Backlash against ‘Suzanne Mubarak laws’ was inevitable

Believe it or not: Egyptian men are busy planning and implementing another revolution, but this time women will not play any role in it whatsoever. This is because it is a revolution against women’s rights.

Those behind it are organizations with names like the “Coalition to Protect the Family,” “Save the Family Association” and “Egyptian Men’s Revolution.” Their efforts ― as well as those of many others ― constitute a backlash against women’s rights, consisting of attempts to abolish the khula (a Muslim woman's right to seek a divorce) law, cancel recent legal amendments extending the child custody age to 15, and go back on the international treaties and conventions on women’s rights of which Egypt is a party. A more concrete step which has already taken place is the cancelation of the parliamentary quota for women. There are many reasons why this backlash was inevitable; I will focus on three.

The first reason is that former First Lady Suzanne Mubarak based any changes in the status of women ― especially the amendment and introduction of laws pertaining to women ― on herself. Of course, such decisions were not entirely at the first lady's discretion and she was not the sole decision-maker. But that she played an integral role in this regard cannot be denied, and the Egyptian media covered this extensively. For more than a decade the media bombarded Egyptian society with news of the activities of the National Council for Women under Mubarak's auspices. In fact, women’s rights were hardly ever mentioned in the media without being directly associated with her. It is therefore not surprising that these laws are often referred to as the “Suzanne Mubarak laws.”

The second reason is that women’s rights were addressed in a top-down manner whereby the state ― and its associates ― decided which women’s rights were to be addressed as well as when and how they would be addressed, with Egyptian society almost entirely removed from this process. This led many people to feel that changes women’s rights were being imposed onto society. This sentiment was strengthened even further by the unpopularity of the former regime. In turn, some Egyptians resisted the progressive changes to women's status long before the fall of the former regime. The only difference now is that their resistance is no longer in vain.

Last but not least, the manner in which many of these laws were introduced or amended made many men feel that rights were being taken away from them and given to women. A perfect example of this were the amendments to the law on child custody. The law used to entitle men to custody of their sons until the age of 10 and their daughters until the age of 12. The law was then changed so that both children remained with their mother until at least the age of 15. This amendment ― along with many others ― led some men to go as far as arguing that Egyptian men are oppressed. Others actually created organizations to “defend men’s rights” long before the revolution.

Not surprisingly, many men ― especially members of the Egyptian Men’s Revolution and similar organizations ― perceive the ousting of the Mubarak regime as a wonderful opportunity to “regain their rights,” and this seems to be happening. Their success is not because women are not entitled to the rights in question, but because of who was behind introducing these changes and how they were introduced.  

Aliaa Dawood is professor of mass communications at the American University in Cairo

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