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Veiled future: Arab Spring women differ over Egypt

Alexandria, Egypt. They helped topple Mubarak but have the women revolutionaries lost their united spirit?

United in spirit, differing in opinion: Arab Spring revolutionaries Rana Idees, Aya Tarek and Toka Tarek have different thoughts on the strength of President Morsi's government and on Egypt's future. Credit: Elisabeth Braw/MWN United in spirit, differing in opinion: Arab Spring revolutionaries Rana Idees, Aya Tarek and Toka Tarek have different thoughts on the strength of President Morsi's government and on Egypt's future.
Credit: Elisabeth Braw/MWN

Two years ago, when young Egyptians brought down a three-decade-long dictatorship, Rana Idees was an eager revolutionary. “It was dangerous, but when the number of protesters rose, I realized what was happening and went behind my parents’ back to take part,” she recalls.

But all Idees, 22, wants is to emigrate. “You can’t see any progress,” she says as I meet her at a café in Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city. “[President Morsi] is very weak. I know change takes time, but it has been two years since the revolution.” Her best friend, Aya Tarek, disagrees. “I participated in the revolution from Day 1 and was very proud of it,” she recalls. “People were negative about Egypt, but thanks to the revolution I started loving Egypt. Many think that nothing changed, but we need to give it time and effort.”

Idees and Tarek are university-educated and ambitious – and wear headscarves. Those are traits they share with many female Arab Spring revolutionaries. With jeans and sneakers, Yomna El-Serafy sports a tomboy look – and she, too, wears a headscarf and is proud of the revolution. “It was the best thing that has happened to Egypt in a long time,” she says as I meet her at Resala, a charity where she volunteers. “People now care. In the past they’d throw trash on the street; now they don’t.”

In fact, El-Serafy, a vivacious 17-year-old who just graduated from high school, considers herself an Islamist and supports the new government. She even moved back here from her adopted home country of Britain last year. During my visit, a man approaches her on the street and asks her to sign a petition calling for Morsi’s resignation. “Did you sign?” I ask. “Of course not!” she exclaims.

This is the Egypt we rarely see: one of young women who helped topple a dictatorship and often disagree about Egypt’s best course. And most of them wear headscarves, not because anyone forces them, but because they want to. “The President is doing things that are not good,” says 21-year-old Arab Spring veteran Essraa Karam. “There’s so much chaos everywhere. But if there were an election tomorrow, I’d still vote for the [Muslim] Brotherhood [Morsi’s party]. People say four years weren’t enough for Obama to do what he needed to do. Why should we complain after one year?”

Women, part of Egypt's new freedom

By Dr. Maha Azzam, Senior Fellow, Chatham House

Religiosity doesn’t define a political opinion. The people who called for change during the revolution had common goals, but as time goes on they’re developing more diverse ambitions.

Those who are referred to as Islamists are part of the new political wave. The women in the FJP [Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s party] have their own opinions, though they share the party’s main goals. There are many professional women – doctors, teachers – who support Islamist policies not because they feel forced to but because the policies appeal to them. They don’t want to be denied their rights, but they want more traditional policies.

Today women are very visible in the political context, and gradually we’ll see them taking on important roles in Egypt’s political parties.

 
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