a small fine of 5,000 Egyptian pounds ($640) for sexual harassment. Even more importantly, although sexual harassment has been classified as a criminal offense rather than being defined, in the past, as an offense to one’s honor – the law places the burden on the victim to prove commission of the offense: The woman must apprehend the harasser or bring in eyewitnesses. Demands by women’s groups to deploy police patrols to deter harassment have meanwhile gone unanswered.

In addition, the number of men in senior positions in Egyptian workplaces is at least double that of women, and women’s salaries are over 13 percent lower. The current Egyptian cabinet has five women and 32 men. Women are not appointed as district governors and until recently didn’t even serve as judges. It was only last February that the State Council, the highest administrative judicial body in Egypt, agreed to appoint 26 female judges for the first time.

A national debate is underway, however, on amending the laws relating to elections for parliament. The current law affords women at least 70 of the 567 seats in the government, 14 of whom are presidential appointments. During deposed President Hosni Mubarak’s term in office, there were 68 women in parliament, but nearly all were members of the ruling party. In parliamentary elections after the revolution of 2011, only 10 women were elected.

The date of the next election has not yet been set, but Egyptian women are apparently hoping for better representation in additional parties. The chairwoman of the country's National Council of Women, former ambassador Mervat Tallawy, is currently leading a campaign to raise political awareness among women in smaller towns and villages. Volunteers are speaking to local women about the importance of voting, electoral procedures and how to figure out which candidates are worthy of their consideration.

In general, Egypt, where women's liberation movements actually arose in the early 20th century, currently ranks poorly among Arab countries when it comes to women’s equality. Perhaps salvation will begin to come via film and television, which will educate the public in the proper and equal status of women.

The revolution is not here yet, however. When the attractive businesswoman Shahinaz al-Najjar announced recently that she intends to run in the next parliamentary elections, she became the target of a torrent of criticism. Al-Najjar is the wife of billionaire businessman Ahmed Ezz, a close associate and financier of deposed President Mubarak. Ezz is not allowed to run for parliament “so he has sent his wife,” some critics are saying.

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