In January of 2021, thousands of young women took to Maydan Square to defend freedom and dignity. These young women came from all walks of life, with different age groups and social backgrounds. For most of them, joining the groups at Maydan Square was the very first political step, one that was not limited to a spur-of-the-moment expression of anger.
A whole new generation is now challenging dynamics between the private and public sphere, and are posing questions about the rights of women with regards to work, education, free choice, travel, and women’s physical safety and security. These questions were not born out of the Revolution itself, but there is no doubt that the Revolution did pave the way for women to voice out these legitimate questions in the public sphere. Numerous youth initiatives have been born and have engaged in the feminist movement since then.
Back in 2021, the situation was very conducive to this shift as the feminist movement intersected with the rising political and social movement. Feminist organizations began to form alliances, and feminists took to joining political parties that were born after the revolution as a confirmation of women’s rights and to show that these rights are an integral part of the demands that the Revolution is putting forth.
This momentum has motivated many young women to launch initiatives across various coastal and in-land provinces and also in various cities including the Suez Canal cities and Cairo. These initiatives have used new tools and organization formats that were different than those used by the traditional feminist organizations. Those initiative addressed many topics that are considered taboo within the traditional and conservative communities. It was a bumpy road for many of these initiatives as they had to face the backlash of the patriarchy within their local communities. By going out into the public domain and declaring that they are part of the feminist movement, the women of Egypt gave a clear sign that change is coming.
Youth Initiatives have been launched by young women in their mid-twenties and thirties, Initially, on voluntary basis. However, as the political landscape began to change and as the Government promulgated - through the Ministry of Social Solidary - a new law that required civil society actors of all types to organize themselves as per the requirements of this new law, subject to legal action, many of those who launched initiatives felt that having a legal entity would give them a wider reach in terms of liaising with other feminist bodies, and challenging discriminatory public policies and legislations. They also felt like having a legal entity would encourage young women to engage in feminist activity, namely in rural areas that uphold strict restrictions on women’s movement and engagement with the public sphere.
These initiatives use various work mechanisms, but they all focus on problems that girls and women face in their local communities. They aimed to provide a platform for voicing the frustrations of all those who dare to challenge the violence and discrimination that is imparted upon them in both the private and public spheres.
While each of these initiatives has focused on a specific issue that is relevant to its local community, gender-based violence remained the central issue and was addressed by the vast majority of these initiatives, each in its own way. One initiative offered the support of female barristers that provided legal aid, while another addressed underage marriage and female genital mutilation. Other initiatives took to producing a feminist body of knowledge that would offer an alternative to the prevailing narrative that purposefully marginalizes women and the traditional gender roles that is imposed on them.
One female journalist for instance established an online platform to strengthen the feminist discourse on various women’s issues. Quickly, this platform began to address all sorts of social issues from a feminist perspective. Other initiatives produced films, plays, e-radio channels, and comics in support of awareness campaigns against the patriarchy in its various manifestations.
Other initiatives managed to organize campaigns through the use of social media platforms and through cross-liaison with other initiatives. One of these campaigns has advocated for a law that protects girls from domestic violence, another has called for a unified law against violence and discrimination in inheritance. This collective work is a clear sign that women are very much aware that coordination and feminist solidarity are key to combatting patriarchy.
These feminists managed to root their discussions around violence in a multi-layered and decentralized way within different local communities. By doing so, many other women became interested in taking part in the feminist movement.
In the last few years, the scope of these initiatives began to grow wider as they upheld various topics including the economic violence and discrimination, the provision of safe work environments for women, and the conditions of women living in poverty. Many initiatives displayed solidary with survivors of violence in cases of public opinion - such as the Ahmad Bassam Case and the Fairmont case - and published survivors’ testimonies that exposed the perpetrators of violent crimes.
These youth initiatives were not the only instrument that the new generation of feminists has used to express themselves and their rejection of patriarchy. An increasing number of young women are deciding to become independent from the family. Many moved out of their parent’s house and to another province to look for better job opportunities or pursue higher education. These women were supported by feminist groups who made sure that they are adapting well to their new independent lives.
In another example which showcases how dynamic the current movement is, female lawyers who obstinately submitted their applications for State Council positions over and over again only to be rejected simply because they were women. These lawyers used various tools to oppose these discriminatory decisions. They used social media, met with relevant authorities, and resorted to legal action. Their efforts came to fruition last year with an announcement made by the Supreme Council for Judicial Bodies, in the presence of President Abel Fattah El-Sisi, stating that women will be accepted in the State Council and Public Prosecution as of the 1st of October 2021.
The new initiatives are an integral part of the feminist struggle that has went on for more than a century, often through feminist organizations. These initiatives have been keen on working with established feminist organizations through training, rehabilitation, and capacity building programs. But at the same time, they made sure they maintained their independence and challenged any efforts made to control them or to impose patriarchal authority on them by some of those working within feminist organizations.
This young feminist movement has proven itself to be bold and courageous as it has managed to persevere despite all the backlash they face and the difficult conditions they operate within. The role that this young movement is playing must be highlighted as it managed to move the feminist fight to the local level and to challenge conventional patriarchal structures from within. Young feminists have become inspiring role models and have created open platforms that invite other feminists to express themselves using their preferred tools. This resulted in the expanding of feminist solidary and support as well as the continuation of decentralizing feminist efforts which will ensure the sustainability of the feminist struggle in Egypt.
(1) We present the case of these youth initiatives based on ten interviews with founders of youth initiatives that sprung up after January 2011 and that the writer has relied upon in the writing of this article.
Mona Ezzat is an activist with more than 20 years of experience working within the feminist movement in Egypt and across the Arab World.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.